The key to understanding the themes of Rosh Hashanah is the date. The Day of Judgment for the world was not chosen arbitrarily, but is specifically on this date – not because it is the first day of the year (in fact, the Mishnah mentions four different kinds of new years), but because it is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. As we say in the Rosh Hashanah davening after each time the shofar is blown, “Hayom harat olam– Today the world was created.” This is because human beings are the reason for Creation. As the well-known Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) says, “He who saves one life is considered to have saved an entire world; and he who destroys one life is considered to have destroyed an entire world.”
We understand that Rosh Hashanah is the day Adam and Eve were created. But what is the connection between this and judgment?
To answer this, we must first take a look at what makes the human being unique. G-d created many things in the world; why is the human being considered to be “an entire world” unto himself?
The Rambam (Laws of Teshuva ch. 5) explains that what makes human beings unique is our ability to choose between good and evil. He quotes the verse from the beginning of Bereishit, where man’s potential is described as “yod’ei tov vara- creatures who know good and evil.” The Rambam explains that this means two things: firstly, it means humans have a conceptual understanding of good and evil. Animals, no matter how seemingly intelligent, cannot grasp such abstract, intellectual concepts. The human being’s intelligence is qualitative superior to that of an animal, because human beings have been granted moral reasoning. Secondly, says the Rambam, we have free will to act upon this knowledge. As the Rambam puts it, nothing can prevent the human being from exercising his or her G-d-given free choice.
The first of Tishrei is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first human beings, with their gift of free choice. Thus, on Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate not only the creation of human beings, but the creation of free-willed human beings.
The Rambam further explains that since a person has free choice, he has only himself to blame for his sins. We cannot blame our mistakes or our sins on our DNA, our upbringing, society or anything else people use to excuse their actions. Of course these are all factors, but ultimately every human being exercises free choice and is therefore held accountable for his or her actions. Furthermore, says the Rambam, having free will means we have the ability to change. Just as we chose to do wrong, we can choose to do right and repent. Some people believe in free will, but not in their power to change. However free will means that we can change.
Now we can begin to see how the themes of Rosh Hashanah are interrelated: Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of man – a free-willed being. Because we have free will, we are held accountable for our sins and good deeds and hence Rosh Hashanah is also the Day of Judgment; and because we have free will, we also have the power to change and hence Rosh Hashanah is a day for repenting as well.
Rosh Hashanah, then, is a time to contemplate the concept of free choice. As the Rambam says further in that chapter, free choice is the pillar upon which the entire Torah stands, for it provides the logical framework for everything in the Torah; how can Hashem command us to do mitzvot and offer us reward for our good deeds if we are not free to choose? The concepts of reward and punishment make sense solely in the context of free choice.
This is why, interestingly, the Rambam codified the principle of free choice specifically in the Laws of Repentance. The Rambam codified all Torah law in a masterwork of fourteen books, each with sub-sections. When studying the Rambam’s work, the first step is to understand why he chose to codify a particular topic under a particular section. The Rambam could have codified the principle of free will in his opening section, which is the Laws of the Foundation Principles of the Torah; yet he codified it in the Laws of Repentance because unless we believe in free will, repentance makes no sense. We have to believe in free will, firstly to understand that we are accountable for our actions, and secondly, to understand that we have the power to change.
Perhaps this is also why Rosh Hashanah is the day we crown Hashem as King. The Talmud says, “Ain melech belo am– A king is not a king without a nation.” G-d only became King once He created Adam and Eve, free-willed beings who chose to recognise Him as King. Hashem is a King only when people recognise Him as such, of their own free will. And so on Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of Hashem’s kingship over us, we crown Him once again.
The symbolism of the Shofar
Where does the shofar fit into all of this?
The shofar, as we know, symbolises repentance. The Rambam (Laws of Teshuva ch. 3) writes that even though the mitzvah of blowing the shofar is, as he terms it,”G’zeirat hakatuv, a Divine decree which we do not fully understand”; nevertheless, we can find a message for ourselves in the mitzvah. (We like to attribute reasons to mitzvot, and though there are indeed many inspiring explanations for them, we have to step back with humility and acknowledge the fact that we keep the mitzvot because G-d has commanded us to do so, and we will never fully understand the depth of His reasoning.) The Rambam says that the message of the shofar is “Uru yesheinim– Awake, those who sleep.” The shofar is our spiritual alarm clock, waking us to examine our deeds. We develop certain habits; we get locked into a certain way of thinking and a mode of behaviour. Rosh Hashanah is a time to step out of the routine and the habits we have developed, to take stock of our lives and assess where we are holding. The shofar calls upon us to take responsibility for our actions, both good and bad, and to chart a path of change, improvement and repentance.
In addition to symbolising repentance, the shofar also symbolises freedom. It was the sound of the shofar which announced the Jubilee year, the fiftieth year in the cycle when all slaves were freed and all ancestral land was returned to its original owners. The shofar blown at the beginning of the Jubilee year heralded a great spirit of freedom, as the verse says “Ukratem d’ror ba’aretz– You will call freedom throughout the land.” (Vayikra 25:10)
What is the connection between freedom and repentance? Based on what we have said, the connection is clear: the ultimate freedom is the ability to choose between good and evil, and the freedom to change our ways.
Now we can begin to see how all the themes of Rosh Hashanah come together: Rosh Hashanah is on the first of Tishrei, the anniversary of the creation of mankind; it also celebrates the uniqueness of human beings, namely, free choice; having free choice means we are accountable, and therefore Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment; and lastly, it is also a day for repentance because having free choice means we have the ability to change and become better people. Hence the shofar, which represents freedom as well as repentance, is the main mitzvah of the day.
The danger and blessing of free will
One more point to consider on Rosh Hashanah, as we contemplate free choice and how we have exercised it throughout the previous year, is that there is a dimension to free choice which is not entirely positive; it is actually quite frightening because, in effect, free will enables the most terrible acts of evil to be committed. When G-d gave human beings free choice it was a radical step on His part and indeed a big risk because He was creating creatures that could, theoretically, do whatever they want.
The idea that G-d has given humanity such freedom is quite a terrifying thought. It is like a parent giving a teenager the car keys, saying, now it’s in your hands, you choose how you are going to use it. Are you going to get a driver’s licence and act responsibly, or are you going to drink alcohol and be reckless? G-d gave us the keys, so to speak. He said, you are free to run your life the way you want to. We will be held accountable for your choices, but we can freely choose how you want to live.
This is indeed a terrifying concept, and this is why the Gemara (Eiruvin 13b) debates whether it would have been better for man had he not been created. The Gemara comes to the conclusion that “Noach lo la’adam shelo nivra, hashta shenivra yefasfes bima’asav ,- It would have been better for man not to have been created, but now that he has been created, he should repent and improve.”
Rav Yitzchak Hutner, one of the great rabbinic thinkers of the twentieth century, asks, how can the Talmud say that “it would have been better for man had he not been created,” when G-d Himself said, after He had created man, that everything He created was “very good”? This question is backed by the Midrash which says that when G-d said it was “very good” He was referring to the human being. How can the Gemara say that it would have been better not to create man, when the Torah says clearly that it was very good?
Rav Hutner resolve this contradiction with the following story: a young Torah scholar who was appointed to be a Dayan, a judge, in the Beth Din of his city came to his mentor and said he didn’t want to take the position because he was terrified of making a mistake in ruling on halachic matters. His mentor assured him that he should take the position and said to him, who should be appointed – someone who is not afraid of making mistakes?
Rav Hutner uses this story to explain what should be our attitude toward the concept of free choice. This young Dayan was certainly more than qualified: he had a fine mind, knew the material and was able to interpret and apply the halacha appropriately. But what made him a good Dayan was the fact that he was afraid of making a mistake. In other words, what qualified him for the position was his fear of his power.
Free choice, says Rav Hutner, is indeed a terrifying thing because inherent in it is the possibility of evil. However, as the Rambam said, free will is a prerequisite for fulfilling mitzvot: without belief in free choice mitzvot have no meaning. It may be difficult to live with free choice, but it is impossible to live without it. Thus, says Rav Hutner, if we regard free choice as our right to do whatever we please, then indeed it can lead to terrible consequences. But if we are afraid of free choice, if we realise what an awesome responsibility it is, then we are certainly qualified to exercise it and it is indeed a blessing. This resolves the seeming contradiction in the Gemara: if a person believes that it would have been better for man not to have been created, because he is so afraid of the power G-d has given him, then indeed the creation of man is “very good.”
Rosh Hashanah is a mixed celebration. Rav Hutner quotes a verse from Nechemia (8:11), which says “Al te’etzvu, ki chedvat Hashem hi ma’uzchem– Do not cry [on Rosh Hashanah] because the joy of G-d if your strength.” The prophet told them not to cry despite the fact they did indeed have reason to cry – namely, because on Rosh Hashanah we were given the mixed blessing of free choice. The prophet is telling them to realize that this is in fact reason for joy, precisely because free choice is what enables us to serve G-d in the first place, to perform good deeds and be rewarded accordingly.
Rav Hutner says this is reflected in the two sounds of the shofar: the straight sound, which is the tekia, and the broken sounds, the shevarim and teru’a. The broken sounds, according to the Gemara, are like a sob; while the straight sound is the clear, joyful sound of celebration. On Rosh Hashanah, we have both. It is true that when G-d created human beings on the first of Tishrei so many years ago He created the possibility for terrible destruction in the world. But we can still rejoice with this knowledge, because free will means we can do good.
We cannot take this freedom for granted. Free choice is the essence of who we are, making us accountable for our actions but also providing the possibility of repentance. We have been entrusted with an awesome gift which can also be the most destructive force and therefore we must regard it with trepidation. Rosh Hashanah is a time to think about how we have used our freedom. When we approach it with the right attitude, then we will truly respect this gift of freedom and use it for the good.
Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein is the Chief Rabbi of South Africa. In his twelve years in office, he has launched and lead a number of revolutionary initiatives that have changed the landscape of both his own community and indeed world Jewry. Locally these include The Bill of Responsibilities which has been adopted by the Department of Education in schools nationwide, CAP, a radical crime-fighting initiative proactively protecting more than 250,000 South Africans and Sinai Indaba, perhaps the largest annual Torah convention of its kind in the world. Two of his local projects have been embraced and implemented by world-Jewry: Generation Sinai, a quarterly Torah learning experience between parents and children and more recently, The Shabbos Project which has united Jews in over 1152 cities and 95 countries through the keeping of one Shabbat together. A qualified Dayan, Rabbi Goldstein has published several books including Sefer Mishpat Tzedek, Defending the Human Spirit and The Legacy. The Chief Rabbi has a Ph.D. in human rights and constitutional law and is a regular columnist for the Jerusalem Post.