Here’s one way to think about the essence of the sacred holiday, Rosh Hashanah. (Inspired, perhaps, by everybody’s excitement at the approach of baseball’s post-season.) Rosh Hashanah is the time when we must decide which team we want to play for in the coming year.
“Team?” you ask. “Just who (or what) is in this particular league?”
I’ll give you a clue–a pretty big one, in fact. Here is an excerpt from one of the selichos (special penitential prayers) traditionally said on the morning before Rosh Hashanah, prior to the regular prayer service.
“Man serves two masters during the years of his life, doing the will of his Creator or serving his desire [evil inclination]; but well for him who clings to His Creator all of his [life] time. Then he is a servant free from his master.”
Two “masters” are vying for our allegiance constantly…or, to stick with my chosen terminology (however corny), two teams in the Major League of (Spiritual) Life struggling to sign up us free agents.
On one side, led by our Creator, the Holy One, Blessed be He, stands “Hashem’s Heavy-Hitters,” who are ready to uphold the dictates of that incredible (Master) Game plan known as the Torah. Opposing them (and Him), led by the Yetzer Ha’ra himself [the "evil inclination"], stands “Desire’s Doormats,” ready to run after the dictates of their own desires, passions, appetites and self-interest (whether enlightened or not). It’s the Battle of the Century; rather, it has been the Battle of the Ages.
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the time, we are all “serving our desire,” that is–playing for the other guys, and not for Hashem’s squad. We do what we want to do in life, because we want to do it.
Now, we can sure have a load of fun in the short term being managed by the Yetzer Ha’ra, and perhaps we may even go for a certain time without hurting anybody else outright (or destroying ourselves completely). Sometimes, our actions might even be in accord with “higher ideals,” and our goals may happen to coincide with (or, at least, not contradict) the larger good of society or the dictates of some moral code (like the Torah). But unless we consciously decide otherwise, we’re basically batting for Desire’s Doormats. Unless we make a real effort to transcend much that is in our surroundings, unless we strengthen ourselves to go “against the stream” (of society’s values, of ingrained habit, of our own immediate passions), we will not be on the roster of Hashem’s Heavy-Hitters (or even His occasional pinch-hitters!).
We have to wake ourselves up to join the winning side.
Because the sad truth for those on his team is that though the Yetzer Ha’ra appears to have a winning record as a manager (those wild champagne celebrations in the locker room are proof!), he’s bound to lose. Hashem will win out in the end, regardless of which team each of us joins for the coming year. We declare that in our Rosh Hashanah prayers:
“And so, too [in the messianic age], the righteous will see and be glad, the upright will exult, and the devout will be mirthful with glad song. Iniquity will close its mouth and all wickedness will evaporate like smoke, when You will remove evil’s domination from the earth.” (Artscroll Machzor; my emphasis)
In those days, there will be only ONE team around, and much of what we request on Rosh Hashanah is that Hashem should speedily bring that to pass:
“Our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, reign over the entire universe in Your glory; be exalted over all the world in Your splendor, reveal Yourself in the majestic grandeur of Your strength over all the dwellers of Your inhabited world. Let everything that has been made know that Your are its Maker…and let everything with a life’s breath in its nostrils proclaim: ‘Hashem, the G-d of Israel, is King, and His Kingship rules over everything.’” (ibid.)
On Rosh Hashanah, we are called upon to declare our allegiance to Hashem, to abandon the bench (or the starting line-up) of Desire’s Doormats and join the winning team of those who serve Hashem…and sanctify themselves through the mitzvos. The shofar blast is meant to awaken our souls to abandon all false gods (and losing teams), and acknowledge that Hashem is the One and Only King–both over myself (with all my energies and desires), and over all of Creation. We can then begin the process of teshuva ["return," or "repentance"] that culminates in the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). As Maimonidies writes of the symbolic meaning of the shofar blast:
“[it calls out] ‘Awake, awake, O sleeper, from your sleep; O slumberers, arouse yourself from your slumbers; examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember Your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth in the follies of the time, and go astray the whole year in vanity and emptiness [i.e., what the yetzer ha’ra loves to peddle to us]… look to your souls; improve your ways and your works. Abandon, every one of you, his evil course and the thought that is not good.”
There is a special mystical power in the sound of the shofar, in fact, that can weaken the hold of the yetzer ha’ra in our hearts. Spiritually, Rosh Hashanah (and the whole ten-day period of Teshuva it inaugurates) is “designed” to help us switch teams, to begin afresh to acknowledge the Kingship of G-d wholeheartedly. It marks the start of a brand new year, with the inherent potential of facilitating our spiritual renewal. Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the Creation of man…and therefore, its “spiritual energy” enables us even now—and every single year—to recreate ourselves…as Heavy-hitters of Hashem! The gates of heaven are open, as it were, wide wide open to receive the prayers of those prepared to desert that other shoddy team (Desire’s Doormats). Hashem is ready to hand out new uniforms…and new, exciting spiritual tasks to all of us for the coming year.
But we have to show that we are ready to bat for Him. As mentioned before in passing, we are not forced to serve (or play for) anybody. We are free agents. And deep in our hearts, we know that the way of Hashem is truly the path of blessing and joy and fulfillment in this world and the next. No matter how we may have chosen in the past, the point is that we are free now to choose differently (and more wisely). We can recreate ourselves, and revitalize our commitment to Hashem and His Torah. Our yetzer tov (good inclination) can prevail over our yetzer ha’ra. Far more than the mistakes of the past year (or years)—mistakes which we are meant to examine, and abandon, during the Ten Days of Repentance—what counts in the heavenly judgment (din) on Rosh Hashanah is our present resolve to do better. Are we ready to choose Life…and accept G-d as our King (and Manager)?
I hope and pray that all of you (and K’lal Yisrael) have a sweet and healthy New Year, a year of blessings and spiritual growth…a k’siva v’chasima tova. We should all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and quickly see that time when the whole world will unite to serve Hashem, the One and Only King…and all “competing franchises” will fold forever!