It seems like every year I get the same feeling. It’s a few days before Rosh Hashanah and suddenly I’m caught up in a frenzy of emotions. I want as much as possible to be ready for this awesome festival, yet I find myself struggling to remember what it is all about. I remember speeches I heard and essays I read that talked about it. It is the birthday of the creation of man. It is a time when we re-evaluate our relationship with G-d, and coronate him as our King. It is the Day of Judgment which will determine our coming year, and a day in which we can recreate ourselves. But the more I remember, the more confused I get. Now that I know all this, what should I focus on during Rosh Hashanah? How does this relate to our prayer service in the synagogue, which takes up such a significant role in the holiday?
Two years ago, while studying in Yeshiva, my Rabbi explained one of the Rosh Hashanah practices to me, and based on this I think we can begin to understand what the holiday is all about. There is a question that bothers many people about the practice we have on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. We take an apple, dip it in honey, and say a prayer asking G-d that we should have a sweet new year. The symbolism here seems almost juvenile, sweet apple + sweet honey = Sweet New Year!? There are also a number of other foods, each with its prayer that all have “cute” word plays that connect the food with the prayer. (Some people even take lettuce, a raisin, and a celery stalk, put them together, and then say a prayer asking G-d to “let us have a raise in our salary!) What is it supposed to mean to us? How does this apparently childish practice tie in to an otherwise solemn Day of Judgment?
One answer is brought down in the writings of Rabbi Isaac Hutner of blessed memory, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in NYC. “Rosh Hashanah” translated literally means “The Head of the Year.” We know in Judaism there is a concept that every word has great depth. When we say Rosh Hashanah is the “head” of the year, it must be more than just the first day of the New Year. The head is the body part that controls the rest of the body. In it lies our brain, the processing chip for all our human functions. It is the place where all other human processes begin and are controlled. A neuro-surgeon when performing brain surgery is extremely careful to not slip even a millimeter. That millimeter, although so tiny in space, due to its location in the brain can have drastic effects on the rest of the body.
Rosh Hashanah has the same power. It is the “head” of the Year. It is the processing chip through which the programs and processes for the coming year run. The smallest, most minute changes that we make in the head of the year can have the most profound affect on the entire year! We can upgrade our processing chip on this day with small changes, in a way that we could not on any other day that is not the “Head of the Year.”
This is the message of the foods we eat. Even though in the rest of the year, such small actions would have little or no affect, on Rosh Hashanah they have the power to help give us a better year. An analogy given to explain this is wet concrete. While it is still wet you can take a little branch and carve into it whatever you want. However, the minute it is dry, you can’t even scrape the surface with a metal pole. These foods are there to remind us that on Rosh Hashanah, every little action, every millimeter of growth, can make significant differences for our entire year.
I think from here we can start to put together the task of the day. It is not a day to focus on specific actions, but rather on our perceptions of ourselves, G-d and the relationship between us. It is a day to focus on the important issues from which all our actions stem. That is why the prayers of Rosh Hashanah make no mention of our specific actions, but are instead filled with descriptions of our relationship with G-d. The prayers talk about our Father-Son relationship, our Master-Servant relationship, and our King-Subject relationship with G-d.
Rosh Hashanah is a day to try to make changes in how we view our world. It is a day to remember that on this day man was put on earth for a purpose, and that purpose must drive us in our daily living. It is a day to recognize that G-d was the One who put us here, and that we can reaffirm our allegiance to him, by accepting him upon us as our King. We cry out like the broken cry of the Shofar, with a real desire to see the coming year be a more elevated one than the past. We have no mitzvos to do on this day, like on other festivals. No Succah to dwell in, no matza to eat, no lulav to shake, because the change has to be in our “Rosh,” in our head.
If we can change our perspectives on this day to ones that are more motivated, more cognizant of all that G-d gives us continuously, then the rest of the year will flow forth successfully. It is the day to make meaningful marks in the wet cement of the coming year.
Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.