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Home » Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah: L’chaim – To Life

Submitted by on September 9, 2012 – 2:52 amNo Comment | 8,827 views

Annual Allotments

On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the world’s creation or more specifically the creation of humanity, the creator sits in judgment of the world He created. Every year He judges anew, are we worthy of another year? Does His little project, the one we call the universe, deserve a lease on life?

Just like charity fund managers review their grants on an annual basis to decide whether their projects deserve another year of funding, so does G-d. He makes these decisions annually, deciding one year at a time. Should the world receive another allotment of vivifying power, should it remain in existence for another year? Should everyone in it survive, should they grow, stagnate or remain on an even keel?

The Biblical source for this apportionment of life in annual allotments is the verse, “The eyes of G-d your Lord are upon [Israel] from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.[1] G-d takes a good look at the world at the beginning of the year and determines the course of events until the end of the year. Next year He will look again, but for this year we hope to pass meritorious in judgment.

Impoverished Beginnings

The Hebrew word for beginning is Re-shit. Curiously, this particular word in the Torah lacks the letter Aleph, rendering the word Ra-shit, which means impoverished. Tradition dictates that we read the word as Re-shit despite the omission of the Aleph, but since the Torah is transcribed without vowels, the casual reader can erroneously read this word incorrectly leading us to wonder what hidden message G-d imparted with this grammatical amendment that justifies the risk of error.[2]

The word spells impoverished, but reads beginning. Thus, should we follow the word as it is spelled, the verse would teach us that G-d’s eyes are upon Israel from the impoverished part of the year to the end of the year. Which part of the year is impoverished? For this we look to the word as it is read, which is, Re-shit -the beginning. Quite literally, the beginning of the year is impoverished.

As G-d sits in judgment, the future of the world is uncertain. Its very existence is at risk. The fact that for 5772 years G-d ruled favorably doesn’t prejudice His judgment. This is a serious trial and G-d’s deliberations are critical. Until we hear that G-d has decided to let the world survive, we simply don’t know. Our future is in jeopardy. The state of existence is, in a word, impoverished.

Thus the dual versions of the word teach us that the beginning of the year, especially the first few hours, is an impoverished form of existence. It is only after the Shofar is sounded that the verdict comes down from above and we know that we are headed to another year of life.l'chaim to life - innerstream

From the Straits

The Ram’s horn is narrow on one end and wide at the other. When we sound the Shofar we touch the narrow end to our lips. Our sages taught that this practice leads us to contemplate the verse, “From the Straits I called to G-d, [who] responds from abounding relief.”[3] When the Shofar is in hand on Rosh Hashanah the verdict of the coming year has yet to be issued. Our future is in question and we are in distress. We place the Shofar to our lips and blow with all our might. Deep in our soul, a door opens and we enter a spiritual place rarely accessed. It is from this place that we call to G-d.

“From the depths I call to you, O’ G-d,”[4] from a depth beyond all depths. It is a place accessed only via the Shofar. As we sound the Shofar we feel the narrowness of our own enclosure. We feel keenly that we are in the straits. It is from this tight enclosure that our soul pines for relief and cries from its very depth for salvation. What causes the soul to feel so enclosed? It is the impoverished state of the world at the time the Shofar is sounded.

A Dream State

The world’s poverty stems not only from its uncertain future, but also from its lack of Divine energy at this time. Jewish mystics taught that from sunset on the eve of Rosh Hashanah until the Shofar is sounded, the world operates in dream mode. When we fall asleep our minds switch to rest mode and operate on minimum power. Our imagination remains active, but we are too sleepy to notice inconsistencies in our dreams and are incapable of even rudimentary thought.

The mystics also used the analogy of lethargy. On a long and desultory summer day the body goes into deep relaxation, the limbs grow heavy, the mind grows somewhat foggy and our entire demeanor is lackadaisical. Should we suddenly be in dire need of fast reflexes, sharp wit and full alertness we would feel an acute sense of imprisonment. We would try to shake off the cobwebs, rouse ourselves and fight the intense gravity that would seem to pull us down and we would become instantly aware of a sense of imprisonment, as if a giant weight were holding us back.[5]

The soul feels precisely that on Rosh Hashana. As the new year dawns, G-d withdraws His intense focus from the task of vivifying the world and ruminates instead on whether to continue the act of creation. While contemplating this question the world lumbers along on minimum power. The soul senses an acute lack of Divine energy and feels itself confined in claustrophobic straits. As the Shofar is sounded, panic rises in the soul and it cries out. “From the depths I cry to you,” I can’t stand this impoverished state. “From the straits I called out,” I am desperate for your presence and closeness, dear G-d.

G-d hears this desperation and responds. The very call of the Shofar pierces the heavens and enters the chambers of the Divine Presence. The Shofar’s call declares in ringing tones that creation desires its creator and humanity hasn’t forgotten G-d. The soul is desperate for the Divine.

As this becomes clear in the heavenly realms G-d issues His verdict for another year of life, joy, blessing and largess. We in turn respond by accepting G-d as our sovereign king, pledging to obey His decrees, study His Torah and love Him with every fiber of our being.

Shanah Tovah.


[1] Deuteronomy 11:12.

[2] The Torah often embeds additional layers of meaning in words by writing them slightly differently from the way they are intended to be read.

[3] Psalms 118:5.

[4] Psalms 130: 1.

[5] This essay is based on A Chassidic discourse offered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rosh Hashanah, 5714.

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