A Few Musings on the Spiritual Work of Rosh Hashanah

Originally, G-d didn't care about good and evil or the Torah. Then, out of an act of absolute selflessness He decided He would care about this stuff. With all this in mind, we can now begin to appreciate the secret of Rosh Hashanah according to Chassidus.
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Some people wonder: Does G-d really care about the little details of what I do? If I ride in a car on Shabbos or eat something that is not kosher, why should that bother Him if He is infinite?

Observant Jews would answer: Yes, it does really bother him. G-d has revealed the finer points of His will through the prophets and sages, and it has all been handed down to us in the Code of Jewish Law. If you disobey His will, He is angered. If you obey it, He is pleased.

That's really basic, Orthodox Judaism. But here is a slightly more thought-provoking question: Did He always care about this stuff? Did He always want us to put on tefillin, give charity and check our lettuce for bugs? Or was there a time somewhere back in history when these things simply didn't bother Him.

The answer to this one is clearly, no. He didn't always care. There was a point before the creation entered in His mind, before the thought of the Jewish people popped into His head and even before the idea of good and evil was conceived. We know this because the Midrash often says that different things "arose" in the mind of G-d before creation, which means, obviously, that there was a time when all these things had not yet "arisen." There was a time when there was just G-d and not even a thought of anything else, as the Zohar says, "everything is insignificant before G-d" (Zohar 1 11b).

So He didn't always care about good and evil, about the world, about the Torah; and then, kind of suddenly, He started to care? That sounds rather weird. What happened? Was He lonely? Bored? Having an awkward moment?

Chassidus says that, at a certain point in time, G-d decided that He was going to care (ala be-retzono le-hisaneg be-avodah). He decided that He wanted a relationship, and that is only possible if there is something both parties care about. Once He made that decision, He had to find within Himself values and rules that He would care about (Torah), things that really resonated with Him, and then He would begin the painful process of contracting His presence and making room for the worlds in order to make the whole thing possible.

But why did He decide He was going to care?

"The world is built on kindness" (Tehillim 89:3). Nothing pushed Him. There was no need that He had to fill. There was really nothing in it for Him. It was pure kindness; altruism in its highest form (well, you wouldn't expect anything less from G-d, would you)?

So, to sum up: Originally, G-d didn't care about good and evil or the Torah. Then, out of an act of absolute selflessness He decided He would care about this stuff, and since then He has always cared.

With all this in mind, we can now begin to appreciate the secret of Rosh Hashanah according to Chassidus.

We don't know the exact date when G-d started to care (time probably didn't exist then in any case), but we do know when it first took expression. It was when man was created and did his first act of worship -- on the very first Rosh Hashanah. So, on Rosh Hashanah, we are really celebrating the fact that G-d decided to care, because it is the date when evidence of that decision was first manifest.

But it's far more than a celebration. Actually, its a reason to cry, not to rejoice.

You see -- and this is where it starts to get emotional -- every year, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, G-d stops caring. He gives up. He becomes "burned out," so to speak of being G-d, and withdraws. Externally, He keeps the world going, but inside, He has lost interest. He begins to question that original decision. Why did I bother to care about good and evil, about the Torah? What do I need this for?

Our response is to "crown G-d." We "re-instate Him" as G-d. Since He has lost interest, we re-inspire Him, so to speak, to be G-d for another year.

How do we achieve such a super-human feat? How do we convince G-d to be G-d again?

The Talmud explains: "Proclaim Me king over you ... through what? Through the shofar" (Rosh Hashanah 16a).

Forgive me, but this sounds a little too simplistic. The Creator of the Universe has decided that He doesn't care about His universe any more, that good and evil are all the same to Him -- and blowing a ram's horn is going to change His mind?

In a Rosh Hashanah ma'amar 50 years ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe poses the question a little more eloquently: If, deep down, G-d doesn't really care about mitzvos any more, then how is a mitzvah (blowing the shofar) going to change that? Surely we need to get to the root of the problem?

The answer, says the Rebbe, is that it's not the mitzvah part of blowing the shofar that does the job. The mitzvah element of this ritual arouses you to do the spiritual work of shofar, and that's what "inspires" G-d, so to speak to become interested in us again.

How do we do this spiritual work? The Alter Rebbe describes it beautifully in Likutei Torah:

"You find, deeply in your heart, how bitter your soul is because of the huge spiritual blemish and void that you have brought about. You cry to G-d in your distress with a cry of the heart (Eichah 2:18), such that your heart cries so very deeply within you that your soul can no longer bear it, because you can no longer withstand the profound bitterness. That's why we say 'a cry can only be in the heart,' because as long as your soul can still contain it, you can still express it with your mouth and breath; but when the souls's bitterness has become so awesomely profound that the soul can no longer contain it ... and you can't even say anything with your mouth -- then you only have the cry of the heart" (s.v. tiku va-chodesh, p. 53ff).

Here's the way I look at it. Normally, in Judaism we say, "from doing [the mitzvah] insincerely you will come to do it sincerely" (Pesachim 50b); or, in common parlance, "fake it 'till you make it." That's because we're in a contract with G-d, and the contract says that G-d mainly wants you to get the mitzvah done, and if you can have some good intentions that helps. If you do the mitzvah because you want to earn a reward, or because you want a good shidduch or because you're just used to doing it, that's OK because it satisfies the terms of the contract. But on Rosh Hashanah, the very contract is in question -- we need to "convince" G-d to renew it for another year -- so faking it is not going really to help too much. You need to mean it.

That's why the shofar is just a simple, soft sound; one single note, resembling the emotional breakdown of the ego to the point where pure innocence remains.

The spiritual work of the shofar, then, is to muster all the sincerity that you've got. To bare your soul before G-d and to say: "I know I have not observed the contract perfectly, but I really would like you to renew it. I really want to be in a relationship with you."

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