Chazal teach us that “there is no bais medrash without something new.” Although there are many nuances in this statement, as there are in all sayings of our sages, the simple meaning seems to be that every group of Jews and each approach to the Torah uncovers something that was hidden before. Therefore, perhaps this year we can discover a hidden force in one of the terms that represent Rosh Hashanah.
We know that the word hayom – today – refers to Rosh Hashanah. This is especially true of Parshas Nitzavim, which states at the very outset that we “stand…before Hashem today.” The holy Zohar (Pinchos 231a) teaches that this posuk applies to Rosh Hashanah. The book of Iyov, too, begins with the word “today,” revealing that everything that later happened to Iyov began on that Rosh Hashanah (Rashi). The story of the famous woman known as the Shunamis, whose grave is visited until this very day, also happened hayom, on Rosh Hashanah (Melachim II 2:11). Although the story begins quietly with what appears to be a casual visit by the novi Elisha, the result is one of the greatest miracles ever, the actual resurrection of a dead child. It is the power of hayom that brought about that neis, which has rarely occurred in all of human history. But what is the message?
Someone recently asked me an important question. We know (Zohar, Vayeishev) that we are judged every day of the year, so what is so special about Rosh Hashanah? One answer may be that, indeed, we must treat each day, in fact every opportunity, that arises in life, such as did Iyov and the Ishah Hashunamis, as if it was Rosh Hashanah. However, on Rosh Hashanah itself we are given a special power and ability, because it is our collective birthday. We will mention many times on Rosh Hashanah that “this is the beginning of your actions.” At tekias shofar, we will also declare and even sing, “Hayom haras olam – This is the beginning of the universe,’ meaning the creation of Adam. Everything Hashem created was for and because of man (Derech Hashem 1:2). Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah, we have a unique once-a-year opportunity to remake and even recreate ourselves. We can do so any day of the year, but on Rosh Hashanah it is most propitious and opportune to do so. Let us explore the source of this power.
A rosh yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel recently gleaned a poignant insight into this matter from one of his talmidim. The bochur was involved in a tragic accident that severed one of his legs and nearly pulverized the other one r”l. One day, when several of his good friends visited him in the hospital, the young patient shared a thought. “Last year, on Rosh Hashanah, it never occurred to me to daven that I should have two functioning legs in the coming year. However, it was obviously decreed that I should not. Had I even thought that such a catastrophe might happen, I would have surely davened with all my might that it shouldn’t. But we take so many things for granted: sight, hearing…and working legs. My dear friends, it is almost Rosh Hashanah. Please ask Hashem that everything you have should continue in the coming year. Don’t assume anything at all. The new year is a new world and everything must be earned and granted once again.”
The positive side of this is that we should follow the Ben Ish Chai and take the time on Erev Rosh Hashanah, during the last Mincha of the year, to thank Hashem. We should have in mind in Modim to be grateful to Hashem for all the gifts He gave us during the previous year. Then, and only then, dare we ask for even more.
It has been pointed out that just as we were created on Rosh Hashanah, that, too, was the date when there was a debate in heaven whether or not man should be created at all. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, once explained that the source of people wishing to commit suicide is that there was a moment when there was a serious question about the worth and merit in creating a human being with the free will to commit evil and destruction. Thus, Rosh Hashanah is not only a time for the evaluation of individuals, but a heavenly reckoning on the ongoing merit of having such a creature in the world.
We have arrived at the astonishing fact that the upcoming Yom Tov of Rosh Hashanah is actually an annual renewal on our lease on life and all that goes with it. We don’t, in fact, have to ask once again for the promise of a new warranty on every functioning part of our body. But at the very least, we must appreciate and be happy that we will hopefully once again have the faculties and abilities we were granted at birth some time ago.
Rav Avigdor Miller was once asked in his old age what one thing a person should do to prepare for the upcoming Yomim Noraim. He was weak and did not speak loudly at the time, but answered clearly with one word: “Smile!” The listener thought that the venerable mashgiach and rov did not understand the question or could not articulate an acceptable answer. He therefore reiterated the question, only louder. Rav Miller bellowed, “I am neither feeble nor decrepit, but I am old, so I will reiterate: ‘Smile!’” His listener could not understand, but we certainly do. The best thing we can do on Rosh Hashanah is to show that we are grateful for all that we had last year and are hopeful that, at the very least, we will be renewed.
Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, Maamar 6:3, page 62) also quoted a Medrash (Yalkut Pinchos 782) that “once we have been judged by Hashem on Rosh Hashanah, it is considered as if we are a newly created being. The Medrash derives this from the difference between all other Mussaf sacrifices whose mandate comes with the word vehikravtem, and you shall offer, and that of Rosh Hashanah, which is referred to as va’asisem, meaning that you have become reborn once again. The Pachad Yitzchok explains that on Rosh Hashanah, if we daven and have the proper intentions, the sheer force of creation inhabits our inner being, allowing it to not only change, but to be recreated once again. This is the hidden force each of us can access on our birthday, Rosh Hashanah.
May we all have the wisdom and fortitude to do this properly this Rosh Hashanah so that we will all be granted a shanah tovah umesukah.