Weekly Portion

Weekly Portion: Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

Q & A: WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF ROSH HASHANA AND
HOW DO WE OBSERVE IT?

Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year. Unlike the secular New Year which is celebrated in many parts of the “civilized” world by partying, drinking to excess and watching a little ball descend a tower in Time Square, the Jewish New Year is celebrated by reflecting upon the past, correcting one’s mistakes, planning for the future, praying for a healthy and sweet year and celebrating with holiday meals.

Rabbi Nachum Braverman writes, “On Rosh Hashana we make an accounting of our year and we pray repeatedly for life. How do we justify another year of life? What did we do with the last year? Has it been a time of growth, of insight and of caring for others? Did we make use of our time, or did we squander it? Has it truly been a year of life, or merely one of mindless activity? This is the time for evaluation and rededication. The Jewish process is called “teshuva,” coming home — recognizing our mistakes between ourselves and God as well as between ourselves and our fellow man and then correcting them.”

On Rosh Hashana we pray that we are inscribed in the Book of Life for life, for health, for sustenance. It is the Day of Judgment. Yet, we celebrate with festive meals with family and friends. How can we celebrate when our very lives hang in balance? Ultimately, we trust in the kindness and mercy of the Almighty … that He knows our heart and our intentions and with love and knowledge of what is best for us, will accordingly grant us a good decree for the new year.

It would seem to make more sense to have the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) before the Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashana). However, until we recognize our Creator and internalize the magnitude and consequences of our actions, we cannot truly seek to change ourselves or to seek atonement. That is why the three essential themes of Rosh Hashana are: Malchuyot (Kingship), Zichronot (Providence) and Shofrot (Revelation). The musaf (additional) prayer service is structured around these three themes.

The Book of Our Heritage clarifies:

In the Kingship section we acknowledge God’s creation of all existence, His active supervision of the entire universe, and our acceptance of His eternal rule. It is our job on Rosh Hashana to make God our King.

In the Providence section we proclaim our understanding that: 1) the Creator has a one on one relationship with every human being 2) God cares about what we do with our lives and sees and remembers everything 3) there are Divine consequences for our actions.

In the Revelation section we accept the Torah as if it were given once again with thunder and lightning and mighty shofar blasts. We also await the final redemption which is to be heralded by the “shofar of the mashiach (messiah).”

At the festive meal both nights of Rosh Hashana it is customary to dip the challah (special round bread for Rosh Hashana) as well as an apple, into honey symbolizing our hopes for a sweet year. There is a custom to eat various Symbolic Foods — primarily fruits and vegetables — each one preceded by a request. For instance, before eating a pomegranate, “May it be Your will … that our merits increase like (the seeds of) a pomegranate.” Many of the requests are based on “plays on words” between the name of the food and the request. The “plays on words” are lost on many who don’t know Hebrew, but there is a deep, kabbalistic power in these requests.

Another custom is Tashlich, a symbolic casting off of transgressions. It is done after the Mincha, the afternoon prayers, on the first day of Rosh Hashana — and on the second day when the first day of Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbat. Remember — these symbolic acts help you relate to what you need to do in life, to awaken your emotions and passions; they are not an end in themselves.

Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20 

On the day of Moshe’s death he assembles the whole Jewish people and creates a Covenant confirming the Jewish people as the Almighty’s Chosen People for all future generations. Moshe makes clear the consequences of rejecting God and His Torah as well as the possibility of repentance. He reiterates that Torah is readily available to everyone. He warns us against idolatry (thinking anything other than God has power) and assures us that eventually the Jewish people will do teshuva (repent) and will be redeemed and brought back to the land of Israel — and those who hate the Jewish people and pursue us will get their just recompense.

Nitzavim concludes with perhaps the clearest and most powerful statement in the Torah about the purpose of life and the existence of freewill: “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil … the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life that you may live, you and your descendants.”