A certain ambivalence lies within our experience of Rosh Hashanah as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. The piyutim of the day refer to the angels themselves trembling. And many of the customs of Rosh Hashanah — e.g., that of not sleeping during the day — reinforce our sense of awe and apprehension. Yet at the same time, Rosh Hashanah is a time of joyous celebration, of festive meals and apples dipped in honey.

Both aspects of the day are true. But it is perhaps most important for us to understand wherein lies the cause for rejoicing, given the awesomeness of the day. For clues to that answer, Rabbi David Fohrman (featured in this issue) points us to the only mention of observance of Rosh Hashanah in Tanach, chapter 8 of Nechemiah.

There it describes how on the first day of the seventh month the small group of exiles who had returned to Jerusalem, under the leadership of Ezra and Nechemiah, asked Ezra to read to them from Torah of Moshe. Ezra did so from the break of day until noon.

And the people wept over their ignorance of the Torah. The verses describe how the Leviim had to explain the words to them. They wept too over their failure to observe the Torah properly. Intermarriage was rife among the returnees.

That weeping strikes us as fully appropriate on both counts. Yet Nechemiah and Ezra tell the people, “Today is sacred to Hashem your G-d; do not mourn and do not weep… Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today is sacred to our L-rd. Do not be sad; the delight of Hashem is your strength!” (Nechemiah 8: 9–10)

What is the special “delight of Hashem” associated with Rosh Hashanah? And how is it a source of strength?

The key to answering that question lies in another aspect of the Rosh Hashanah described by Nechemiah: It is a reenactment of Maamad Har Sinai. The hints pointed out by Rabbi Fohrman are manifold. The chapter opens with the people gathered k’ish echad in the street (rechov, composed of the same letters as Chorev) before the Shaar Hamayim (the Gate of Water), just as Bnei Yisrael encamped (va’yachan, in the singular form), opposite the mountain, Chorev, k’ish echad b’lev echad (Rashi). Ezra stands on a tower “above the people” as he reads from the Torah, just as Moshe stood on the mountain, with the people below, as Hashem gave the Torah.

Ezra is surrounded by a group of figures, many of whose names also recall Sinai. On his right are Mattisyah (“gift of G-d,” a description of the Torah), and Shema, a name based on the same root as hearing, which is what Bnei Yisrael did at Sinai when they heard Hashem speak directly. On his left are Pedayah, “G-d’s redemption,” a reference to the opening of the Aseres Hadibros, when Hashem introduces Himself as “your G-d, Who took you out of Egypt and the house of slavery.” Anayah (“G-d’s answer”) refers to Hashem’s answering Moshe “with a Voice.”

Other names hint to both Sinai and Rosh Hashanah — for instance, Malkiyah (“G-d is my king”). Prior to the giving of Torah, Hashem informs Bnei Yisrael that if they hearken to His Voice and keep His covenant — i.e., accept His Kingship — then they will be a “kingdom of kohanim.” That reminder of the first great theme of Rosh Hashanah, Malchuyos (Kingship), is followed by two references to the second great theme, Zichronos (Remembrance). Another figure mentioned is Chashbadanah, in whose name is found the root for thinking (chashav) followed by that for judging (dan). And to make the connection even clearer, the very next name is Zecharyah (“G-d’s remembrance”).

In truth, the connection between Rosh Hashanah and Har Sinai is explicit in the Torah. The Biblical name for Rosh Hashanah is Zichron Teruah (a remembrance of shofar blasts). What shofar blasts? Those of Sinai.

On the day of Matan Torah, Bnei Yisrael awakened to the very loud “voice [kol] of the shofar” from amid the cloud that engulfed the mountain. And as the smoke went up from the mountain and the entire mountain trembled, the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder.

Man cannot see Hashem and live. Only through kol could Hashem reveal Himself from the darkness.

At Sinai, we recognized Hashem as King, the One Who makes the rules by which we must live — “everything that Hashem speaks, we will do.” The great danger, however, was that the awareness of Hashem’s transcendence and our smallness would cause us to lose all ability to live. And indeed, our souls did flee our bodies.

We each have our story, our memory. Memory is the means by which we connect the events of our lives and give them some coherence. But how trivial our story seems compared to that of Hashem’s story, His plans and aspirations for humanity and for the world.

But the shofar of Rosh Hashanah shows us the way to impart significance to our lives. By connecting our story to His story.

After the sin of Adam, Hashem’s Voice was heard in Gan Eden. But Adam and Chavah could not respond. They hid instead. They were too ashamed of their nakedness, of their humanity, now that they had cut themselves off from Hashem by seeking to become independent arbiters of good and evil.

But on Rosh Hashanah we do answer Hashem. We do not hide. Indeed, we summon Hashem to judgment. To the Divine shofar of Sinai, we respond with our own shofar blasts. The primordial sound of the shofar is our cry to Hashem that we want to connect our story to His story. He is the endlessly flowing spring of Life, the one necessary existence, and we want to become part of that flow and thereby live.

And if we do that, we are no longer insignificant and unworthy — our connection to Hashem is our strength. That is what Nechemiah told the people when he urged them to make that Rosh Hashanah a “simchah gedolah,” a cause of great rejoicing.

True, he might have said, you are a small ragtag group compared to the multitudes that stood at Sinai. True, the tower we have built from which to read the Torah is but a pitiable replica of Har Sinai. True, we do not hear the Voice of Hashem, as they did at Sinai.

But if you will join your story to His story; if you give up the illusion that you can determine good and evil for yourself independent of Hashem, you too will achieve greatness.

The only other time that the words simchah gedolah appear in Tanach are with reference to the coronation of Shlomo Hamelech. Yes, Shlomo built the First Temple. But, Nechemiah tells the returning exiles, you will build the Second Temple. And by rebuilding from the ruins, by becoming part of Hashem’s story, your lives will find their meaning.

And that is truly a cause for simchah gedolah.

Kesivah v’chasimah tovah l’kol Klal Yisrael.

Taking It Up a Notch

Last January, I ran into Rabbi Eliyahu Mordechai Cohen ztz”l in a parking lot in downtown Jerusalem. He suspected that I might not recognize him, with his beard thinned by chemotherapy. He called out to me and identified himself, even though we had known each other for years.

I had long been davening for him, ever since he was diagnosed well over a year earlier with a form of cancer from which there is not yet any reprieve and which usually goes very fast. But my greatest shock was how vibrant he was.

He shared with me what Rav Moshe Shapira had told him: “You have nothing to hope for from the doctors. You are living solely with Hashem.” Rather than filling him with despair, he told over those words with great excitement. He did not take Rav Moshe’s words as some kind of guarantee that he had nothing to fear from the disease, but rather as a statement that his current situation was one filled with potential for drawing close to Hashem.

A few months later, we met at the hespedim for Rav Moshe ztz”l in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood where Reb Motti lived. And once again, he told me with great hislahavus what Rav Moshe had said to him.

Less than two months ago, I interviewed Reb Motti in his apartment, about Rav Moshe, whom he had accompanied on many of the latter’s trips abroad. We spoke for close to three hours, and his energy never waned. He was eager to keep going.

Though I knew very well how sick he was, I really believed it when I told him that this would be only the first of many conversations. He was simply too alive for me to imagine that I would not see him again.

What does it mean to “live only with Hashem”? What are the practical consequences? One of the maspidim at Rabbi Cohen’s large levayah last week answered with something else Rav Moshe had told him: “Now, you have to live on a different plane.”

Anyone who spoke with Reb Motti during the course of his illness, and felt his simchas hachayim, his calm, his kabbalas yissurim b’ahavah, could feel that he had done precisely that and was living on a completely different madreigah.

And perhaps that was his final message to us as the days before Rosh Hashanah wane: It’s time to take it up a notch. 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 678. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com