Rosh Hashanah is the most primal of our holy days. It takes us back, year after year, to the world’s first day and speaks to us of the essence of our existence. On this day, the Creator takes account of all He has created and judges its progress. Only one of His many creations is privy to this judgement, only one is invited to participate. That creation is Israel.
While it is an invitation we accept humbly and with profound gratitude, it is accompanied with a sense of unease. There is an urgency with which the day hits us. It tells us that our actions are not negligible and that the day to day moments of our lives are not trivial. We know in our deepest hearts that God evaluates our life choices. It is a day of consequence.
But if Rosh HaShanah is a day of God’s judgement, why the invitation to participate? What is our role meant to be in all of it? The Hakhamim tell us (Rosh HaShanah, 34b) that by coming together to speak to Him of memories (zikhronot), His sovereignty over the universe (malkhiyot), and the power of the shofar (shofarot), we have a hand in the process.
Rosh HaShanah is also called Yom HaZikaron – The Day of Memory. It is so named because our identities are examined and defined on this day, both as individuals and the world as a whole. Memory is the sine qua non of identity. It is through the memory of our events and experiences that we have a consistent self to speak of. Memory here does not mean to simply recall – it is the element of our minds that creates coherence and brings together life’s details into a grand consciousness.
On the Yom HaZikaron, we use the power of memory to broaden our awareness to its furthest reaches and mutually engage in judgement with God. And while we do not profess to see things as God does, we attempt to get as close to Him as humanly possible.
God not only invites us to participate in the judgement but also gives us a tool in assistance with Rosh HaShanah’s only mitsva; He charges us to listen to the sound of the shofar.
The shofar is an ancient and powerful instrument that awakens us and beckons our hearts and minds to follow its call across millennia. Mingled within the sound of the shofar are the sounds of our victories and defeats, trials and triumphs, festivals and failures. And as we let the shofar take us there we see ourselves in all of it.
We stand in this transcendent perspective of self and world, at once, fragile and splendid before God, and we judge with Him. From this place we mutually determine and acknowledge what our lives should and could be. God finally asks us if we wish to claim it; if we wish to have our life in all its glory. We respond with a bursting heart saying: זכרנו לחיים! – Record us for life!
On Rosh HaShanah, we come together with our fellow Jews and recognise that God scrutinises our choices because they are the raw material of true identity. We commit to living memorably, recognising that our days are like the threads of a tapestry. We acknowledge that our days are new opportunities to further create and define ourselves. On Rosh HaShanah, we commit to consciously live our lives as memories in the making rather than afterthoughts.
This is why the Jew never looks at history as a dead thing of the past but as a living, extended identity.
“What is a Jew? Sum, synthesis, vessel. Someone who feels every blow that ever struck his ancestors. He is crushed by their mourning and buoyed by their triumphs…the Jew remembers them and sees them as they were at the crossroads of their own lives: troubled, exalted, marked…their quest rejoins his own and weighs on his decisions. Jacob’s ladder rends his nights. Israel’s despair burdens his solitude. He knows that to speak of Moses is to follow him to Egypt and out of Egypt. To refuse to speak of him is to refuse to follow him.”
Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends
We do all of this because in doing so we become true partners with God in Creation. We acknowledge that our moments matter, our choices matter and our actions matter for they are the threads from which our lives are woven.