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very year, I make new resolutions and they fall away. Can I really start over with a clean slate?

All right, let’s start over. I mean, from this Rosh Hashanah. Elul may not have been such a rousing success, despite our mighty desire to make it a “real, meaningful Elul” like we used to have in yeshivah. And the past year? Well, we gave it a try, but once again, it wasn’t a year in which everything we did can be remembered for good. Most, if not all, of the resolutions we made didn’t last. Some of us are surely at the point of saying to ourselves with a touch of despair, “Here we go again. And given my past record, what can I really expect of myself this year?”

But still, let’s start over. Let’s put the past aside and focus on the prospect of the future that these holy and awesome days grant us. Because more than anything, Rosh Hashanah is a day of hope. No matter what our past year looked like, a basic component of Rosh Hashanah is hope for the future.

What is the essence of Rosh Hashanah? We all know that on this day, we affirm Hashem’s Kingship over the world and over each one of us. In other words, we detach ourselves from our mundane lives and step forward into a moment of stillness before the entirety of Creation. We listen to the mysterious voices that resound from it; all its wonders pass before our mind’s eye in a magnificent panorama of color, bearing witness to the infinite greatness of its Creator. At that wonderful moment of awe when we internalize this picture in our minds and hearts, we affirm that the Creator is our King and King of the Universe. At that moment the past means nothing, for we are filled with the desire to attach ourselves to our Father in Heaven, to begin anew. It makes no difference how many times we’ve done this before. HaKadosh Baruch Hu in His infinite kindness always allows us to make a new start, and Rosh Hashanah is the day especially invested with this opportunity for renewal.

And it is vital that we seize this opportunity for a new beginning, for the beginning determines the character of what follows. Sheim MiShmuel teaches us the importance of making good beginnings:

“Everything is drawn after the beginning. We see that the definition of ben sorer u’moreh, the rebellious son, is only applicable for three months after he reaches the age of responsibility, which is the beginning of his independent life — and everything is drawn after the beginning.”

That is, since he started his life after bar mitzvah in an unworthy manner, he is considered a hopeless case. He must die. Sheim MiShmuel continues:

“And this is a great lesson for everyone, to make sure he starts out well, making a good beginning when he becomes bar mitzvah, and when he becomes a complete human being through marriage. And similarly, at the beginning of every year, Rosh Hashanah, Yom HaKippurim, and Succos, that it should be with teshuvah and dveikus, for the whole year will be drawn after that beginning. At the beginning of each day, too, one rises from his sleep early to seize mitzvos, for eagerness in the mitzvah of Shacharis draws the whole day after it.”

In other words, the way we conduct ourselves on Rosh Hashanah determines the character of the entire year. We have the power, in fact the obligation, to shape this special day in the clear knowledge that our days and nights all year will follow the design that we create now. If we can affirm HaKadosh Baruch Hu as King over us, if we fully perceive that we owe our lives to His infinite kindness and must therefore serve Him with awe and love, then our personal coronation of Hashem will have an elevating influence on the whole year to come.

Yes, the yetzer hara is a big tzaddik on this day. He keeps prodding us to scratch at the wounds of our sins, to feel bad about them davka today, to think despairing thoughts of how worthless we are, and most of all, to feel crushed under the weight of all our wrongdoing.

But we can slip out of his clutches on this day. We can search ourselves for sins and pick our wounds during the Ten Days of Teshuvah, but for now, let us revel in the hope inherent in this holy day, on which our Creator gives us the opportunity to renew our covenant with Him.

 

The shofar blasts, which are the core mitzvah of the day, teach us this same concept. Yes, we know the shofar calls us to wake up and do teshuvah. But the whole mitzvah of the tekios we are commanded to hear on Rosh Hashanah is learned from another part of the Torah — and not from the pesukim that speak of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah passage  merely tells us that the first day of the seventh month is to be a yom teruah. Where do we learn the meaning of this yom teruah, and from where do Chazal derive the halachos of the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah? From the mitzvah of Yovel, the jubilee year. The Yovel begins with the call of the shofar, sounding freedom throughout the land, breaking the bonds of the past and proclaiming a new beginning. The Hebrew slaves go free, lands that were sold revert to their original owners, and the whole economy of Eretz Yisrael returns to its starting point. And from this mitzvah of Yovel, this mitzvah of renewal of man and his world, we learn the meaning of the shofar blasts we hear on Rosh Hashanah.

In Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s Alei Shur, he explains the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16b): “Rabi Yitzchak said that a person is judged only for his deeds at that time. In the commentary of Rabbeinu Chananel there, he quotes the Yerushalmi: ‘Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi says, what is the meaning of the phrase, if you are pure and straight? It does not say, “if you were,” but if you are pure and straight, now.’ ”

Rav Wolbe asks, is it that simple? Does nothing matter but our state of mind and heart on Rosh Hashanah itself? Does it wash away everything else we’ve done? What, then, is the judgment for?

He explains:

“On Rosh Hashanah, HaKadosh Baruch Hu stands as King in His world. This is the meaning of the revelation of the Shechinah that we feel, especially during the shofar blasts. The Shechinah comes close to each person’s heart at that time, as close as each person is prepared to receive it! A person whose heart is broken within at the knowledge of how lowly he is before his Creator, whose whole desire is to come closer to Him and to raise his future actions, speech, and thoughts of Torah and mitzvos to a higher level, such a person is in a state of closeness to G-d. But one whose heart is blocked at that moment and whose thoughts are apathetic, Rachmana litzlan, the Shechinah will judge that person as one who has not been acquitted. For this is the judgment of Rosh Hashanah: a person is examined regarding to what extent he has made himself into a vessel to receive the Shechinah!”

It is up to us, then, whether or not Rosh Hashanah will be a day of new beginnings. May we merit to have an open heart.

A kesivah v’chasimah tovah l’chol Beis Yisrael.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 726)