| Fundamentals |

Day of Kingship

On Rosh Hashanah we restore the crown — and our focus



osh Hashanah is perhaps the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, where seats are sold at a premium and shuls proudly justify their building campaigns. But while this is a Yom Tov whose rituals are observed across the collective Jewish spectrum (think apples in honey), a deeper look yields many curious features that we accept as givens.

Why does Rosh Hashanah precede Yom Kippur? Logically, first I should implore Hashem for forgiveness, repent my sins, and only then stand before the celestial Judge. What is the point of submitting to judgment that I will attempt to overturn in the ensuing few days?

Why don’t we sleep on Rosh Hashanah? Is the familiar rejoinder, “so you don’t have a sleepy year,” a legitimate answer? Some of us insomniacs would find the prospect of a sleepy year quite appealing!

If Rosh Hashanah is a day of solemnity, why do we partner it with the traditional trappings of a joyous holiday, laying out festive meals and dressing in our finest clothing?

Let’s see if examining these phenomena can give us a deeper understanding into the nature of the day.

A Master Plan

Rosh Hashanah is, above all, a day of firsts. Chazal teach “Hakol holech achar harosh — everything follows the beginning.” However, it’s difficult to imagine that Chazal intended this to be a blanket statement. How many diets have we initiated with the best of intentions and maintained perfectly… for exactly two weeks? Clearly not all beginnings portend the end.

An architect is commissioned to design a massive commercial skyscraper. After months of meticulous work, he submits a blueprint of the building. Beyond a simple pictorial representation of the building, this blueprint is an actual microcosm of the skyscraper. Any mistakes in the blueprint — a foundation sketched a few inches off, a slight discrepancy in the numbers — will be a structural catastrophe if left unresolved. Additionally, amendments to the building plan — additional bathrooms, coffee corners, and the like — are infinitely easier to insert at this stage than once the building is standing.

The most critical stage of a person’s life is the period of conception and fetal development. Here, the genetic material that will impact the person’s future is encoded, including benign properties like hair color and height, and critical genetic information, like major organ function and congenital disease. At this delicate stage, even a minute injury or aberration is of substantial consequence.

Rabbi Akiva Tatz teaches that Rosh Hashanah is both the blueprint and the spiritual conception of the coming year. Practically, this means that our actions and behavior on Rosh Hashanah have the potential to affect the entire year. Naturally, if my behavior on Rosh Hashanah encodes the genetic material for my year, I want to ensure that I’m encoding spiritual health, and not G-d forbid spiritual injury for the coming months. This is why we try to live as perfectly as possible on Rosh Hashanah; we are extra circumspect in our speech, performance of mitzvos, and eschewing sin.

This also explains the reason for the simana milsa, the symbolic foods we eat after making requests for a successful year. Like the architect who draws plans for a building, we too wish to impress sweetness, peace and prosperity into our year. The act of saying “yehi ratzon,” and then actually ingesting the symbolic food is how we sketch potential goodness into the blueprint of our immediate future.

In this context, the custom to refrain from sleeping on Rosh Hashanah is easily understood. I want to be fully cognizant and impactful while pouring the foundation for the year ahead, and not fritter away these critical 48 hours in a spiritually oblivious haze of sleep.

Divine Redesign

Hakol holech achar harosh” teaches us the extraordinary power of beginnings. However, why is it specifically the first day in Tishrei that is invested with this authority? Why is this the day that begins our spiritual year?

The Ran on Maseches Rosh Hashanah teaches, “The world was created on the 25th of Elul… Rabi Eliezer says the world was created on the first of Tishrei [which is when] creation was complete. Adam Harishon, whose formation was the final act of creation… was created on Friday, the first of Tishrei.”

On the first of Tishrei, 5783 years ago, Hashem completed Creation and established His sovereignty over our world, crowning Himself King. Every year hence, on the anniversary of this monumental event, Hashem engages in a chiddush meluchah, renewal of His kingship. Rosh Hashanah is, in essence, a coronation ceremony for the Borei Olam.

While a king’s coronation may conjure images of scarlet carpeted footpaths, gleaming brass bands, and an adoring population joyously applauding their ruler, there are other emotions that come into play Rosh Hashanah as well. In setting the appropriate tone for the chag, Chazal teach “gilui bira’adah — we rejoice in trembling.”

Rejoice? Absolutely! We are recoronating HaKadosh Baruch Hu as King, and we delight in knowing we are in the hands of the ultimate loving, just, and capable ruler. Our festive meals, beautifully laid table and elegant attire demonstrate our joy. But trembling? What is the fear factor in renewal of Hashem’s Kingship?

According to Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim, Moadim), we have a flawed perception of chiddush meluchah, renewal of kingship. And ironically, the king whose chiddush meluchah is most instructive in this respect is none other than our old nemesis, King Pharaoh.

“On… Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a party for his servants” (Bereishis 40:20). Pharaoh regarded himself as a deity, and therefore celebrated his recoronation on his birthday, the day his “divinity” was established. The pesukim teach that during the festivities “Vayisa es rosh sar hamashkim v’es rosh sar ha’ofim b’soch avadav — he “raised” both the cupbearer and the baker.” But while the same word is used, the act of “vayisa” garnered contradictory outcomes for the two servants: The Sar Hamashkim was restored to his former position as cupbearer, while the Sar Haofim was hanged.

What was the meaning behind Pharaoh’s “vayisa,” this act of nesias rosh, that produced such incongruous outcomes for his servants?

Bamidbar Rabbah (1:11) explains nesias rosh as an assessment of every individual in the kingdom, evaluating their past performance in their position within the empire, and determining their future duties and responsibilities.

Some citizens will be promoted for their superior work and secure plum positions in the kingdom, while others will be penalized or even dismissed for inferior service or disloyalty. In addition, every posting in the royal kingdom comes with its set of perks; a more prominent position merits a higher salary, a corner office and a secretarial staff, while an exceptionally humble position may justify no more than a broom and a dustpan. Essentially, when a king renews his kingship and engages in nesias rosh, he reassigns a job to every member of his empire and provides them with the requisite tools to accomplish their responsibilities.

Every Rosh Hashanah, on the anniversary of Creation, Hashem renews His sovereignty over our world. We rejoice — “gilui” — with the knowledge that Malkeinu, our King, is also Avinu, our beloved Father. However, chiddush meluchah is also a time of “nesias rosh,” a season of reckoning for the kingdom.

Because as Hashem is renewing His Kingship, He is simultaneously renewing the positions of every member of His kingdom, and redetermining the tools each one of us needs to accomplish this year’s responsibilities. Some of us will maintain the same position as last year, and be reassigned the same physical, emotional or financial tools we had the previous year. Some of us will receive an upgrade, and our conditions will significantly improve.

One thing is definite: On Rosh Hashanah, every one of us must merit every “tool” we have all over again. There is no carryover from previous years, no givens. Every aspect of my functioning — from my five senses to my blood circulation to my brain function to my balanced serotonin levels — is up for review. My financial realities, the well-being of my loved ones, successful tools for interpersonal relationships… all these are part of the celestial purview. This is occasion for “ra’adah,” it’s reason to tremble.

Returning the Crown

How does Hashem determine the job, and subsequently the tools, I require for the coming year?

Chazal teach: “Imru l’fanai malchuyos, k’dei shetamlichuni aleichem — Speak malchuyos before me, so you will crown Me as King over you.”

An empire’s success lies in its subjects’ recognition of the king as supreme ruler. If lowly citizens determine their opinions as more important than the king’s, rebellion ensues.

We’re quite proficient in crowning Hashem over heaven and earth, over the planets and the Milky Way. However, when it comes to crowning Him over ourselves, we balk.

Why do I have to do it this way?

Isn’t there a heter somewhere to make this easier?

Is that really halachah?

Somehow, His crown feels much more comfortable ensconced on our head. Crowning Hashem King means re-righting the imbalance, regretting the times I belived the way I thought, felt, or looked was more important than what He asked of me. It means returning the crown to its Rightful Owner and restoring Hashem’s ratzon to the epicenter of my life.

Re-righting this imbalance is the first step to teshuvah. Because how can I beat my chest in remorse while still elevating my personal preferences over His Divine Will? Rosh Hashanah, with its focus on Hashem’s Kingship, must precede Yom Kippur if my teshuvah is to have any sort of lasting power.

This Rosh Hashanah, let’s infuse our year with the ultimate in spiritual health, sketching a blueprint that encompasses sweetness and success. Let’s restore the crown, and the focus of our lives, to the One and only place it belongs.


Mrs. Elana Moskowitz has been teaching in seminaries for over 20 years.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 811)

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