This post originally appeared on DovBear.
Rosh Hashanah is almost upon us, but does it really mean all that much to us? “God, I sinned”. Yeah, I know, and I’m gonna do it again, too. I mean, let’s face the facts. What are we really doing on this day? Can I promise God that I will always do X or never do Y? No. I suppose, if there’s real anxiety for your sins there, that’s okay, but is that even the focus of Rosh Hashanah? There’s no viduy, no confession, no nothing. It’s a very human, very cosmopolitan sort of holiday, actually. You don’t have to be Orthodox to enjoy it. Basically, in a word, it’s a day we spend devoted to the idea that we want the whole world to realize that God created, and that God is the king of said world — whatever that means.
What is one supposed to have in mind when they say that God is the king of the universe? The Royal Family? Henry the 8th? Is that what “king” means? We’re going to say melech, melech, melech over and over again — but what does that mean to you?
Even during the shofar we don’t mention anything about sinning. All of that stuff is relegated to Yom Kippur — but none of that makes its way into Rosh Hashanah. Instead, Rosh Hashanah is a day aspiring to God’s Kingdom. Sounds pretty Christian if you ask me. And not just that — but we ask that everyone, not just the Jews, recognize God’s sovereignty:
“Veyeda kol pa’ul ki at a pe-alto veyavin kol yetzur ki at a yetzarto”: “Let everything that has been made know that You are its Maker, let everything that has been molded understand that You are its Molder.”
That’s not a very typical Jewish idea at all! And it gets worse, too. See, we all grew up in a democracy (at least I did). The very idea of a monarchy is archaic at best. What does any of this mean?! What do we want here?! What are we asking for?! We want the whole world to give up democracy and revert back to a monarchy? That’s what we’re praying for?
It’s not even just that — we actually ask God to instill the fear of the Lord into everyone. We pray for fear and terror for all of humanity in V’chein tain pachdecha in order to achieve unity. That is the opening paragraph of our Rosh Hashanah Shemoneh Esrei. Artscroll and others sort of cheat with the translations with words like “awe” and so forth, but that is not accurate. We ask for fear and terror. “Pachad” and “eima”. Basically, we’re asking God to please terrorize the entire world until we all come together. How in the world are supposed to relate to this? Why do we feel comfortable saying this?
And we need a solution to this problem least of all because God does not want us to lie when we talk to Him. Saying meaningless words that we don’t understand — or worse, disagree with or cannot even stomach — is not what we’re going for here. On this most holy of days you are encountering God and He wants the Truth. If not, what is the use?!
So, God is a King. We have to define “king”. Yes, indeed, it does imply a monarchy. See, some people loom larger than life. Jefferson. Lincoln. Churchill, just to name a few. One looks at these people and sees an embodiment of a cultural identity. When we look at a kingdom, we don’t really look at a person. We look at the idea that they embody. We respect each individual in Congress? No! But we sure as heck respect the institution, the governing body, and all that it stands for.
The Gemara writes that we are currently in the Kingdom of Rome. Last I checked, there’s not much of a kingdom left! What does that mean, that we are under the Kingdom of Rome? And the answer is simple: we are not talking about a political dominance; we are talking about a cultural reality. We live today and see the world very very much influenced by all that took place in Italy all those years ago. We are Westerners, today, that believe in a tradition, and laws, and commandments. But culturally, we are American. Our world of thought is more informed by The Beatles than Rava or Abaye. Shakespeare informs our interpretation of Tanach more than Ramban, probably (— and that’s if you’re well-read). This is just the reality.
Take the Beis Hamikdash and animal sacrifices as just one example. This is very, very foreign to our western palates. I don’t know what I would do if it were to happen today. I feel quite queasy at the idea of priests dressed in, well, dresses, walking around and slaughtering cows and goats left and right in order to sprinkle their blood on some alter, all while singing nasal oriental music. I’d prefer Coldplay. Culturally, where really are we? Does our religion translate to our value systems? Not really, unfortunately. If we had animal sacrifices today, I guess I’d have to do it, but wow would I be scratching my head.
Or here’s another example: We ask in Shemoneh Esrei to reinstate the Beis Din. That means capital punishment, people! That means pouring hot lead down someone’s throat! That means pushing people off of a cliff and pelting them with stones until they die! That means public lashes! This stuff makes Saudi Arabia look pretty good! Do we really mean any of this when we say it? Do we really want this? I see people rocking back and forth, hands in the air, eyes tightly shut seemingly in deep concentration while asking for these things every day, and I cannot help but wonder if they even know what they are saying…
As was explained to me by my Rebbe, today, we can only look at these paragraphs and say: “God, I really wish, to will, to want, to aspire to this. At the moment, I’ll try my best. I subscribe to it. I believe it. I know it’s what you want, and I know it will bring the world to its ultimate goal. I think it’s crazy, but hey, I’ll do it.”
The fact of the matter is that God takes for granted a certain cultural identity. But we grew up in a different world. We have lost the cultural context that God expected us to have when he commanded these things. That means that our religion no longer shapes how we view things. Judaism was supposed to be an expression of reality, of how we think, feel, and act. But it’s not anymore.
You see, what we ask for on Rosh Hashanah is for God to help with with a cultural metamorphosis. For our values to fall into line with His. To actually see God as our King. To see God as our cultural identity. We don’t have that. We lost that.
Throughout history, and we need only look at Tanach, we see that we were not always quite so religious. We were quite selective with certain things for quite a while. But culturally, we were there. We were religious, but not observant. Culturally, we were quite Jewish back then. We were “OrthoDOX”. Now, times have turned. Even those who are practicers, have, by and large, lost the culture. We’re really all “OrthoPRAX” these days.
But we need that culture of Judaism in the world again. We have indeed become great practitioners. But most all of our religious failings are because it protrudes on our own thoughts and feelings. When Judaism conflicts with our own thoughts and feelings, we dump the religion. But Judaism should be synonymous with our own thoughts and feelings. But it isn’t. It is not our cultural reality. And so, over time, we cut things out. Some laws are just on rotation. When the culture doesn’t present the problems, then we can live with it. When our culture conflicts, we drop it.
Because I like living the way that I live — and it’s Judaism that often gets in the way of that. Do we really want to stop? Do we even really want to live like the ideal Jew? It’s hard to even fathom a reality in which we are not really interested in the culture around us. We specifically want to be “a part of it all”. We specifically want to be involved and steeped in the world around us. We love Western culture and Western thought. After all, it’s how we have lived our whole lives! It’s hard, if not impossible, to fathom a reality in which our culture is synonymous with our religion. It would need some sort of Divine intervention…
The great prayer of Rosh Hashanah is for not just me, but the whole world to recognize Sinai, and what occurred there. For there, God created two covenants: one for the Jews, and one for the whole world. And yes, we want the world to undergo this paradigm shift. The world will be a better place for it.
But, you know, the thing is that people only move when they are in dire straights. When you look at history, it’s only when things become quite decrepit that things change. When things are good, it’s almost impossible to undergo a metamorphosis. Such is the terrible truth of the human condition. So yes, we are actually praying for the world to fall apart. We pray for the decrepit morales around us to fall apart. For the world to just stop for a moment, and to think, and to come back. “God, can you please stop the train? It’s moving too fast, and it’s going downhill.” And this is not to say that the world today is any worse off than it was years and years ago — many things are infinitelyinfantile better, and many are much worse. But Free Will continues to fail, on a massive scale. So, God, can you please just stop the train?
This is the really heavy reality that is Rosh Hashanah. It’s beyond just yourself and your sins. It’s a day of figuring out what it is that we really want, and what it is that is truly important — and it’s a day of asking God to help us get there.
Chasiva v’chasima tova…