Rosh Hashanah is a Yom HaDin, a Day of Judgment. We will stand before God, and God will take measure of our deeds of the past year. This characterization of the day opens and frames the Zikhronot of Musaf: “Atah zokher ma’aseh olam, u’foked kol yitzurei kedem,” “You, God, remember the deeds of everyone in the world, and recall all those from previous times … and regarding the countries it will be said which is for sword and which is for peace, which is for hunger and which for abundance, and all creatures are recalled, to be remembered for life or for death.” We engage in the process of teshuvah because of this impending judgment, assessing our behavior, owning up to our wrongs, feeling true remorse for our sins and misdeeds, and making an honest commitment to act differently in the future.
But there is more to Rosh HaShanah. Rosh HaShanah is also a day of malkhut, of God’s kingship. The Malkhiot precedes the Zikhronot in Musaf, and it might be seen as defining the essence of the day. Not only in Musaf but in every Shmoneh Esrei from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur, our third blessing changes to “ha’Melekh ha’Kadosh,” “Blessed are you, God, Holy King.” Kingship is also part of the blessing recited over the sanctity of the day of Rosh Hashanah, in Kiddush as well as Shmoneh Esrei: “Blessed are you, God, King over the entire world, Who sanctifies Israel and this Day of Remembrance.” Kingship may indeed be a more central theme of Rosh Hashanah than judgment.
It’s taken me a while to realize this in a deep way. For many years, I viewed Rosh Hashanah as a Day of Judgment, using kingship merely to frame this conception: to stand before God in judgment can only take place after we recognize God’s sovereignty over the world. The focus, however, was din, being judged by God and by oneself. This certainly allowed me to connect to the intensity of the day and to have a sense of eimat ha’din, fear and awe of the impending judgment. But in some years it led beyond healthy introspection to self-criticism and self-flagellation. This was unhealthy psychologically, religiously, and spiritually. Too much emphasis on din, on one’s sins and faults, can lead to getting deeper in the muck rather than rising out of it. What would it mean to focus on the theme of kingship instead?
When we speak of God’s kingship on Rosh Hashanah, we do so not only in terms of the past and the present, but most significantly in terms of the future: “Vi’khein tzadikim yiru v’yismachu,” “And then the righteous will see and rejoice.”; “Al kein n’kaveh,” “therefore we will hope to quickly see in the glory of Your strength.” Rosh Hashanah is a day when we imagine what a more perfect world – a more holy world, a more moral world – could look like. It is a day when we strive to envision a world in which God and God’s presence can be truly seen and truly felt.
What would happen if our Rosh Hashanah prayers were infused with a yearning for such a world? The answer is obvious: We would be driven to work toward making our vision a reality. We would strive to model this imagined future in our own lives and in our interactions with others. We would seek out opportunities to make a real difference in the world, to bring our world just a little closer to that more perfect, more Godly vision.
Sefat Emet says this beautifully. On Rosh Hashanah, he says, we pray for God to be recognized by all of creation; we pray for a world in which the Divine is more fully realized. But then something amazing happens. When we pray for others, we are answered first. When we work to envision a more perfect world, we will start to see changes taking place in our own lives. Our vision will be, first and foremost, transformative not for others, but for ourselves.
This striving for a more perfect world and working to actualize it can itself be considered a form of teshuvah. The classic conception of teshuvah is associated with judgment. We are judged by God, and we judge ourselves: Are we living up to our standards? Are our standards high enough? Are they the right ones to have? Can we look at ourselves in the mirror each morning?
But there is also the teshuvah associated with kingship. This teshuvah says: Spend less time looking in the mirror. Spend more time looking out the window. If you want to change, you need a vision, and not just for yourself. A vision for a better you remains, ultimately, self-centered. The teshuvah of kingship requires a vision for the world.
In his famous work, Orot Hateshuvah, Lights of Repentance, Rav Kook describes this teshuvah in metaphysical terms, as a cosmic yearning of the entire world to achieve a more perfect state. This higher teshuvah preceded creation, and it infuses all of creation with an impetus to achieve its fullest potential. In a moving passage from chapter five, Rav Kook writes:
Every removal of sin resembles the removal of an obstruction from the seeing eye, and a whole new horizon of vision is revealed, the light of vast expanses of heaven and earth and all that is in them. The world must inevitably come to full repentance. The world is not static, but it continues to develop, and a truly full development must bring about the complete state of health, material and spiritual, and this will bring repentance along with it (Ben Zion Bokser, trans.).
Kingship calls on us to see differently, to refuse acceptance of all the problems in the world, our communities, and our personal lives as unfixable givens. It demands that we “remove the obstructions from our eyes,” that we see new horizons, that we see the world not as it is, but as it can be.
This approach can give a new understanding to Zikhronot and to what it means to be remembered and to be inscribed.
Alfred Nobel made a fortune from inventing dynamite. A French newspaper mistook the death of Nobel’s brother for his own and ran his obituary. The newspaper announced: “The merchant of death is dead.” It continued, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Nobel realized that were he to die at that moment, this was what people would write about him, this was how we would be remembered. He committed himself to redirecting his life and to reshaping his lasting legacy. When he is remembered today, people write about the Nobel Prize and above all, the Nobel Peace Prize.
Zikhronot calls upon us to ask ourselves how we want to be remembered. What do we want to be written about us when we are no longer here? Our vision for the larger world must translate into a vision for ourselves: What will I do to turn my vision for the world into a reality? What must I do differently than I am doing now? What am I doing so that I will be remembered for having done good in my life? This is the work of Zikhronot.
And then we turn to Shofarot. The Rabbis tell us that God says, “Say the Malkhiot to make Me King over you. Say the Zikhronot so that you will be remembered for good. And through what? Through the shofar.” The shofar is the kli, the vessel, which lets us achieve the vision of Malkhiot and of Zikhronot. When we finally have a vision for the world and for ourselves, we must find those vessels, those tools, that will allow us to turn our vision into reality. We must identify the things that we have the capacity to do, the skills that we can develop, and the changes that we can make. And we must know that we are not alone. The shofar is not just an individual mitzvah; it is a mitzvah done by the community. We cannot hesitate to turn to others for help, to say to a spouse, friend, or colleague, “I need your help. You can help provide me with the structure, the guidance, the assistance I need to realize my goals.” This is the work of Shofarot.
Malkhiot, Zikhronot, Shofarot: a vision for the world, a vision for oneself and one’s legacy, and the tools to get it done. Through these, we can start to move closer to that day when yi’hiyeh Hashem echad u’shmo echad.