What is the meaning of Rosh HaShanah as a day of kingship?
The idea of kingship is central to Rosh HaShanah. In the third blessing of Shmoneh Eisrei, starting with Rosh HaShanah and moving all the way through Yom Kippur, we say that God is not HaEl HaKadosh, “Holy God,” but rather HaMelech HaKadosh, or “Holy King.” And in the Mussaf of Rosh HaShanah, the central prayer of Rosh HaShanah, the first theme we mention is malchiut: God as king. We quote ten verses elaborating on this theme, and conclude this section with a blessing that intertwines the theme of kingship with the very essence of the day: “Blessed are you God, King of the entire world, Who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.”
What is the meaning of God as king that we are supposed to bring to this day?
Growing up, for many years, I experienced Rosh HaShanah as a Day of Judgment. Zikaronot–God remembering us and judging us—was the focus of the day. “Malchiot,” kingship, prepared us for that. Once we recognize God as king, we are in a place to stand before God in judgment. God has power over us and God will judge us just as a king judges his subjects. Seeing it that way, the full weight of Rosh HaShanah as the Day of Judgement hits us hard. This orientation can be constructive. It can lead us to introspection and a process of directly confronting our sins and shortcomings, which in turn can be a prod to do teshuvah and to change ourselves for the better.
At the same time, this focus can sometimes have a negative effect. It may cause us to feel guilt-ridden in a counterproductive way–a way that leads to obsession, to being weighed down by our sins.
This coming Rosh HaShanah, I would ask that we think about the power of kingship independent of, and divorced from, the framing of the day as a Day of Judgement.
I would frame that in two ways. One, that as the day that God created the world, Rosh HaShanah is a day to celebrate God as King of all humanity, to feel the joy that comes with knowing that we are not alone, that reality is more than the pure physical and material, that God cares about us and our fate. And we rejoice in the fact that God is our king, that God has chosen us as God’s people. Every day, we give concrete expression to this unique relationship with God through a life of Torah and mitzvot, each day can be one of meaning and purpose. So it is on this one day, the first one of all the days of the coming year, that we celebrate that God is king over the world and that God is king over us: “King over the entire world, Who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.”
It goes beyond that. The theme of kingship is that of a world in which evil and oppression are no more. This is what we pray for in the Aleinu introduction to the Melchiot blessing: “Li’takein olam be-malkhut Shaddai,” that God being about a new world, a world in which God is fully recognized, a world that is fixed, that is perfect, both ethically and religiously.
So this Rosh HaShanah, let us ask ourselves not how grievously we have sinned. Let us rather ask what it would look like to live in a world where God’s presence–God’s kingship–is fully recognized. What is a more Godly, more ethical, world that we can imagine, and what can we do in this coming year to make that an actuality? What are our unique talents and energy that we can bring to this holy task?
Such a question excites the imagination. It frees our creativity, and catalyzes self-actualization. By focusing outward and not inward, not on a kingship of judgement, but on a kingship of possibility and vision, we can make this a year of transforming and bettering the world and of transforming and bettering ourselves in the process.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.