Rosh Hodesh Tishrei Torah Essay
Dr. Ariella Agatstein
The Festivals of Tishrei
The month of Tishrei contains the most number of holidays of the entire Jewish calendar. The month begins with Rosh Hashana, where we coronate Hashem as our King, continues with Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, and finishes with the holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. When introducing the holidays, the Torah (Vayikra 23:2) on the one hand, refers to these holidays as ’’מועדי ה’’, “fixed times”, and yet in the very same verse, refers to them as מקראי קודש, “proclaimed sacred occasions”. Our Rabbis question what these two descriptors mean. Are the holidays determined dates fixed by God, or are they מקראי קודש, proclaimed by the Jewish people? Rav Hirsch explains that the Jewish holidays are not fixed by astronomical factors, but rather, the Sanhedrin must proclaim the beginning of the Jewish lunar months, thereby determining when the holidays of each month fall out. Rav Hirsch explains that this duality of God stating the date of the holiday, while the Jewish people determining the start of each month, demonstrates how the Jewish holidays are meeting times of “mutual choice” between Bnai Yisrael and God. In fact, it was this ability to designate time, identifying the Rosh Chodesh, which God commanded the Jewish people before they left Egypt. In a sense, it was His way of expressing that the relationship between Himself and the Jewish people would not be as a Master controlling the time of his slave, but rather the holidays would be meetings of love, mutually desired by both parties.
Furthermore, each of the shalosh regalim is connected to a specific season, and a historical event. For example, the Torah states that the holiday of Pesach must fall out in the אביב, the spring. Each festival marks a connection to our agricultural success- the blooming of our plants, and the harvest of our crops. Rav Hirsch explains that Hashem purposely connected each festival to an agricultural milestone so that the moadim beckon us away from the fields. It is specifically at these times that God wants us to internalize the message that the sun and the seasons do not determine our agricultural success, but rather as we ascend to the Beit Hamikdash we are meant to realize that our success is only determined by God.
In addition to the inspiration we are meant to glean during all of the festivals of the year, the holidays of the month of Tishrei have specific significance. David Hamelech hints to these holidays in מזמור כ’’ז of Tehillim, the chapter we recite at the end of our prayers from Rosh Hashana until Shemini Atzeret. What is the significance of this paragraph of prayer?
The chapter begins:’’…לְדָוִד ה’ אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא ’- “The LORD is my light and my help; whom should I fear”. The Midrash Tehillim (כ’’ז) famously explains that the word “אורי”, “my light” is meant to refer to Rosh Hashana, “ישעי”, “my salvation”, refers to Yom Kippur, and in a later pasuk, – “כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי בְּסֻכֹּה”- “He will shelter me in His hut”, refers to the holiday of Sukkot.
HaRav Chaim Sabbato remarks that it is clear why Yom Kippur would be referred to as “ישעי”. After all, on Yom Kippur we plead that Hashem should give us both a spiritual and a physical salvation. Why, however, is Rosh Hashana referenced as “אורי”- “my light”? Rav Sabbato’s answer sheds light onto the holiday of Rosh Hashana as well as the other holidays of the month. In order to understand the relationship between Rosh Hashana and the concept of “light”, one must look at the seemingly contradictory themes of the day. On the one hand Rosh Hashana is a festive holiday. We dress in our finest clothes and feast on delicious food. On the other hand, Rosh Hashana is also a יום הדין, the Day of Judgement. On this day, we tremble as we speak of standing before God in judgment. These disparate themes are encapsulated in the varying tunes we use in our tefillot- some of which are jovial and uplifting, while others engender fear and humility.
Rav Sabbato explains that specifically the contradictory nature of Rosh Hashana teaches us something profound. It teaches us how to truly coronate Hashem. Unlike the ceremonial coronations of human kings, which are performed externally through pomp and circumstance, coronating Hashem, the King of kings, only comes about through true teshuva. The internal process of repentance is all that Hashem truly values in us coronating Him as our King. This is precisely the reason why Rosh Hashana is referred to as “אורי”, “my light”. Light is the means through which people gain clarity. It can be beautiful and joyous, and yet scary. Rosh Hashana is supposed to be a moment of spiritual clarity for each and every one of us. We are meant to be both joyous and fearful, because although we are coronating God, we know that He is judging the authenticity and teshuva of our hearts. It is the clarity of Rosh Hashana- the אורי- which fuels the subsequent and detailed teshuva of Yom Kippur. It is also this clarity which inspires Sukkot, our holiday of faith, when we choose to live in outdoor huts to demonstrate the fragility of our lives and our everlasting and true faith in God.
As the world is abuzz about the forthcoming coronation of King Charles III, let us admire how we coronate HaKodosh Baruch Hu, the Creator and Sustainer of the world. As the world focuses on the external motions, let us remember that coronating God is an internal process. May we each use the holidays of Tishrei, as meeting times of love between us and HaKodosh Baruch Hu, and may we have the merit to use the light and clarity of Rosh Hashana to inspire all of the subsequent holidays of this month.