Rosh Hashana: The Yom Tob of Emuna
There is a tradition that the Ten Days of Repentance – the period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur – correspond to the Ten Commandments. Each day of this ten-day period is somehow associated with the corresponding commandments.
According to this system, Rosh Hashanah – the first two days of the Aseret Yemeh Teshuba – corresponds to the commands, "I am Hashem your G-d" and "You shall not have any gods besides Me." In other words, Rosh Hashanah is associated with the fundamental belief in Hashem as the only being who controls the world.
This concept dispels a common misconception about the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Many people, unfortunately, view Rosh Hashanah as a kind of "shopping spree." They bring to the synagogue a mental list of what they need for the coming year, and they present this list to G-d. Perhaps, they also think a bit about how they can improve themselves, but their primary focus is what they are asking from G-d for the coming year.
It is easy to prove that this is not what Rosh Hashanah is about. We need to look no further than the text of the prayer service. If Rosh Hashanah is a time to ask for our needs, then we should recite the standard weekday Amida prayer, in which we ask for intelligence, forgiveness, health, livelihood, and so on. But none of this appears in the Amida of Rosh Hashanah. Instead, our Rosh Hashanah prayers focus on the theme of Malchut – divine kingship. This is the day when we reaffirm our subservience to G-d and our recognition of His rule. Monarchs would hold a coronation ceremony every year to reaffirm their rule. This is what we do on Rosh Hashanah: we once again proclaim our allegiance to G-d, and we recognize that as we are His subjects, He will judge us on the basis of our faithfulness. Rosh Hashanah is about G-d, not about us. It is a time to renew our acceptance of His unlimited rule. Of course, we are entitled to also plead for what we need. But this is not the essence of Rosh Hashanah.
This renewal of our acceptance of G-d’s kingship includes reinforcing our belief in Providence, that He exerts absolute control over our lives and the world at large. Nothing at all happens unless G-d wanted it to happen. The Baal Shem Tob, the founder of the Hassidic movement, taught that there is a purpose for every leaf that falls from a tree, and for why it fell at that precise time and at that precise spot. On Rosh Hashanah, the Yom Tob of Emuna, we reinforce our faith that G-d controls everything that happens, and even events that appear harmful are actually for our benefit.
Thus, Rosh Hashanah is not a time for making requests; it is a time to reaffirm our belief that even when our requests are not granted, everything is for the best, because Hashem knows far better than we do what we need.
This perhaps answers a question that one might have asked concerning the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the section of Akedat Yishak, the story of how Abraham Abinu was prepared to offer his beloved son as a sacrifice in fulfillment of G-d’s command. However, we conclude the reading with a series of verses that tell of the birth of children and grandchildren to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. We might, at first glance, wonder how these Pesukim are relevant to Rosh Hashanah. Why is it important for us read of Nahor’s children and grandchildren on this day?
The answer, perhaps, is that this section essentially completes the test of the Akeda. Abraham and Sara finally had a child after decades of praying and waiting, and then Abraham nearly had to kill him with his own hands. Meanwhile, his brother begot numerous children and grandchildren without any delay or trouble. Abraham devoted his life to kindness and to the serve of G-d, whereas his brother was an idolater. What more difficult test could there possibly be for Abraham than seeing his brother succeed and prosper while he struggles? The Akeda was certainly a very difficult test, but no less difficult was the test that came afterward, when, immediately after demonstrating his unbridled devotion to G-d, Abraham heard about his idolatrous brother’s success.
And so this section, too, is vitally important to our observance of Rosh Hashanah. It reminds us of the need to remain faithfully devoted to G-d even if we do not see how it brings us blessing and success. Regardless of what kind of hardship we are enduring, we must continue observing the Torah, trusting that Hashem is kind and gracious, and fulfilling His will is always beneficial.
Of course, we hope to be blessed with a good, sweet year. But on Rosh Hashanah we proclaim that even when our lives are not "sweet," and we face difficult challenges, we will nevertheless remain steadfastly committed to G-d, knowing that everything He does is for the best.