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An Offering of Oneself on Rosh Hashana, Part 1

September 6, 2015

(Part 2 here)

Rosh Hashana 16a:

It has been taught: R. Judah said in the name of R. Akiba: Why did the Torah enjoin on us to offer an ‘omer [of barley] on Passover? Because Passover is the [beginning of the] season of grain. Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, said, Bring before Me an ‘omer on Passover so that your grain in the fields may be blessed. Why did the Torah enjoin on us to bring the two loaves [of bikkurim bread] on Pentecost? Because Pentecost is the [beginning of the] season for fruit of the tree. Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Bring before Me two loaves of [bikkurim] on Pentecost so that the fruit of your trees may be blessed. Why did the Torah enjoin on us to pour out water [on the altar] during Tabernacles? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Pour out water before Me on Tabernacles, so that your rains this year may be blessed. Also recite before Me on New Year [texts making mention of] kingship, remembrance, and the shofar: kingship, so that you may proclaim Me king over you; remembrance, so that your remembrance may rise favorably before Me; and through what? Through the shofar.

What connection was Rabbi Akiba referring to? One school of Jewish thought says that there must be some cosmic connection between the physical world and the sacrifices, and some force beyond our comprehension is at play when we bring them. Somehow offering grains or water at the right seasons affects the crops and the rains that are on the way. Another school believes that surely God does not need us to bring Him any sacrifice. Rather, offering sacrifices, like the performance of other commandments, instills the proper thoughts in our minds. Bringing offerings related to the seasons reminds us that the seasonal blessings depend on behavior and actions and the thoughts that precipitate them. By giving of the first fruits of the water or of the grain crop, we demonstrate our acknowledgment that all of those blessings are in God’s hands, and that we can offer them in abundance just as He can.

The sages told us that the world, so to speak, is judged during the three pilgrimage festivals (Mishna, ibid.), but they also saw something extraordinary about Rosh Hashana, the holiday of the new year. Unlike the other Yamim Tovim, the New Year does not not require all adult Jewish males to show themselves in the Temple, nor does the New Year necessitate one of the unique offerings on the altar. Yet the day itself is as holy (i.e. prohibited in forbidden labor) as the other festival days, and the sages bade us celebrate and rejoice thereon just as we do on the other festivals. The Torah itself is very vague as to the nature of the day, and it was in that obscurity that the sages saw a hint to the true nature of Rosh Hashana, a nature that had been received as a matter of tradition.

The Midrash (P’siqta Rabbathi 40) to Numbers 29:1-2 states:

“And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation: you shall do no manner of servile work; it is a day of blowing the shofar for you. And you shall make a burnt-offering for a sweet savor unto the Lord…” Rabbi Isaac said, “Why ‘and you shall make’? The Holy One, blessed be He said to Israel, ‘repent during those ten days between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, and I will exonerate you on the Day of Atonement and create you as a new being,’ as it is said, ‘and the lord made the firmament…'”

In the original Hebrew, the word wa’asithem, lit. you shall make, is used to describe the command to offer this sacrifice. This is unusual but not unique; throughout the rest of the chapters describing the offerings for special days, the verbs “w’hiqravtem,” you shall offer or bring forth, or w’haalithem, you shall raise up [in fire], are used. Rabbi Isaac teaches us that this language expresses the esoteric idea that the peculiar sacrifice of Rosh Hashana is one of the spirit. Through repentance at the beginning of the year, we make ourselves into the offering, similar to the way we read about how Isaac the patriarch was prepared to offer himself in sacrifice and came out a new person.

Earlier, we described how Maimonides believed that only certain commandments required the specific intention of the performer. Sh’ma and shofar are thus connected by the sages. Sh’ma is the daily acceptance of the kingdom of Heaven, and the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is meant to be accompanied by a larger-scale coronation ceremony, namely, the recitation  of the verses of Kingship, and sure enough, tradition posits that the first verse of Sh’ma, even though it has no Hebrew word from the root mem-lamed kaf, “king,” is a description  of God’s Kingship, and therefore is the verse chosen as the summation of all the other verses of Kingship.

Rabbi Akiba has taught us that unlike the other holidays, the holiday of the New Year requires us to give of the part of our selves that we cannot detach, that we cannot acquire with material goods, and that we must completely control if we are to prove to be loyal servants to Him: our minds. On Rosh Hashana, we are to dedicate our very souls to God’s service, and the shofar is the instrument of the universal language of that dedication. The sound of the shofar, more than any other music, has the power to transcend the barriers intrinsic to the multitude of human languages and to pierce the heart of those who contemplate its song, and because Rahmana libba ba’ei, the Merciful One desires our hearts.

(Part 2 here)

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