The Idea of Rosh Hashana
Rabbi Ari Kahn
We all know that Rosh Hashana marks the Jewish new year. Presumably, this day commemorates the creation of the world, the beginning of time.
The Talmud, however, reports a difference of opinion regarding Creation.
It has been taught: R. Eliezer says: In Tishrei the world was created;… R. Yehoshua says: In Nisan the world was created. (Rosh Hashana 10b-11a)
Rabenu Tam sees no contradiction between the opinions of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua:
“These and these are the words of the living God, and one may say that the thought to create was formed in Tishrei, while the actual creation did not take place until Nisan. (Tosfot Rosh Hashana 27a)
According to Rabbenu Tam, the two concepts of creation are not at odds; they simply emphasize two different aspects of Creation – theory and practice, each opinion emphasizing one or the other as the crucial aspect.
This notion, that Creation began with a “thought” or concept, may also be found in Rashi’s commentary to the first verse in the Torah. Drawing on the Midrash, Rashi notes that the Divine Name found in the verses describing Creation is “Elokim,” the aspect of God associated with justice. In later chapters, when the account of Creation is restated, Hashem Elokim, the Divine Name that combines the attributes of judgment and mercy, is used (Bereishit 2:4).
Hashem Elokim [made the heavens and the earth]… Said the Holy One, blessed be He: 'If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of judgment alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of judgment and of mercy, and may it then stand!’ Hence the expression, ‘Hashem Elokim.’ (Bereishit Rabbah 22:15)
The combination of justice and compassion in the second chapter of Bereishit now becomes clear, yet the Midrash does not explain why the first verse of the Torah uses only “Elokim” - implying that God created the world using only the attribute of justice.
Rashi addresses this problem, explaining that the idea of creation was formulated by Elokim. The concept underlying creation is based on justice, although the actual creation had to be carried out with mercy and justice fused together if humankind was to survive.
Rav Gedalya Shore suggested the following formulation: The concept of creation is based on justice; the actual creation is based on mercy and justice. The concept of creation arose in Tishrei, while the actual creation took place in Nisan. Therefore, Tishrei is a time of judgment, while Nisan is a time of mercy.
Perhaps we can take this conclusion one step further: The strict aspect of judgment relates to God’s concept of Creation, to the realm of thought, to Elokim. This type of judgment, which holds sway in the month of Tishrei, relates to the thoughts of each and every individual. Just as God Himself created a plan, a concept of creation, we as individuals are given Rosh Hashanah to formulate our own plan: What sort of life do we intend to lead in the coming year? What are our goals and aspirations, our blueprint for the future? In the month of Tishrei, Elokim judges each individual’s plan, with the strictness He applied to the concept of Creation. However, when it comes to judging our actions, our ability to live up to that plan, Hashem Elokim fuses compassion with judgement, just as He did in the actual creation of the universe. Then, as now, God understands human frailty.
The quintessential example is the Akaida: When Avraham is called upon to sacrifice his son, he formulates a plan to obey God’s command without question. The plan was enough; the actual sacrifice was no longer necessary. Elokim judged Avraham for his intention, for his plan.
“Rosh Hashanah,” literally the ‘head’ of the year, alludes to this same dynamic: As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we are obliged to formulate a plan using our intellect, the Divine Image with which we have been endowed. Nonetheless, God understands that at times, man will fail. We are judged for these failings, but the judgment is tempered with compassion.
The days that lead up to Rosh Hashanah, when mankind will stand before God in fear and dread of His judgment, are the time to formulate our plan for life. May we be blessed with the strength to implement our plans, and may God judge us with mercy on those occasions when we fail.