August 15, 2018

Insights to the Rosh Hashana Tefilot

Below is a collection of insights for the Kriat HaTorah and Musaf prayers on Rosh Hashanah which I delivered at Machon Ma’ayan on Rosh Hashanah 5777. While the insights originate from a variety of sources, the core theme of the ideas shared on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah was ‘Self-Change’, while those which I shared on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah focussed on ‘Self-Actualization’.



It is often thought that the message connecting the Torah reading and the Haforah is that of fervent prayer, since both Sarah and Hannah prayed to have a child. Alternatively, others may think that the main message is about birth. However, there is another way to understand these stories which is that both are preceded by stories of moral chaos.

In terms of the birth of Yitzchak, this is preceded with the story of Sarah’s abduction, and before this, the destruction of Sdom. Similarly, the birth of Shmuel is preceded at the end of Sefer Shoftim with the story of Pilegesh B’Givah. Yet in both cases, just a few people step up and turn a bad situation into a good one; moral chaos into moral order. This is reflected by the first line of the Haftorah where we read ‘there was one man from Ramataim Tzofim’[1] as if to teach us that this can be achieved even by one person.[2]

What we learn from these stories is that change is possible, and sometimes great change can be achieved by just a few people.


Before blowing/hearing the shofar we read Tehillim 47 seven times. One of the reasons for doing so is because this chapter contains many references to Shofar and Hashem as King. However, there is a second idea conveyed by this chapter and this is rooted in the fact that it was written by the sons of Korach. But how come the sons of Korach, which themselves were involved in the challenge to Moshe in the Midbar, features in our Machzor? The Midrash[3] tells us that Korach’s three sons initially supported their father’s rebellion. However, as the conflict developed they reconsidered and they did teshuvah and therefore this chapter is recited with this in mind. As Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein explains, ‘there is much we can learn from Korach’s sons, especially when we are moments away from hearing the shofar. These men initially committed a grievous error and joined together with their father in contesting Moshe’s role as Hashem’s prophet, as well as the Divine origin of the Torah. However, in the decisive moment when the earth opened up its mouth, they reversed their direction and did teshuvah. The only thing that ultimately separated them from their father was their response during that critical moment… We see from here the power of a moment of clarity and resolve. Although teshuvah is a process, the initial instant of awareness, when we recognize that there are things we need to change, is decisive.’[4]


It is noteworthy that we begin our prayer by referring to God as an ‘ata’. Baruch Ata Hashem. This word is central to our relationship with God because, in contrast to other religions, we believe that God is personal. God is not an ‘It’.[5] Instead, we relate to God as a friend and a master, a father and a King. Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.[6] God is an Ata because to be a Jew is to be in a relationship with God, and one that is intensely personal.


In his commentary to the Machzor, Rabbi Sacks describes this prayer with depth and elegance. He writes: ‘No prayer more powerfully defines the image of the Days of Awe than does Unetane Tokef. It is the equivalence in words to one of the great religious paintings by Michelangelo or Rembrandt. The language is simple, the imagery strong, the rhythms insistent and the drama intense. It is structured in four movements. The first sets the scene. The heavenly court is assembled. God sits in the seat of judgement. The angels tremble. Before Him is the book of all our deeds. In it our lives are written, bearing our signature, and we await the verdict. The second defines what is at stake: Who will live, who will die? Who will flourish, who will suffer, who will be at ease, who will be in torment? Between now and Yom Kippur our fate is being decided on high. Then comes the great outburst of faith that defines Judaism as a religion of hope. No fate is final. Repentance, prayer and charity can avert the evil decree. Life is not a script [written by the Greeks] in which tragedy is inexorable.  God forgives; God pardons; God exercises clemency – if we truly repent and pray and give to others. Finally there is a moving reflection on the fragility of human life and the eternity of God. We are no more than a fragment of pottery, a blade of grass, a flower that fades, a shadow, a cloud, a breath of wind. Dust we are and to dust we return. But God is life forever. But attached ourselves to Him we may, as William Blake wrote, “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/and Eternity in an hour[7]


In this beautiful song we describe the Jewish people as ‘Ma’aminim’ which has been translated as ‘believers’. As R’ Hirsch explains, ‘Emunah is the essence of Judaism; but to define Emunah as “belief” is to empty the term of its true content. Belief is an act of the mind, sometimes only an option… However… He’emin BHashem means: to rely upon God, in theory and practice; to take strength in Him and to follow Him[8]. Rabbi Hirsch then explains that the word Emuna, as well as Amen, are linked to the word ‘Uman’ meaning ‘sculptor, former, one who shapes living people, tutor, nurse, educator’. As such, Emuna should be understood as ‘giving yourself up.. to be moulded by G-d’.


A recurring word in the Rosh Hashanah prayers is ‘UV’Chen’. According to the Avudraham, the reason for doing so is because it recalls the words of Esther who, upon hearing about Haman’s decree to annihilate the Jewish people, decided to approach the king despite the risks involved, saying to Mordechai ‘UV’Chen Avo El Hamelech Asher Lo K’Dat– and thus I will come before the king despite it not being in accordance with the law’[9]. In the same way on Rosh Hashanah we seek to come before the king despite our limited merits, so we too echo the sentiments expressed by Esther by using the word UV’Chen. And what is the significance of this concept? Because true change takes courage. Like Esther who went before the king to change the decree, we need to stand up before Hashem and share our dream of what we can be.  David Ben-Gurion once said that ‘Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.’. It is this courage that we need to face the ultimate King today.


Three times a year we prostrate ourselves in prayer – on both days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, and the obvious reason for doing so is that such a gesture expresses our commitment to accept upon ourselves Ol Malchut Shamayim. However, there is another way of understanding this practice which itself possibly relates back to the stories that we read from the Torah and Haftarah.

We previously mentioned that both stories involve birth. In the former, this was the birth of Yitzchak, and the latter, of Shmuel. However, on Rosh Hashanah we too undergo a form of birth, because by changing ourselves, we can be reborn.  In his companion to the Machzor, Harav Immanuel Jakobovits explains that when we prostrate ourselves on these days, ‘we… return to the posture we had in the mother’s womb before we were born[10], meaning that we prostrate ourselves into the foetal position as if like a yet-unborn baby.  But moments afterwards we rise up. Thus, rebirth is a theme of Rosh Hashanah which is possible why we often refer to Rosh Hashanah in the Machzor as Hayom Harat Olam. Finally, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that the prophets would also go into a foetal position in order to ready themselves to receive the word of God.[11] Thus, when we prostrate ourselves on Rosh Hashanah, we accept upon ourselves Ol Malchut Shamayim, and we also give ourselves the opportunity to be reborn and be receptive to hear the word of God.


In a few moments after the shofar is blown we will recite the words ‘Hayom Harat Olam’ – today is the birthday of the world in which we say ‘Kol Yitzurei Olamim – Im KeBanim Im KeAvadim’ – all creates of the world stand in judgement, whether as children of God or as servants. The Artscroll commentary quotes Rabbi Avraham MiSlonim who says that it is on this point, whether we are like children or like servants, that God is judging us today.[12] Truthfully, we are supposed to look upon God both as a father and a King, an Avinu and as a Malkeinu, which means that we are both children of God and servants of God. But we often get the balance wrong. We sometimes keep our distance from God as if we are servants, when really God wants us to be near Him like children, and we sometimes take God for granted like children sometimes do of their parents, when God wants us to recognise His presence in the world. This is the balance we aim to strike.


Many of the verses in Zichronot refer to Hashem remembering us. But since God doesn’t forget, what is the significance of talking about God remembering us? To answer this question we need to go to the Rambam who explains that whenever the Torah ascribes human features to God, this is to help us connect with God.[13] So when we speak of Hashem remembering us to good, what we are really being told is that ‘the extent to which we remember God, and act in a way that is deserving of such blessing[14], God will remember us.


We are about to recite the third part of the additional Musaf prayers called Shofarot which ends with the bracha of ‘blessed are you who hears the teruah of His people with mercy’. This blessing has fascinated many Rabbis because generally it is prayer which is heard with mercy and not a blast of a shofar. However, Rav Soloveitchik explains that we learn from this blessing that shofar is itself a form of non-verbal prayer, and while we pray with words on Rosh Hashanah through the verbal formulations of G-d’s Kingship (Malkhuyot), God’s Remembrances (Zikhronot) and G-d’s rams’ horn blasts (Shofarot) – we also pray with sounds through the shofar.[15] What we learn from here is that sometimes words can’t do justice to our feelings, but if we pray with sounds, and sing the prayers, God hears not only what we are saying but the manner in which we do so.


In this beautiful prayer we sing about HaYom, and this reminds me of a beautiful story in the Gemara.[16] Once, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi met Eliyahu and he asked him, ‘When will Moshiach  come?’. Eliyahu replied, ‘Go and ask Moshiach’. R’ Yehoshua Ben Levi asked, ‘but where will I find him’, to which Eliyahu answered, ‘at the gate of the city’. ‘How shall I recognise him?’ asked Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi? ‘He sits among the lepers.. he changes their bandages.. one by one.’

When R’ Yehoshua Ben Levi met Moshiach he asked him ‘When will you arrive?’ to which he was told ‘Hayom – today!’. But he didn’t come that day and R’ Yehoshua Ben Levi felt he had been deceived. Thereupon Eliyahu explained to Rabbi Yehoshua that the Moshiach was speaking of the word ‘today’ mentioned in the verse: ‘Today – if you will hearken to my voice.’[17] This means that the Moshiach can come any day if we repent.



The climax of our Torah reading is when the angel calls out ‘Avraham, Avraham!’[18]. As Rabbi Frand explains while citing the Yalkut Shimoni, ‘the reference is to the two Avrahams—the one who exists as a potential in Heaven and the one who exists in this world. At that moment, the two Avrahams had achieved the goal for which we were all created—that of bringing the Avraham below into conformity with the ideal Avraham above.’[19]


Unlike Day 1, the connection between the Torah reading and the Haftarah appears more tenuous. The Torah reading includes the story of Akeidat Yitzchak while the Haftorah comes from Yirmiyah Ch. 31 which explains how the Jewish people will be redeemed while closing with one of the verses of the Zichronot. However, we should always pay attention to the words, because there is a connection. When Avraham was sent on his journey to sacrifice Yitzchak, we are told that ‘he saw the place from afar’[20] while the second verse in the Haftarah teaches that “from afar Hashem appears to me [saying]: ‘I have loved you with an eternal love…’”[21] Given this, the Tiferet Shlomo explains that what we see in the Navi is how the impact of the actions of our spiritual fathers and mothers continue to impact on our lives because, despite the fact that they occurred long ago, we can still see them ‘from afar’.[22]

In fact, we see this idea in the previous verse where we speak of ‘Am Seridei Charev’ which the Chessed L’Avraham explains to mean that we are ‘Am Seridei Chorev’[23] which means that as Jews, we continue to live our lives in the echo of the word of God that was spoken at Sinai and continues to reverberate till today. On the same theme, the end of the Haftorah tells us about ‘Mama Rachel’ who ‘weeps for her children’[24] and whose tears continue to impact on us today. What we learn from this is that the actions and tefillot of our Avot & Imahot continue to provide us with merit, as do those of our great-grandparents, grandparents and parents. So on Rosh Hashanah we should think about all those who, ‘from afar’, have brought us to where we are, and recognise that we should use the opportunities we have to become the best we can be.


Our Rabbis note that we only need to hear 30 shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, but we blow many more (100 actually) ‘in order to confuse the Satan’[25]. That means that we blow the shofar before Musaf and during Musaf. But how does a repeat blowing of the shofar confuse the Satan?

One idea is read is found in the writings of the Ran[26]. He explains that the Satan is our Yetzer Hara – our evil inclination – which can easily be distracted on holy days such as this. Therefore, we blow the shofar before Musaf to call us to attention and to get us in the proper frame of mind so that we are not distracted during the Musaf prayer.[27]


We are about to repeat the Amidah reflect on ideas relating to self-actualization, and we begin by reflecting on the initial paragraph of Avot.

We are told that each of us is duty bound to say: “When will my work approach the works of my fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?[28] but this itself seems to be an impossible task. However, the Maggid of Zlotchov explained that ‘Just as our fathers found new ways of serving, each a new service according to his character: one the service of love, the other that of stern justice, the third that of beauty, so each one of us in his own way shall devise something new in the light of teachings and of service, and do what has not yet been done.’[29]

Thus we begin the Amidah not only by reflecting on the greatness of our spiritual mothers and fathers, but also by considering how we too can use our abilities to the fullest.


In his commentary to this prayer, Rabbi Abraham Twerski offers a powerful explanation of the words of the prayer that ‘all who are in the world pass before You individually like sheep’. He notes that Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of humanity about which we are told that each person was created uniquely.[30] This means that Rosh Hashanah does not merely celebrate the existence of humanity, but its diversity and what makes each one of us so special. He then writes that ‘today, more than ever, we are in danger of losing our individuality. Our minds are moulded by others, and our opinions are often formed by the mass media’[31]. So on Rosh Hashanah as we stand here today, we realise that we are a flock who are being shepherded by God. But we must also realise that we are unique.


One of the strangest lines in this song is that we say that God ‘opens the gate to those who knock in repentance’. However, as the Nodah B’Yehudah points out, we are always able to do teshuvah. Repentance is open access for which there are no gates, as the Pesikta says ‘teshuvah is compared to the sea. Just as the sea is open, so too the gates of repentance are always open’.[32] So what is meant by this line? I saw explained that as we know, B’Rosh Hashanah Yichatevun UVeYom Tzom Kippur Yechateimun. Once our fate has been sealed for the year, we may think that there is no further opportunity for change. But what this lines teaches us that even once Yom Kippur has come and Hashem as sealed our judgement, there is always opportunities for self-change.[33]


Rabbi Sacks explains in his commentary to the Machzor that ‘Each of these three prayers blends universality and particularity. Malchiyot speaks of God as King of Israel but contains a plea that His majesty be recognised by all humanity. In Zichronot we speak of God remembering the whole of creation as well as His chosen people. In Shofarot, alongside the shofar of Sinai we speak of the shofar that Isaiah will one day be heard by “all the inhabitants of the world, all the dwellers on earth.” That is the fugue of Rosh Hashanah.’[34] This means that part of our duty to self-actualize requires us to share the Torah ideas we have learnt with others to try and bring a better understanding of God to the world. Thus the Lubavitcher Rebbe would say ‘No man can claim to have reached the ultimate truth as long as there is another who has not. Ultimate truth is an unlimited light – and if it is unlimited, how could it shine in one person’s realm and not in another’s?’[35].


Within the section of Zichronot we find the Hebrew term poked quite often and this terms means one of two things. Firstly, it is another word used in Tanach for remembering such as ‘Hashem Pakad Et Sarah – Hashem remembered Sarah’. But it also has a deeper meaning of mission and responsibility. For example, when Yosef was appointed to rule over Egypt we read that Vayehi Hifkid Oto – he was appointed to that role. So when we speak about Zichronot we refer to God remembering the reason He created us and we reflect on our mission on earth. However, sometimes it takes a shock to remind us what our mission is.

When the brother of Alfred Nobel, the famous Chemist, died in 1888, several newspapers publish obituaries of Alfred in error. Though Alfred had achieved much in his life, he’d achieved professional acclaim by creating dynamite. Consequently, one of the published obituaries had the headline “The merchant of death is dead”. This shocked Alfred, and he decided to use his fortune to be remembered more positively by the Nobel Prize.

Rosh Hashanah is meant to help us focus on our mortality, our ultimate Yom HaDin. By doing so it may help us refocus our attention and discover our life mission.


The verses about Shofarot begin by stating that ‘You were revealed in Your cloud of glory to Your Holy people to speak with them’, and so Shofarot includes the theme of revelation. According to the Psikta D’Rav Kahana, when God revealed Himself to the children of Israel in the desert each individual standing at the base of Mount Sinai heard God’s word as a personal and unique address.[36] This means that just as each of us has a personal soulmate, we also have a spiritual soulmate which is that parcel of Torah insights that we were given at Matan Torah, and just as there is much joy when we see two people marry, it is deeply inspiring when we see students encounter Torah ideas that speak to them so deeply that it seems clear that they are their spiritual soulmates.


Our theme today was self-actualization and this final prayer of Hayom asks Hashem to give us chizuk in fulfilling our life’s task. The Lubavitcher Rebbe would say ‘Lead a supernatural life and G-d will provide the miracles[37]. If we recognise our greatness and receive the chizuk from Hashen, then our life will be truly supernatural.


[1] Shmuel I 1:1

[2] On this point, see Redak on Shmuel I 1:1. See also Maharal on Gittin 6b

[3] Midrash Tehillim Ch. 45

[4] Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein, Teshuvah pp. 94-95

[5] This point is made by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his commentary to the Machzor

[6] Shir Hashirim 6:3

[7] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Commentary to Koren-Sacks Machzor pp. 565-568

[8] Commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to Bereishit 15:6

[9] Esther 4:16

[10] Harav Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, Companion to the High Holydays Prayerbook p. 140. It should be noted that Harav Jakobovits develops this idea to explore the concept of ‘humility and self-effacement’ while I believe that it can also be applied to explore the idea of rebirth and self-change

[11] See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and the Bible pp. 70-72. See also his Waters of Eden (Why Mikvah?) where he explains that Mikvah too allows for an opportunity for rebirth.

[12] The Complete Artscroll Machzor (Rosh Hashanah) p. 510. This idea is developed a little further by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his commentary to the Machzor.

[13] See Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 1:8-9

[14] Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein, Teshuvah p. 130

[15] See Harerei Kedem on Rosh Hashanah, Siman 7. See also Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein, Teshuvah pp. 135-137.

[16] Sanhedrin 98a

[17] Tehillim 95:7

[18] Bereishit 22:11

[19] Rabbi Yissochor Frand in Print pgs. 24-25

[20] Bereishit 22:4

[21] Yirmiyah 31:2

[22] Tifferet Shlomo (Lech Lecha), cited in Biurei HaChassidut L’Nach (Nevi’im) p. 367

[23] Chessed L’Avraham of Radomsk (Rosh Hashanah), cited in Biurei HaChassidut L’Nach (Nevi’im) p. 367

[24] Yirmiyah 31:15

[25] Rosh Hashanah 16b

[26] Commentary to Rosh Hashanah 16b

[27] This idea is found in Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein’s Teshuvah pp. 103-4

[28] Tana D’Bei Eliyahu Ch. 25

[29] Martin Buber, The Way of Man pp. 15-16

[30] See Sanhedrin 37a

[31] Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Prayerfully Yours p. 334

[32] See Drushei HaTzlach (Drush 13), cited by Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein in his Meorei Tefillah p. 216

[33] This suggestion of mine is an adaptation of the answer cited by Rabbi Bernstein based on the Turei Aven.

[34] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Commentary to Koren-Sacks Machzor

[35] Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: 365 Meditations of the Rebbe p. 148

[36] Psikta D’Rav Kahana 12

[37] Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: 365 Meditations of the Rebbe p. 50

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