24 Sep A Night to Remember: On The Essence of Rosh Hashanah
“Coronation Night” – that is how one of the great spiritual masters would define the night of Rosh Hashanah.
In a 1974 sermon, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soleveitchik (1903-1993), one of the great Jewish thinkers of the last century, related that when he was a young child learning in cheder (Jewish day school), in the Russian village of Chaslavitch, in the days preceding Rosh Hashanah, he could recognize in his teacher an extraordinary sense of trepidation.
“Our teacher, who was a Chabad Chassid (disciple), said to us: ‘Do you know what Rosh Hashanah is? The Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek would call the night of Rosh Hashanah – ‘Karanatzia Nacht’ (‘Coronation Night’).
“Do you know whom we will be coronating?” the teacher asked the children.
The young Soleveitchik prodigy responded in jest: “Nicholas”. (This was a number of years before the 1917 Russian Revolution, when Nicholas still served as the Russian czar).
And the poor teacher of Chaslavitch responded: “Nicholas? He was coronated years ago, why do we need to coronate him again? Besides, he?! He is not a real king…”
“Tonight, my dear children, we coronate G-d; we place a crown on G-d… “And do you know who places the crown?” The teacher continued. “Yankel the Tailor, Berel the Shoemaker, Zalman the water-carrier, Yossel the painter, Dovid the butcher…”
Rabbi Soloveitchik concluded: Over the years I have given many sermons and written many discourses on the concept of Rosh Hashanah, but nothing ever made me feel the true depth and power of the day as the words of my childhood teacher. Every year, when I recite in the Rosh Hashanah prayers the words, ‘Rule over the whole world in Your glory,’ I remember my teacher in Chaslavitch.
How much of Judaism is compressed in this brief conversation between teacher and students? In a few words, a poverty-stricken Jewish teacher in a small shtetl in Russia gave his seven-year-old students the core, the essence, the very marrow of Jewish existence, of Jewish thought.
Now he needed not explain to them why they should marry Jewish girls, continue living as Jews, be proud of their Jewishness, as so many teachers and educators today. It was more than obvious: Who would want to miss out on the opportunity of coronating G-d…
But why does G-d need us to coronate Him? If G-d created us, does He really need us to declare Him king; He is the boss regardless?
And what does it mean that G-d is our king Imagine you assemble 1,000,000 ants and declare yourself king over them. When 50,000 of them then turn left instead of right, you kill them in a single instance. Does that make you king over them? G-d gave us our entire existence; our entire being and life force are from Him. Relative to Him we are far smaller and far les significant than an ant in the presence of a human. Can He then said to be our king? Is that not an insult for Him?
Yet here lay one of the great and daring ideas of Judaism. G-d, the perfect endless one, desired to be king not through power or by the dictates of nature. He desired to be chosen as king; He wanted a relationship with someone distinct of Him who would freely choose to construct a bond with G-d.
So an infinite, omnipotent G-d suspends His infinity, suppresses His endlessness and concealed His omnipotence, in order to allow space for an intelligent, independent and self-oriented human being who is then capable of choosing G-d as his or her king.
This, the spiritual masters explained, is the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, the day when the first human was created. It is the day when small, frail, vulnerable and lowly human beings invite G-d to serve as their King.
G-d could place His own crown on His head, but then He would be a dictator, not a king; the relationship would be coerced not chosen. So G-d waits all year for this great moment for which the entire universe was created – the moment when you and I coronate Him as our king.
Rosh Hashanah is the most moving day in the Jewish calendar. More than any other day, it embodies the meaning of human existence and the vulnerability of a G-d who linked His fate to man’s.
Happy Coronation Night.