21 Sep NETZAVIM: ROSH HASHANA & THE 3AM KNOCK ON THE DOOR
I, and I’m sure many others, as well, get very excited as Rosh Hashanah approaches, eager to seize the opportunity to pray for a good year. I look forward to praying for the health and wellbeing of my parents. I look forward to praying for my wife and for my children, that my family should be blessed with happiness, health and prosperity. As a Rabbi, I look forward to the opportunity to pray for all the people in the community who struggle, either with health issues, with financial problems, with troubled marriages, with difficult children, or other personal hardships. I look forward to the opportunity to pray for my many present and past students, that they should grow, mature and follow the path of Torah. As the onset of the new year approaches, I eagerly welcome the privilege of being able to stand before Hashem and ask that I, my family and my community should be blessed with a wonderful year.
But then, when Rosh Hashanah arrives and I open my mahzor, I realize that this is not what we pray for.
If we look carefully at the words of the Rosh Hashanah prayers, we see very, very few requests for livelihood, for health and for shidduchim for our children. The bulk of the prayer service deals with lofty concepts of divine kingship, the notion that G-d is King over the universe, that all people are His subjects, and that the Jewish People are His chosen nation. We come to the synagogue eager to pray for a great year, and eager to resolve to improve ourselves during the coming year, but this is not what we do. Instead, we speak repeatedly about how Hashem is the King. Why?
It’s Not About Us
I have a very good friend whom I’ve known for a long time, and with whom I speak and text quite often. This man has dealt with numerous difficult challenges throughout his life, including financial hardships and a child with a serious illness, and I frequently find that he has more faith in Hashem than I do.
Once, out of the blue, he sent me the following text: “Joey, if your best friend knocked on your door at 3am when you’re sound asleep to ask for a favor, what you would do?”
I wrote back that I didn’t know, and I didn’t understand his point.
He then replied, “If my best friend knocked on the door at 3am to ask for a favor, I’d be psyched to do it. I’d be thrilled to be able to show him how much I love him and how much our friendship means. Well, G-d is knocking on my door at 3am. When there is a problem in my life, it is G-d knocking in the middle of the night, giving me an opportunity to show Him how much I love Him. So it doesn’t matter how badly the business is going, or how many days I need to spend with my kid in the hospital – I am happy to show G-d how much I love Him.”
This is the primary theme of Rosh Hashanah. On the first day of the year, on the day that the first human being was created, we stand before G-d and we acknowledge that life is not about us, but about something far greater. We specifically do not rush to Him to ask for everything we need and want. Instead, we put all that aside and focus on Him, on the fact that He is King, that we are His subjects, who have been placed on this world to serve Him. When we come to the synagogue to pray on Rosh Hashanah, we are not coming to pray for our livelihood and for our children’s success. To the contrary, we come to proclaim that whether our job or business is going well or isn’t going well, and whether our children are succeeding in school or not, we are unconditionally devoted to G-d. We come to proclaim that when He comes knocking at 3am, when He wants a “favor” from us even under difficult, inconvenient circumstances, we are there for Him unconditionally and unhesitatingly.
Of course, this is very difficult to do. We are naturally programmed to be selfish and self-absorbed, to focus on our own personal issues, to worry about our bank account, our portfolio, our children, our leak in the roof, and all the other problems that we deal with over the course of daily life. And justifiably, this is our primary point of focus throughout the year. But on Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate our creation, we need to stop and reflect, and realize that we are created for something much larger than ourselves. We focus on the fact that it’s not about us, but about Him.