Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Essence of Rosh Hashana
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Asher Ben Haim

“God is My Light” - This Is Rosh Hashanah

The essence of Rosh Hashanah is to pronounce God king over us and over all of creation. Therefore, Rosh Hashanah aims at rectifying the Sin of the Golden Calf, for this particular sin constituted an attempt to throw off the yoke of God's kingship.


Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaLevi Kilav

1. Our Light and Salvation
2. "Hear, O Lord, when I call with my voice . . ."
3. To Dwell in the House of the Lord
4. King Solomon's Requests

Our Light and Salvation
"By David, God is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?" (Psalms 27:1). The sages of the Midrash teach: Our Rabbis expounded this text as referring to New Year and the Day of Atonement. He is "my light" on New Year, for this is a day of judgment, as it is written (Psalms 37:6), "He will reveal your righteousness like a light, and your justice like the high noon"; and "my salvation" on the Day of Atonement, that He should save us and pardon us for all of our transgressions.

The Children of Israel committed two principal sins in the desert: one, the Sin of the Golden Calf; the other, the Sin of the Spies. The Sin of the Golden Calf was, in a sense, a sin of idolatry: it amounted to a disavowal of the Lord of the Universe who gave the Torah to Israel.

The Sin of the Spies, on the other hand, was the expression of an excessive attachment to the spirituality of the desert. The Children of Israel dwelled in the desert. They were detached from the world of toil, and they were exempt from all of the hardships of material existence. Everything was provided by the Creator of the Universe and brought straight to their tables.

At that time, all of them were immersed in Torah and commandments in the study-hall of Moses our Teacher who brought us the Torah from God. Therefore, "they loathed the desirable land" (Psalms 106:24), a land which calls for laboring in fields and vineyards, a land in which a person eats bread by the sweat of his brow.

Rosh Hashanah comes to rectify the world for the sake of God's kingdom. The essence of Rosh Hashanah is to make God king over us, and, as such, over the entire creation. And so, Rosh Hashanah and its commandment rectify the Sin of the Golden Calf which constituted a throwing off of the Yoke of God's kingship.

Corresponding to the Sin of the Spies we were given the Day of Atonement which comes to rectify man's physical body so that it be subjugated to God in all possible situations. Even in the physical world, man can detach himself from all constraints and be like an angel, unbound by the body and its pleasures.

"Hear, O Lord, when I call with my voice . . ."
However, we must yet explain why Rosh Hashanah is referred to as "light" while there is a verse in Proverbs (6:23) which teaches that "the commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light." Scripture explicitly likens the Torah commandment to a lamp, which is a single distinct object, and the Torah to light, which is abstract and boundless (see Maharal in his commentary to Avot 4:2).

The reason for this is that a commandment is a single definable unit, like a lamp, while Torah is all-encompassing like a "light" which is inclusive. It would seem, however, that Rosh Hashanah is itself only one of Judaism's 613 commandments; why should it be called "light" and not "lamp"?

In addition, regarding the verse "Hear, O Lord, when I call with my voice; be gracious to me and answer me" (Psalms 27:7), the Vilna Gaon explains that "My voice" refers to the Shofar which is heard on Rosh Hashanah; "I call" refers to the Day of Atonement, as it says in Isaiah 55:6: "Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near" (the sages teach that this refers the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Regarding the first days it is written "Seek the Lord while He may be found," and regarding Yom Kippur it is written, "call upon Him while He is near"). The question is, why is it that the blast of the Shofar is called "My voice" while the Yom Kippur prayer is referred to as "I call"?

The blast of the Shofar is a voice which contains no specific request, just a sound. As noted, on Rosh Hashanah we declare the Creator of the World king, i.e., we put ourselves at the disposal of the Creator in a general manner, like a servant declaring that he stands at the disposal of his master and that he will do whatever is asked of him. We are like the Children of Israel who at Mount Sinai declared "We shall do and we shall hear," we are ready to carry out God's will before we even know the content of what we will hear.

Therefore, Rosh Hashanah is called "light"; it encompasses the entire Torah, for because we accept the Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, it constitutes the foundation of the performance of the actual commandments. This explains why there are no requests on Rosh Hashanah except for the call, "God is king, God was always king, and God will be king forever and ever."

This is not the case with regard to Yom Kippur which receives expression via a call which entreats the Creator of the Universe to have mercy upon us on this day (as opposed to Rosh Hashanah's general sounding which does not have a specific target). This reflects the words of King David, "Hear, O Lord, when I call with my voice; be gracious to me, and answer me" (Psalms 28:7), for on the Day of Atonement the Almighty has mercy even where according to the letter of the law we are not deserving, and He has compassion upon us even where the merit of the Patriarchs falls short. It is thus written (Exodus 33:19), "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy."

Therefore, regarding Rosh Hashanah it says, 'Seek the Lord while He may be found" - seek Him out for He may be found at this time and man is able to draw near to Him and declare Him king. But "call upon Him while He is near" is fulfilled only on the Day of Atonement when the judgment is being signed, at the time of repentance and forgiveness. At this time, not only is the Almighty "available," but He is near. Therefore, it is possible to call upon Him and to ask Him to provide us with our spiritual and physical needs.

To Dwell in the House of the Lord
On the verse, "One thing have I desired of the Lord, that I will seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple" (Psalms 27:4), Rabbi Abba bar Kahana comments (Yalkut Shimoni):
You find that David asked for one thing and Solomon asked for two, as it is written, "Remove far from me falsehood and lies; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full, and deny you . . . or lest I be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God" (Proverbs 30:8).

Another explanation: "One thing have I desired" - The Almighty said to David, "First you say, 'One thing have I desired,' and then you make a number of requests, as it is written, 'that I may dwell in the house of the Lord, etc.'" He responded, "Master of the Universe, it is from You that I learned. Should not the student be like his master? You began by saying, 'And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but only to fear the Lord your God,' and then You revealed to them many commandments, as it is written, 'to walk in all his ways, etc.' (Deuteronomy 10:12). In other words, it is sufficient for the student to strive to be like his master.

The central theme of the psalm is trust in the Almighty, "my light and my salvation." "My light" means that He illuminates my path. "My salvation" - He delivers me. Because I am in the midst of a war, "one thing have I desired of the Lord." David does not pray for military victory; his sole request is to "dwell in the house of the Lord."

And though the Psalm contains additional requests ("For in the time of trouble He shall hide me in His pavilion; under the cover of His tent shall He hide me, etc." "And now shall my head be lifted up above my enemies around me"), King David requests kingship, for he is the one who will establish the messianic dynasty, and in order to establish the kingdom it is necessary to carry out war against those who rise up against the Jewish people.

Therefore, David's request was that even while waging wars he dwell in the house of God, "behold the beauty of the Lord, and inquire in His temple," that he not lose his spiritual attachment to God even in the heat of the battle, while occupied with the destruction of enemies. Constant presence in the house of God causes Him "to hide me under the cover of his tent in the time of trouble," and this is what elevates him above his enemies.

King Solomon's Requests
Yet David's son, King Solomon, made two requests. Solomon did not wage wars because in his time there was peace, and every man sat "under his vine and under his fig tree" (I Kings 5:5). Therefore, his requests relate to desirable ruling order and state leadership.

His first request: "Remove far from me falsehood and lies." Falsehood ["Shav"] can be defined as that which lacks truth from its very foundation, like when somebody promises something which he has no intention of fulfilling. A lie ["Sheker"] is when a person initially agrees to carry something out yet later goes back on his agreement and fails to uphold his original statement.

Each of these two acts are laking in the same way: they are cases of a person not clinging to the truth as he ought to. This request is especially relevant to kingship, for all people look to the kingship and all are in need of it, and it sometimes misleads people and lets them down.

His second request is, "give me neither poverty nor riches." When it comes to falsehood and lies he says "remove far from me." This implies that they not be altogether done away with because sometime a person must change the truth for the sake of peace. However, here he says, "give me neither poverty nor riches," for these things are forever undesirable; riches cause a person to deny the existence of God, and poverty causes theft.

This is all the more true when it comes to a king, for when a king feels rich and powerful, he is liable to forget God, as it is written, "Then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God . . . for He is who gives you power to get wealth" (Deuteronomy 8:14,18). On the other hand, poverty causes a king to rob and steal from the masses. We find, then, that David and Solomon each requested exactly what he needed in his own unique situation.

The other interpretation of the Midrash understands the word "one" to be one request, even if after this he requests additional things. Similarly, the Almighty requests "only to fear the Lord your God" and then this request turns into many commandments. This is because when a person possesses fear of Heaven it is only natural for him to follow the path of the Almighty. David's request too is basic, to cling to the Creator and to dwell in his pavilion, and it naturally follows that "my head be lifted up above my enemies around me, etc." for this is the inheritance of God's servants: they succeed in all their endeavors, and God is with them.

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