On Wednesday evening we will be celebrating Rosh Hashana – two days ( Thursday and Friday) that mark the beginning of a new year in the Jewish calendar. The name Rosh Hashana ( literally “Head of the Year”) comes from the Book of Ezekiel, referring to the entire Hebrew month of Tishrei, the first month of the year. In the Torah, this holiday is called Yom Tru’a ( Day of the Shofar Blast) for the main commandment of the holiday: blowing the shofar.
What does blowing the shofar symbolize? According to very ancient traditions, it symbolizes crowning God as King of the Universe, a ceremony that takes place as the new year begins. We human beings crown God? Doesn’t He rule over the entire world with or without us?
Biblical commentator Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (poet, linguist, philosopher, Spain 1089–1164) distinguishes between “king” and “ruler.” A king, he explains, is crowned as a result of the nation’s free will. A ruler, however, is not crowned by the nation, but rules over it. Based on this distinction, we do have the power to crown God as king. God’s sovereignty over the world is complete; but His kingship is up to us. We crown God as King of the Universe.
This “crowning” carries a deep significance which we can examine by looking at a section of the Torah that we read in the synagogue on Rosh Hashana, and another section which we read afterward from the Book of Samuel. These two sections tell three amazing stories.
The section we read from the Torah begins with the following verses: “And God remembered Sarah as He had said… Sarah conceived and bore a son unto Abraham in his old age… The child grew… and Abraham made a great feast…” (Genesis 21:1-8). This is the first story about our elderly forefather and foremother who had given up hope of having a child, and then God grants them a son.
These verses express a burst of unmitigated joy, the kind that can be experienced only by someone who had been in the depths of despair and in a moment reached the peak of sheer happiness.
The next story begins less optimistically: Sarah asks Abraham to banish Hagar, the maidservant Abraham had married at Sarah’s request several years earlier, and her son. Sarah was afraid that the maidservant’s son, Ishmael, was growing up and seemed like he might take her son’s place in Abraham’s family.
After some debate and a promise from God that nothing would happen to his older son, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away from his home. They reach the desert and get lost in the wide, desolate expanse. The water they had brought runs out and they are on the verge of collapse.
In an act of desperation, Hagar places her son under one of the bushes and sits at a distance so that she won’t see the boy dying in her arms. She sits and cries over her bitter fate and suddenly an angel of God reveals himself to her and encourages her with warm words: “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the youth… Arise, lift up the youth… for I will make a great nation of him” (ibid., 17, 18).
Then a miracle occurs. God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well. She draws water and lets the boy drink. Again – going from deep despair to incredible joy.
The third story, coming from the Book of Samuel, will not surprise us. It tells the story of Hannah, a woman who lived during the era of settlement in the Land of Israel, and as you might have guessed has no children.
She cries and prays from the depths of her heart. God hears her sincere prayer and a miracle happens: She gives birth to a son and calls him Samuel. He becomes the Prophet Samuel, who crowns the Jewish nation’s first kings, Saul and David.
In a dramatic piece, the sages of the Talmud describe Hannah’s prayer:
“Said Hannah before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of the Universe, of all the hosts and hosts that Thou hast created in Thy world, is it so hard in Thy eyes to give me one son?
“A parable: To what is this matter like? To a king who made a feast for his servants, and a poor man came and stood by the door and said to them, give me a bite, and no one took any notice of him, so he forced his way into the presence of the king and said to him, Your Majesty, out of all the feast which thou hast made, is it so hard in thine eyes to give me one bite?” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, Page 31)
The three stories have one message: Someone listens to us. God wants to offer us salvation.
Reading these stories on Rosh Hashana expresses the difference between a “king” and a “ruler” that Ibn Ezra noted. A king reigns as a result of the nation’s will; a ruler rules and controls the nation. On Rosh Hashana, we crown God of our own will and by doing so we express our complete faith in His goodness and kindness as it is reflected in these stories. This faith gives us hope; it gives us the will and the courage to greet the New Year and believe it will be a good one.
Shana Tova. May it be a year of kindness and redemption. ■