Rosh HaShanah, literally the ‘Head of the Year’, is a festive occasion in the Biblical calendar. According to tradition it is on this day that the world was created, and as with any birthday, it is thereby celebrated with a degree of joy expressed through various festivities. Our custom of eating apples with honey, where the roundness of the apple variously represents the earth and or the year which has come full circle, and where the honey represents sweetness, expresses our desire that the new year be filled with sweetness and joy for both ourselves and the wider world. The shape of the challah, which throughout the year is long and platted, changes too and, according to this theme, becomes round. We cook special for dishes Rosh HaShanah too which parallel this theme of sweetness and which aim to reinforce the overall message of hopes for sweetness and joy for ourselves and the wider world. And yet, that said, the joy of Rosh HaShanah is definitely restrained compared to many of the other festivals in our calendar. Rosh HaShanaha may be a birthday celebration, but our exuberance is restrained. Rosh HaShanah is not the occasion for wild merry-making as at an eighteenth or twenty-first birthday party, more like the sober expressions of happiness and appreciative reflection that accompany an eightieth. While senior birthdays too are times of joy this is tempered by appreciation of the difficulties that old age increasingly brings with each passing year, which is why is suppose that jokes about old age, like Rosh HaShanah, are also bitter-sweet.
The bitter side of Rosh HaShanah consists in our knowledge that it is at this time of year, the birthday of the world, that God sits in judgement. According to tradition God weighs all mankind in His scales, repels and condemns those who are thoroughly evil but receives and upholds those who are thoroughly righteous. Since most people fall into neither category God mercifully accords us ten days in order to confess our sins, repent and get right with other people. As we hear the shofar’s shrill call to repentance we are reminded of our imperfections and as yet unconfessed transgressions. We must come clean and admit our faults or we shall be forever tormented by unresolved guilt – which can often also find expression in physical maladies. God’s remedy for guilt is not to ignore it but to bring it out into the open, confess it, make reparation and, all importantly, to offer a sacrifice as atonement. As we read in Bmidbar 5:5-8: “When a man or woman commits any kind of sin against another person and thus breaks faith with ADONAI, he incurs guilt. He must confess the sin which he has committed; and he must make full restitution for his guilt, add twenty percent and give it to the victim of his sin. But if the person has no relative to whom restitution can be made for the guilt, then what is given in restitution for guilt will belong to ADONAI, that is, to the cohen — in addition to the ram of atonement through which atonement is made for him.”
Confession is the all important first step toward being free of sin and guilt. The first hurdle that we face if we wish to be free of guilt is to admit that we have done wrong. We would much rather ignore our sins and cover them over, but the truth is that we cannot be right with God and others unless there is an admission of fault. However, it is not the only step for as we have also heard we must also make restitution where restitution is possible. This isn’t merely to be a cerebral wordy process for we must also make our apology tangible both for our own sakes and for that of the person against whom we have sinned. Tangible reparation is fundamental to the Torah’s conception of repentance and forgiveness both with people and with God. Sending a card, flowers or chocolates to someone we have upset is a good first step in demonstrating the sincerity of our contrition and our desire to heal damaged relationships but there are other more creative and productive ways that we can make amends with too. We might perhaps make a donation to the synagogue or to a Jewish charity or Messianic Jewish ministry, or we might commit ourselves to a period of extraordinary communal service.
But God’s programme for rehabilitation and restoration goes further than this. As necessary as confession and reparation are there is one final step that must be taken before the matter is settled and guilt is removed – atonement. The reality is that even the smallest of our sins brings death. As the CJB version of the Scriptures states, “For what one earns from sin is death”; other more traditional translations however render this verse more familiarly as “the wages of sin is death.” In ancient times, when the Temple was still standing, the sacrifice of an animal was commanded in substitution for the life of the repentant sinner. This anticipated the fuller, purer sacrifice of the Mashiach, who two thousand years ago gave his life once and for all as the ultimate atonement for sin. It is important therefore, that having made confession and restitution to the one whom we have offended, we finally each appropriate by faith the sacrifice of the Mashiach. Through his sacrifice we find our sins atoned for, our consciences finally cleansed from guilt and our bodies healed. For concerning him the writer to the Messianic Jews once wrote: “But when the Messiah appeared as cohen gadol of the good things that are happening already, then, through the greater and more perfect Tent which is not man-made (that is, it is not of this created world), he entered the Holiest Place once and for all.
And he entered not by means of the blood of goats and calves, but by means of his own blood, thus setting people free forever. For if sprinkling ceremonially unclean persons with the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer restores their outward purity; then how much more the blood of the Messiah, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself to God as a sacrifice without blemish, will purify our conscience from works that lead to death, so that we can serve the living God!” “So, brothers, we have confidence to use the way into the Holiest Place opened by the blood of Yeshua. He inaugurated it for us as a new and living way through the parokhet, by means of his flesh. We also have a great cohen over God’s household. Therefore, let us approach the Holiest Place with a sincere heart, in the full assurance that comes from trusting — with our hearts sprinkled clean from a bad conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us continue holding fast to the hope we acknowledge, without wavering; for the One who made the promise is trustworthy.”
To have a clean conscience! To have guilt removed and one’s sins atoned for! Isn’t that a recipe for mental, emotional, physical and spiritual shalom? Isn’t that what we desire more than anything else in our lives, especially as we recognise the inevitability of God’s judgement at this time of the Days of Awe? As we have said, Rosh HaShanah is a bitter sweet experience. It isn’t pleasant to confess our sins and face up to our mistakes, but when we do what is required of us and experience the forgiveness and cleansing that is made available to us through Messiah’s bloody sacrificial death, we can know the sweetness and joy of restored relationships with man and God.