Rosh Hashanah

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.

Rabbi Yehoshua