Rabbi Shuki Reich
There are two themes which are central to Rosh Hashana. The first is that of listening – the main aspect of the shofar is, after all, to listen – and the second theme is prayer, expressing oneself to the Creator, and understanding what his or her purpose is. The main feature of prayer is speaking, both inwardly and outwardly.
If we examine the circular aspects of prayer, we can better understand the issues and the centrality of the day. In the first two paragraphs of the Rosh Hashana silent prayer we say:
“And so, Hashem our God, instill your awe upon all Your works, and Your dread upon all that You have created. Let all works revere You and all Your creations bow down before You. Let them all become a single society to do Your will wholeheartedly. For as we know, Hashem our God, that the dominion is Yours, might is in Your hand and strength is in Your right hand, and Your name inspires awe over all that You have created.”
“And so, grant honor to Your people, praise to who revere You, good hope to those who seek You and eloquent speech to those who hope to You. Gladness to Your land and joy to Your city, flourishing pride to David your servant and preparation of a lamp for the son of Jesse, your anointed, speedily in our days.”
We notice that the first paragraph speaks about universal themes – “all Your works” – whereas the second paragraph speaks about the Jewish people and its recognition in the world – “Your people.” But the two paragraphs are connected by the opening words “And so,” because there is a direct connection between the two.
If we study the verses of the Torah to try to understand the presence of the Jewish people in the world, Rashi’s commentary on the opening verses of the Torah comes to mind immediately. Rashi asks why the Torah opens with the Creation of the world, and not with the first commandment, “This month is yours.”
I would suggest answering Rashi’s question with a different answer than the one he suggests. By beginning the Torah with the Creation and the stories of our Patriarchs, we are given a simple message: Prior to receiving the Torah, we must first be human beings, and only then, Jews.
The saying “Being decent people (Derekh Eretz) precedes Torah” is not simply a pithy phrase; it is the basis of Judaism.
The Jewish nation develops through the world, and only fixing the world – “let them all become a single society to do Your will wholeheartedly” – will enable us to pray to God and say: “And so, grant honor to Your people.”
Rabbi Shuki Reich is Rosh Kollel of the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary