Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah and the Exodus: The Missing Link

One of the favorite “great insights” of apikorsim is their opt-repeated claim that our holidays originated as agricultural festivals and follow the natural order of the seasons. Only “later”, they say, “the Rabbis” superimposed historical or spiritual meaning upon the festivals. That nature and history are one, that they have one Source, that there can exist harmony and unity between the physical and the spiritual requires belief that God is real, that God designed both nature and history as one context and expects us to so view the world as well. The simple logic which pictures nature and history as a unified whole is seen by our detractors as being much too “advanced” for God.

As the Creator of nature and the Master of history, God designated specific times of the year for the budding of vegetation or the freezing of the ground. Jewish tradition, history and experience long ago recognized that these seasons are likewise suited for the budding of human events or the freezing or unfreezing of human destinies.

Nature, history and the human spirit are all subject to the earth’s total environment which changes as Earth and sun rotate and change their relationship. Spring is a time of birth, budding and liberation from the darkness of winter, exile and slavery. Spring is a time for sunshine, warmth and growth in the realm of nature, as well as the spirit. It is for this reason that our rabbis taught that, “in the month of Nissan Israel was liberated from Egyptian bondage and in a future Nissan they will again be redeemed from the bondage of their exile.”

This pattern of changing seasons in nature and in history, of days with built-in potential for good or evil, reward or punishment, obedience or rebellion follows consistently each year, from creation through the end of time, through all generations and in all eras. It is a pattern which governs each and every year as the seasons change and the world turns. We will, therefore, discover that while the festivals and fasts of the Jewish year mark certain outstanding events such as the Creation of the World, the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah, they also invariably mark other significant historical events as well-events which preceded the major outstanding historical event for which the festival is best known, as well as events which took place at a later time or will yet take place.

Let me cite a familiar example. It is by design that a succession of events took place on Tisha B’av, beginning with Israel’s sinful response to the negative report of the “Spies” (Meraglim) following the Exodus, the Destruction of the Second Temple, (“And on the day that was designated for punishment, the wicked Turnus Rufus plowed up the area of the Temple.” Rambam, Hilchot Ta’aniyot 5:3.) the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the beginning of World War I. In fact, so many tragic historic events befell the Jewish people on Tisha B’Av that it has become transparently clear that it is a day designated for Divine wrath. So long as the Jewish Nation continues to distance itself from God through sin and rebellion, Tisha B’Av will remind us of Divine judgement.

To understand Jewish history and Jewish historical thought, therefore, it is necessary that we search for the key events of each holiday in each layer and stratum of history-much as an archaeologist uncovers the generational layers of ancient cities, studying the city’s history as revealed by the strata of rubble-attempting to uncover the ideological, national or sociological threads which unite the city from the day of its founding p to its final destruction. When we study the Written and Oral Torah and its commentaries, when we carefully, we discover that on each and every festival, significant events took place in each major era of history. This information is stated explicitly or implicitly in the Torah in the Talmud or Midrashim- sometimes it was transmitted through the generations as an oral tradition to be revealed by a commentator who felt that the information was needed by a given generation.

The holiday cycle, which forms a hermetic unit with a beginning and a conclusion, affords each Jew the opportunity to experience the totality of Jewish history. Imprinting the lessons of past history on the consciousness of our people in order to influence the choices of the present in the Torah’s formula for creating the tomorrow. The festivals record the efforts of a collective of individuals who became a nation after the Exodus, received the Torah and set forth to bring about Redemption.

That Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot are primarily tied to the generation of the Exodus is significant. Even Yom Kippur fits into the pattern of the Exodus. Yom Kippur is the day on which Moshe Rabbeinu descended from Mount Sinai to deliver the Second Tablets of the Covenant. The giving of the Second Tablets is the act which indicated that God had accepted the penitence of the people for the sin of the Golden Calf and had forgiven them.

There would appear to be a significant exception to the above stated axiom as Rosh Hashanah has no seeming connection with the generation of the Exodus at all. Its central theme is universal: the creation of Man, the sinning and repentance of Man, the Coronation of God as King over mankind and the anticipation of an era in which all of mankind will accept God’s Kingship. But here too, there is an “Exodus connection” and if we search our sources, we fill find it. It is implicit in the fact that the Kiddush text on Rosh Hashanah follows the uniform festival text stating that the day is, zecher l’yetziat Mitzrayim, “a holy convocation, a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt.”

The link between Rosh Hashanah and the Exodus is found in the commentary of Rabbeinu Nissim, the Ran (Nisism Ben Ruben Gerondi, 1310-1375) printed in the standard Talmud volumes Tractate Rosh Hashanah, 3a, which teaches that the Divine scale which had bee weighted towards the destruction of the Jewish people in the desert began to tip in the opposite direction on Rosh Hashanah.

Without the judgment and trial on Rosh Hashanah, without the tipping of the scales of justice, the acceptance and acknowledgment of God as Creator, Judge and King, the forgiveness, atonement and repentance of Yom Kippur could not occur in that generation or in this one.

Rosh Hashanah, therefore, forms an integral connection in our relationship to the Exodus, the sojourn through the desert up to and through the conquest of Eretz Israel and the building of the Temple. It was in this crucible that Am Yisrael was molded and formed. Each holiday is a way station on mankind’s greatest and most significant journey, a journey which constitutes the bulk of the Torah’s narrative from Sh’mot throughout the end of Devarim. This drama retells the struggle of a slave nation to attain freedom, accept Divine direction, overcome sin and backsliding, regain the favor of God, obtain pardon, cleanse itself of sin, and finally become worthy to enter Eretz  Israel, the locale where the ideal Torah society is to be created. The holidays and their elaborate observances challenge and motivate each Jew to internalize their lessons, experience their struggles, learn from their experiences and emerge as mature, responsible, God-fearing, Torah-saturated individuals. Ultimately, God’s Kingdom will be created only by those who reside in it.

As we learned from the Ran, it was on Rosh Hashanah that the fate of the Jewish nation was determined, when the scales tipped in favor of life, “beginning from Rosh Hashanah up till Yom Kippur, God began to accept their repentance of Moshe” on behalf of the Jewish people, and on Yom Kippur he accepted their repentance completely; therefore, God wished to judge his creations at a time that He preordained for repentance and forgiveness. This is the missing link the relationships between Rosh Hashanah and the Exodus.

Rabbi Stolper is the Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Unio. 


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