New Years’ Main Theme
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
All our prayers are important, phrased by the sages with great wisdom. There is great satisfaction when we pause, study the prayers, and then grasp the underlying beautiful insights and messages. One prayer says the following:
“All whose soul is in their nostrils shall say, ‘God, the ruler of Israel is king and His kingship reigns over all.’”
This embodies New Year’s central theme, explaining why it is placed in the concluding Shmoneh Esray prayer addressing “kingship.” The sages who scripted this prayer could have said, “All mankind shall say…” What then compelled them to replace mankind with, “All whose soul is in their nostrils”?
The fact we “need” air stresses that human life is dependent: air is vital. It is “most” vital, so this phrase does not talk about food or water, but air.
The sages stress our dependence, as dependence—more than all else—emphasizes that God brought everything into existence from nothingness: all depends on God for its very being, and all remains in existence only due to God’s will. All relies upon him. Our existence depends on God. The True King is He who “created” everything, not merely he who rules.
God is the One who designed us to live on air; He created us as dependent beings. God created stone which needs nothing, so independent creations do exist. But God determined that man’s dependence is vital to his purpose, to his perfection. For if we had no needs like stone, man might abandon God. Remaining dependent on God helps us follow Torah until we arrive at an appreciation for Torah’s wisdom, and then for God Himself, where we study for no ulterior motive. This is God’s plan for man.
We must take that very air upon which our lives depend, and use it to vocalize praise of He who created us, for our purpose in being created is to recognize God. And that praise is that God rules over all, including man. God rules “over all” is also stressed in this prayer.
The prayer then states that God sanctified us with His commandments. This too expresses kingship, that God can order us to act. But in this case, the acts He commanded are not for Him, but for our benefit. Man finds the greatest fulfillment in intellectual discovery, Torah study and science. And Torah study is the greatest of all the 613 commands. In fact, without study, we cannot perform the other 612, nor do we understand their purpose. But don’t be misled: the act of fulfilling the 612 other commands is not for the act per se, but that we investigate the ideas behind each command. For in thought and wisdom is where we arrive at our greatest enjoyment and our true perfection.
The prayer then says, “Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.” Man cannot function independent of God’s help. Talmud says, “One who comes to purify himself is helped” (Sabbath 104). This means we can lose focus, become distracted, or succumb to our instincts at any point along our path towards God, and derail our efforts. Therefore, God assists us; we need His assistance.
The final praise is “For You God are truth, and Your words are truth and exist eternally.” Saying that, “God is truth” means that by definition, as the Creator of reality, God defines what is real and true. And man should desire to follow only what is real, and not delude himself with false gods or imaginations of what make him happy. “Your words are truth” means that God communicated in His Torah only that which is real and truly provides happiness. And this system will never change, it is eternal, explaining the final phrase “existing eternally.”
I hope these brief insights share a glimpse into the depth of our prayers, and that we sense the primary message of Rosh Hashanna, that God is our Creator and our ruler. That we are mere creations. Our lives are dependent. But by following Torah, we can ensure great lives for ourselves, and thereby, God will sustain us and bless us.
May we all use these few hours in temple to explore further in our great sages’ blessings and prayers and derive our own lessons. Doing so, may God look upon each of you and inscribe you this year for health, happiness and success, and seal you for a bountiful year of goodness and serenity, for you, your family, your friends, Israel, and all mankind.