What Entitles Us to Life?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
To benefit at all from our lives, we must understand our Creator’s intent, starting with understanding His purpose in our very existence. As Rosh Hashanna is when God determines “who lives and who dies”, we are now amidst an opportune season to examine Torah and the holiday prayers to gain insight into those criteria that directly impact God’s Judgment Day, and our verdict.
The prayers speak of God’s “writing” and “sealing” our judgment, which take place on Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur respectively. But the prayers also include certain fundamentals for us to consider. The Men of the Great Assembly who formulated these prayers intended to grant us life by carefully recording truths that will elevate understanding of God. As Rabbi Ruben Gober stated, this in turn entitles us to be “remembered” on Rosh Hashanna, the “Day of Remembrance.” Realizing these fundamentals, and following them in action, we can use the Rosh Hashanna prayers to transform ourselves to a person worthy of life. Therefore, it is advisable to pray in the language you understand, and review the prayers prior to this special day. It is also vital to pray with a minyan, so our worth in God’s eyes is not solely dependent on our own deeds, but as a member of the Jewish nation. Maimonides taught, “Whomever prays with a minyan has his prayers heard regularly.” Before analyzing the brief words of the New Year prayer, let’s review the context in which they are intentionally placed.
The Ata Kadosh prayer is recited three times daily all year. Ata Kadosh means, “You (God) are distinct.” “Holy” (kadosh) refers to that which is set aside and unique. We know nothing about what God is, only what He has performed. Even Moses did not know God’s true essence. We admit to God’s unknowable nature with the words “Ata Kadosh.” Rabbi Israel Chait taught that this admission is necessary, and is the culmination of the preceding two prayers where we first refer to God as “God of our fathers” a familiar term. We then discuss His planned resurrection of the dead, no longer citing the familiar personalities of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but “mankind” in general. This progression from the patriarchs to the resurrection of man, intends to mature us from relating to God as a “personal” God. We culminate in Ata Kadosh, admitting we know nothing about God. This progression moves man away from viewing God as “my personal God” and viewing God objectively: for an objective view of God is more accurate, and prayer intends to perfect our ideas about God. While it is true that God guided the patriarchs, and us, specific beneficiaries do not define what God is. It is more accurate to say God helps others too (resurrection), and it is even more accurate to say He is removed from all we know, “Ata Kadosh.” Even without creation and mankind, God reserves His unique position. His greatness is independent of Creation; His capacity precedes His acts, although we cannot speak of time regarding God. His goodness for man does not make Him better. Although it was an act of great kindness to create man, this does not define God, for He is far greater, with no words that could embody that greatness. So we must not end with praising God for assisting the patriarchs, or resurrection, but we must culminate in praise independent of those ideas. King David too ends his Psalms, calling on musical instruments to praise God, demonstrating that words cannot behold God’s true greatness. Mere sounds without words convey this amazing point, as Rabbi Chait taught.
It is crucial that we grasp one more point: praise of God is for us alone, as we cannot affect God at all, as if He possessed human qualities and enjoyed hearing our praises. All we do is solely for us, and cannot be “for God.” God’s commands are to benefit us; this is an act of great kindness. By understanding that God gains nothing from mankind, we agree that the brilliant men who formulated the prayers intended mankind to derive truths and increase our enjoyment in this life by adhering to truth and reality, and abandoning fantasy, the root of many conflicts.
Now that we understand that the Ata Kadosh prayer addresses knowledge of God, this directs us to seek greater knowledge of God offered through the Rosh Hashanna additions: truths about God that we do not yet know, or that time and distractions have obscured over the past year. We now have context. Let’s now examine the New Year’s few but potent additions to Ata Kadosh and discover its penetrating messages.
“And so too, Hashem our God, place Your fear on all of Your works, and dread on all that You created, and all Your works will fear you, and all Your creations will bow to You. And they will all band together as one group to fulfill Your will with a complete heart. As we know, Hashem our God, that dominion is Yours; might is in Your hand and strength is in Your right hand and Your awesome fame is on all that You created.”
There is only one creation in which fear and dread of God exists; that is man. All other creations are bereft of intelligence, and thus, all things except man lack fear or dread of God. Nothing else “knows” God so as to fear Him. This prayer, then, attempts to awaken man to the reality we find difficult to accept. Our egocentric predisposition wishes to deny dependence, and our mortality. These Ata Kadosh additions play a primary role on Rosh Hashanna, the day of Remembrance. For as we said: if we are to be remembered before God, we must attain a level of existence where we live as the Creator intended. Otherwise, our lives are meaningless to Him and He can terminate our existence. Our sole objective is to use our intelligence and arrive at an acute awareness and awe of the Creator, via Torah study and the study of nature. So the Sages who formulated this prayer highlighted this very need, that we become fully aware of what God means.
But they saw that man’s ego attachment makes it impossible to initiate an immediate and complete transition from egocentric life, to full subordination to this reality, that we are created and dependent beings. Therefore, they designed this prayer in two steps: 1) that as God’s “works” we first “fear” God; 2) that we “dread” God. We can’t suddenly accept we were made from nothing; this is too drastic a change in our composure. The Sages realized this, and initially referred to us as God’s “works,” still maintaining some dignity, but dependent in some measure. And they also only asked we “fear” God. Then, they said we should advance one more step, and identify ourselves truthfully, as “created from nothing.” Also, this must be accompanied by a “dread.” Dread refers to life, that is, we feel dreadful concerning our tenuous existence. This can occur only when we accept that we once did not exist, that we only exist now due to His continued will, and that God can take our life at any moment. If we see this as true, then we have arrived at the optimum state of truth, and we accept God as the King and ruler over all, including our very lives.
This idea is then followed by man’s responses: fearing and bowing to God, respective to those two stages we just mentioned. Man lives not theoretically, but if he accepts something as true, this is naturally expressed in action; i.e., fearing and bowing. This is required as a barometer of our true convictions. Similarly, one cannot be charitable in theory alone. He must give his wealth to be considered truly charitable.
Next, we pray to “band together as one group to fulfill Your will with a complete heart.” This teaches that God’s will is for a society, not individuals. We become perfected only when we accept others as equals. This is fundamental: God’s will extends to all members of the human race, explaining why the word “all” is repeated many times, as in “place Your fear on all of Your works.” Living in groups, we are forced to accept God’s desire for people besides ourselves. This is part of the grand design, and a crucial element in our perfection. We now understand the term “fulfill Your will with a complete heart.” A “complete heart” is a necessary statement when there is a risk that we won’t be complete, but divisive. And this only occurs in a society, where I strive to maintain significance over others. This is most predominant. Who doesn’t sense some envy when a peer strikes it rich, receives some award, or builds the most grandiose home? As we are to live in societies, we must be aware of divisiveness towards others, and work to eliminate it, “fulfilling Your will with a complete heart.” We must treat others as we desire to be treated.
“As we know, Hashem our God, that dominion is Yours…”
The next lesson is to correct an error. When we discuss such truths, this might imply these truths are not so obvious, and this reflects poorly in our minds regarding God’s fame. Rav Hai Gaon taught that the first statement in the Ten Commandments—“I am God”—could not be a command. For this would imply that God’s existence is not obvious, and requires a command. Here too, we say “As we know, Hashem our God, that dominion is Yours.” We state that this knowledge is known, and “Your awesome fame is on all that You created.” God’s existence is an inescapable and undeniable truth. We cannot treat it as a newly found concept, for this degrades God's fame and wisdom that is most evident.
“And so also, God, give fame to the Jews…”
But God is not concerned for the Jew alone who recites these prayers. He created all mankind. Therefore the following section of this prayer asks God to promote the fame of the Jew for the sake of all other people, that they too may come to learn these truths. We ask God to give us hope. This means that he fulfills His promises to those who follow Him. For this validates the Torah, and enables hope for all others. Eloquent speech is also sought, as speech is the vehicle to teach others. And we refer to the Messiah as this is God’s validation of Torah to the highest degree, that He delivers His ultimate promise for mankind…an era where all nations will abandon their falsehoods and impostor gods, and will accept Torah.
“And so also, let the righteous people see and rejoice…and let all evil vanish like smoke”
Following this section, we describe the righteous people who will exult and sing. This is done, as man requires an example that human perfection is attainable. Talmud teaches that in Abraham’s days, his peers doubted his perfection, as they required justification for their sins. “Abraham isn’t so great” they said. “He might have followed God up to this point, but he would not sacrifice his son, if God asked.” His peers degraded Abraham, for had Abraham been perfect in all areas; they would not be able to justify their own lust-filled lives. The Talmud scripts a discussion where God “pleads” with Abraham to fulfill one last test, to sacrifice Isaac. God doesn’t plead, but pleading means it was essential to mankind that a perfected individual fully adhere to God’s word. Such an example of complete devotion to God is required to teach man that Torah is attainable. Thus, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. We now understand why this Torah section is a theme of these awesome days.
The concept of the righteous people “singing” conveys their conviction. When one believes in the greatness of another person or group, he cheers or sings as an expression of his convictions becoming realized. For this reason, the Jews sang praises to God their savior upon the shores of the Reed Sea.
This section concludes with the vanishing of sin, since we see righteous people living without sin, we hope and pray this empowers all others to follow their lead.
“And You God, reign alone…in Jerusalem”
Next, we pray that God reigns alone. We ask this, as man's insecurities do not let up; he fabricates imagined powers and forces to protect and provide for him. Man is superstitious; his emotions overpower him, despite the absolute absence of any evidence for assumed powers. Those of you who still believe in segulas, that the Western Wall assists your prayers, amulets, red bendels, or any assumed power other than God, must focus on these words: “God reigns alone.” Although abstract and never seen, God is real, while assumed powers are false and therefore are prohibited. This prayer asks man to live intelligently and accept God alone as the sole source of power for Whom we have evidence and Torah’s testimony, abandoning all other beliefs that offer no evidence.
In this prayer, why do we ask God to reign on the Temple Mount, on the land of Israel and in Jerusalem? First of all, this validates God’s promise of Israel to Abraham, and thereby validates the Torah. Secondly, it denies all other religions as true, as God reigns only in Israel. All other assumed gods are thereby exposed as false. It is for this reason that this prayer concludes with the statement “there is no other God besides You.” God and His unity are inextricably bound together. “God” means the “One” Who made the entire universe. He made it alone. All else, by definition, are creations. There is but one Creator.
“You are unique and Your name is awesome”
Finally, we mention that God is one, by citing the verse, “Master of legions will be lofty in judgment.” How does judgment convey God’s exclusive reign as they only power in the universe?
Throughout history, there was only one God who responded to his people’s cries. God protects the righteous Jews. He performed miraculous victories over our enemies. Both testify to the only true living God. Egypt’s idols were defenseless during the Plague of the Firstborn, where God destroyed their idols. Their stone gods could not protect them and all others from any plague. God’s judgment teaches His omniscience and omnipotence. He knows who is righteous and who sins. He rewards and punishes each member of mankind. History attests to this, so much so, that Islam and Christianity could not deny the entire Torah. Therefore they cannibalized Judaism, and transformed it as it pleased their agendas. No other nation claims miracles were witnessed, that their gods acted as gods. No evidence exists defending alien gods as possessing any power, or even life. They are all inanimate stone and metal statues:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have a mouth but do not speak; they have eyes but do not see. They have ears but do not hear; they have a nose but do not smell. Hands, but they do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they do not make a peep from their throat. The who fashioned these gods are just like them; all those that trust in them. (Psalms 115)
All other religions are bereft of any defense for their beliefs. Only in Torah and Jewish history is there clear evidence of God. This must resonate with you.
God’s judgment of every person on Rosh Hashanna forces us to accept the reality that He is the only God. Rabbi Chait taught that we always praise God’s “name” alone, and never praise Him. This is because we cannot know what He truly is. All we know is His name. But this too, is our admission of how far above man is the Creator.
We must appreciate the efforts of these Sages who drafted our prayers. This prayer alone reflects the tremendous wisdom and benefits they desired to share with all generations. They sought to offer each one of us the best lot in life. How many days and weeks they must have spent weighing each word, ensuring no important concept was overlooked. Realizing this, we might now approach all other prayers with the sense that great wisdom waits to be discovered.
I hope this analysis inspires you to treat all prayers with a renewed respect, and even awe. And if we are awed by men, how much more must we be awed by God, in front of Whom we stand in dread as He inscribes our fate.
May we all use the brief hours in shul this Rosh Hashanna to arrive at a clear understanding of our status as created things, but primarily, God's position as Creator and the only power in the universe. With this realization, may God will us to enjoy another year of health, happiness and success in all areas.
A happy New Year to all.
 The Men of the Great Assembly or Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, also known as the Great Synagogue was an assembly of 120 scribes, sages, and prophets, in the period from the end of the prophets since the early Second Temple period to the early Hellenistic period.