See–I have placed before you today life and good, death and evil… I invoke the heavens and earth today to bear witness against you. I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you may live; you and your offspring. (Deuteronomy 30:15-19)
Rashi explains how heaven and earth can “bear witness.” He states, “G-d says to the Jewish people, ‘Gaze at the heavens, which I created to serve you, have they ever altered their prescribed functions? Did the sun ever fail to rise in the east and illuminate the entire world? Gaze at the earth, which I created to serve you, has it failed to produce what you have sown? Have you planted wheat and it produced barley? If these were created neither for gain nor loss-if meritorious they reap no reward and if sinful they suffer no punishment-yet they do not alter their prescribed functions, then you who reap reward if you act correctly and suffer punishment if not, should certainly not deviate from the way you are meant to be.'”
Rashi’s logic is difficult to understand. Does the sun contemplate if it should rise? Does the earth think that when wheat is planted it should not produce barley? Rashi is explaining a Torah principle: the sun’s rising daily in the east defines the sun and the earth accommodating growth defines the earth. Likewise, by definition, a human being is “human” when (s)he chooses life.
“See,” in the verse above is understood as the Almighty saying see for yourself. In all honesty, when do you feel at peace with yourself? When do you feel, “I’m all here.” When do you really feel human? When you use your brain to grow, love, and be sensitive to others. When a college student chooses between helping a weaker student or going out drinking, which makes him feel at peace with himself? When that same student walks home and encounters a drunken female student, will he feel more at peace with himself if he takes advantage of her or if he brings her home safely? When does he feel more like a human being?
What do we do on Rosh Hashanah? We ask for life. We don’t spend two days introspecting and talking about our sins; rather, we plead for life and for the Almighty to reveal Himself. We plead that humanity know that there’s a Creator and the reality that it entails. What are we doing on Rosh Hashanah? We’re asking for life; to be human beings and choose life.
Sit down and ask yourself, when am I me? When am I really alive? What do I have to do to feel alive? Is it when I tour the world or receive recognition? Is that what does it? Is that what makes me feel complete or is it when I courageously stand up and fight against my innate negative inclinations? I’m living when I’m being responsible and when I am giving. This is what it means to be alive and this is the concept of Rosh Hashanah.
Reward and punishment are secondary. The essence of what we’re dealing with on Rosh Hashanah is life. Life itself is making the effort to choose life; it’s being yourself. People say, “I will just be myself and people will have to accept me.” But that is a mistake because that is not you. Tune into what’s inside you when you are this alleged “myself.” When you are a rude and inconsiderate friend, neighbor, or boss, is that really who you are? Do you feel good and comfortable with yourself?
On Rosh Hashanah experience the real you rather than “you” who still retains many of the rough edges you were born with. On this holiday we get life; we get humanity. We want to choose life because that is what it means to be human. We want to connect to the feeling of giving rather than receiving. As the Almighty states, “See.” And “see” how it feels when you make intelligent decisions rather following bodily instincts.
Let’s make this Rosh HaShanah different than those until now; let’s pray for life-real life.
(based on a lecture given by Rav Yitzchak Berkowitz at the Jerusalem Kollel)