Rosh HaShana Means War

Some of my friends find challenge in running marathons while others play competitive tennis. I’ve also got friends who struggle to achieve and maintain musical proficiency. Others work on their digital dexterity for sleight of hand magical illusions. Yes, I am blessed with very interesting friends and I haven’t even come close to exhausting the list.  My point is that unlike animals, God created human beings with a desire to prove themselves and improve themselves. Animals seem to need nothing more than survival, whereas some successful people, who seem to have it all, risk their lives scaling perilous mountain peaks. 

Unlike animals, we humans revel in the struggle itself; and perhaps no challenge is ultimately as satisfying as that of trying to make oneself a better person. Perhaps this is why in those quaint old stores that used to sell books more shelf space was devoted to what was called the ‘self-help’ category than to any other.  Becoming more self-disciplined; losing weight; being a more loving and considerate spouse; becoming more honest; becoming a more consistent parent; spending less of one’s life staring at a screen; these challenges are all as difficult as climbing Everest or learning to play the violin. Each demands fighting a furious war with one’s own resistance.

Rosh HaShana is the time of year assigned by the Hebrew calendar for rigorous self-judgement and for deliberate decisions to improve.  One of its names is even  the Day of Judgement.   It is the Biblical festival during which we challenge ourselves more than at any other time. It is when we remind ourselves that God created us with two competing components. One part of us knows what we ought to do while the other attempts to seduce us into self-indulgence, otherwise known as sin. Rosh haShana is when we commit ourselves to the triumph of the better side of our natures. And it is a war.

Let’s look at the only two places in the Torah that Israel is instructed to observe Rosh HaShana.

Speak to the Children of Israel saying:  In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion blowing blasts [TeRuAH] on the shofar in commemoration.
(Leviticus 23:24)

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when blasts are blown [TeRuAH]  on the shofar. 
(Numbers 29:1)

Other than the date, the common feature is the word TeRuAH describing an attention-getting blast on the shofar, the ram’s horn.  The shofar was an early warning alarm system and a call to confront an emergency.  In much the same way that the sound of a siren warns of the possibility of a tsunami in Indonesia or Thailand, causing terrified tourists immediately to flee coastal areas, the sound of the shofar, the TeRuAH has always galvanized Israel. 

Whether it was for the assault on Jericho (Joshua 6:20)  or Gideon’s army preparing an attack (Judges 7:16) the TeRuAH of a shofar always signaled a military assault or a response to one. Even today, that sound possesses the same sense of urgency heard in a siren. The same sound, the TeRuAH calls us to both spiritual and physical war. This drives home the message that our lives are as much at stake when we face an opposing external army as when we face an internal army composed of our own weaknesses.

The Torah’s emphasis on the TeRuAH blast on Rosh HaShana reminds us that this festival is all about the internal war we wage with our lower selves.  It is thrilling for anyone to complete a year knowing that last Rosh HaShana fired one up to become more in tune with God’s expectations for us;  more generous, more trustworthy, more loyal, and more diligent; in other words, a better human being.

15 thoughts on “Rosh HaShana Means War”

  1. Thanks RDL for the insightful article. Paul in the book of Romans gets deeper into this internal war and just how inevitable it is. He concludes by saying, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”
    He points out that only through Christ are we able to win this internal war.
    I was introduced to your articles through a friend and I this article brought out a debate amongst us as to why you don’t really seem to tie everything back to Christ especially when it’s really needed. Without Christ in our lives how are we really meant to overcome this war? I would love to hear your thoughts, thank you.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Chris–
      I am so grateful for your note as I always like knowing if I’ve been useful. So you’re asking why I don’t tie everything back to Jesus? Well, the answer is because I am a Jew. Check out the FAQs on this website when you have a chance. There we explain further. Judaism and Christianity are very different theologies but the Judeo-Christian value system exists even though it is fueled by two different theologies and what is more, the huge gap is between the Judeo-Christian value system and the religion of urban atheists, namely Secular Fundamentalism. My current podcast Why So Many Smart People Believe in Climate Change can be heard here and addresses this alliance of destiny between Christians and Jews as we stand shoulder to shoulder in the early 21st century to help defend civilization. My expertise is exclusively in the Hebrew Scriptures and ancient Jewish wisdom. Read about my books in the ‘store’ section of this website, okay?
      I hope this helps you, Chris. So why don’t I tie it back to Jesus? Because I derive everything I know from earlier than that; from Abraham and the Five Books of Moses and the oral tradition handed down to me from Mt. Sinai. Hope you continue to find my work insightful. With all blessings,

  2. Dear Rabbi,
    I have worked on my own self improvement for years. At 57 years, I have come a long way and have much more work to do. My family of origin is Irish Catholic embedded in alcoholism and other types of dysfunction. I am one of eight toward the middle of the group. I vowed to myself as a child that I would not become an alcoholic like my Dad. Alas, I had the gene and nearly died from alcoholism. Our good Lord “The Boss”, reached down and pulled me out of that mire when I decided to let Him. Although my Dad forced us to go to church I say forced because it wasn’t something we learned to enjoy rather it became an obligation. He taught me and my siblings what a true hypocrite was. The way I dealt with that was to see my Dad as a sick man who was never willing to improve himself. I’ve seen the fallout of the actions of an unloving sick Dad. I now have become even grateful that I am an alcoholic. It forced me to do or die and I chose to do. Even though I had a lousy earthly Dad I always felt the pull of my Father in heaven and I am most grateful for that! As I see it, we are all dealt a certain hand and how you play that hand determines whether you win the game. I came across you and Susan about a year ago and your teachings have helped me in ways immeasurable! I am so fortunate to be one in the know of how the world really works! I continue to learn and hold fast to the things that never change in our constant changing world. Thanks again!
    Terry Sterling

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Terry–
      I am so happy to hear that I play a small role in your climb from one achievement to your next.
      No relaxation today–plenty of time for that once we’re home with the Boss. Now we have to struggle, strive, and work.
      May your daily climb always be successful

  3. How much I must have been judged unworthy incomplete and distasteful as my only real contact with spiritual things was through a church softball team. I just loved playing. I didn’t realize at the time that it was very much the place I would begin a call to self judgement to look deeply within myself to correct, to be better and to look for atonement, a forgiveness, a positive, a virtue to move forward in. As I read Don’s unmovable personal tablet of stone etched with the condemnation of another’s person journey. I’m reminded of the mercy this humanistic ball player who was at least 10 miles from the nearest place of worship where my conscience and heart was tested and found lacking, through the interface with spiritual men. I’m not a supporter of a culture without spirituality lest we be less than what we can be but I am a proponent of not slamming down the gavel until mercy has had its say. Thank you Daniel Lappin for your work.

  4. Neweverymoment, Deb:
    Many moons ago, I was privileged to attend a Rosh Hashana service at Temple Isaiah Israel as the guest of the organist, who also served an Episcopal church. We had in our group an Episcopal priest in mufti, and we tried to keep a low profile so as not to disturb the faithful. At first, it felt a bit strange, but then we came to a hymn that is also in “The Hymnal 1940”: “The God of Abraham praise”. I immediately felt right at home! There is something that transcends the externals, if we are open to receive it.
    Thanks to you and Susan for sharing and explaining traditions that are helpful to us all.

  5. RDL, my man. Your response to Bob really moved me and got me thinking because, well, I’m definitely guilty of condemning fools…oops, I mean, folks, on the Left. Thanks for the gentle proverbial slap in the face to remind me to have a more loving spirit. But nonetheless, it reminded me of a verse in Ecclesiastes (Chapter 10 verse 2), which I actually may have already submitted to “Ask The Rabbi”, so I’m somewhat shamelessly reaching back out in this forum in the hope of getting an answer. I have no doubt you know the verse, but for the reader:

    The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
    but the heart of the fool to the left.

    As always, grateful for the wisdom.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Brad–
      Thanks for writing. Most times when I recommend a course of action as I did with Bob, I am talking to myself just as much as to my correspondent. We all need reminders and by nature, I tend in the same direction as you. A more loving spirit is definitely on my new year resolution list!
      Regarding your Bible verse, there is quite a lot in Bible about right and left. I have written extensively on this in an earlier Thought Tool in which I pointed out that up, down, north, south, etc are all definitive directions while right and left are not. They depend on which way you’re facing and this looseness of right/left as directions helps understand why my watch moves from my left wrist to my right in my mirror reflection but my necklace doesn’t end up around my ankles. That said, in Bible, right/left never means directionally but always morally. Which is why in some languages, left still retains some of that Biblical implication. (i.e. sinister) See final verse of Jonah for a clear example that right/left always means right/wrong or perhaps better, good/evil. Hence, the heart of the wise leans to the right. I will leave the political implications to speak for themselves.

  6. Yet most of the temples and synagogues will be chock full of humanistic jews on Rosh HaShana who have been taught by their cult leaders that they are “Good without God”…. same as last year….

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Bob,
      While I am certainly embarrassed and unhappy about how many Americans of Jewish ancestry are secular fundamentalists and lean politically Left, I am not silent about it. In fact I wrote what became the extremely popular and best selling book, America’s Real War which explains why this is. Nonetheless, your letter is an unflattering over generalization. It’s not “most” and it’s certainly not “chock full” and especially not on the Jewish High Holydays, when many Jews, even self-proclaimed atheists admit to feeling strange spiritual yearnings tugging them to the faith of their fathers.
      I pray that this coming new year 5780 brings forth in you a more charitable spirit and less condemnation and anger towards God’s other children with whom you might disagree.

      1. I stand by my words and the 2013 Pew Poll that it is 80% of american jews which justifies “most”” and “chock full”….and ps, we are all God’s Creation but not all of us are God’s Children …. i will never have “a more charitable spirit” for the cult of humanistic judiasm….and I challenge you to post this reply so that it is clear we disagree yet I still will regard you as my Teacher but on these points I will not budge even if you teach differently.

        1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

          Posted! But not in response to your challenge. Only fools feel that a challenge or a dare constitutes a good reason for action.

          1. so an atheist “jew” shows up on Rosh Hashana day at shoul and is a Child of God just like that? Oy vey lapin.

          2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

            Dear Bob–
            Yes, indeed, believing in atonement as I do (Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur October 9th, 2019) an atheist can easily be a beloved child of God. That’s not even a tough question. But as you know, we have found several areas of key disagreement between us and a number of your earlier letters were not posted. This is another. So let’s leave the conversation here if you don’t mind. (And by the way, if you peruse an earlier response of mine more carefully, you’ll discover I didn’t call you a fool. I would never do that. I said that were I to act on your challenges or dares, I would be a fool.) I accept your decision that I am no longer your teacher. This is quite understandable-we disagree on essentials and no one person is the right teacher for everyone. I think you came to the correct conclusion. So wishing you much success moving forward and a new year of good health and prosperity. It’s been fun hearing from you over the years but even good things come to an end.

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