“Hayom Harat Olam” today is the birthday of the world. Actually, today commemorates the 6th day of creation, when Man was created and the purpose of G-d’s world came to fruition. The Talmud in Masechet Sanhedrin gives an hour-by-hour account of what occurred on that first Rosh Hashana:
During the first three hours of the day, Adam’s physical body was fashioned. In hour four he received his soul. During the fifth hour he stood erect for the first time, and in the sixth hour he named all of the animals. In the seventh hour Adam was paired with Eve, and in the eighth hour, Eve both conceived and gave birth to their first children. In the ninth hour Adam was commanded not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and already in the tenth hour he sinned by eating from it. During the eleventh hour Adam was judged and in the twelfth and final hour of the first day of his life Adam was punished and banished from the Garden of Eden.
Now that I’ve learned this Gemara, I will be very hesitant to complain about any of my days being too busy! From here we learn that the idea of today being a Yom Hadin, Judgement Day, has existed since the very first Rosh Hashana. Not only was humankind created on Rosh Hashana, but so was the notion of human sin and Divine Judgement. Adam and Eve’s punishment was multi-faceted and included banishment from the Garden of Eden and a more difficult and grueling life. Another aspect of the punishment is expressed by the words:
“For you are dust and you shall return to dust.”
With Adam’s sin, death was created. It is with this background that we can more fully understand the words that we recite right after U’netaneh Tokef:
“A man’s origin is dust and his destiny is back to dust. At risk of his life he earns his bread.”
This description is historical – it alludes to the outcome of events that transpired on the first Rosh Hashana. But it is also rather depressing. The piyut goes on:
“He is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”
If this is meant to serve as a model of how to view Rosh Hashana, then we are left feeling worthless and hopeless. If these are the only facts available for admission, then it seems impossible to mount a successful defense of ourselves and our existence.
However, there is more to the story of that first Rosh Hashana. On that day Hashem exercised His judicial discretion in the form of Rachamim. G-d had compassion on Adam and utilized restraint when sentencing Adam and Eve. But why?
Rav Soloveitchik explained that Adam was saved due to his potential for greatness. Although his past actions required improvement, it was his potential that justified Adam’s continued existence. It emerges that Rosh Hashana also commemorates the first time that man’s potential was utilized for his redemption.
On Rosh Hashana we do not defend our sins. Rather we declare – to Hashem and to ourselves – that we have the potential for greatness. Before we reflect on our actions and look for areas in which to improve, we must be thoroughly convinced that we are capable of improving and that we are worth the effort. The pre-requisite for Teshuva is that we do not give up on ourselves.
On Rosh Hashana our task is to make the necessary preparations for Teshuva. Each of us must appreciate his or her self-worth and potential. In the process of proclaiming G-d as King we are also proclaiming that as servants of the King we are valuable and worth the effort towards improvement.