Figuring large in the mystical understanding of Rosh Hashanah is a daring kabbalistic concept—the nesira, the removal of the investment of inner presence in all the worlds on Rosh Hashanah night, to be returned renewed with all the illuminations and energy for the coming year at the time of the shofar blowing the next morning. What is being described is a process of complete spiritual deconstruction, a removal of our consciousness from every externality in order to be renewed from the source of all being and consciousness. Understood in this way Rosh Hashanah is nothing less than a time for radical reappraisal of ourselves, our purpose, and our identity—radical in its strict, core meaning—getting to the very root of who we are.
Hayom harat olam—today is the birthday of the world—declares the High Holiday prayer book again and again on Rosh Hashanah. Placing this refrain at the high-energy moment just after the shofar’s blasts, it is clear that the rabbis felt this was a compelling theme, equal to the power of that unique moment.
What is particularly compelling about this birthday emerges after a little further pondering on what the rabbis mean. It turns out that by their calculation, the world was not created on the first day of Tishrei but five days prior, making the date of Rosh Hashanah then the sixth day of creation, the day on which humankind was created—and that is the birthday of the world.
Perhaps the great physicist John Wheeler heard echoes of this when he said: “We could not even imagine a universe that did not somewhere and for some stretch of time contain observers because the very building materials of the universe are … acts of observer-participancy. You wouldn’t have the stuff out of which to build the universe otherwise.”
The world existed—and yet did not exist fully until there came into it the observer-participant. For the idea of participancy is what reflection on the world’s creation is meant to evoke. Thus in the Gemara, Shabbat 119b, the dictum that anyone who affirms the creation of the world by reciting Genesis 2:1-4 on Friday night, becomes a partner with G-d in the work of creation.
A creation in which participancy and observation figure so fundamentally is not machine-like in essence. Cognition and purpose are crucial to it, and another element as well. For there is another important locus in which the human is deemed to be a partner with the Holy One in creation: “Every judge who judges a case on its true merits becomes a partner with the Holy One in the creation” (Shabbat 10a). Bringing justice to this world, not merely detached reflection, is another entrance to participancy.
What is true of the macrocosm is true of the world of our own being as well. For not only do classic thinkers such as Ibn Tzaddik see all of creation mirrored in our own individual human lives, but from the earliest verses of Genesis, we are challenged even more mightily: we are created, says the Torah, betselem elokim—in the image of G-d.
We are called, then, not only to participancy in creation, but to a participancy beyond it as well, for the nature of our own being is made in something which not only includes the world but exceeds it: the Source itself.
So the image of birthday of the world in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy then is evoking both: a sense of the importance of our lives to the world-process, for the day of our own creation is called the world’s birthday; and also a sense of our participation within the very Source itself. By rendering true justice, we are essential to the unfolding of the world process as the divine process it is; and by recreating ourselves by affirming Shabbat through Kiddush, we affirm our own identity with that which is the Source of the world-process as well.
These are two closely related things. And for that reason, Rosh Hashanah is called a Day of Judgment, in which true justice is rendered, while simultaneously being a day transcendent insight. Nowhere is that transcendence better expressed than in the blowing of the shofar, the emblematic mitzvah of this day.
R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi crystallizes the mystic tradition when he writes in his commentary on the Siddur that the blowing of the shofar is the primordial expression, going back to that point before individual syllables and then words emerged from the primal singularity. We are brought back to the process of creation itself, when there had as yet been no separateness, when all that was to be expressed, the entire field of consciousness and being, was all-one.
Yet even the blast of the shofar does not take us back far enough. For how can we have the gall to be the ones who blow the shofar? What gives us the right to pretend to be the very expression of the all-one?
R. Schneur Zalman leads us to understand that the answer to this is also structured into Rosh Hashanah. For as Rosh Hashanah enters, as the night opens up the New Year, there is the process of the nesira — the removal. The mystics teach that the divine participation in the world is removed on Rosh Hashanah night, and only returns with the blowing of the shofar, and the re-expression of the original world-creation process.
What mitzvot do we have Rosh Hashanah night? What stands out are the customs that were adopted by the people in recognizing what Rosh Hashanah really means: wishing each other that we be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year; and in the course of eating a festive meal, expressing our wishes over various foods (the most popular being apple dipped in honey) that the year be blessed in all ways.
The world is absent the Divine; the fate of the universe is at stake. Why aren’t we crying out our hearts or, as good mystics, withdrawing and meditating as if our lives depended on it?
Because when are lives—and the universe—are being completely deconstructed, when the universe is absent of meaning from beyond, when all that remains are the outer forms of a world that seemingly has no purpose or internal coherence—then we assume the task of being that purpose and expressing it ourselves.
What is a more mundane activity than eating? We take another life to sustain our own. The ultimate selfishness—but here, it becomes a way of invoking blessing, of filling the void, of being the purpose ourselves that links highest and lowest into a joyful and loving unity. And so too our blessing each other: instead of bemoaning the absence of meaning and coherence and presence, we become those things and express them.
Only after a night that contains these things so we come to the shofar in the day.
We are that world that Rosh Hashanah deconstructs. All the things by which we differ, all the things that define and separate us, merge back into one. But instead of finding ourselves drawn into a vortex of absolute, terrifying total destruction, we find ourselves filling the void ourselves—blessing each other and the world with blessings that come from the core of what remains of our identity when all else is removed.
In this, we find the way, with the shofar’s blast, to recreate ourselves and the world as a true expression of this identity, in which we are bound to each other and this miraculous creation by bonds of blessing that exceed every difference. This is who we are, and so that is who we again launch ourselves, and the world with us, into becoming.