For anyone who would like some Rosh Hashana reading- here are some excerpts.
Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hazikaron because the Ribbono shel Olam is zocher habris. Yet it goes without saying that God is zocher habris at all times, not only on Rosh Hashanah. In fact, with the Eternal God, there cannot be any change from one day to another. The Ribbono shel Olam is as much zocher habris every day as He is on Rosh Hashanah.
It follows logically that when we say that Rosh Hashanah is a Yom Hazikaron, it is not because of the fact that on Rosh Hashanah God is zocher habris, for He is so constantly. Rosh Hashanah is designated Yom Hazikaron simply because of the fact that on Rosh Hashanah it is incumbent upon all Jews to dedicate themselves to the concept of zocher habris and to become zochrei habris themselves just as God is. (Thus, there is a fulfillment of the obligation to follow in God’s ways- see Deuteronomy 28:9.)
If the Ribbono shel Olam Himself realizes the concept of zocher habris by feeling bound to Man, then Man, too, in order to become zocher habris must, of course, above all feel bound to Gld. But in addition to that, Man must realize that Man cannot belong to God in a vacuum. In order to prove that Man belongs to God, one must belong to Man as well, for God Himself is bound to Man.
~Rosh Hashanah: A Time to Belong from Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind by Rav Aaron Soloveichik, page 147
Yet there is another aspect to prayer: prayer is an act of giving away. Prayer means sacrifice, unrestricted offering of the whole self, the returning to God of body and soul, everything one possesses and cherishes. There is an altar in heaven upon which the archangel Michael offers the souls of the righteous. Thrice daily we petition God to accept our prayers, as well as the fires- the self-sacrifices of Israel- on that altar (v’eishei yisrael u’tefilasam b’ahavah tikabel b’ratzon.) Prayer is rooted in the idea that man belongs, not to himself, but that God claims man, and that His claim to man is not partial but total. God, the Almighty, sometimes wills man to place himself, like Isaac of old, on the altar, to light the fire and to be consumed as a burn offering. Does not the story of the Akeidah tell us about the great, awesome drama of man giving himself away to God. Of course Judaism is vehemently opposed to human sacrifice. The Bible speaks with indignation and disdain of child sacrifice; physical human sacrifice was declared abominable. Yet the idea that man belongs to God, without qualification, and that God, from time to time, makes a demand upon man to return what is God’s to God is an important principle in Judaism. God claimed Moses’ life: He demanded the return of body and soul without permitting him to cross the Jordan. Moses complied, and willingly died the “Death by Kiss.” God claimed Isaac and Abraham gave Isaac away. What does prayer mean in the light of all this? The restoration of God’s ownership rights, which are absolute, over everything He owns. The call:
“Take thy son, thy only son, whom you love so much..a.nd bring him as a burnt offering” is addressed to all men. In response to this call, man engages in prayer, as sacrifical performance.
A new equation emerges: prayer equals sacrifice. Initially, prayer helps man discover himself, through understanding and affirmation of his need-awareness. Once the atask of self-discovery is fulfilled, man is summoned to ascend the altar and return everything he has just acquired to God. Man who was told to create himself, objectify himself, and gain independence and freedom for himself, must return everything he considers his own to God.
~Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah, pages 71-72 by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
But there is a wider, voluntary entrance to prayer than sorrow and despair—the opening of our thoughts to God. We cannot make Him visible to us, but we can make ourselves visible to Him. So we open our thoughts to Him—feeble our tongue, but sensitive our heart. We see more than we can say. The trees stand like guards of the Everlasting; the flowers like signposts of His goodness-only we have failed to be testimonies to His presence, tokens of His trust. How could we have lived in the shadow of greatness and defied it?
Mindfulness of God rises slowly, a thought at a time. Suddenly we are there. Or is He here, at the margin of our soul? When we begin to feel a qualm of diffidence lest we hurt what is holy, lest we break what is whole, then we discover that He is not austere. He answers with love our trembling awe. Repentant of forgetting Him even for a while, we becomes sharers of gentle joy; we would like to dedicate ourselves forever to the unfolding of His final order.
The Holy Dimension, page 341 of Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity by Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Meaning of Repentance
[Published on the eve of Yom Kippur in the Gemeindeblatt der judischen Gemeinde zu Berlin, 16 September 1936]
The mystery of prayer on the days of Rosh Hashanah presents itself with characteristic familiarity: it reveals itself to those who want to fulfill it, and eludes those who want only to know it.
Prayer on these days is a priestly service. When we pray we fulfill a sacred function. At stake is the sovereignty and the judgment of God.
The world has fallen away from God. The decision of each individual person and of the many stands in opposition to God. Through our dullness and obstinancy, we, too, are antagonists. But still, sometimes we ache to see God betrayed and abandoned.
Godliness is an absolute reality which exists through itself. It existed prior to the creation of the world and will survive the world in eternity. Sovereignty can exist only in a relationship. Without subordinates the honor is abstract. God desired kingship and from that will creation emerged. But now the kingly dignity of God depends on us.
At issue is not an eschatological vision, a utopia at the end of time, or a kingdom in the beyond. Rather, we are talking about the preset, the world that has been bequeathed to us, a kingdom of everyday life. We have to choose God as king; we have “to take the yoke of the kingdom of God upon ourselves.”
Does this demand- the essence of Jewish law- signify an esoteric symbol, a mystical act? It signifies a close, this-worldly and everyday act. The establishment or destruction of the kingly dignity of God occurs now and in the present, through and in us. In all that happens in the world, in thought, conversation, actions, the kingdom of God is at stake. Dow e think of Him when we are anxious about ourselves or when, driven by apparent zeal for general concerns, we engage in life, whether deliberately or in a carefree way?
These days are dedicated to establishing God as king within us. The whole year long we all him “Holy God!”; on this day “Holy King!”
“God took on kingship over the peoples. God placed himself on the throne of his sacredness. The princes of the people are assembled. For the shields of the earth are God’s.”
The deepest human longing is to be a thought in God’s mind, to be the object of His attention. He may punish and discipline me, only let Him not forget me, not abandon me. This single desire which links our life and our death will be fulfilled on the Days of awe. The “Holy King” is a “King of Judgment.” The season of Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Memory,” the “Day of Judgment.”
Before the judgment and memory of God we stand. How can we prove ourselves? How can we persist? How can we be steadfast?
The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of repentance. It is not the same thing as rebirth; it is transformation, creation. In the dimension of time there is no going back. But the power of repentance causes time to be created backward and allows re-creation of the past to take place. Through the forgiving hand of God, harm and blemish which we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation.
God brings about this creation for the sake of humanity when a human being repents for the sake of God.
For many years we have experienced history as a judgment. What is the state of repentance, of our “return to Judaism?”
Repentance is an absolute, spiritual decision made in truthfulness. Its motivations are remorse for the past and responsibility for the future. Only in this manner is it possible and valid.
Some people, in moments of enlightenment, believed they saw in the year 1933 an awakening to God and of the community, and hoped Jews would be heralds of repentance. Yet we have failed, those who stayed here just as much as those who emigrated. The enforced Jewishness still sits so uneasily in many of us that a new wave of desertions could occur at any moment. The apostasy of the past is matched by the superficiality of today. Is this disappointment surprising? Repentance is a decision made in truthfulness, remorse and responsibility. If, to be sure—as is often the case among us—instead of deliberate decision we have a coerced conversion; instead of a conscious truthfulness, a self-conscious conformity; instead of remorse over the lost past, a longing for it; then this so-called return is but a retreat, a phase.
Decay through return!- that is the apocalyptic menetekel inscription on the walls of our houses.
Marranos of a new metamorphosis: Jewish on the outside, Marranos of different degrees multiply within our ranks. Such victims of insincerity- as historical experience teaches- can become tragic.
It is also deplorable when a spiritual movement deteriorates into bustling and pretense. It is unclean when a holy desire is misused by the selfishness of the clever. When one wants to become a Jew because of the “situation,” not out of honesty, the result is conflict and misery! Jewishness cannot be feigned!
There is no return to Judaism without repentance before God. Faithfulness to Him and to the community to the point of utmost readiness remains the fundamental idea of Jewish education.
We must recognize that repentance has yet to begin! Each person must examine whether one is part of a movement forced upon us by the environment or whether one is personally motivated, whether one is responding to pressure from outside or to an internal sense of urgency. At stake is not the sincerity of the motivation but the earnestness and honesty of its expression. This considered reflection has to become a permanent part of our conscience.
Not everyone is capable of maintaining self-examination. It is up to the teachers among us to explain the meaning and content of repentance. Enlightenment about repentance is the central task of our time.
It is a great good fortune that God thinks of us. We stand before the judgment and the memory of God. We know the reality of human judgment and we pray: God, you judge us! We must stand firm before the judgment. The possibility to do so is given to us. Woe to us if we cease, woe to us if God should forget us.
~Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity by Abraham Joshua Heschel, 68-70
The first principle of repentance is that the sinner be divested of his status as a rasha. This can only be attained if the sinner terminates his past identity and assumes a new identity for the future. It is a creative gesture which is responsible for the emergence of a new personality, a new self. This creative gesture is precipitated by an absolute decision of the will and intellect together. “What is repentance? It consists in this: that the sinner abandon his sin, remove it from his thoughts, and resolve in his heart never to repeat it…that he regret the past…and that he call the One who knows all secrets as a witness to his resolve never to return to this sin again…It is also necessary that he make verbal confession and utter these matters which he had decided in his heart. The abandonment of sin (i.e., the resolve for the future) and the regret over the past divest the sinner of his status as a rasha. They “sever” his spiritual continuity and transform his identity (and He who knows all secrets will bear witness to this act of creation.) Verbal confession is directed toward precipitating the bestowal of atonement. Atonement, however, is only a peripheral aspect of repentance. Its central aspect is the termination of a negative personality, the sinner’s divesting himself of his status as a rasha- indeed, the total obliteration of that status. “Some of the modes of manifesting repentance are that the peitent…changes his name, as much as to say: ‘I am another person and am not the same man who committed these deeds.” The desire to be another person, to be different than I am now, is the central motif of repentance. Man cancels the law of identity and continuity which prevails in the “I” awareness by engaging in the wondrous, creative act of repentance. A person is creative; he was endowed with the power to create at his very inception. When he finds himself in a situation of sin, he takes advantage of his creative capacity, returns to God, and becomes a creator and self-fashioner. Man, through repentance, creates himself, his own “I.”
Here there comes to the fore the primary difference between the concept of repentance in Halakhah and the concept of repentance held by homo religiosus. The latter views repentance only from the perspective of atonement, only as a guard against punishment, as an empty regret which does not create anything, does not bring into being anything new. A deep melancholy afflicts his spirit. He mourns for the yesterdays that are irretrievably past, the times that have long since sunk into the abyss of oblivion, the deeds, that have vanished like shadows, facts that he will never be able to change. Therefore, for homo religiosus, repentance is a wholly miraculous phenomenon made possible by the endless grace of the Almighty.
But such is not the case with halakhic man! Halakhic man does not indulge in weeping and despair, does not lacerate his flesh or flail away at himself. He does not afflict himself with penitential rites and forgoes all mortification of body and soul. Halakhic man is engaged in self-creation, in creating a new “I.” He does not regret an irretrievably lost past but a past still in existence, one that stretches into and interpenetrates with the past and the future. He does not fight the shadows of a dead past, nor does he grapple with deeds that have faded away into the distance. Similarly, his resolve is not some vacuous decision made with regard to an obscure, distant future that has not as yet arrived. Halakhic man is concerned with the image of the past that is alive and active in the center of his present tempestuous and clamorous life and with a pulsating, throbbing future that has already been “created.” There is a living past and there is a dead past. There is a future which has not as yet been “created,” and there is a future already in existence. There is a past and there is a future that are connected with one another and with the present only through the law of causality- the cause found at moment a links up with the effect taking place at moment b, and so on. However, time itself as past appears only as “no more” and as future appears as “not yet.” From this perspective repentance is an empty and hollow concept. It is impossible to regret a past that is already dead, lost in the abyss of oblivion. Similarly, one cannot make a decision concerning a future that is as yet “unborn.” Therefore, Spinoza [Ethics IV, 54] and Nietzsche [in Genealogy of Morals] did well to deride the idea of repentance. However, there is a past that persists in its existence, that does not vanish and disappear but remains firm in its place.
~Halakhic Man by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, 112-114