“Sovereign of the worlds! If there be no host for the King and if there be no camp for the King, over whom does He rule? If there be no people to praise the King, where is the honor of the King?” This is how the personified Torah argues with God in favor of the creation of humanity (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 3). According to the Torah’s argument, God can be God without dominion, but God cannot be King; God’s Kingship was not manifest until the creation of us, the “people.”
The original Rosh Hashanah, that very first one on the sixth day of Creation when God created humankind, was also God’s first day as King. Creation, as described in the Torah, is a series of cosmic orderings. Before God’s first creative utterance, there was chaos, tohu vavohu. And then there was light, separated from darkness. Creation is a turn from chaos toward differentiation. The culmination of Creation, the most orderly piece of it all, was to be the human, coronator of God.
Humans, with our incredible disorder, have been disappointing God ever since. Charged with continuing God’s work, we were to differentiate the animals by naming them, we were to care for the garden, we were to recognize the difference between what is permitted and what is prohibited and avoid that forbidden fruit. Adam was not a resounding success, and his fallible descendants have not been all that much better. As the Torah taught God, He cannot be King without us, but the Torah’s argument did not anticipate that we would be such unruly subjects.
On Rosh Hashanah, through shofar blasts and traditional liturgical recitations, we are asked to resubmit ourselves to God’s kingship. Of course, this is also a daily practice, as most blessings begin by describing God as “King of the Universe” (Baruch atah Adoshem, Elokeinu, Melech ha’olam…). This is the way of the Jewish calendar. Daily themes that appear in our weekday liturgy also find unique dates in the calendar for further exploration and renewal. We study Torah every day, but on Shavuot we particularly celebrate it. We mourn the Temples every day, but on Tisha b’Av we feel the loss most acutely. We recognize God as King of the universe every day, but on Rosh Hashanah, we coronate God again, adding kingship language into our liturgy above and beyond the usual, reaffirming our identity as subjects. We need a holiday to refocus on this relationship, because it is a difficult one.
The world emerged from chaos in seven days. Sometimes it feels that the world could slip back to that chaos in an equally short period of time. Our brains love to draw hard distinctions, but we know that many of those distinctions are false. Solids and liquids seem so very different — but life experience or rudimentary chemistry will teach us that it is only heat that divides them. Male and female gender seem vastly different, but that distinction comes about by just one chromosome, and gender expression is even more diverse. Countries seem so different one from another, but we know that those lines are arbitrary and have changed dramatically over time. Some of these distinctions that are so beloved cause damage when we take them too seriously, prioritizing the divisions of race, gender, or nationality over shared humanity. We tend to overlook what doesn’t fit into our categories, and we don’t extend care or equality in the way that we should. And yet, differentiation is at the heart of creation. Undoing it feels like a scary reversion. I feel protective of the distinctions that our brains and cultures draw, even as logic and science tell me otherwise. As God’s subjects, we are partners in retaining order — that alone is difficult — and it is harder yet to do it right.
Fortunately, the High Holidays liturgy reminds us that the building blocks of order are repentance, prayer, and charity. Chaos is fought with charity, with kindness, with reflection, with prayer, and with the understanding that we are part of something larger than ourselves — that our responsibilities extend outward, as subjects of a King whose dominion is the whole universe. As subjects of the King of Kings, on Rosh Hashanah we dedicate ourselves to promoting God’s vision of order above our own.
On this Rosh Hashanah, as I celebrate the order of Creation, I hope to recommit myself as a subject to a King invested in the world’s upkeep and rededicate myself to the seemingly impossible yet essential work of cosmic orderliness.
Rabbanit Leah Sarna , who was ordained at the Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat, is the director of religious engagement at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago.