Dvar Torah by Miriam-Simma Walfish (August 2010)

The holiday we commonly refer to as Rosh Hashanah is in fact known by many names. In addition to Rosh Hashanah, we find it called in various places Yom HaDin, Yom Teruah, and Yom HaZikaron. Each of these names reflects a different facet of the holiday and attests to the many themes that have been layered onto these days. These themes are also found in the Musaf Amidah of  Rosh Hashanah; we blow the shofar and recite verses regarding the trumpeting that we do (shofarot), and we recite verses imploring God to remember the merits of our ancestors and take them into account when  judging us (zikhronot).

One central element of Rosh Hashanah davening is not reflected in its names. The first section of musaf on Rosh Hashanah is the malkhuyot section, the core of which contains ten verses recounting God's sovereignty. In masekhet Rosh Hashanah, God is described as telling the Jewish people why we should perform certain rituals. Regarding malkhuyot, God says, “
אמרו לפני מלכויות כדי שתמליכוני עליכם"- “Say before me malkhuyot so that you will make me sovereign over you”.  Rav Yitzhak Hutner, author of the collection of philosophical essays Pahad Yitzhak regards this statement as redundant—of course saying  verses of malkhuyot is a sign that we are acknowledging God's monarchy.

However, Rav Hutner suggests that something deeper is going on when we say malkhuyot than a simple acknowledgement of God's monarchy and says that the key is contained in a disagreement among sages as to whether or not the first line of the Shema should be used as one of the ten verses of malkhuyot. It is through the Shema that we accept the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven” on a daily basis, Rav Hutner points out, so why would it not be included?

In Mishnah Sanhedrin we are told that simply saying to an idol “You are my God” is an offense that could lead the sinner to be stoned for idol worship. The Chazon Ish, however, qualifies this statement, saying that the culpability only kicks in when the sinner's intent is to initially accept the idol as God, or in Rav Hutner's words to crown God. It is not enough to say this statement as a formula during worship, rather the words themselves must be efficacious in forming a new reality. This distinction can help us understand the uniqueness of the verses we say in malkhuyot. We recite the verses that we do in order to create anew the reality of God's sovereignty over us. For Rav Hutner, this is why there is an opinion that Shema should not be included as one of the ten verses of malkhuyot. Since the Shema signifies the daily acknowledgement of the kingdom of heaven, it is not part of the creative transformative act of crowning God as sovereign over us.

According to the Sifrei, if we did not witness God's existence, it would be as if God were not God. Rav Hutner says that so too, if we did not crown God at the start of each year it would be as if God was not ruling over us. This ma'amar of Rav Hutner is illuminating, because it sheds light on an aspect of what is going on on Rosh Hashanah that we don't always think about and did not even make the cut of the names Rosh Hashanah was called over the years. If we think about the non New Year's aspects of Rosh Hashanah,we often think of Rosh Hashanah as a less scary version of Yom Kippur—we need to repent so that we can be inscribed by God in the Book of Life. But Rav Hutner is arguing that Rosh Hashanah is a necessary precursor to Yom Kippur, not in terms of our individual repentance but because without crowing God as ruler on Rosh Hashanah, God has no right to do any inscribing at all because we have not given God the right to. God is not our sovereign until we proclaim loudly and clearly, “Be our ruler!” Through the verses of malkhuyot and the sounds of the shofar we declare to ourselves and to others, year after year, that we have appointed God to be our monarch.

I hope that you all have a meaningful high holiday season and that this Rosh Hashanah we think about what it means for us to be engaged, as a community, in an act of crowning God.

Shanah Tovah.