On the Rosh Hashanah Amidah
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
The remarkable Amidah for the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah contains three unique and distinctive meditations: the Malchuyot, concerning God’s sovereignty; the Zichronot, about memory; and the Shofarot about the shofar and revelation.
Each theme is developed in clear sections: an introduction; ten apposite Scriptural verses, three each from the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, with a final verse from the Torah; a concluding invocation and berachah; the sounding of the shofar, and a prayer that God accept our supplications.
The themes are ancient, first mandated and described in the Mishnah; the words of the introductions and invocations are traditionally ascribed to Rav, who lived between Babylon and Israel in the late second to early third century CE. The Hebrew is clear and resonant; to a lover of the liturgy, unforgettably beautiful.
The heart of the Rosh Hashanah service is the central of these three subjects, the Zichronot, or call to remembrance. Indeed, the rabbinic name for the festival is Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, the day of mindfulness. The Zichronot open with reflections on God’s memory, in so far as human thought can comprehend it: ‘You remember deeds of old; there is no forgetting before the throne of your glory and nothing is hidden from before your eyes’. No person, no deed slip unnoticed past God.
This provides the transition to human memory: if God is mindful of us, we would do wisely to be mindful of God: ‘Happy the person who does not forget you, who strives to take strength in you’.
These are powerful and challenging beliefs. But they risk being experienced today as more alienating than compelling. Aside from the central question of whether we believe in an all-knowing God, the idea that we are under observation by the inescapable gaze of the ultimate authority can feel more like being stalked by the Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984, than being held in the attention of a loving God.
For most of us, these prayers therefore need interpretation, translation into the idiom of our own context and experience. This is almost always the case with traditional liturgy. It holds power and beauty; it is a great river, flowing with the spirit of our ancestors and the whole Jewish People. If we want it to hold personal meaning, we need to work with it, meditate on it, draw it word for word into our life just as we absorb a beloved song or poem, until it sings not just as a melody chanted by the cantor but inside our soul.
The Malchuyot and Zichronot, or sovereignty and remembrance prayers, express the presence of God not as a distant deity, but within all life, close and immediate; the God whose spirit breathes in the vitality of nature, in forests and animals, in the people with whom we interact. Nothing of our impact on each other goes entirely unnoticed. None of what we express in friendship and compassion, or in anger and contempt, is utterly lost. Life, God’s Book of Remembrance, reflects it back, directly or indirectly. That constitutes God’s judgment: God within all life echoing back to us, often in half-inaudible vibrations we are liable not to hear, how we have treated life.
But this is not simply ‘rough justice’. The God of life loves life; life should be connected to life not in ruthless competition but in faithful partnership. Hence the conclusion of the Zichronot prayers, the structural and spiritual heart of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service, calls on God to remember with compassion the brit, the bond which connects all life.
If God is compassionately mindful, and God’s spirit is within us, should we not do the same?
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism and rabbi of New North London Synagogue.