One of the core foundational elements of teshuva is the formula of the Thirteen Attributes. It is said in the build up to and the culmination of Yom Kippur.

The Gemara cryptically allegorises that in order to teach them to Moshe, Hashem put on a Tallis like a chazan and shliach tzibbur – a prayer leader. In this guise, Hashem instructed Moshe that if people said the Thirteen Attributes, forgiveness would be abundant.

But why does the allegory need God to dress up in order to forgive us?

R’ Moshe Einstadter explains that the function of the shliach tzibbur (literally – agent of the community) is to enable those who don’t know how to join in. People who don’t know how are dependent on people who do in order to participate.

But this is a one-way relationship – the chazzan does not need an audience to pray – he can do it perfectly well on his own.

Yet should people have need of him, he can take on a greater role and responsibility than otherwise.

The same relationship exists between man and God.

We can’t help ourselves. When we make mistakes, why should teshuva make a difference? Should feeling bad suddenly make right wrong actions?

Yet the allegory offers a powerful resolution.

Hashem can be our shliach tzibbur. And so He gives us this formula for teshuva. Because we need Him to.

For most people, the most powerful liturgy in our prayers is u’Nesaneh Tokef. It’s the part that people most connect with.

The first part sets the scene:

כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם, וּבוֹ תִּנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ – Awesome and frightening, today, Your kingship rises…

The second part sets what is at stake:

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן, כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת – Who lives, who dies…

The third part declares that we don’t believe in fate. There is hope! Nothing is set in stone, and we trust Hashem. We shout loudly:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree!

Rabbi Sacks explains that this third part is a crystal clear paradigm of what we believe.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur might be about what will happen in our lives. But even that is not set in stone. We simply don’t believe in a rigid, preordained fate. More than we believe in fate, we believe in ourselves; in our power to change through prayer, improvement, and good deeds. We believe that ultimately, we can influence and control our own destinies. We hope.

We cling on to hope, always. How many prophecies of doom were averted when people changed? That’s what we read about on Yom Kippur, in the story of Yonah and Ninveh.

The Gemara teaches that with a sword on your neck, you still pray. Hope remains.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה don’t mean repentance, prayer, and charity. תְשׁוּבָה means homecoming and return; because we have lost our way. But hope is not lost; we just need to come back. תְפִלָּה means judging yourself. Where do you really stand? But there is hope. צְדָקָה means justice. It’s not just nice, it is the just thing to do. Because others need hope.

Together, they are מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – because there is always hope. In the darkest of times, when the odds are stacked, hope remains.

The closing of u’Nesaneh Tokef says how אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר – man’s beginning and ending are earth and dirt. This recalls imagery of Yakov, who, at the lowest point in his life, dreams of a ladder on the dirt:

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה – It’s base was on the earth, but it reached the skies above…

We come from the dirt, but with hope, we can reach the skies.

On the first day of Rosh Hashana, one of the things we read about is how Hagar was sent away with Yishmael. They get lost in the desert, and run out of water. Yishmael dehydrates, and Hagar, like any mother, could not bear to watch her son slowly die. She cries in despair, looking at her hopeless situation, and prays.

And Yishmael is saved. Hagar has a vision, and she sees an oasis, and is able to save her son.

But this is not what it means to pray. That is not the model of prayer to take from this story. Look closer.

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים | אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – The angel says to her that Hashem listened. But not to her! Hashem heard the voice of the dying boy!

Unlike with his mother, the story never says he cried, or prayed. He was dying, and perhaps let out a moan.

It is this moan that God listens to.

What it means to “pray” isn’t a formal kind of prayer. It’s that feeling of confronting a reality truthfully. It’s a feeling.

We believe that הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים – Hashem loves righteous prayers. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that is not תפילת צדיקים, prayers of the righteous, just righteous prayers. Everyone is capable on a one off, pure prayer.

Every day we repeat that קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת – Hashem is close to the people who call on Him in truth.

Think you’re not worth it?

Yishmael was dying. The Midrash says that the angels didn’t want him saved, for all the atrocities his descendants would commit. Yet they are wrong. Hashem looks בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – where is he now, under these circumstance?

That one off moan, against all odds. That moan. That feeling. That’s truth.

That’s prayer.

After each set of shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, we sing a poem that recalls the birth of the world. On it’s birthday, the universe gives an account of itself.

Yet we do not read Genesis; we hear nothing about the creation of the universe at all. We read about Sarah and the birth of Yitzchak; with the accompanying Haftara of Hannah and the birth of Shmuel. What does this have to do with judgment and Rosh Hashanah?

Everything. The meaning of existence is associated here with the imagery of a woman who desperate for a child, who would do whatever it takes to make the child great. This imagery is exactly the model of our relationship with God. In the poem recalling creation, we hope that we stand before God as His children.

The model is one of love – for one another, strangers, and God. Love is what it means to be Jewish.

Look closer, and see how relevant the details are to us, as we are judged.

Sarah and Hannah have so much love and goodness to give, and no child to give it to. It’s the same reason God created us; to have someone to give goodness to.

Sarah and Hannah never gave up their vision of what they hoped could one day be; that they would have their perfect child. It’s the same reason God will never turn you away.

They prayed, despite the physical impossibility of ever having a child – they were infertile. Our prayers are powerful. We don’t understand how it works; but we don’t need to. It just does. We pour our hopes, ideals, and pleas into something, anything; perhaps tears, or even a sob.

This is the model for prayer.

Sarah and Hannah were desperate for a child and would do whatever it took to make their child great. It was their circumstances, and the way they reacted to them, that transformed these women into these figures we read about. They never lost hope. They just focussed inwards.

When they got what they always wanted, it is instructive to see how they responded. What did they want it for? There is no ego when it comes to raising a child. You serve your child. You have to sacrifice, nurture, clean, care for, watch, and protect them. Having a child means sacrifice. But that’s what an amazing parent does for their child. Happily. Happily because it’s worth it. Worth it because you love them. Love them because it’s what you always wanted.

So on Rosh Hashana, as we are judged, remember this.

Because that’s exactly how God feels about you.

One of the sections of the Amida on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ. Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that shouldn’t seem odd to request for awe and fear of God to spread – the world is messed up. A newspaper is considered something inappropriate. The news! How many hundreds of thousands of civilians are killed in wars they are not part of, every year? How many trillions of dollars are spent on new ways to kill and destroy, every single year?

This is why we say וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ ה’ אלקינו עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶֹיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתָ וְיִירָאוּךָ כָּל הַמַּעֲשִֹים וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְפָנֶיךָ כָּל הַבְּרוּאִים וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ ה’ אלקינו עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶֹיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתָ וְיִירָאוּךָ כָּל הַמַּעֲשִֹים וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְפָנֶיךָ כָּל הַבְּרוּאִים.

Let the world become united. Instead of spending trillions on warmongering and fashion, let them spend it on food and medicine. Consider that Costa Rica doesn’t even have an army – their Defense budget is now an education budget, and everyone gets a free education. The prophet Isaiah says that one day, war will be obsolete. Weapons will be converted from destructive tools into creative ones.

We pray that וְיֵעָשֹוּ כֻּלָם אֲגֻדָּה אֶחָת לַעֲשֹוֹת רְצוֹנְךָ בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם – let them truly unite. If all of humanity got together, on the same page, can you imagine how that would look? It is the vision of a perfect world, for noble reasons – לַעֲשֹוֹת רְצוֹנְךָ. The world would be perfect, the way we know we can make it – כְּמוֹ שֶׁיָּדַעְנוּ. If we acted perfectly, people would learn from our behaviour from their interactions with us. The world can change in a heartbeat, and Hashem can make it so. After the formation of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion, an atheist, declared that anyone who said there were no miracles in the War of Independence was not a realist. כְּמוֹ שֶׁיָּדַעְנוּ ה’ אֱלקינוּ שֶׁהַשָּׁלְטָן לְפָנֶיךָ. We know how things could be.

This is followed by a prayer for the Jewish people – וּבְכֵן תֵּן כָּבוד לְעַמֶּךָ. תְּהִלָּה לִירֵאֶיךָ. וְתִקְוָה טובָה לְדורְשֶׁיךָ. וּפִתְחון פֶּה לַמְיַחֲלִים לָךְ. שִׂמְחָה לְאַרְצָךְ. שָׂשׂון לְעִירָךְ…

We pray that we get the spotlight to shine on the right things. What if headline news wasn’t about some degenerate’s new makeover, but instead, “Man helps lady across street”? תְּהִלָּה לִירֵאֶיךָ – if the people getting praised were God fearing individuals, would society look the way it does? This is not even confined to Judaism – what if in the secular world, children wanted to be Gandhi and Mandela, not rock stars?

If the world recognised the value of Torah-type, and mitzva-wavelength things, the world would be more than fine. Not everyone is at that level of earning such praise, but people can try – וְתִקְוָה טובָה לְדורְשֶׁיךָ. Some people are too far away even for that – but they recognise its value and yearn for it – וּפִתְחון פֶּה לַמְיַחֲלִים לָךְ. We are desperate.

We conclude by asking for the return and reestablishment of Jerusalem and its glory. שִׂמְחָה לְאַרְצָךְ – שָׂשׂון לְעִירָךְ. These are words used for weddings. Just a few years ago, Dr David Applebaum, and his daughter, Nava, were at a cafe, the day before her wedding. The cafe was targeted for a terror attack, and a suicide bomber detonated in the crowded cafe, murdering 7, and maiming many more. On her wedding day, her fiancé buried her, and buried her wedding dress alongside her. Hasn’t there been enough tragedy? Aren’t we owed some ששון ושמחה? Have we not suffered enough? וּבְכֵן תֵּן כָּבוד לְעַמֶּךָ.

When that day comes, evil will vanish, and everyone will rejoice – וּבְכֵן צַדִּיקִים יִרְאוּ וְיִשְׂמָחוּ וִישָׁרִים יַעֲלזוּ. וַחֲסִידִים בְּרִנָּה יָגִילוּ. The way we describe the evil disappearing is וְהָרִשְׁעָה כֻלָּהּ בֶּעָשָׁן תִּכְלֶה – evil will diffuse like smoke. Evil is not substantial, and has no roots. Smoke has the molecular properties of a solid, but it is as porous as could be. Hashem can just blow it away, because there’s nothing to it.

The world is quite a mess, and we need all the help we can get. We pray for help, but we need to make sure we help ourselves too.

During the course of the Rosh HaShana evening meals, there is a universal custom to consume the Simanim. Customs widely vary about what they are, from classic apple and honey, to the more exotic fish or lamb head, and everything in between. A small prayer is said, that contains some sort of pun or word play, based on what is being eaten. Apples are sweet, so we ask for a “sweet” year. We ask to be “heads not “tails. You can even make up your own – some French people eat bananas – which sounds like “Bonne Année”, the French greeting for “Happy New Year”.

These seem quite tenuous, and possibly silly. But the Gemara states that סימנא מלתא – it’s a legitimate endeavour. A Siman is an indicator that portends things to come. One maxim has it that מעשה אבות סימן לבנים – an ancestors actions indicate a possible future for descendants.

The Simanim on Rosh HaShana are not games. They make an impression, and indicate more than the words we say. Our speech and thoughts have already started to take shape in form of activity. When the prophets would warn the Jews of impending exile, they would lead an animal, and whip it, and the animal would run away. The prophet would say that in the same way, they would be exiled. It was not merely a restatement of his words; it was tangible action, that actualised what he was saying.

Talk is cheap. Note how many mitzvos have a symbolic action, concurrent to prayer. The Simanim are indicators that initiate action on our parts to actualise what we want.

Consider the apple, which is a staple of Rosh HaShana. The prayer we say is שתחדש עלינו שנה טובה ומתוקה – may the year ahead be good and sweet. Because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet.

The word שנה, year, has the same roots as the words for secondary, and change. The way to another שנה is through שינוי – change. The most incredible thing we can ask for is a fresh start, a clean page – שתחדש. Retracing steps, something new on top of something old, isn’t progress. A drawing that is erased still leaves the paper smudged. We don’t ask for another year, but a “new” year. New year, new you.

We don’t have to deal with old problems; we can start again. There can and should be a reality check; a paradigm shift. What am I about? Where am I going? We say שתחדש with the apple in our hands. Instead of bringing old baggage, we should realise the choice is literally in our hands. We are already doing something.

There is a variation in custom on what food to consume when saying שנהיה לראש ולא לזנב – may we be heads not tails.

When looking at an animal, it may seem like they are essentially the same, the tail is just a body length behind. They ultimately get to the same place, so what’s the difference? To get there first?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests that actually, the tail never gets to where the head is. The head leads, and the tail follows. The tail is never where it wants to be, because it is slaved to the head. It can’t “want” anything!

We control very little in the variable and circumstances that make up our lives. What we do have control over is free will. In fact, at their core, all people truly are is the sum of all the decisions they’ve ever made. You can’t choose to be rich, or healthy. You can only choose to take steps that make it more possible. In other words, all you can choose is to choose.

If all you can do is choose, and you’re a tail, you’re nothing. By following other people, or letting others make your decisions for you, you’re a tail. Floating with the current is not the same as swimming. The tails seems like it gets to where head is, but it is only cosmetic.

Rav Shimshon Pinkus defines the prayer as לראש – let the year ahead be thought through, with mental input and striving higher; in the future tense, שנהיה – always looking forward; because if your actions today are based on yesterday’s decisions, you are your own זנב!

During the Aseres Yemei Teshuva, we insert the following plea into our prayers:

זכרינו לחיים, מלך חפץ בחיים, וכתבינו בספר החיים למענך אלוקים חיים – Remember us for life, our King who desires to grant life, and inscribe us in the book of life, for Your sake.

זכרינו לחיים

We grow up learning about the “Books” of Life and Death, which are essentially the books that categorise one as righteous or evil. So how can we implore Hashem that זכרינו לחיים – that He should give seemingly give a biased judgment? It would seem a fairly simple evaluation; are we or are we not worthy? The judgment should be impartial, so what are we asking for?

One doesn’t transform into a tzaddik because they pray or ask for something; and this isn’t a plea despite our sins. This is a prayer for us to be found righteous. How does it work, if we don’t deserve it?

Being a tzaddik is multi-faceted. Our sages teaches that one can be righteous in certain aspects of their lives.

Does a Paralympian athlete not deserve a gold medal if there is an Olympic athlete who can perform better? No – because the lines are drawn between able-bodied and disabled athletes.

We say זכרינו לחיים – see us as people worthy of life, so treat us individually, separately, in our own category. Let our accomplishments be foremost in our own unique category.

If a child does their best, but fails a test, will the parent get angry? They shouldn’t. Disappointment should only be manifest when the child is capable of more.

מלך חפץ ביים

It’s impossible to be perfect, and no one can stand comparison to objective perfection – the Gemara says that even Avraham would wither in the face of this comparison. But Hashem is kind, and does not expect this of us.

A tzaddik is someone who does their best, which is entirely subjective. What we’re good at can be evaluated externally, and crumble in the face of analysis, or can be evaluated on a personal level – מלך חפץ ביים – that Hashem wants to and can find a way to judge us as being good in our own way.

למענך אלוקים חיים

Why should Hashem give us things we don’t necessarily deserve?

If a person is looking for a house, and the real estate agent asks for a million dollars, is there a problem handing it over? The agent is acting for you; of course there’s no problem!

Hashem has no problem giving us things that help us serve Him better – למענך אלוקים חיים – they’re free! We can ask Hashem for things to help us serve Him better even when we don’t deserve it.

During the Selichos, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur prayers, we regularly mention that Hashem is ותיק ועושה חסד – He is old, and kind.

We’re probably not paying enough attention when saying this, but this clearly sounds very odd. What is the intent of the prayer by labelling Hashem as “old”, and what effect does that on His kindness? My father explains with a parable.

If someone gets pulled over for speeding on a particular road, and the police officer is in a particularly good mood, perhaps a very good explanation about a family emergency or what have you, will get them off the hook.

But if the same person gets pulled over by the same cop the next day, will the same excuse work? Absolutely not.

Every year, we make the same promises, and make the same excuses. Hashem is ותיק, that same “old” judge as last time, and yet ועושה חסד – nonetheless, He will act kindly with us.

Avraham’s ultimate test of faith was Akeidas Yitzchak. The way we teach children, the challenge was to overcome his attachment to his son, even though this very same son was supposed to be heir to the covenant.

The Ran explains that there is a major subtlety into what was asked of Avraham. Hashem says: קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה – Please take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak, and go, for yourself, to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him, as a burnt offering. (22:2).

The Ran points out that Hashem said קַח-נָא – “please take”. This was a request. It was not an instruction. It is quite possible that if Avraham had refused, he would not have violated Hashem word, as Hashem did not require it, and Avraham did not “need” to go through with it. It remained Avraham’s choice.

The Slonimer Rebbe adds a further dimension to the turmoil he faced. As Avraham approached the mountain:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw הַמָּקוֹם from a distance. (22:4)

Classically, this means that he literally “saw the place”. But הַמָּקוֹם is also a name of Hashem – He is “The Place”, He is everywhere, the Omnipresent.

In this context, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק means that Avraham looked at the situation he was in, what he was about to do, and felt a distance between himself and Hashem. Avraham was doing what Hashem had requested, but he knew that what he was doing did not feel right. It tore him apart – he’d spent his entire life up to that point fighting human sacrifice, and yet here he was, about to sacrifice his son, throwing away his entire future. וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham felt a distance between himself and Hashem.

At the crescendo, the Torah records that וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת, לִשְׁחֹט, אֶת-בְּנוֹ – Avraham sent his hand, and picked up the blade, to slaughter his son. The Torah doesn’t say that “He picked up the knife,”; but that he “sent his hand”. There is a disembodiment, dissociating his hands action from him. He could not believe what he was forcing himself to do!

We read this on Rosh Hashana, and apart from the obvious merit the story recalls, perhaps we can relate to this on a personal level. Things aren’t always clear cut what the right thing to do is. We don’t always “feel it”. Even the greatest of us was torn once.

The Torah never refers explicitly to Shavuos or Rosh Hashana by their primary themes of the Torah and the day of judgement. Why does the Torah overlook this?

The Kli Yakar explains that the themes transcend a particular moment.

Torah each day is a new experience, bringing fresh understanding and enhanced insights with it. The Torah is on offer every day, and we choose through our actions whether to accept or decline. Calling Shavuos “Torah Day” is a disservice to our responsibilities.

Likewise, is described as the day to blow the Shofar, because our actions are under scrutiny every day. We are accountable always. Calling Rosh HaShana “Judgment Day” is a disservice to our accountability.