Rosh Hashanah is referred to as the anniversary of Creation. Actually, G-d began to create the universe on the 25th of Ellul, with the creation of Heaven and earth, light and darkness (Vayikra Rabbah 29:1). Hence the 1st of Tishrei, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, was the sixth day of Creation, the day that G-d created Adam and Eve.

Nevertheless, we say in our Rosh Hashanah liturgy הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם, “Today is the anniversary of the birth of the world”; this phrase appears after each of the three sets of Shofar-blasts during the Repetition of the Mussaf.

The obvious inference is that the purpose of Creation was humanity. Therefore all that came before Adam and Eve was but preparation for the ultimate purpose of Creation; so the world’s Creation is calibrated not from the day of physical Creation, but from the day that Creation achieved its purpose.

One of the most stirring and emotionally-charged prayers of Rosh Hashanah (and Yom Kippur) is the וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף (U-netaneh Tokef) prayer, composed by Rabbi Amnon of Magenza (Mainz), a 10th-century Torah-giant who was murdered in Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying the Name of G-d).

Rabbi Yochanan ben Yosef Treves (Italy, c. 1490-c.1557), in his Commentary to the Machzor, records an immensely poignant tradition of how Rabbi Amnon came to compose U-netaneh Tokef:

The bishop of Magenza had repeatedly urged Rabbi Amnon to convert to Christianity. Eventually, Rabbi Amnon, tired of the constant badgering, asked for three days to consider.

Upon leaving the bishop’s palace he was distraught at having given the impression that he could even consider such heresy, and did not return after the three days were up.

The bishop had Rabbi Amnon brought to him by force, demanding an explanation of why he had failed to return. He admitted that he had broken his promise to return, and suggested that as a punishment for what he had said, his tongue should be cut out.

The bishop responded: “Not your tongue, but your legs, which did not bring you back at the agreed time” – and proceeded to amputate Rabbi Amnon’s legs, then his arms, and then poured salt into the bleeding wounds.

He bore the torture silently, with fortitude, and was eventually carried back home.

On Rosh Hashanah he was carried to the Synagogue, and as the Chazzan was about to begin his repetition of the Mussaf Amidah, Rabbi Amnon asked that he wait while he “sanctified the Name of G-d”.

He loudly chanted the U-netaneh Tokef, and died.

Three days later he appeared to the great Rabbi and liturgist Kalonymus ben Meshullam in a dream. He taught him the words of this prayer, and asked that he circulate it throughout the Jewish world, that it be recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In some Sefaradi communities until today, it is recited in Ladino translation before Mussaf, as well as in Hebrew during Mussaf.

“We will relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and terrible… On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the day of the Fast of Atonement it is sealed: how many will pass away, and how many will be created; who will live, and who will die; who at the end of his allotted time, and who not at the end of his allotted time; who by water and who by fire, who by the sword and who by wild beast, who by starvation and who by thirst, who by storm and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by stoning; who will have rest and who will wander, who will have quietude and who will be savaged, who will have peace and who will suffer, who will become impoverished and who will become wealthy, who will be humiliated and who will be aggrandized."

"And repentance and prayer and charity reverse the evil of the decree”.

We can understand how G-d is influenced by our tears of repentance, our heartfelt prayers, and the charity we give: by these actions we show that we have put our sins behind us – or at the very least, that we are genuinely trying to put our sins behind us – and get closer to Him.

But if, as we declare in this prayer, all that happens in the coming year is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur, then what efficacy can there be in prayer during the rest of the year? The implication is that there is a mere 10-day opportunity for beseeching God for His benefits throughout the year.

The precise wording of the final sentence is all-important:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רוֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – “and repentance and prayer and charity reverse the evil of the decree”.

Note that they do not reverse the decree itself: that indeed is fixed and unalterable from Yom Kippur until Rosh Hashanah a year later. But they can – and do! – “reverse the evil of the decree”.

This brings us to the mitzvah of sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah: the Hebrew word for the shofar-blast is תְּרוּעָה, t’ru’ah, from the root רוע (the Torah in Numbers 29:1 calls Rosh Hashanah יוֹם תְּרוּעָה). This same root is a cognate both of רָעָה (evil) and of רֵעַ (friend, beloved). The piercing, wordless blast of the shofar gives us the power of repentance to transform רָעָה into רֵעַ.

Another of the shofar’s notes is the שְׁבָרִים – those three broken, whimpering cries, from the word שֶׁבֶר (breaking). This is from the three-letter root שבר: in the kal (also called pa’al) form, this root means “break”; yet in the hif’il form, the same root gives us the word הִשְׁבִּיר – to supply sustenance – like Joseph whom the Torah (Genesis 42:6) describes as the מַשְׁבִּיר, mashbir, the supplier of sustenance for all Egypt (like the Israeli supermarket-chain, Ha-Mashbir).

Again, we have these two very different – almost contradictory – concepts: breaking and supplying sustenance, expressed by the same Hebrew root.

It seems astounding that the same Hebrew root should mean both “evil” and “friend”, and that the same Hebrew root should mean both “break” and “supply sustenance” – diametrically opposing concepts in the same word! But this is far from unique in Hebrew.

The root חטא in the kal (pa’al) form constitutes the word חָטָא (sin). Yet the same root in the pi’el form gives us the word חִטֵּא (cleanse, purify). Again, we have the oh-so-comforting lesson that even sins can purify us. “In the place that repentant sinners stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand” says the Talmud (Berachot 34b, Sanhedrin 99a).

“Reish Lakish says: Great is repentance, because it transforms deliberate sins into accidental errors… Great is repentance, because it transforms deliberate sins into merits… These two statements do not contradict each other – one speaks of repentance due to love, the other of repentance due to fear” (Yoma 86b).

And this is central to the message of the Ten Days of Repentance, which start with Rosh Hashanah and climax with Yom Kippur. No matter what decree G-d may have promulgated concerning us, we have the power, through our repentance and prayer and charity, to have that decree fulfilled for good.

The shofar, which is the most potent symbol of Rosh Hashanah and which heralds the conclusion of Yom Kippur, epitomises this:

The word שׁוֹפָר, shofar, has two different cognates. The Rashba in his commentary to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 26a, s.v. מתניתין כל השופרות), and the Mishnah Berurah (586:7 and 68) understand שׁוֹפָר to be from the word שְׁפוֹפֶרֶת, meaning a hollow tube.

The Midrash relates shofar to the word שַׁפֵּר (“improve”): “In the month of Tishrei, renew your deeds with the shofar; in this month, improve (שִׁפְּרוֹ) your deeds. G-d told Israel: If you improved (שִׁפַּרְתֶּם) your deeds, then I will be for you as this שׁוֹפָר. Just as [the sound] passes through this shofar from one end to the other, so will I arise from My Throne of Justice and sit instead on My Throne of Mercy, and thereby overturn for you the Attribute of Justice to the Attribute of Mercy” (Vayikra Rabbah 29:6).

Fire and water: both essential to life, and both can kill.

In the last few days we witnessed Storm Daniel, a freak of nature which devastated large parts of the Middle East. It was the most devastating Mediterranean tropical-like cyclone ever recorded, both in terms of human lives lost and in terms of property damage. It was also the deadliest cyclone anywhere in the world in 15 years.

Libya was the worst-hit, with at least 10,000 people, maybe 100,000 people, killed.

Israel was unhurt: the tail-end swept over Israel on Wednesday, causing an unseasonable rain-burst, but nothing worse.

Intriguingly, Wednesday was the 27th of Ellul, the anniversary of the third day of Creation, the day on which G-d said: “Let the waters which are under the Heavens be gathered to one place, so that the dry land appear” (Genesis 1:9).

Thousands of years later, King David lyrically described this Day of Creation:

“He covered the deep as with a garment, [yet] the waters [still] stood upon the mountains; at Your decree they fled, at the sound of Your thunder they hastened away. They ascend into the mountains and descend into the valleys, to the designated place that You founded for them” (Psalms 104:6-8).

“At Your decree they [the waters] fled” – “when You said ‘Let the waters…be gathered to one place’; and at the same voice they were gathered ‘to the designated place that You founded for them’” (Rashi, Commentary to Psalms 104:7, and compare Radak and Metzudat David ad loc.).

As long as the water remains in its designated place, it gives life. When it is blasted by the storm-winds, it can bring death…as we saw all too vividly this last Wednesday, the anniversary of the day that G-d designated the place for the waters.

Nevertheless, Israel is “the Land which Hashem your G-d seeks out perpetually, Hashem your G-d’s eyes are upon it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year” (Deuteronomy 11:12).

As the S’forno explains, “He personally supervises all the deeds of its inhabitants, [to determine] if they are worthy of beneficial rains or not”.

And Rashi expounds: “To see what it needs and to renew the decrees concerning it, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad”.

This storm which devastated Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt, and – above all – Libya, not only left Israel unscathed, it provided us with a much-needed early dose of rain, offering us a healthy boost to our agriculture this coming autumn and winter.

It is during the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, that G-d decrees the fate for the entire world during the coming year: “how many will pass away, and how many will be created; who will live, and who will die; who at the end of his allotted time, and who not at the end of his allotted time; who by water and who by fire…”.

G-d indeed decrees the welfare of the world during the Ten Days of Repentance, including even how the weather will affect the world. “And repentance and prayer and charity reverse the evil of the decree”.

“Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven” (Berachot 33b, Megillah 25a, Niddah 16b). G-d decrees – but our fear of Heaven reverse s the evil of the decree.

So may these coming Ten Days of Repentance, starting with Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Yom Kippur, usher in the new year 5784 as a year of repentance and redemption, a year of transforming the bad into good, a year of forgiveness, atonement, and final Redemption for Israel and the whole world.

So I wish all my readers a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year 5784. And if I have offended or insulted anyone with anything I have written during the past year 5783 I hereby apologise, and assure you that it was unintentional.