February 24, 2020

A short guide to a new head for the new year

As the High Holy Days approach, it’s natural to start thinking about the biggies. Like, who am I? What am I doing with my life? And why is there even a world? God didn’t have to make one! 

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, may commonly be translated as “head of the year” but it also can mean “a new head.” What would we give for a new head, a fresh approach to navigating this fantastically mysterious treasure chest we inhabit. So in the holiday spirit, here is a short guide to achieving a “New Headedness.”

Let’s begin with a simple but profound truth — the mind believes, but the soul knows.

Let’s try to visualize the difference.

Imagine a submarine that is underwater, far from the clarity of dry land. How does the submarine see beyond itself? There is a periscope that reaches from the top of the submarine, out of the water, and from there the people on the submarine can see what is going on above the surface.

So it is with us. Our body is the submarine. We are surrounded by a world where God is hidden. In Hebrew, the word for “world” (olam) has the same root as the word for “hidden” (ne’elam). This is because God is hidden in this world. 

Our soul is like the periscope. It transcends the hiddenness of this world and sees God. As a result, our soul doesn’t have to believe — it knows the existence of God with clarity and certainty.

The question is: How can the mind, which is steeped in the confusion of this world, achieve the same level of clarity as the soul and also come to know?

Here is a three-step approach based on Torah wisdom:

Step One — See

Look at how the Shema is written in the prayer book. Something deep is going on. The last Hebrew letter of the word shema (hear/understand) and the last Hebrew letter of the word echad (oneness) are written in a significantly larger font. Our rabbis teach that taken together, these two letters spell the Hebrew word for “witness” (ayd). If you reverse the two letters, it spells the Hebrew word for “know” (da) — as in, “Know before Whom you stand.”

In other words, if we witness the amazing ways in which God interacts with the world around us — eclipses, babies, ice cream, waterfalls, mind-blowing coincidences and the internet, to name a few — then we will come to know” with certainty to whom the entirety of creation belongs.

Step Two — Do

When we accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, we made an amazing declaration. We told God, “We will do and we will hear” — in Hebrew, Na’asay v’nishmah (Exodus 24:7). God marveled at this declaration and asked, “Who taught them the secret of the angels?” 

What was so remarkable about our words? By saying, “We will do and we will hear,” the Jewish people committed to doing the mitzvahs before we even heard what they were. The Kotzker Rebbe writes that doing first and hearing the explanation later is akin to climbing a ladder. First we do the mitzvah. The holiness that ensues lifts us to a higher spiritual level, and from that increased place of clarity we are now able to hear the Torah in a deeper way. (Cool aside: The Hebrew words for “Sinai” and “ladder” share the same numerical value.)

This process repeats itself over and over. As we do more, we climb higher and achieve increasing degrees of spiritual clarity. In this way, we’re able to transform the mind’s belief in God into the soul’s knowledge of God.

Doing and seeing are key steps toward achieving a New Head, but I don’t think they’ll work without the third step.

Step Three — Love

The Prophet Hosea writes, “I will betroth you with belief and you will know God” (Hosea 2:22). The whole secret of turning belief into knowledge is in the opening words — “I will betroth you.” If our belief comes from a place of love, then we will know God. 


Love is the secret formula. Through love you become one. All else falls away. (Cool aside: “Love” and “one” share the same numerical equivalent in Hebrew).

Amazingly, in the Torah, the very first word after the Shema is v’ahavta (and you shall love). God is telling us that if you want to reveal His Oneness, then love Him with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your me’odecha. This word is translated as might or money, but literally it means with all of your “very” (me’od).

What an unusual phrase. How do we serve God “with all our very”? The answer is by taking the fire of our hearts, the things we feel most strongly about in life, and using them to serve God.

The New Year is upon us. Our new heads are arriving!  If we want the latest model — one where our minds have the same clarity as our souls — then see, do and, most importantly, love.

Shanah tovah.

DAVID SACKS is an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer. His weekly podcast, “Spiritual Tools for an Outrageous World,” is available at Torahonitunes.com.