It was a small group of sweaty, sunburnt, and exhausted men. They had been a small group who traveled back from today’s Iraq, back to their ancestral homeland after seventy years of exile intending to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. After disappointment after disappointment, struggle after struggle, the humble building was complete. Those who remembered the glory of Solomon’s first Temple broke down in tears, recognizing the disparity between the glory of the old building and the newbuilt Beit Hamikdash. This all took place on Rosh Hashana.
The verse shares with us a heart-wrenching account (Nechemiah chapter 8):
“Now all the people gathered as one man to the square that was before the Water Gate, and they said to Ezra the scholar to bring the scroll of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month.”
That “first day of the seventh month,” is the date of Rosh Hashana. There they are, the small remnant of Jews, standing in the street below temple mount, listening to the Torah—many of them for the first time. They listen with pierced ears to the words of the Torah, as they take in the words they will newly commit to as they return to the land of Israel.
“And he read in it before the square that was before the Water Gate from the [first] light until midday in the presence of the men and the women and those who understood, and the ears of all the people were [attentive] to the Scroll of the Law.
And Ezra the scholar stood on a wooden tower that they had made for the purpose… And Ezra opened the scroll before the eyes of the entire people, for he was above all the people, and when he opened it, all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with the uplifting of their hands, and they bent their heads and prostrated themselves to the Lord on their faces to the ground. And they read in the scroll, in the Law of God, distinctly, and gave sense, and they explained the reading to them.”
Seldom in Jewish history do we find such a readiness to obey God’s words and to embrace the Torah. It is reminiscent of the time the Jews stood at Sinai and said “Naaseh Ve’ Nishma”, we will do as God says, and we will hear all that He has to say. Recognizing the gap between their practice and what is required, the disparity between the lives they are leading, and the lives they ought to be leading, the newcomers to Jerusalem begin to weep. It is the perfect example of Teshuva Me’ ahava, repentance motivated by love. There is no element of fear, no explicit rebuking, just a recognition of the need to do better.
Then Nehemiah-he is Hattirshatha-and Ezra the priest, the scholar, and the Levites who caused the people to understand, said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; neither mourn nor weep,” for all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Law.”
And he said to them, “Go, eat fat foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord, and do not be sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
And the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Hush, for the day is holy, and do not be sad.”
Then all the people went to eat and to drink and to send portions and to rejoice greatly, for they understood the words that they informed them of.
Symbolically, that Rosh Hashana embodies so much of what we feel to this very day. Have we even come close to doing what we thought we are capable of? Are we near the goals, hopes, and aspirations we hold so dear? Did we even try? We stand there preparing for Rosh Hashanah as sheer shock that this past year, the month of Elul, the week of Slichot, and erev Rosh Hashanah having gone by so fast. We are at the Day of Judgment with nothing. “Kedalim U’Kerashim,” we say in the Slichot. Like impoverished and wretched people we come to you. We are shocked by the dissonance, the distance between what we know is right and what we have done.
Suddenly, the reality of God’s commandment and common practice hits us: “Go, eat fatty foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord, and do not be sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Why? What merit is there in rejoicing at a time of judgment?
The Jerusalem Talmud(Rosh Hashanah, Chapter 1:3) addressing this issue explains:” Rabbi Simon stated: it is written (Deuteronomy 4:8) “For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is at all times that we call upon Him?” Rabbi Hama said at Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hoshaia, who is a nation like this nation? The norm of the world is, a man who knows that he is going to be judged wears black garments, and wraps himself with black, and grows his beard, for he does not know how his verdict will be decided. However, those [the people of Israel] are not like that. Rather, they wear white clothing, wrap themselves with white, groom their beards, eat and drink, and rejoice, for they know that God does miracles for them.”
On Rosh Hashanah, we mark our closeness with God. Inherent to that closeness is the faith we will be exonerated. The reason for the confidence? Sin represents distance from God. Virtue, on the other hand, represents closeness to God. The act of showing faith in God that we will get a good verdict Rosh Hashanah, in and of itself atones for our sins. We show where it is that we want to be. We eat, drink, and celebrate because for us distance from God is not an option.
Like the broken and downtrodden Jews rebuilding the Second Temple, we recognize the gap between where we are and where we should be. The ancient commandment echoes today—as in those times—reminding us that confidence and faith are the only way forward. Sometimes reality is like Sir Winston Churchill put it” “Success Is Going from Failure to Failure Without Losing Your Enthusiasm.” Recognizing God as the King of the Universe and the entire Universe as His domain is in and of itself a reason to rejoice; a terrific step forward to a happy and successful year.
Shana Tov, and Happy and Healthy Sweet New Year to all.