After the spiritual preparation of Elul comes Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the creation of the first human being. At that time, we do have a specific mitzvah, injunction, to realize— that is to listen— to the Shofar: “It shall be a day of shofar sounding for you “. (Numbers 29, 1).
The shofar, this ram’s horn, embodies the essence of this special day. Among the ten reasons mentioned by Rav Saadia Gaon to explain the meaning of these sounds, there is one particular reason that must always give us confidence in the future. Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishrei— is the anniversary of the creation of Mankind by the Almighty. With the appearance of Adam and his wife Eve, the Lord becomes the bearer of the King of Humanity’s title. To recall the beginning of His reign, we sound Shofar like the great royal courts where the coronation of a new ruler was accompanied by such ringtones in long horns.
In our liturgy, Rosh Hashanah is nicknamed by our Sages “Yom Hazikarone,” which means the day of remembrance. At the beginning of the year, we recall in our prayers, the key characters of our History and the decisive moments of the epic of Humanity: Noah and his family, to whom mankind owes his survival, as well as the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, who have implored the Almighty, that He may open to them the doors of fertility on this day.
“Sound the Shofar at the moon’s renewal, at the appointed time for our festive day, for it is a decree for Israel, judgment day for the G-d of Yaakov.”(Tehillim 91)
We recite this verse as we prepare for the first Amidah of Rosh Hashana, for our first opportunity to stand in G-d’s presence on this day of affirmation of His Kingdom. This verse from the Psalms is laden with meaning, and much is derived from it regarding the character of Rosh Hashana.
Harav Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal, HYD, was a prominent Slovakian Rav who was ultimately murdered in the Holocaust, and was keenly aware of the painful upheavals – both internal and external – that the Jewish people were experiencing, yet with his unique perspective he was able to see in the Hell that had broken loose around him the seeds that would plant the Garden of Eden in Eretz Yisrael.
One of the central aspects of his work and writing was his perspective on Jews who were not perfect, who lived their lives differently than he and not in line with the tradition, sometimes even opposed to it. His beautiful and uplifting perspective on the imperfect Jew informs his insight into this verse and into the awesome Yom Tov we are about to begin.
Why does the verse attribute the judgment of Rosh Hashana to Elokei Yaakov, the G-d of Jacob? Why does the verse specifically associate Yaakov with this Day of Judgment?
It is unusual to have Torah reading during the afternoon prayers and particularly uncommon to have it include a portion from the prophets as a Haftorah. It only occurs on fast days, not even on the Sabbath The haftorah read, including on Tisha Bav, is always the same, Dirshu from Isaiah fifty five. It is ultimate expression of repentance leading to the ultimate redemption. The initial verse hints at the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Hakippurim, which should have led to it being read on Yom Hakippurim itself.
Strengthening this presumption is the view of the Mechaber, that after reading the Haftorah during Mincha that the blessings recited don’t mention that the day is Yom Kippurim indicating that the reading reflects that it is a fast day. Even the contrasting view of the RAMA which requires adding a blessing on the sanctity of the day doesn’t exclude the likelihood that the reading reflects the aspect of the day’s character that reflects it being a day of fasting.
The question becomes why we don’t read that portion and instead read the book of Yonah?
(Translated from Hebrew)
“He Who opens the gate to those who come knocking in repentance”-
The Teshuva Refuser
While perusing the Book of Yonah and following the development of the story it relates, we cannot but be astonished at Yonah’s stubborn and consistent refusal to incorporate the concept of teshuva into his own life. Our amazement at his refusal to proclaim Hashem’s prophecy for Nineveh is surpassed by that engendered by his ongoing refusal to ‘return’ to his Creator, to do his own personal teshuva, in the face of the vicissitudes brought upon him by Hashem.
A ship about to be broken apart by a storm at sea, its sailors’ naked fear and their heartfelt cries, are not enough to prevent Yonah from sleeping soundly in the bottom of the ship, sunk in his own sins. This is not intentional suicide in order to escape prophesying at Nineveh, as we might think at first glance, but a deep-seated opposition to the concept of teshuva, as will be evidenced from a close reading of the book’s next chapters.
His very soul under water, lost in the bowels of a whale in the depths of the ocean, Yonah calls out to Hashem, pleading, praying, describing the crises and waves that have tried to overcome him, recalling the ‘halls of Hashem’ and even vowing to bring a thanksgiving offering to the Beit Hamikdash as mandated for survivors of life-threatening danger. All this makes the absence of confession and teshuva for his transgression all the more glaring, and the Abarbanel notes that omission. Was it not incumbent upon Yonah to do teshuva in his hour of suffering? Is it possible to utter his heartfelt tefillah without doing repentance?
Even later on, once he has delivered the prophecy at Nineveh, when Yonah asks for death as the sun’s rays beat mercilessly on his head, he refuses to ‘return’ to Hashem. The Angel of Death’s sword hovers above his neck, but he still refuses to confess and express regret at his wrongful actions. It is hard not to think of the Rambam’s strong words at the start of the Laws of Fasting (Chap. 1, 13) concerning the trait of cruelty that epitomizes those who do not do teshuva despite the troubles and sufferings to which they are subjected. Doesn’t Yonah’s repeated hardheartedness evince a most terrible cruelty – meted out by Yonah to his own self?
The famous teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha – that everyone should carry around 2 pieces of paper, one in each pocket, one that reads Bishvili nivra ha’olam (the world was created for me) and the other V’anochi afar va’efer (I am but dust and ashes) – has early echoes in Parshat Ekev. The beginning of the Parshais a roller coaster of similar emotions. At times, God seems to be boosting the confidence of B’nei Yisraeland at other times he makes sure they are humble. Baruch tihiyeh mikol ha’amim(you will be the most blessed from among all the nations). Lo tira meihem(don’t be afraid of the nations who dwell in the land).
And yet, when your wealth increases, V’amarta bilvavechakochi v’otzem yadi asah li et hachayil hazeh(and you say in your heart, “my strength and the work of my hands made all this possible”), vizacharta et Hashem Elokecha(and you will then remember God), ki hu hanotein lecha koach la’asot chayil– it is He who gives you the ability to accumulate great wealth. Be humble. And there are other examples.
But then there are some pesukimthat seem like hybrid statements, including even the previous one. Bnei Yisrael, you have accumulated great wealth, you have achieved a lot in your lifetimes but it is God who gave you the foundation for your achievements. Or ki lo al halechem l’vado yichyeh ha’adam– not by the bread, the money, the living that you make for yourself, not on that alone can you live – ki al kol motza phi Hashem yichyeh ha’adam– but you can also live on sustenance that God provides. You can provide and God can provide. A combination. And finally, V’achalta, v’savata, u’veirachta (you will eat, you will be satiated and you will bless God). You ate, you enjoyed, you earned it, but God had a hand in it.
As we approach Rosh Hashana and get ready to begin saying selichotI would like to explore a well-known Rambam and perhaps offer a possible insight into the Teshuva process.
The Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva, Perek 2 Halacha 2 that there are four stages within the Teshuva process:
- Azivat HaChetwhere a person decides to stop the sinning and cease from the aveira.
- Kabbalahwhere a person commits to not commit the aveira
- Charatawhere a person regrets the past.
- Viduiwhere a person actually verbalizes the sorrow and regret around the aveira.
What is particularly curious is that others, such as the Chovot Halevavot, also enumerate these same four steps in the teshuva process, but they reverse steps 2 and 3 and place regret before a commitment to not commit the aveiraagain. Their rational, which is in many ways intuitive, is that a person is generally motivated to decide to not sin again only if she or he truly regrets their sin. The reverse emphasizes this even more- if one doesn’t regret the sin, why would one commit to not violate it again?! First, we decide to stop sinning, we then regret the sin and only then we decide and promise to not commit the aveira again.
Why would the Rambam write that we should commit to stop the sin before regretting the fact that sinned?
Like many Jews of a certain era, I was reared on stories of the trepidations of the Yamim Noraim – how entire towns in Europe would be terrroized, how people would walk around in apprehension of the approaching Yom Hadin, how every Jew would spend copious amounts of time reckoning with his or her flaws and foibles, how the Baalei Mussar pounded into their adherents the anguish awaiting the unrepentant sinner and his community. I do not doubt the veracity of those accounts but I can state that I do not see it anymore. It is not only that times have changed.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in different ways are both construed as festive days – Rosh Hashana as indicated by Nechemia (8:10) and Yom Kippur as the happiest day of the year (Masechet Taanit 26b). Rav Kook’s primary thesis in Orot Hateshuvah was that repentance is supposed to be joyous, not just the outcome of forgiveness but the entire process of repentance. For sure, this was a new idea, and dissented from the more doleful approach of the Baalei Musar. To Rav Kook’s mind, the teshuvah of joy spoke more closely to the hearts of a modern generation. If repentance is not joyful, something is wrong. How so?
Who do we talk to when we face a challenge? When we’ve faltered and are ashamed of ourselves, or when we lack clarity, to whom do we turn?
My most spiritually difficult times in life persisted in light of an absence of the support I desperately needed or didn’t realize I needed.
Judaism envisions having a support system that helps us see clearly during uncertainty and holds us accountable when we are hiding out.
If we have a personal issue, problem or failing and feel we cannot talk about it to anyone, then there’s a significant problem. As a Rabbi occupied with Jewish outreach, I’ve observed many Jews abandoning a commitment to Judaism due to the pain, challenges and confusion in their lives and not truly being understood by those tasked with understanding. If only they had the right people to speak to. I can’t blame them, for I too was in those shoes facing significant spiritual challenges having no one I felt I could turn to.
What feelings do we experience as we turn the pages of our Machzor to the Amida for the Yomim Noroim? Do we think of the Text as a well trusted Mentor to guide us spiritually through the High Holy Days.? Or do we feel confronted with an unfamiliar Text that doesn’t speak to our souls?
Do we really feel a sense of “Pachad” and “Yiroh” , of Fear and Awe as we stand before our Creator? Do we consider ourselves among the “Zadikim” and “Yeshorim” , the Righteous and the Just, who rejoice in the learning of Thora and the performance of Mitzvos or are we fearful that we will be classified with the “Reshoim”, the Wicked” because of our sins?
Perhaps some insights into the construction, the history and the meaning of the Amida will help us to appreciate it better and in turn, enable us to experience a more meaningful Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
The basic Text for the Amida for the Yomim Noroim, for Maariv, Shacharis and Mincha , consists of six to seven printed pages. With the Vidui for Yom Kippur, about ten.
To be more concise, the text from the words “Uvichen Ten Pachdecho” until “Hamelech Hakodosh” , our subject for this article, consists of 142 Words.
It doesn’t seem like much. Yet how much deep content, how many Doctrines and examples of our Jewish Weltanschauung are packed into these words!
What is this?
Those who have not read The Little Prince will answer that it is a hat. However, the author of this children’s classic wants us to see more within our world. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry encourages us to allow our imaginations to see hidden things. In fact, argues his narrator, the picture above is not a hat but a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant. This might help you see what he means.
We imagine that we see the world, as it is. Yet, much lies hidden below the surface. This is true not only of children’s drawings – but also of our internal pains, joys, and hopes. These pains, joys, and hopes are the elephant and boa constrictor to the possessions and appearances that are the hat. We are not what we own or what the mirror shows; we are how we dream and how we love.
We work during the High Holiday season to get below the surface. We attempt to transcend the incessant buzzing of our devices and to get beneath the pressing hum of work and social commitments. We try to more clearly see our truest pains, joys, and hopes. We seek a fuller appreciation of what the world really is and who we really are. We aspire to a heightened sense of God and ultimate meaning. This is what we desire from these days. Now, how do we do it?