Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Rosh Hashanah (Hasidism)

Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat

This year, as it has in three of the past four years, the first day of Rosh Hashana falls on a Shabbat. (By the way, this is an extraordinary occurrence. It is rare enough that Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat for two consecutive years. The last time two such pairs fell in close proximity was 1928-29 and 1931-32 [i.e., Rosh Hashana of 5689-90, 92-93]—hardly fortuitous years!) In previous years, I have written about this confluence in terms of the non-blowing of shofar on that day, and how it affects the character and nature of the day (see HY I: Rosh Hashanah). This year, I will address some other aspects of Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah.

Once, over thirty years ago, I was present at a Seudah Shelishit (Third Shabbat Meal) at the Havurat Shalom in Boston on the final Shabbat of the year. Reb Zalman Schachter (later renowned as the leading figure of the Jewish Renewal movement) was present and, as the shadows lengthened and day turned into night, he sang a haunting medley in which he went back and forth between the Bobover melody for Mikdash Melekh, a slow Hasidic song filled with the sweet poignancy of the Shabbat, and the nusah, the traditional chant used for Barkhu in the Evening Prayer of the High Holy Days. Then he spoke of how Shabbat and the Eve of Rosh Hashanah represented two polar opposites. Shabbat symbolizes fullness, perfection, God’s presence in the world, the tangible presence of holiness. Rosh Hashanah, and especially its eve, symbolize uncertainty, incompleteness, even anxiety, a sense of being in a kind of limbo awaiting the judgment of “He who suspends the universe over the abyss” (toleh eretz al belimah).

We mentioned earlier that the aspect of Rosh Hodesh, of the New Moon, is somehow “concealed” on Rosh Hashanah: there is no blessing of the New Moon on the preceding Shabbat; there is only the most fleeting mention of the Rosh Hodesh sacrifice in the Musaf prayer; and the very name by which the festival is referred to in the liturgy, “The Day of Remembrance” (Yom Hazikaron) is a studied ambiguity, suggesting that there is some additional aspect besides Rosh Hashanah without naming it explicitly.

In one of his short stories, Isaac Bashevis Singer (incidentally, in my recent visit to Manhattan I was bemused to discovered that one of the streets on the Upper West Side, West 86th Street, has been renamed “Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard”) portrays a rabbi in a small shteitel, himself tortured by issues of faith and doubt, who gives the following sermon for Rosh Hashana: Why does Rosh Hashana fall on the new moon? The other major festivals of Pesah and Sukkot, festival of redemption, occur at times when moon is full, symbolizing the fullness of divine light within the world. But on Rosh Hashanah the light of the moon is concealed. This is so, perhaps paradoxically, because this is the day when we coronate God as King. If God were walking around the marketplace it would be no big trick to have faith; real faith can only occur when one is in darkness.

But there is more to it then that. A brief Talmudic midrash says: “’Blow the ram’s horn on the new moon, on the day of concealment (ba-kese) for our festival day’ [Ps 81:4]. What festival is it that the new moon is concealed therein? Rosh Hashanah” (Rosh Hashanah 34a). That is, the aspect of the New Moon is itself concealed on that day.

What does this mean? Unlike the sun, whose light is steadfast and constant, the moon waxes and wanes in a cyclical manner—like the people Israel, whose fortunes rise and fall over the centuries, but who nevertheless persist throughout its long and difficult history; or like the woman, who traditionally effaces herself before her man, for “two kings cannot wear one crown.” But notwithstanding, the moon goes on, and the day of the New Moon is seen as a day of promise and assurance of the future, albeit in a minor key (for which reason we recite an abbreviated form of Hallel on that day; for more on this, see HY III: Bamidbar).

Not so Rosh Hashanah. Unlike other New Moons, it is seen as a day of total insecurity and uncertainty, when the very life of the coming year has not yet been renewed (this idea is developed in several teachings of Habad; see Likkuttei Torah for Rosh Hashanah). It is Yom ha-Din, the Day of Judgment, when every individual, every nation, and indeed the entire world stands on the docket. How will God judge us? What if we do not find favor in His eyes?

There is another aspect to this idea. According to an ancient Rabbinic tradition, the Creation began on the 25th day of Elul it was this which was the “first day” of Bereshit. Thus, the sixth day of creation, the day on which mankind was created, comes out on—the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah. It is this day that, according to the midrash, is depicted in Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, and it is a day filled with morally charged events. On the selfsame day that Adam was created, he was together with Eve, she encountered the serpent and was tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit; they both disobeyed their Creator, were judged, and were expelled from the Edenic world of childlike perfection, gratification, and contentment into the adult world of ambiguity and moral choice. Thus, since the very beginning of time, Rosh Hashanah is depicted as a day of judgment, and Man, who was created on that day, has been a problematic, existentially insecure creature.

But there is another motif as well: that, despite being a day of judgment, Rosh Hashanah is also a day of feasting and joy. “The nations of the world, when they are called in judgment, dress in black and are enwrapped in black; but Israel are confident that they will be justified before their Creator, so they wear white and are enwrapped in white, and eat and drink.” Indeed, for many of us our earliest childhood memories of Rosh Hashanah is more of the groaning boards laden with traditional Jewish food than it is of the shofar and the solemn strains of “Hamelekh” or “Unetaneh Tokef.”

Nowhere is this duality more evident than when Rosh Hashanah falls on the Shabbat. On the one day, the Sabbath day as such exudes joy, peace, wholeness, contentment, and rest. That, and not only the technical reason mentioned in the Bavli, is why, as I argued some years ago, the shofar is not blown on that day: that the sound of an alarum, of this harsh, shocking, crude instrument signifying weeping and desperate prayer, contradicts the very essence of Shabbat. And yet, it is nevertheless a day of uncertainty, of trepidation about what the future will bring, of pleading before the Almighty for our very life.

Perhaps it is this ambiguity that is alluded to in another point of dispute in the Talmud about Rosh Hashanah. At Rosh Hashanah 26b, there is a discussion between the Sages and R. Yehudah as to whether the shofar used on Rosh Hashanah should be the horn of an ibex (Heb. yael: wild mountain goat), which is straight, or that of the ram, which is bent. The gemara explains this in symbolic terms: one school holds that the more one bends oneself over and exhibits humility on Rosh Hashanah, the better it is; the other school says that, the straighter and more upright one is, lifting one’s thoughts and one’s whole body heavenward, the better.

This seems to reflect two entire world views. The one emphasizes the human being’s failings, his innate propensity to sin and evildoing, and constantly strives to break “the Old Adam.” The other basically accepts man, and even celebrates his intellectual and moral and creative powers, calling upon him to stand upright before his Creator, as he is—without arrogance or haughtiness, to be sure, but also without groveling or self-castigation. Conventional wisdom has it that this is an essential difference between Christianity and Judaism—the one sees man beset by original sin, the other celebrates his free will and his ability to engage in teshuvah, in self-change and self-correction. This difference is perhaps symbolized in the characteristic posture for prayer: in Christianity, on bent knee and with bowed head; in Judaism, standing straight and upright before God in the Amidah. But it is also is reflected in different schools in Judaism: there are those who would say that this is the essential difference between Musar and Hasidism; but even within Musar, there are Navardehok and Slobodka, schools that teach the “smallness of man” and the “greatness of man.” In Hasidism, too, there are schools that place greater weight on “fear,” and are pervaded with a mood of anxiety and trembling lest one fail to perform the mitzvot correctly (such, it seems from the outside, are the Hasidisms of Reb Arele or Satmar), and those that put more weight on love, on joy, and on cultivating positive life energies.


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