Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Rosh Hashanah (Midrash)

The Merciful Judge

As these words are being written literally in the closing hours of 5762, I must confine my comments about the midrashim I have selected to almost telegraphic brevity. A series of midrashim deal with the idea of Divine mercy being inherent within the idea of Rosh Hashana as a day of judgment. Thus, Leviticus Rabbah 29.4:

R. Yoshiya opened: “Happy is the people who know the trumpet blast; O Lord, they shall walk in the light of Your countenance” [Ps 89:16]. R. Abahu explained this verse as referring to five elders who have gathered to intercalate the year. What does the Holy One blessed be He do? He leaves his council and descends and contracts his Presence among them below. The Ministering Angels say: O Mighty One! O Mighty One! O God! O God! Shall He of whom it is written, “God who is adulated in the council of the holy ones” [ibid. v. 8] leave his council and contract his Presence among those below?

The intercalation of the year—that is, the periodic addition of an extra month to the Hebrew year, so as to prevent Passover from eventually moving into winter (because twelve lunar months add up to only 354 days, over eleven days short of a solar year)—required the convening of a special court of five judges from among the members of the Sanhedrin. God is depicted as a king, who presides over heavenly court of angelic viziers and advisors, who suddenly leaves them and “contracts Himself” to function as a kind of advisor to the earthly court. The angels’ protest is reminiscent, in an inverted way, of the story in which Moses ascended heavenward to receive the Torah, eliciting the anger and jealousy of angels—“What is a mortal man doing among us?” Here, the angels complain that it is somehow unbecoming, unseemly for God to leave His celestial throne room to fraternize with lowly human beings. God is shown here as a free-wheeling spirit, who defies convention, expectations, proprieties. (And what is the meaning of the absolute sovereignty of the Divine will, if not that He, unlike earthly rulers, is not circumscribed by any external rules or practice?) This midrash also calls to mind the motif of melekh basadeh—God as the “king who is in the field”—i.e., who is uniquely present and available to His creatures during the season of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Why so? [Our midrash explains the angels’ question] That if they erred in a matter of halakhah, the Holy One blessed be He enlightens their face. As is written there: “O Lord, they shall walk in the light of Your countenance.” R. Yoshiyah said: It is written: “Happy is the people that know the trumpet blast” [interpreted to mean: who know how to makes these sounds with the trumpet, or shofar]. And do not the nations of the world know how to blow wind instruments? How many horns they have! How many trumpets (buccina) they have! How many bugles (salpirgasi) they have! And yet you say: “Happy is the people that know the trumpet blast?!” Rather, that they know how to seduce their Creator with the blast of the ram’s horn. So that He rises from the Throne of Judgment and goes to the Throne of Mercy, and He is filled with compassion for them, and turns the Aspect of Judgment to the Aspect of Mercy. When? “On the seventh month” [Lev 23:24].

The important thing here is not technical knowledge of how to make certain sounds, but the intimacy between God and Israel, who know how to “seduce their Creator” (itself an outrageous expression!)—an idea that repeats itself innumerable times throughout the midrash. Here, it is particularly strongly felt: Rosh Hashana, on the face of it a day of stern, strict, objective weighing of the deeds of each individual as they are in truth, is suddenly turned about, through the sounding of the shofar—an act pregnant with symbolism of the long history of God and Israel, beginning with the heroic act of Abraham and Isaac at the Akedah—to a day of outpouring of mercy and compassion, and the beginning of the forgiveness implicit in the Day of Atonement. Interestingly, the identical motif appears in two other midrashim in this chapter, immediately preceding and following this one.

The very first midrash in this chapter goes back to the very first Rosh Hashana in the history of the world, which was also turned around from judgment to mercy. Lev Rab 29.1:

“On the seventh month, on the first day of the month” [Lev 23:24]. Of this is it written: “Forever, O Lord, your word is fixed in the heavens” [Ps 119:89]. They taught in the name of R. Eliezer: On the twenty-fifth day of Elul the world was created… [the midrash goes on to cite a passage from Teki’ata de-Rav, i.e., the Musaf for Rosh Hashana, to describing it as a day of universal judgment]

From this, you may say that on the day of Rosh Hashana, during the first hour, it occurred to His thought [i.e., to create man]; in the second, He took council with the ministering angels; in the third, He gathered together his dust; in the fourth, He kneaded him; in the fifth, He shaped him; in the sixth, He completed his form; in the seventh, He breathed into him soul; in the eighth, He placed him in the Garden; in the ninth, he was commanded; in the tenth, he transgressed; in the eleventh, he was judged; and in the twelfth, he went free.

This hour by hour account of the first day in the life of Adam (and presumably of Eve; her separate creation or separation from Adam is not at all mentioned here), condenses the entire drama of the Garden of Eden into less than half a day. What is significant in this context is the conclusion: that God judged man, and released him.

The Holy One blessed be He said to Adam: This is a sign for your children. Just as you stood before Me in judgment on this day and you went free, so shall your children stand before me on this day and go free. When: “in the seventh month, on the first of the month.”

What is striking here is that the ”trial” in the Garden of Eden is seen as ending in an essentially positive verdict, a model for future Rosh Hashanas: namely, that Adam was allowed to live. Exegetes comment that by rights he should have been put to death, “for on the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). This is very thought provoking; the clear implication seems to be that the Expulsion from the Garden is not seen here as a punishment at all, or even a curse, but as a merciful mitigation of what should have been an immediate death penalty. This is in striking contrast to the usual way of thinking about this. I see in my mind’s eye an early Renaissance painting (by Hieronymus Bosch, perhaps?) in which Adam and Eve are shown being expelled from the Garden with their heads lowered in shame. Perhaps the idea is that the “curses” of the snake, Eve and Adam in Gen 3:14-19 are to be read, not as punishments, but as a statement of the conditions of future human life, as the inevitable consequences of their act, establishing the existential situation of humankind—imbalance in relations between the sexes; hostility between man and beast; the need to work for ones bread; mortality. But this subject is properly one for Parshat Bereshit, not for Erev Rosh Hashana, and I have no time to elaborate.

Incidentally, the halakhic sources, quoting yet another midrash, says that Jews show confidence in God’s mercy (not in the vindication of their own innocence!), by dressing in festive garments, eating and drinking on Rosh Hashana—celebrating, rather than trembling in anxiety as one would expect of an indicted criminal awaiting sentence!

What is “Complete Acceptance of the Kingdom of Heaven“?

Hasidim sometimes refer to Rosh Hashana as Koronatzia Nacht, “Coronation Night,” when God is once again enthroned by the people of Israel as King. Indeed, the theme of kingship permeates the various blessings and prayers of the festival, from the ubiquitous conclusion Ha-Melekh ha-Kadosh to the grand portrait of God’s kingship over the universe in the three middle blessings of Musaf. It thus might be interesting, specifically at this season, to turn to a brief passage in the Talmud, at Berakhot 14b-15a, that describes the “complete” acceptance of the kingdom of heaven in a much more mundane manner, as an everyday routine. The passage outlines a total of five steps:

Rabbi Yohanan said: He who wishes to receive the kingdom of heaven in a complete way should turn [to attend to his bodily needs], and wash his hands, and don tefillin, and read the Shema, and pray. And this is the complete kingdom of heaven.

1. SHOULD TURN. The very first stage is in some ways the most interesting: that, before turning to the lofty spiritual endeavor of accepting the kingdom of Heaven, with its attendant inner concentration, a person must attend to his natural bodily functions (yifneh). In simple English, to use the bathroom. The underlying idea is that it is impossible to engage in “head stuff” in isolation from the body. There is a certain frank acceptance of the body; one must be comfortable in ones body, in the simplest physical sense, before engaging in prayer. There is no suggestion that one should attempt to transcend or ignore these bodily needs, that one ought to discipline oneself, to practice “mind over matter,” entering into such a sublime psychic state that these things are not important. Human spirits reside within bodies, and these must be in a state of ease before one can go any further in the path of spiritual ascent.

2. WASH HIS HANDS. But there are also clear distinctions, a need to separate the physically unclean discharges of the body, or even the death-like torpor of sleep, from the hour of prayer. Thus, one washes ones hands in water before prayer, a simple, minimalistic ritual of purification.

3. DON TEFILLIN. The wearing of tefillin is one of the more interesting religious gestures in Judaism. One takes certain sections from the Torah text (rolled up and placed in turn within special leather receptacles) and places them, or better binds them, upon ones body. It is a powerful symbol, the likes of which I do not know in any other religious tradition. It symbolizes, on the one hand, the centrality of the text, of the Torah, which is the most palpable symbol of God’s presence in the universe and in our lives; but, on the other hand, the text is not treated with distant reverence, bedecked and put away in the holy ark, but certain central, representative sections are right here, worn on the person’s very body: upon his head, above his brain, the seat of the intellect; upon his arm, the organ of action; and opposite the heart, the organ of feeling. I would read this act as symbolic of the integration of text into life, into the identity of the person. (Rav Soloveitchik once commented on the famous Rabbinic interpretation of Deut 33:4, “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Jacob”—‘”Read not heritage (morasha) but betrothed (me’orasah)” [Pesahim 49b], that great Torah sages, such as Reb Velvel of Brisk, were so passionately involved in Torah, identified with it so deeply, that it was as if he were not only betrothed, but married to it.)

It is interesting that, unlike Rosenzweig’s double triads of World-Man-God and Creation-Revelation-Redemption, the Rabbinic tradition sees Torah & mitzvot, as the proper way, at the center of any religious schema. Torah is indispensable, and hence the triad is God-Torah-Man. It is almost an apotheosis of God, as well as a kind of intermediary between God and world. (This is also the message of the famous Zoharic formulation, best known in Ramhal’s aphoristic paraphrased: “Israel, Torah and the Holy One blessed be He are One”). The Torah is not only the contents of revelation, but also an entity in the world.

4. READ THE SHEMA. The reading of Shema is an act of Talmud Torah— recitation of certain passages from the Torah; but, unlike the wearing of tefillin, the engagement is not bodily and physical, but verbal and cognitive. But beyond that, it is a declaration of God’s sublime unity, a meditation upon God’s unity and, according to many Hasidic and Kabbalistic schools, a moment of mystical attachment to and even unity with the ever-present God. Here, ones mind is focused exclusively on God, one feels the barriers melting way, the sense that all is ultimately God, that leit atar panuy mineih, “there us no place empty of Him.”

5. PRAY. On one level, the act of Prayer (i.e., of reciting the Amidah) is, as we have explained elsewhere, not primarily one of requesting ones own needs, but simply standing before God. But, unlike Shema, in Tefillah one returns to a certain sober sense of ones creatureliness, of ones dependence upon the Almighty, of ones distance from Him. The focus is on the existential situation of man: of ones needs and limitations, both as an individual and as part of the collectivity. A good part of the central part of Prayer is concerned with the unredeemed situation of the Jewish people, and of humankind as a whole (especially, the 10th to 15th blessings of the weekday Amidah).

Analyzing the last three of these steps (the first two clearly being more preparatory), one finds that the focus is on Torah, God and man, and the interrelation among the three. Similarly, Rosh Hashanah, with its impressive Musaf liturgy, may be seen as focusing on the same three elements, albeit in different order: Malkhut—God’s Kingdom and sovereignty (indeed, it ends with Shema Yisrael); Zikhronot—God’s Providence, His judgment of man, and the universe; but ultimately, how He takes account of Human weakness and creatureliness through His Attribute of Mercy and Compassion (Middat ha-Rahamim), which makes allowance for accepting the world and mankind with all its faults; and Shofarot, which begins with the epiphany at Mount Sinai, and turns to the Temple service and the final epiphany at Messiah Day.


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