Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Rosh Hashanah (Rambam)

Today I shall not expound texts, but try to say a few things that are simple, true and from the heart. Not anything “smart’ or “erudite” or “clever” or “sophisticated.”

Erev Rosh Hashanah is a time of total emptiness. According to Hasidic teaching, on this day the life-force of the world for that year winds down, and the world is pregnant with expectancy for the energy of the new year to be, so to speak, “brought down” on Rosh Hashanah—through, among other things, the prayers and shofar blowing of Israel, that constitute the “crowning” of the Divine king.

One way of looking at teshuvah is as a kind of emptying out. To see ourselves as nothing. To detach our essence, our inner self or soul, from ego, from pride, from the sense of self-importance that comes from status, from position in the world, from worldly things, from accomplishments; and also from our wants and needs and desires. Even from the good deeds we have done and from the Torah we have learned or taught. This kind of teshuvah means—to try to see ourselves through God’s eyes, using that piece of the Eternal that resides within ourselves as a reverse prism, to undo the distortion brought about by selfhood, and to see and transcend the smallness and pettiness of much of what our lives revolve about.

All of which sounds very Buddhist: to release ourselves from all attachments. But we must take care that that too can also be phony, since we are beings who in the end are very much alive, and very much dwell in this world.

Rambam, at the very end of the Guide for the Perplexed, gives a little homily on Jeremiah 9:22-23: “Let not the wise man take pride in his wisdom, nor the mighty man in his might, nor the wealthy man in his wealth.” I have lived long enough and been around the world enough to have known, at least superficially, at least one extremely wealthy person, at least one “hero,” or even “living legend,” and quite a few world-class scholars, geniuses and trailblazers in their field. And what is striking, in the end, is their ordinariness; that all of them are, in the end, human beings, with their foibles and peculiarities and limitations.

I know less about great wealth or great heroism (whether physical prowess, bravery in battle, or simple fortitude), and rather more about “wisdom.” There is a certain kind of pride that may often be seen among certain kinds of intellectuals and scholars. A way of seeing life, and the world, at one remove—to be constantly full of the knowledge, the analytic tools, the posture of criticism, of creating tools, of sophistication—that protect us, so to speak, from life itself, from the directness of experience, of seeing other people. We Jewish people, especially, tend to be overly caught in a kind of preoccupation with cleverness an erudition. Rosh Hashanah, then, means also to let go our intellect. Always, to return to simplicity. I have seen great tzaddikim, learned scholars who are like walking Torah scrolls, filled with copious knowledge of all branches of Jewish knowledge. And yet…. Seeing such men at prayer during the Days of Awe, especially, they are like small children, who know how to humble themselves before God without pretence or self-consciousness.

Rambam goes on to explain the verse: “But in this shall he take pride: in understanding and knowing Me, for I am the Lord, who does kindness, justice and righteousness in the land…” Here, Maimonides makes an interesting twist. True knowledge of God is not profound, esoteric knowledge of metaphysics and of the secrets of Creation, as seems to be suggested by so many of the texts we have learned this year; rather, it consists in walking in God’s way, of practicing kindness, justice and righteousness in the world.

Translated into simple language: if I spend an hour listening patiently and attentively to another person who is in deep pain, even if I may feel within myself that that person is a nudnick and a bore; if I provide a sympathetic ear, a feeling that there is someone in this big cold world who cares, and perhaps offer some kindly and friendly advice in his or her dilemma; or if I do some other act of kindness to some real person—I am closer to God during that hour, then were I to spend that time studying Zohar or meditating on the Infinite. For during that hour, I am imitating the “Compassionate Father” that we believe God to be, and as whom we address Him on Rosh Hashana.

Finally, about the holy festival day: Rosh Hashanah itself is a day of emptying out, of being in a mode of receptiveness, of simply letting everything that happens during the holiday wash over us and pass through us like purifying waters: from the solemnity of the prayer of the first night of the festival, when we first recite the grand words of the Amidah in which we declare God our King; through the solemn, ancient melodies of the festival nusah; through the piyyutim, even if we don’t understand them, with the power of repetition of motifs like Hashem Melekh, “God reigns”; to the visionary verses from the Bible recited during Musaf, linked by Rav’s Tekiata, creating word pictures of God on Mount Sinai, of the world being judged, of God coming to reign; to the awe-inspiring words of Unetaneh tokef; to, finally, the blasts of the shofar.

Coming in to the holy days, the important thing is to do everything with a whole heart, without reservation, without a divided consciousness. But… receptivity is not to be confused with passivity. Nor is receptivity meant to be a permanent state. The result of Rosh Hashanah is the crowning of God as king over our lives, so as to engage in holy action.

Maimonides on Shofar

Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is a Biblical edict, it also involves a certain allusion. As if to say: “Awake, o sleepy ones, and slumberers, shake off your torpor. Search out your deeds and turn in repentance and remember your Creator.” This refers to those who forget the truth in transient matters and err all their years pursuing vanity and emptiness, which are of no benefit and will not help. “Look to your souls and improve your ways and your doings, and let each one of you abandon his evil path and his thought that is not good.”

Hence, each person must see himself the entire year as if he is half guilty and half innocent. And similarly the entire world as half innocent and half guilty. If he committed one sin, he has tipped himself and the entire world to the side of culpability, and caused it destruction. But if he did one mitzvah, he has tipped himself and the entire world to the side of merit, and brought to himself and to them salvation and deliverance, as it is said, “the righteous is the foundation of the world” [Prov 10:25]. That righteous man tipped the entire world toward innocence, and saved it.

And because of this matter the entire House of Israel is accustomed to multiply charity and good deeds and to engage in mitzvot from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, more than all year round. And they are accustomed to rise at night during these ten days, and to pray in the synagogue with words of petition, and contrition until day breaks. (Laws of Teshuva 3.4)

I will only touch briefly upon a few points here.

First, by way of introduction, this halakha is really divided into three separate units, as indicated by my paragraphing: a) the “mini-sermon” which Maimonides places, as it were, in the mouth of the shofar; b) the importance of each individual act, in which the individual and the world constantly stand in the ”balance” (this is the central theme of Chapter 3 generally); c) special customs of the ten days of teshuva. Particularly interesting here is the reference to a kind of “Uhr-Selihot.”

Rambam’s introductory words sound almost apologetic. Here, he departs from his usual practice in the Mishneh Torah, in which he presents the formal legal parameters alone, and indulges in a brief excursus on the philosophical underpinnings of the mitzvah discussed, in this case shofar. Hence, he opens with a kind of disclaimer, reminding his readers that all mitzvot are ultimately “Divine edicts,“ meaning that their authority and obligatory nature is independent of whether or not we understand them or, indeed, if we can find reason for them at all (see the perorations to his Sefer Avodah & Korbanot; and my discusion of this in HY I: Hukat). Only after saying this does he feel it proper to engage in the activity of ta’amei hamitzvot.

What is doubly interesting, and somewhat puzzling, is the location of this little discourse on the meaning of the Shofar. He does not present it in the “Laws of Shofar,” to which he devotes an entire section in Sefer ha-Zemanim, the book of laws pertaining to the weekly and annual round of sabbaths and festivals, but here, in the “Laws of Teshuva.” But this very fact may help to explain the reason for his writing this mini - ethical exhortation on this mitzvah, specifically.

The laws of teshuva are concerned, first and foremost, if not exclusively, with human ethical behavior and the dynamic of human improvement. As such, it is uniquely suited to moral exhortation. In this chapter, Maimonides talks of the need for constant awareness of the far reaching, even cosmic, deeper consequences of their behavior: to know that every small action may have unforeseen repercussions, both on themselves and on the world generally (again, in both the spiritual and the practical sense). In the previous chapter, where he discusses the theme of teshuva per se, he has already mentioned the propitious nature of what we call the Ten Days of Repentance. Hence, here he brings together these two elements—the Ten Days (specifically, Rosh Hashana) and the idea of man always standing the moral balance. The shofar fits easily into this rubric, interpreted as a call for teshuva. He thus departs from his usual practice, and explains the rationale for this mitzvah in terms of its ethical-educational function: as a “wake up” call. Hence, it must appear in Hilkhot Teshuva rather than in Hilkhot Shofar.


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