Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rosh Hashana (Rashi)

Two Kinds of Rosh Hashana

This year I noticed an interesting thing: that Rosh Hashana, notwithstanding it being one of the major festivals of the Jewish calendar—the beginning of the year, the Day of Judgment when God inscribes the fate of each person in the Books of Life and Death—is mentioned in only a very brief and sketchy fashion in the Torah. All told, there are two brief parshiyot, one of three verses, one of six, relating to this day (Lev 23:23-25; Num 29:1-6). This, in contrast to the pilgrimage holidays, which are mentioned by themselves in three separate places (Exod 23:14-19; Exod 34:18, 22-26; Deut 16), as well as appearing in the two other chapters that provide comprehensive lists of all the festive days—in Emor (Lev 23) and in Pinhas (Num 28-29; here the focus is exclusively on the sacrifices offered on those day). Yom Kippur, which is also only mentioned as a festival in these two chapters, has its own separate chapter describing the atonement ritual in the Temple (Lev 16). Thus, only Rosh Hashana is discussed so tersely. Let us examine Rashi’s comment on the first of these two passages:

Lev 23:24. “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a day of rest, a remembrance of horn-blowing, a holy convocation.” Rashi: Remembrance of the verses of Remembrance and of Shofar, that there be remembered on your behalf the Binding of Isaac, in whose place a ram was offered (Rosh Hashana 32a).

The only phrase in this passage that actually describes or defines the specific nature of this holiday, as opposed to any others, consists of the two words, זכרון תרועה, “a remembering [or: mentioning] of horn-blowing”; in the parallel passage in Num 29:1, the phrase used is יום תרועה, “a day of horn blowing.” One Talmudic reading sees this difference as alluding to the fact that, when Rosh Hashana falls on the Shabbat, the shofar is not blown, but is “remembered” by means of the three special blessings added to the Musaf prayer (R.H. 29a; see HY I: Rosh Hashana, where I elaborated upon this at some length). Here, Rashi seems to ignore the shofar altogether, focusing on the meaning of the verses recited, and drawing attention to the idea of the Akedah as a paradigmatic moment in the history of the covenant between God and Israel.

Ramban raises numerous objections to this comment of Rashi: why, in this very first mention of Rosh Hashana, does he emphasize the blessings added in Musaf, which are of Rabbinic provenance, rather than shofar blowing, which is the central and unique Torah commandment of the day? Moreover, even assuming that it is somehow appropriate to mention this framework, why does he specifically mention only the latter two of the three blessings, skipping Malkhuyot, arguably the most important of all, signifying as it does the ”Enthronement” of God as our King?

Even if one were to answer all of Ramban’s objections (which isn’t our purpose here), why, of all subjects, and with all the varied comments by Hazal on this verse, did he specifically choose this theme?

I will attempt to answer this question in a somewhat impressionistic manner. In doing so, I will also backtrack somewhat from some of the things I said last week about man’s capacity for teshuva, and his ability to change himself as the zenith of his essence as an autonomous being with free-will.

This season revolves around two basic ideas: teshuva and tefilla, repentance or turning, and prayer. These days are known as the Ten Days of Teshuva, and their outstanding feature is the call to teshuva, to engage in self-examination and reflection, to seek to make oneself a better person and a better Jew. They are also days when much time is devoted to prayer—beginning with the Selihot, whether throughout Elul or during its final week, and continuing through the Days of Awe themselves, with the lengthiest and most highly–developed liturgy of the year.

In principle, these reflect two different, in a sense diametrically opposed moods. (Note: I am not speaking here of two different kinds of people. Each person, at different times, feels him/herself filled with strength and with the capacity to change and to act decisively, while at others, we may feel vulnerability, weakness, that even when it is clear to us what we must do, we lack the power to translate it into action.) Teshuva is based upon a sense of self-confidence, upon the belief that every human being has the capacity and, if he but marshals it, the will to return to God, to recreate himself in a positive way. Notwithstanding whatever dastardly and loathsome things he may have done, whatever cruelty and greed and perverted imaginings may lie below the surface of his consciousness—so long as there is life, self-renewal is possible.

Prayer, in the classical sense of bakashat tzerakhim, of “requesting one’s needs” of God, is based in principle upon acknowledgement of our dependence upon God, of a certain degree of existential helplessness. This is particularly true of the prayers of Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur, which are filled with references to our own smallness and worthlessness, to the insignificance of human life, of the smallness of even the powerful monarch compared to the transcendent majesty and glory of the Everlasting King. In prayers like Unetaneh tokef, Avinu Malkinu, and in the various refrains inserted in the Amidah (“remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life…,” “record all the members of your covenant for good life,” “in the Book of Life, blessing and peace inscribe us…”), there is a keen sense of human mortality, and of the uncertainty and insecurity entailed in the future as such.

This is the reason for the numerous references to “merit of the fathers” throughout the High Holy Day liturgy. As if to say: we don’t have that much spiritual strength; we know that our actions this past year have not been particularly holy or even decent; we don’t even know if we can really do teshuva properly, even though that is the one thing that is really up to us. But we do know that there were such people, that the Jewish people has produced spiritual giants: the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are paradigmatic of this, and hence are mentioned throughout the prayers, often in arcane poetic circumlocutions. And one might add: throughout the generation there have been geniuses, erudite and devoted scholars, mystics whose souls were on fire with love of God, saints of faultless generosity and caring for others, people who performed heroic acts of devotion and self-sacrifice, overcoming their natural human egotism in transcendent devotion to God. Here, too, the Akedah is a kind of paradigm for all the martyrs who died in Kiddush Hashem. So we invoke their memory, and see them as models whom we seek to emulate—or at least tell their story for a certain inspiration.

Re story-telling: one is reminded here of the famous story of the Rabbi of Rizhin, who used to sit back in his chair and tell the story of how the Baal Shem Tov, when he needed to perform some special redemptive act, used to go into the forest, light a fire, and recite a certain kavvanah. The story concludes: even though we, many generations later, no longer know the place in the forest, nor how to light the fire nor say the kavvanah, somehow the very retelling of the story accomplishes something of value. (Interestingly, this story is retold, not only by Buber, but also by both Scholem and Idel at the peroration of their most comprehensive books.) Perhaps, one might add: there is a certain type of American Jew who is both ignorant and non-observant of anything Jewish, but considers it a good thing that there are such people. This, too, is of some value.

There are also two different, almost diametrically opposed meanings, to the blowing of the shofar as well. There is the view of Rambam, who sees the shofar as a kind of “wake-up call.” “Wake up, you sleepers… and return to your Creator” (Teshuvah 3.4). This is the moralistic, idealistic understanding of teshuvah, which sees the human being as strong, confident, capable of controlling and changing himself, even “reinventing himself,” constantly growing and changing, and rejoicing in the process. Hence, it may be fairly expected that the person will respond to such a call.

And then there is the view of the Shofar as being addressed to God, as a kind of prayer: hear the painful cry of your people, help us, remember Your promises, remember the great historical moments of the Binding of Isaac, of Sinai, of the songs sung at the Temple service, and the promises of future Redemption. This view is based on the sense of man as more dependent, weak, overwhelmed by his own faults, thrusting his burden upon God, invoking His mercies and the “merits of the fathers.” Here the shofar is a kind of prayer, but not even articulated in words; rather, more like the cry of an infant, calling upon its mother or father. This is the shofar that causes God to “rise from the throne of judgment and sit on the Throne of Mercy.” Or, if you prefer, the shofar as described in Habad, in which the life energy of the New Year is somehow drawn down through the shofar blasts.

In our own life, at this historical moment, I feel that there is a deep paradox: on the one hand, we live in a prosperous society, with material abundance unprecedented in human history, with a high level of comfort, longevity, with the great cultural works of the ages available to the average man. The middle-class dream is realized for many, probably the majority in the US and other developed countries.

On the other hand, there is a feeling that humankind in general, and the Jewish people in particular, face an uncertain future. A great crisis, a far-reaching climate change, seems to be awaiting us in the not distant future. Global warming; depletion of crucial natural resources; proliferation of nuclear weapons; the breakdown of traditional family structures—all seem to signal that “the party is over.” Humankind will have to marshal all of its resources just to survive, to adjust to the idea that we are living on a “small planet,” that “small is beautiful.” It will require great wisdom for humankind just to get through it.

And as for Israel and the Jewish people: on one level, Israel is a prosperous, successful country, a leader in computer and medical technology; the Jewish community in the US, on the level of individual accomplishment, is also a tremendous success story. And yet, the hatred directed against us from certain quarters is frightening both in its intensity and in its destructive potential. Much of it may be rhetoric, but the net result is a country that lives on constant alert, that over six decades has felt that there has been no alternative to developing the military arts.

Rashi, by choosing to emphasis the shofar in connection with the verses of Remembrance and Shofar, which in turn allude to the Ram of Isaac—that is, to the Akedah and the “merit of the fathers”—seems to be emphasizing second meaning of the shofar, and of Rosh Hashana. Teshuva in the sense of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” is a wonderful ideal—but, realistically, it’s not clear how many people are able to realize it. For the average Jew—and I will add, particularly in his day, during the Crusades and massacres of Rhineland communities, in which more than a few Jews chose martyrdom—Rosh Hashana was a day which seemed to encapsulate the insecurity of the human, and the Jewish, condition in this world—and hence a time for invoking a power greater than themselves, both Divine, and human in the sense of intercession of the holy fathers.

And yet, we must conclude with another paradox: despite the anxiety about the future, and the impending Divine judgment, Rosh Hashana is a joyous day. There is an interesting scene in the Book of Nehemiah, where Ezra reads the Torah—a large portion of which they had evidently forgotten in Exile—to the entire people on Rosh Hashana day, and they weep bitterly upon realizing how many mitzvot they have neglected. He tells them not to weep or be sad, but to go home, and “eat rich food, and drink sweet wine, and send portions to those who have nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord; but do not be sad, for the joy in God is your strength” (Neh 8:10).

“Reign over the Entire World in Your Glory”

Jews like to talk about peoplehood, survival, Torah, ethics, Israel, Holocaust, history, culture, etc. —all subjects that are not necessarily “religious.” Even the various festive days lend themselves to “secular” interpretations. But there is one day of the year, one holiday, when we engage in “God-talk”—Rosh Hashana. Hasidism speak of the first evening as “Coronation Night”—declaring the kingship of God. The word hamelekh is repeated again and again: at the beginning of Shaharit, in the blessings of the Amidah, in the first of the three special blessings added to Musaf. But there is a problem, even a paradox: God is unknowable, ineffable. Judaism does not have one authoritative theology. The subject is allusive: Rambam says that one can only describe Him in negative terms—what He is not; the Zohar uses an abundance of symbols that are allusive, pointing at Him in roundabout way; one popular Kabbalistic name for Him is Ayin, the Nothing.

Isaac Bashevis Singer has an interesting story in which a half-crazy rabbi preaches a sermon on the verse bakese leyom hagenu (though Singer was not a pious Jew, he had a very keen spiritual sensitivity, and was a kind of post-traditional seeker). Rosh Hashana, he says, is the only holiday that occurs when the moon is hidden, “covered.” This is a symbol of the non–obviousness of God’s kingship over the world. “If God were walking around in the street, it would be no trick to believe in Him!”

Where do we take this on Rosh Hashana? First, one of the closest thing we have to an articulated Jewish theology is in the blessings of Musaf. This is not a catechism, nor an ani maamin like the shortened version of Rambam’s Thirteen Principles, but a poetic presentation of three main ideas: Malkhuyot—God’s Kingship, His sovereignty over the universe; Zikhronot—Divine Providence, God acting in the world as Judge, but also as merciful father, who remembers our ancestor’s heroic deeds, and our won true situation; and Shofarot—in which the shofar is as symbol both for the epiphany at Sinai and the promises for a future Redemption. Each of these presentations is interspersed with ten biblical verses—three from each part of Tanakh, and one from the Torah to sum up. I would recommend that people read the Musaf slowly and closely. There is a tendency in many places to rush through the Amidah and sit down, particularly once the Prayer Leader begins his repetition. But on this day, it functions not only as prayer but also as instruction.

Second, since God is allusive, hard to talk about, the real question to be asked is: what does God’s existence mean for us human beings? The answer is: teshuvah; ethical decent human behavior, responsibility, accountability for our actions. God judges us, and we try to render an account of ourselves, and to increase our devotion and commitment on all levels of life—prayer, Torah, mitzvot, tzedakah, caring deeds towards others—to “sweeten the judgment.”

* * * * * *

I conclude with New Years wishes to all my readers—whether friends, family, or strangers. For those I haven’t written personally, please regard this as my personal blessing. May we all enjoy a year of health, blessing, sweetness, love; of meaningful and creative learning and work, and may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.


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