Rosh Hashana 5764 – Gilayon #309
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four periods the world is judged; on Pesach – for the grains, on Shavuot – for the
fruits of the trees, on Rosh
Hashanah all who came into the world pass before Him as sheep, as is
written (Psalms 33) "He who fashions the hearts of them all, who
discerns all their doings," and on Sukkoth they are judged for
(Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2)
Only the God of Thoughts Can
Evaluate Who Is a Sinner, Who Is a Tzaddik
One whose sins exceed his merits dies immediately in his wickedness, as
is written, "For most of your sins", and so a society
whose sins are many is annihilated immediately, as is written: "The
outcry in Sodom and Amora – how great it is!", and similarly
the entire world, if their sins exceed their merits, they are destroyed
immediately, as is written: "Now God saw that great was humankind's
evildoing on earth". This weighing is not done according to the
number of merits and sins, but considers the relative weight of each sin and
merit; there is a merit which may outweigh a number of sins, as is written: "for
some good has been found in him", and there is a sin which
outweighs several merits, as is written: "A single error destroys much
of value" – and weighing is done only in the mind of the God of
thought, and He alone knows how to evaluate the merits as against the sins.
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 3:2)
Best Wishes for A Good Year
To Our Readers
To the Entire
House of Israel
to All Mankind
Year of Peace and Tranquility
End to the Year with Its Curses
Beginning of a Year with Its Blessings
Inscribe Us in the Book of Life, for Your Sake, Living God
Of all the piyyutim – liturgical poems
– of Rosh Hashanah, I choose with great love as my favorite "Unetaneh
Tokef". Every year I find myself looking forward to this
supreme king of the day's piyyutim, to "Unetaneh Tokef".
I repeatedly ask myself what it is in this ancient prayer that so excites and
thrills me since childhood.
At first it was the hair-raising story of R'
Amnon of Mayence. I – a girl of eight, or maybe ten – read the tiny lines on
the margin of the siddur, which relate the wonderful and frightening
tale of a far-away time and a distant place, about a courageous man, a giant of
Later, it may have been the intense silence
which pervaded the synagogue of my youth, right before the chazzan began
to chant "A-dam". A single word which melody turns into a whole human
story, beginning with the sound of a teruah – a trumpet blast – and
ending in the depths of the earth (the sobbing of violins). "Man, comes from dust and ends in dust;
he wins his bread at the risk of his life."
Since the mid-seventies, the trauma of the
Yom Kippur War asks to be squeezed into the pages of the machzor,
assisted by the wonderful melody of Yair Rosenblum. This melody is
simultaneously "the most Israeli" and "the most Jewish".
Whether heard ten times or a hundred times, it never ceases to affect me each
the years, there has a developed literary understanding, adding awareness of
the meaning of the short lines of the piyyut.
What is so unique about this piyyut? ´
Why, after hundreds of years, does it continue to cause hearts to tremble?
Why has it of late become the Rosh Hashanah
and Yom Kippur anthem for secular as well as religious Israelis? What is the
source of its power?
I think that one of the wonderful things
about this piyyut is the dramatic mid-poem transition from the feeling
of total dependence upon God to the belief that we still have the ability to
influence our world.
The worshipper suddenly switches from a
self-image of a powerless person, ruled totally by a higher power, to optimism
and trust in his ability to change the direction of life's flow.
The piyyut opens with a declaration of
the holiness of the day on which "thy throne shall be established on
mercy, and thou shall occupy it in truth." Already in this opening, the
duality springs forth: the Lord sits on "the throne of mercy", which
has the quality of forgiveness of his creations, alongside a description of the
Lord who sits "in truth" in the celestial court, opening the books of
memories of men and inscribing their sentences. The heavenly retinue awaits the
reading of the verdict with suspense, and behold! the sounding of the shofar of
the king who is also "judge and arbiter, discerner and witness" –
followed by a gentle whisper.
The picture of the judge determining fates
slowly dissolves, replaced by a softer picture. God is portrayed as a shepherd
who checks the lambs in his flock, deciding the fate of each lamb. But the
shepherd is not only a judge, he is a kind of compassionate father, who guards
and takes care of his flock.
From the image of the shepherd checking his
flocks, we move to the "inscribing of their destiny", and to the
dramatic section of the poem, which describes the feeling accompanying the
Rosh Hashanah their destiny is inscribed
Yom Kippur it is sealed,
many shall pass away,
how many shall be brought into existence…
shall have comfort and who shall be tormented,
shall become poor and who shall become rich,
And then, suddenly, the sobbing, melancholy
melody changes; the cantor and the congregation cry out:
repentance, prayer and charity cancel the stern decree!
And further on we read:
have no desire for anyone to die,
that he turn from his evil way and live
How can this be? How does something which
was, just a moment before, so deterministic and threatening, become so full of
hope? What has happened during the prayer?
What is the meaning of the words "But
repentance and prayer and charity cancel the stern decree"? Is this some
sort of magic?
May I suggest that the answer is to be found
on a totally different level.
True, on the face of it we do not control our
lives, everything is determined from above. But this is only one part of the
human experience. To be human does not only mean to be helpless; to be human means
How? By our ability to change ourselves, to recreate ourselves. This is very difficult
psychological work, but it is possible. Traditional terminology calls this deep
psychological process "teshuva"
Teshuvah is the courage to acknowledge
those aspects of our personality which we want to change, to admit to our
weaknesses, and then to try – with little steps – to walk in new, unfamiliar
paths. This is a spiritual process of analysis, a psychological process which
drains energies and spiritual powers, but Judaism believes that it can be done.
This is the basic premise behind the concept of repentance and the "Days
of Repentance" which are currently reaching their climax.
What else is given us? "Prayer" – prayer is the expression of our decision; do
we continue to engage only in "the here and now", or do we seek
additional meanings to our lives? When we pray, we proclaim that there is
something beyond reality, there is somewhere to strive towards, there is a
reason for striving. Prayer means that we choose to relate not only to the
horizontal foundation (man-man), but also to the vertical foundation (man-God).
And the third foundation which cancels the
stern decree? "Charity". Charity
is our social responsibility. It is in our power to change economic reality,
ours and our neighbor's. It is in our power to help to those whose financial
collapse may have turned them into paupers for a while. Charity is the
traditional way of saying "How will your society look? It depends on you!"
The stern decree can be changed by the merit
of our actions.
God gave us humans the ability to shape the
community in which we live. The ability and
the responsibility. The institutions of charity we establish and the "gemillut
chasadim" we do will determine what kind of world this will be.
Jewish tradition, as is reflected in "Unetaneh
Tokef" and in the many other prayers of the Days of Awe,
believes in the ability of the individual to change, even in mid-life… in "teshuvah".
The picture of God, as reflected in the piyyut and throughout the
Rosh Hashanah Machzor, is that of a God who gives man a chance, "You
wait for him until his dying day; if he repents, you readily accept him."
God creates man, he knows their impulses, he is aware of their failings "for
they are but flesh and blood". He understands that his creation needs a 'second
chance'. This opportunity is granted time and again. The question is only do we
find the strength to take responsibility for our destiny.
If we return to the question with which we
began: what is the secret of the magic of "Unetaneh Tokef" ,
one of the answers in embedded precisely in this matter.
This ancient piyyut expresses better
than anything else the feeling of modern man, who experiences two opposing
feelings simultaneously: For one moment he feels himself to be a "zero",
like a marionette controlled by wondrous and powerful powers, he knows not what
the next day will bring, what catastrophe lies at his door. On the other hand –
he feels "all powerful". He conquers worlds, eradicates diseases,
leads to far-reaching changes in economics and in world policies.
In the words of R' Amnon of Mayence: Man "is like the potsherd that breaks, the
grass that withers, the flower that fades, the shadow that passes, the cloud
that vanishes, the breeze that blows, the dust that floats, the dream that
flies away", but he is also able – through "Repentance, Prayer, and Charity – to cancel the stern decree!"
Rabbi Soleveitchik wrote an excellent description of this bi-faceted
human and religious experience:
The first Adam is the man of glory,
domination, and success; the second Adam, the lonely man of faith, the man of
obedience and failure – these are not two different persons found in external
conflict, the "I' against "you" – they are one man in a state of
internal conflict… in every man there are two personalities, the first Adam,
creator and man of glory, and the second Adam, the subdued and the humble. (Man of Faith, pp. 49-50)
The motif of duality – dependence as against
independence, helplessness as against ability – is a frequent motif in the
Jewish calendar and in traditional texts, but in the month of Elul and the
festivals of Tishrei, this tension is emphasized sevenfold. We pass, almost
inadvertently, between moments which stress man's responsibility and ability,
to moments of dependence and futility.
For example, the concept of teshuva
is, by nature, optimistic, presupposing the individual's capability for change,
but a large part of the selichot expresses the experiencing of sin and
total failure, which can have no repair other than by God's forgiveness. All
the letters of the alef-bet cannot suffice to describe the extent of our
sins, and we repeat again and again the order of the alef-bet in the piyyutim
of confession – "Ashamnu, bagadnu" and "Al
chet shechatanu", etc., -but despite this, we assume that "In
the book of life and blessing, peace and prosperity, we will be inscribed and
remembered before you."
In the Yom Kippur liturgy, the feeling of
guilt reaches its peak in Ravva's supplication (Berachot 17):
God, before I was formed I was of no worth, and now that I have been formed it
is as if I have not been formed. Dust I am in life, and all the more so in
death. In thy sight, I am like an object filled with shame and disgrace…
From Rabba's prayer, conveying extreme worthlessness, we
move to the conclusion of Yom Kippur with the full-voiced proclamation "THE
LORD IS GOD!", to the joyful singing of "Lashana habaa"
– "The coming year in Yerushalayim", and then pass on to an
evening which is all doing and trust in the power of doing – the construction
of the Sukkah.
Will we have the wisdom to adopt this sober optimism also
outside the walls of the synagogue, to overcome the feelings of futility, to
influence future stages of Israeli society? Will we have the intelligence to
mold a society based on foundations of repentance, prayer, and charity, and
thereby to cancel the evil decree?
Dr. Gili Zivan is director
of the Yaakov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies in Kibbutz Ein Tsurim
When Is Man Judged?
is taught in a Barayta: All [things] are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and their
verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur, so said Rabbi Meir.
Yehudah said: Everything is judged on Rosh Hashanah, but verdicts are sealed
for each in its own time; on Pesach for the grains, on Shavuot for the fruits
of the tree, on Sukkoth for water and man
is judged on Rosh Hashanah, and his verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur.
Yossi says: Man is judged daily, as
is written (Job 7:18),
"You inspect him every morning."
Natan says: Man is judged every hour,
as is written (ibid.)"Examine
him every minute".
(Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16a)
is the reason that the Day of Judgment of Rosh Hashanah is omitted [from the
parasha], so that man will not behave arbitrarily, adapting himself to sin all
days of the year, thinking to correct his ways as he approaches the Day of the
Lord on which He sits on the throne of judgment; he should rather imagine that
every day God sits on His throne for judgment, and he should check his record
book, and thereby he will constantly be in a state of repentance, and there is
the opinion which says "Man is judged daily" (Rosh Hashanah 16), as is written (Job 7:18) "You
inspect him every morning, examine him every second."
(Kli Yakar, Vayikra 16)
this explains "man is judged every day" and not "they[the Heavenly court] judge him every day" as though to say that he
is judged from within himself, as
though it [judgement] is conducted automatically…
Nachal, Parashat Nitzavim)
is no doubt that the statements by R' Yossi and R' Natan express the deepest
conception of faith. Man's standing in the world is not a matter of a verdict
imposed upon him on some specific date; it is an expression of man's constant
standing before God. There is not a moment in his life in which he is not being
judged. What, then, is the particular relevance of Rosh Hashanah here? Against
the background of the above, we can say that Rosh Hashanah is not a Day of
Judgment; it is a "Yom Teruah" – of sounding the shofar
– and a "reminder by shofar blasting", intended to
remind man of the fact that he is constantly
Leibowitz: Discussions of Israel's Festivals and Appointed Times, p.165)
Man Comes from Dust
first glance, this is a low view of man, to say that "man comes from dust
and ends in dust", but in truth these words denote praise of man, who was
hewn from a holy source, from our father Avraham, peace be upon him, as is
written (Bereishit 18),
"I am but earth and ashes", and he ends in dust – this
refers to the Days of Messiah, about which David said (Psalms 44) "For our soul is
bowed down to the dust".
(Rabbi Yehoshua of Ostroveh; Sefer
Toldedot Adam. Quoted by S. Y. Agnon in Days
of Awe, p.86)
"You Edge Me Before and Behind"
Said R' Shim'on ben Lakish: Back to the
creation of the first day, and before to the creation of the last day, this is
the opinion of R' Shim'on ben Lakish, for R' Shim'on ben Lakish said: "The spirit of God hovering over the face of
the waters" – this is the
spirit of the Anointed King – the Messiah. How, then, to understand that which
is written, "And the spirit
of God will rest upon him?" – if
man merits, he will be told: You preceded the ministering angels, and if not,
he is told: The fly preceded you, the mosquito preceded you, this worm preceded
Rabba, Parasha 8:1)
Editorial Board: Pinchas Leiser
Fine (Coordinator), Itzhak
Frankenthal and Dr. Menachem Klein
Translation: Kadish Goldberg
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