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Rosh Hashana - Parshat Ha'azinu

May we and all Your people, the House of Israel be remembered and inscribed before You for good life and peace

In the Book of Blessing, Peace, and Good Livelihood.

(From the High Holy Days Amida prayer)


Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta said:

The Holy One, blessed be He, found no vessel that could preserve

Blessings for Israel, save peace, for it is said:

The Lord grant His people strength, the Lord bless His people with peace.

(Mishnah Uktzin 3:12)


Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta said: "The Holy One, blessed be He, found no vessel that could preserve Blessings for Israel, save peace, for it is said: The Lord grant His people strength [Hebrew: oz], etc. Oz refers to strength. And [the verse] concludes bless His people with peace. The [verse's] conclusion explains its beginning. God wants to grant His people strength power, and what does He do? He blesses them with peace, which is strength. It is self-evident that all the blessings in the world cannot persist without peace. And in Midrash Rabbah at the end of parashat Shoftim, the following formulation appears: "A vessel which holds all the blessings to bless him with, etc." And this dictum is a worthy conclusion to the Mishnah. For The Lord grant His people strength refers to the time the Torah was given, as the Sages (Zevahim 116) interpreted the verse preceding it - The Lord sat [enthroned] at the flood - "that all the nations gathered by Balaam, etc." And when He granted them [Israel] strength - which is Torah - He also blessed them with peace. From this we know that this Torah brings about the blessing of peace. And therefore the wise-hearted take heart and return to it, not leaving it after completing [the study of] it. This also comes to "sweeten" and arouse the hearts. For even though the Mishnah is full of controversies between sages - which might lead the hasty to think that their disagreements were quarrels - it tells us this is not so, for the strength of Torah is a vessel filled with God's blessings. It is peace without any quarreling or heartfelt disagreement. And as they said regarding the verse, when they talk to the enemies in the gate (Psalms 127), "They appear to be enemies but they become friends" (Kiddushin 36), and this is certainly true for those well versed [in Torah] and who study it for its own sake (Shabbat 63) - and not in order to show off, or to aggrandize themselves before others, and the like. It is proper that all [texts] should conclude with peace. That is what the men of the Great Assembly did when they formulated the liturgy. And since worship - which is prayer - concludes with peace, so too it is fitting that the Torah conclude with peace. And so it was in the Torah that when the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded the priests to bless His people Israel, He concluded their blessing with peace.

(Tosafot Yom Tov ad loc)



We wish a good year to all of our readers, to the whole House of Israel, and to all the world's inhabitants.

May it be a year of peace and tranquility.

Let the year end with its curses - let the New Year begin with its blessings!

And may we be inscribed in the Book of Life, for Your sake - O Living God!



Highs and Lows in the Season of Repentence

Mordechai Beck

From a distance the High Holidays look like separate, high peaks in a landscape of mundane, anonymous weekdays. Closer up, they are revealed as being all part of one long mountain range, stretching from the New Moon of Elul and continuing for almost two months, through Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot and Shmini Atzeret/Simhat Torah. Beneath these summits lie the valleys of days and nights that lead up to and away from them. The surrounding low ground affords the individual the space and time in which to prepare to scale the heights which the High Holy days and festivals demand.

Viewed this way, the entire period can be understood not as discrete events but as one continuous journey, a development that connects the highs and the lows. As a mountaineer uses ropes to climb up and down the peaks, the Jew uses prayers and good deeds to go from one level to another.

The theme of connectedness penetrates these weeks of penitence. Elul is an acrostic for Ani Ledodi veDodi Li, 'I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine,' depicting God and Israel as two lovers yearning for each other's proximity; the first and second day of Tishre - Rosh Hashana - are two days which are considered as one long day; Yom Kippur concludes with the declaration of the unity of God, Shma Yisrael; on Succot we hold the four species of vegetation together in our hands, transforming them into one mitzva; and Simhat Torah focuses on the One‑ness of God, Torah and Israel, thus consummating the initial longing of Elul.

As with any unknown territory this one can be better traversed with the aid of maps. We may not know where we are going, but we can seek the paths that seem to be profitable. Which ones are dead ends? Where is teshuva appropriate? Are we likely to lose our way?

Jerusalem‑based psycho-analyst and philosopher, Eliane Levy‑Valency sees a powerful analogy between the process of teshuva and therapy: "Both aim for a balance between discipline and creativity, framework and freedom. If everything is permissible then nothing is. Similarly, if everything is forbidden, the results will be just as harmful. Compulsive religion is no less damaging than total anarchy. For me, Judaism is typified by its lack of ideology. Once it becomes ideology, religion loses its meaning for the individual as an individual."

Did not the ideological underpinnings of contemporary therapy contradict the basic demands of Judaism with its stress on Divine obligations, and of recognizing the presence of the other - whether divine or human?

"A therapy that doesn't include others is a contradiction," says Levy‑Valency.

"This is the way I understand the crucial verse: 'Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.'

This for me is the basic principle of psychoanalysis and therapy, as well as teshuva."

Professor Levy‑Valency observes how all individuals strive for completeness - which is the goal of teshuva. However, it should not be forgotten that as with good therapy, teshuva is highly individual. "The mixture will always be different. Since our personalities and predicaments are different, so must the results of our personal search."

The real problem may well be in the amount of ingredients in that mixture and how it is stirred. Richard Alpert (a.k.a Ram Dass - lit. servant of God) put the problem this way:

"The trick," he says "is not to fall into a trap. As I see it, religion is the creation of mystics - people who have had a personal experience of the Ineffable - the world beyond words. But in translating that experience into the mundane world, a priesthood takes over and they typically introduce punitive measures into religious practices. The focus of attention then becomes the means - what to do, what not to do, and how - and the ends are forgotten.

"Every practice is potentially a trap, it suspends you, stops your flow. I'm all for practices that move you from one plane of consciousness to another. But you have to hope that they will self‑destruct. Otherwise you get stuck doing the same thing over and over again. I sometimes think of religion as the leftovers from God's hand after He has taken the food offered Him."

Interestingly, the volume dealing with Yom Kippur in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, focuses almost exclusively on the role of the Temple priests, and particularly of the high priest, in second Temple times. At the climax of the Yom Kippur drama, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, soon emerging to proclaim God's name. On hearing the name, the expectant congregation declaimed: Boruch shem Kavod Malchuto leolam va'ed! Blessed be the glorious name; His kingdom is for ever (Yoma 66a). This ecstatic outburst is recalled in our daily recital of the Shema, where it is inserted as a novel second line, and resurfaces in the Musaf service in the traditional mahzor down to the present day.

Although it possessed an obvious theatrical quality in the Temple service, this potent moment seems strange to modern eyes and ears. Surely God's name was already public knowledge, especially among our ancestors. Why did this declaration of the Name come at the apex of a day of ritual which included the slaughter of numerous animals (according to a complex order which the priest had a week to rehearse), the sending of the scapegoat into the Judean desert, a fivefold change of priestly garments, and a similar number of ritual bathings?

According to Rabbi Zalman Schacter‑Shalomi, the high Priest was not merely repeating a well‑honed formula. When he entered the Holy of Holies it was to receive the new configuration of letters, or partzuf, drawn from the 72 letters of the Divine Name in all its various combinations. Only when this new 'face' was revealed could the High Priest exit and proclaim it to the gathered crowd waiting to respond appropriately. This new configuration was moreover imprinted on the High Priest's own face, which glowed with the new knowledge. To this day, this event is commemorated in the piyyut recited at this point in the additional prayers - mareh cohen - literally the countenance of the High Priest. This was to be God's 'new face' for the coming year.

Understanding the ceremony this way implies that the core of the day's spiritual activities reveals how the relationship between God and ourselves is a two- way affair. What is startling, too, is the insistence that God, too, 'changes His face.' Without this renewal, He, too, would remain as it were, a stale monument to yesteryear, unwilling to be transformed by His people. Ram Dasss warning about the 'trap' is pertinent. On Yom Kippur, the obligation to be transformed is cosmic. God, too, must renew Himself. But precisely because He does, so must we. To put it in different language: a wise parent changes his relationship to his children as they grow up and go through their various and necessary changes on their journey to adulthood. God here operates in a similar way. The alternative is a Don Quixote figure, fighting to restore a previous mode of relating to the world, an exercise which is quaint but irrelevant, a parody.

This annual encounter is therefore more than theater. It is a means of facing up to our essential humanity, on the physical, intellectual and spiritual levels.

Is there therefore a possible connection between this obscure Temple ceremony and the life of contemporary Jews?

The mystical reading of the discovery of God's new face does suggest something that talks directly to a generation which puts such stress on self‑development and individual spiritual growth. Today this process is effected consciously through forms of therapy and/or analysis. Did ancient ceremonies such as described here act as a form of therapy? Is modern therapy a better way of reaching our real inner selves, thus offering a usable alternative to teshuva or even rendering the latter irrelevant? If we can change under the aegis of a professional analyst or therapist why do we need the awesome rituals of this month of Tishri to get in contact with ourselves, or to reach those parts of the psyche that we are content to let lay fallow the rest of the year?

According to Levy‑Valency, teshuva and therapy strive for similar ends, albeit through different means. "In an optimal situation," she says "the results will be similar. When you have a sensitive, caring person with a strong sense of their own identity these processes can lead to the appropriate result"

Yet even a complete person has to work very hard to achieve this completeness. Professor Levy observes that the fruits of therapy and/or teshuva is a well‑balanced, spontaneous individual. How many of our contemporaries fall into this category?

Translating these abstract terms for a moment into the received religious categories of the Tradition, we could create the following picture:

The entire period from through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot and Shmini Azeret offers a unique opportunity to examine in the most radical way the essence of our humanity, the nature of God and the world He created, and the relationship between all three.

From the call of the shofar - with its delicate mixture of arousal and warning - through the season of prayers and penitence, to the bitter-sweet mixture of lulav and ethrog, (two of the four species used in the Succot festival ritual) the obsessive probings of Kohelet's prose‑poem (The Book of Ecclesiastes, also read on Succot), to the ultimate dance of rejoicing with the scroll of the Torah (Save‑the‑last- dance‑for‑me?) - we are all under the Divine microscope, examining and being examined, probing and being probed. Whether we are rich or poor, clever or simple, plain‑speaking or subtle, and whether our belief is Orthodox, heterodox or - like that of Agnon's narrator in his story 'Tehilla' who finds himself at the Western Wall "halfway between the worshipers and the curious onlookers," - the substantial questions remain the same: what is the meaning of this life; is there a purpose to suffering and pain; what are our origins on this planet, collectively or individually? Where does God fit into this, if at all? In more practical terms what does God demand of us? What should we be doing with this mysterious package we call life, what are our responsibilities towards ourselves, our families and friends, our people, the world? Where should our preferences lay? Should we follow the rabbinical adage which recommends "half for yourselves, half for God?"

These questions cannot be answered in the way that a mathematical theorem or scientific hypothesis can; perhaps because of this they forever engage our attention and our imaginations on one level or another. The annual season of repentance suggests that it is politic to keep our options open, always readying ourselves for changes that are bound to come, whether we seek them or they seek us.

Not that this renewal will always be flagrant and open. It can just as well be subtle and inward, an inner shifting of perspective, a new way of seeing the same reality, as in the following hassidic tale.

It is told that on the Sabbath after a certain hassidic rebbe died, his son made the benediction (kiddush) over the wine. The hassidim were startled to hear a kiddush so different from that of the previous rebbe. When he saw their confusion, the son hastened to assure his followers that nothing had changed. "If you listen carefully," he said "You will notice that I recited the kiddush exactly like my father."

Mordechai Beck is a writer and artist who lives in Jerusalem



Man Comes from Dust

At 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 Abraham, 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"

R. Shimon ben Lakish said: "Back to the creation of the first day, and before to the creation of the last day," this is the opinion of R. Shimon ben Lakish, for R. Shimon 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 you.'"

(Bereishit Rabbah, Parasha 8:1)


God's World is a World of faith, Justice, Uprightness, and Mercy

A faithful God (Devarim 32:4) - Who believed in the world and created it.

Never false (ibid) - For people did not come [into the world in order] to be evil, but rather to be righteous. And so he says: God made people upright, but they sought many accountings (Kohelet 7:29).

True and upright is He (Devarim 32:4) - He treats all the world's inhabitants honestly.

(Sifrei Ha'azinu 307)


All this is obvious and clear, for God is a God of truth. It is this idea which is embodied in the statement of Moses our Teacher, may peace be upon him, the Rock - His work is whole; for all of His ways are just. He is a God of faithfulness, without wrong... (Devarim 32:4). Since the Holy One blessed be He desires justice, ignoring the bad would be as much of an injustice as ignoring the good. If He desires justice then He must deal with each man according to his ways and according to the fruits of his acts with the most minute discrimination, for good or for bad. This is what underlies the statement of our Sages of blessed memory that the verse He is a God of faithfulness, without wrong; He is righteous and just has application to the righteous as well as to the wicked. For this is His attribute. He judges everything. He punishes every sin. There is no escaping. To those who might ask at this point, "Seeing that whatever the case may be, everything must be subjected to judgment, what function does the attribute of mercy perform?" the answer is that the attribute of mercy is certainly the mainstay of the world; for the world could not exist at all without it. Nevertheless the attribute of justice is not affected. For on the basis of justice alone it would be dictated that the sinner be punished immediately upon sinning, without the least delay; that the punishment itself be a wrathful one, as befits one who rebels against the word of the Creator, blessed be His Name; and that there be no correction whatsoever for the sin. For in truth, how can a man straighten what has been made crooked after the commission of the sin? If a man killed his neighbor; if he committed adultery - how can he correct this? Can he remove the accomplished fact from actuality?

It is the attribute of mercy which causes the reverse of the three things we have mentioned. That is, it provides that the sinner be given time, and not be wiped out as soon as he sins; that the punishment itself not involve utter destruction; and that the gift of repentance be given to sinners with absolute loving-kindness, so that the rooting out of the will which prompted the deed be considered a rooting-out of the deed itself.

(RaMHaL, Mesilat Yesharim chapter 4, Silverstein translation)


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