Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
These misconceptions are exactly that, misconceptions. Someone who comes into the holiday with this mindset is missing the beauty of the whole day! The real question we should be asking is what is Rosh Hashanah? What is special about it? Why do some people cry? And why do we spend so much time in shul? Let us try to understand what the purpose of Rosh Hashanah is.
Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world. On this day, Hashem became king over all that exists. In other words, Rosh Hashanah is the coronation of Hashem as king of the world. In the time of kings, what were coronations like? These were the happiest days of the year! Everyone was so excited for the new king. There would be massive parties for days, everyone would come pay their respects and the entire kingdom was filled with the spirit of change and new times. The next year on the anniversary of the king’s coronation, they would celebrate again with parties, would sing the king’s praises, and everyone was happy remembering the celebrations of previous years up to the time of the original celebration of the king’s inauguration. We too on Rosh Hashanah must feel this happiness. Hashem became king over this world 5771 years ago this Rosh Hashanah. We must feel this excitement as we would for a human king’s anniversary. So really Rosh Hashanah is a happy day and we treat it as such. For this reason, we have normal Yom Tov seudahs (meals), dress in our finest clothes, and eat all the new fruits. We are celebrating the renewal of the world!
So what is the serious side to Rosh Hashanah? During every one of these anniversary celebrations for the king, there was a special time set aside for the king to meet with the people of the country individually or in groups representing a village. This was the people’s chance to make any request they wanted of the king. This person needed his taxes lowered in order to survive, this village needed more access to the river neighboring another village for their crops, and others like these. The king then made his decision based on the facts in front of him. Had this farmer paid his taxes fully in the past that now he should get a break? Hadn’t this village been taking water from the river already without permission? The king was also trusted that whether this person was deserving or not, if for whatever reason it was or wasn’t good for him to have his request granted, the king knew what was best for him and the person did not question his decision.
Can you imagine a simple peasant having the opportunity to meet the king? It must have been an unbelievable experience! Here is this simple farmer getting to meet the person he has served all his life, and only had the opportunity to hear about! It probably took all his self-control not to break down right there in front of the king. Or, if the farmer was not loyal, here is the man who they always said would punish him for doing bad and he never believed in, sitting right in front of him! Can you imagine the fear this person must have felt? Whether from happiness, fear, or sadness, it is not hard to imagine the emotions that must have been going through this person.
We are the same way on Rosh Hashanah. This is the beginning of ten days where the king is around us more than ever. On the day of Hashem’s inauguration, he gives us a private audience to voice our requests and show him how we have behaved over the year. On this day we can ask for anything we want to help us in the next year and we trust in Hashem that if what we want is not good for us, it is better that we do not receive it. Now, a person who knows he has sinned might be embarrassed to ask for anything he wants. He thinks, how can he ask for something when he has done all these bad things over the past year! In that case, pray that Hashem should help you do the right things, and daven for the things which will help you accomplish your goals.
Now we can understand why a person cries on Rosh Hashanah. You are given a private audience with the king of the world to honor him and to ask him for whatever you want! A person can easily be overcome and just burst out crying. And since we don’t even know whether we have been good or bad throughout the year, our fear should be even greater! The Gemarah says that a person does not sin unless a spirit of foolishness comes over him. Why? Because if you believe that Hashem runs the world and gives everything we need to survive including every last breath we breathe, how could you possibly sin! Rather, a person is overcome for a second with a foolish thought and that’s how it happens. If a person can actually picture Hashem in front of him, and he knows that he sinned, it makes sense that he bursts out crying.
There is another way to think about this king parable. Imagine if your father became the king. You would be so filled with happiness for him that you would lead all the praises and parties for the entire time. So too us on Rosh Hashanah, we feel happy that Hashem is king over us since he is our father. As we daven on Rosh Hashanah, “אבינו מלכנו” “Our father, our king”.
There is one more reason to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. The first of Tishrei, the date of Rosh Hashanah, is the anniversary of the sixth day of creation, the day that man was created. Why don’t we celebrate the first day of creation, when God began creating the world he is king of? Or why not the second, third, or fourth day, when He created the earth and animals he is king over? Why is Rosh Hashanah, the day where every person, plant, animal, and mineral is judged, celebrated on the day of the creation of man? The answer is that we are not the only people celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Hashem also celebrates with us. What is he celebrating? Our creation! We, the beings who take these days to acknowledge his greatness and dominion over the world, who make this world worth creating through our Torah and mitzvos, Hashem is celebrating us! Now, how can we not join in too! Every prayer that we pray, every thanks that we give over these two days in honor of Hashem goes right back on us. When we show Hashem that we care about him and praise him, he is looking right back at us and saying, ‘look at my creations! Look at the Jewish people! The entire creation was worth it just for them.’
Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity for us to commit to new goals for the coming year even if we have behaved badly over the past year. (This is NOT a day of forgiveness, that is Yom Kippur) This process ends on Yom Kippur. (However, since Rosh Hashanah is the first day of a ten day period (known as the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah- The Ten Days of Repentance) which Hashem is waiting for our teshuvah and anxious to see us return, we begin thinking about teshuvah on Rosh Hashanah itself.) Over the days of Rosh Hashanah and the week afterwards culminating in Yom Kippur, we must ask ourselves, what we want to do with our lives and what are we prepared to do to achieve our goals. The first step in that is to acknowledge that Hashem is the one way you can turn for help to accomplish all you want to accomplish. After we accomplish that on Rosh Hashanah, we will be more than ready for the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur. Maybe then we will be zoche (will merit) to be called by the great title of Ba’al Teshuvah.
May we all merit a K’siva VaChasima Tovah and a healthy and happy year.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
It is no coincidence that Parshas Nitzavim always comes out the week before Rosh Hashanah. On the eve of when we begin to say selichos, this week’s parshah is read. After last week’s parshah with its ninety-eight curses, the medrash says that the B’nei Yisrael were extremely nervous. ‘Who could live when all these curses hang over your head!’ they cried. Moshe then proceeded to say to them the opening words from this week’s parshah, “אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם” “You are all standing here today in front of Hashem, your God” (29:9). Even with all of the things you have already done in the desert, you are still alive, so too Hashem will continue to keep you alive. But how can this be? Once you do the wrong thing, along come the curses?
The answer lies in the rest of Nitzavim and it is the connection between Rosh Hashanah and this parshah. Moshe introduces the Jewish people to the concept of teshuvah. He begins with different examples of people doing sins, whether individuals or large groups. As well as adding horrible punishments to those who commit them. It appears, at first, to be a repeat of last week! Then in Perek 30 Pesukim 1-10, he begins to talk about teshuvah, and how! The pesukim state that no matter where you are, what you have done, or what you intended, as long as “וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ…בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ” “and you returned to Hashem, your God…with all your heart and all your soul” (30:2), you will be forgiven.
You might think that this is a hard level to get to. After all, look at all the things I’ve done! The Torah cuts you off right there. In Pasukim 11-14, it says, “כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא: לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא…: וְלֹא מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא…: כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ” “Because this commandment that I am commanding you today, is not hidden from you and it is not far from you. It is not in the heavens…and it is not across the sea…For it is very close to you. It is in your heart and mouth, so that you can fulfill it.” The simple explanation of these Pasukim is that they are talking about the Torah (a different dvar torah for another time), however the Ramban and other commentaries say that they are referring to teshuvah. This is a tremendous thing! Not only is teshuvah right at our fingertips, it is already placed in our mouths! The Sichos Mussar (a collection of speeches given by Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz zt’’l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir) explains that all that remains is for us to bring these words out. We must motivate ourselves to get to the level where teshuvah just bursts out from us! When we start to ask ourselves, ‘Where am I? Why am I doing this?’, that it becomes obvious to us that we have made mistakes which must be corrected.
He brings an example from a gemarah in Avoda Zara (19b). There is a story that Rabbi Alexandri went around in the streets calling, “Who wants the secret to life! Who wants the secret to life!” Very quickly, he acquired a crowd of people, all clamoring for the secret. He responded, “מי האיש החפץ חיים…נצור לשונך מרע” “Who is the man that wants life?...Stop your mouth from speaking evil…”(Tehillim 34:13-14). Why couldn’t he just go around screaming the pasuk? Because the people had to motivate themselves to realize that they needed to stop speaking lashon hara. If he had just read a pasuk they saw all the time, it would not have had the same effect. Rather, they had to look at it from a different perspective first.
This concept of asking for forgiveness and receiving it is one of the greatest gifts that God could give us. Can you imagine! God who gives us everything we need, then we do bad and disgrace his name, and still he gives us the opportunity to correct our mistakes! However, it is not something we do alone. With the acceptance of the blessings and curses from God on Har Gerizim and Har Eval, Bnei Yisrael entered a new stage of nationhood. They now had the principle of “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh La Zeh” “All Jews are responsible for each other.” This means that whenever you see a Jew in trouble, it is your obligation to help him and make sure everything is all right. (I believe that this was in order that everyone would be able to fulfill the conditions on which the blessings, and the curses, were hinging.) This includes teshuvah. It is our job to make sure that every Jew at the very least gives himself the opportunity to do teshuvah.
We see this concept very clearly from Moshe Rabbeinu (Moshe our teacher). In the first pasuk in Parshas Vayeilech (31:1) it says, “וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל” “Moshe went and spoke these words to all of Yisrael”. Rashi’s comments on this pasuk consist of a repeat of the first two words of the pasuk “וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה”, and that’s all. The first question is, where exactly did Moshe go? He was talking to the whole nation at the end of Nitzavim, so where did he go between Nitzavim and Vayeilech that the pasuk says he went? Secondly, what is Rashi trying to teach us by repeating the first two words of the pasuk with no extra comment? Lastly, the next pasuk says, “וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם בֶּן מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם לֹא אוּכַל עוֹד לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא” “He said to them, I am 120 years old today; I can no longer go out and come in”. Rashi comments, what does it mean that he could no longer go out and in? It can’t mean that he was old, for the pasuk later says that until the day he died, Moshe did not lose any of his strength? It must mean that Hashem had taken away his authority as leader of Bnei Yisrael, passed it over to Yehoshua (Joshua), his successor, and Moshe no longer had the authority to come and go from Hashem as he pleased. (Moshe’s unique relationship with Hashem is talked about is Shemos and Bamidbar. He was the only person to ever see God “face to face”.) The question is that these Rashis are written out of order. There are three comments on this pasuk from Rashi. This Rashi, which should be the second one out of the three Rashis on this pasuk, is the first one written! Why?
The answer is like this: at this point in his life, Moshe had nothing to worry about. He was one of the greatest people to ever live. He didn’t have to run around rounding up Bnei Yisrael! He could very easily have blown the trumpets that signaled a meeting and everyone would have come! How come he went to gather everyone? Moshe was teaching us that we should constantly be moving. Always move up, always move forward. We have to be proactive in our quest to do teshuvah and become better people. Rashi shows this by focusing on the first two words in the pasuk which make all the difference to us, “וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה”. These words show us that Moshe was going around giving over his last lessons to everyone, since he knew he didn’t have too much time left. Rashi therefore puts the comment of why he couldn’t go in and out first to show us that Moshe knew he was about to die. Hashem had even stripped him of his leadership authority! So as quick as he could, he went around to teach as much as possible in his last few days. He still had the chance to make sure the Jewish people would stay true to the Torah and he took it.
A great Mashal (parable) for this is a heart monitor. As long as a person is alive, the sign on the monitor goes up and down. But, when a person dies, the line is just straight. It is the same with us, in Judaism, it is impossible to stand still, you must be going up or down. And if you are not going up, you must be going down! Still, as long as you are alive there is the chance to go back up, and you will! Just like the monitor. However, if you are not going anywhere, you must be dead, because there is no such thing as static Judaism.
We must learn from Moshe this lesson of always being proactive. Rosh Hashanah is coming! We must wake up and do teshuvah while we still have the chance! Like Moshe before his death, we can never assume that we are doing ok, because if we are not striving to go higher, we will inevitably sink lower.
This week’s Haftorah is the last of a set of seven since Tisha B’av which offers consolation for Yerushalayim and the Jews. This week’s speaks about the beautiful scene that will be Yerushalayim when the Bais Hamikdash will be rebuilt and all the Jews will be back in Eretz Yisrael. Reading these words, we can see the beautiful picture contained in these words. This is the scene that will be if we internalize the lessons of this week’s parshah.
May we merit to see it in our days.