Category Archives: Rosh Hashana

Driving Like It’s Rosh Hashanah

Some Jews attend shul only on the Yamim Nora’aim or for a yahrtzeit. They “compartmentalize” their Judaism. It’s called on only for special occasions. And yet, as always, there’s more to be gained by not looking at others but rather inward. Our Orthodox world, after all, “knows from” compartmentalization too.


A similar compartmentalization is evident in a more observant Jew who, while he would never dream of eating food lacking a good hechsher, might nevertheless act in his business dealings, or his home life, or behind the wheel in less Torah-observant ways.


It seems part of the human condition to, while knowing Hashem and His Torah are real, relegate their presence to one’s “religious” life, not one’s mundane day-to-day living.


Some of us don’t always pause and think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or pronounce every word clearly and distinctly). We allow our observances and davening to sometimes fade into rote. I’m writing here to myself, but some readers may be able to relate.


Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Days of Repentance, is suffused with the concept of Malchus, “Kingship.” The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and the concept of malchiyus is prominent in the days’ Mussaf tefillah. What, though, has kingship to do with repentance?


By definition, a king has a kingdom, over which he exerts his rules. There is little escaping even a mortal monarch’s reach, and none of his subjects dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case of not a king but the King.


Kingship and compartmentalization are diametric, incompatible ideas. If Hashem is to be our Ruler, then there are no places and no times when He can be absent from our minds.


Rosh Hashanah is our yearly opportunity to try to bring our lives more in line with that ideal. To better comprehend, in other words, that Hashem is as manifest when we are sitting behind a desk, driving, cooking or sending kids off to school as He is when we are reciting Shemoneh Esrei, as present on a nondescript December morning as He is during the Yamim Nora’im.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Nitzavim – The Role of Failure

Reflecting the time of year when we read Nitzavim, before the “Days of Awe,” the parshah’s major themes are sin and repentance.

And while much of Nitzavim concerns potential punishments for sin, there is also an undercurrent of assurance, of the possibility of teshuvah, repentance. “And you will return to Hashem, your G-d” (Devarim 30:2).

Even the parshah’s first words imply the power of teshuvah. Moshe addresses the Jews as nitzavim hayom, “standing upright today” (29:9), despite the fact that “much did you anger” Hashem over the years of wandering the desert, “yet He did not destroy you” (Rashi 29: 12).

Essential to teshuvah is charatah, regret of the sin. But charatah means just that, regret, wishing one had not sinned. It does not mean despondence, which can actually impede teshuvah.

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin from 1940 into the 1970s, once wrote a letter to a student who had shared his anguish and depression over personal spiritual failures.

What makes life meaningful, the Rosh Yeshiva responded, is not basking in one’s “good inclination” but rather engaging, repeatedly, no matter the setbacks, in the battle against our inclination to sin.

“Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up,” (Mishlei, 24:16) wrote Shlomo Hamelech. That, wrote Rav Hutner, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles — including the failures — are inherent to the achievement of eventual, ultimate success.

One of the melachos of Shabbos is mocheik, or “erasing,” the sister-melachah of “writing.” And the melachos are derived from what was necessary during the construction of the mishkan.

Erasing, Rashi (Shabbos, 73a) explains, was necessary because mistakes would be made when marking the mishkan’s beams with letters indicating their placement. But only actions intrinsic to the construction of the mishkan are melachos. Apparently, mistakes were part of the process.

It’s much more than what Big Bird taught, that “everyone makes mistakes.” It’s that everyone needs to make mistakes.

Civil engineering professor Henry Petroski captured that truth in the title of one of his books: “To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.” Initial failures, he asserts, are what drive tasks to perfection.

The same is true in life. Teshuvah is accomplished with regret, not despondency.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Ki Seitzei — We’re All the “Beautiful Woman”

It’s edifying to compare the larger world’s celebrations of its various New Years and the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah.

The former is characterized by revelry, drunkenness and, hat tip to Auld Lang Syne, a smidgen of sentimentality. The latter, by trepidation and regret of the past year’s missteps.

Greater society’s preparation for their New Years Days consists of buying fireworks and alcohol.  Ours is Elul, the month during which, as the Eastern European folk saying has it, even the fish in the rivers tremble.

The law of the yifas to’ar, the “beautiful woman” encountered among the enemy and fallen for by a Jewish soldier in war, is a strange one.  The captive, after a month’s time during which she, shorn of her hair, is to cry over the loss of her father and mother, is permitted to be taken by the soldier as a wife.

Much has been written in explanation of the counterintuitive law. But the Zohar Chadash has a metaphorical comment. 

Seizing on the word used in the law for “month” (“yerach”), the mystical text comments, “da he archa d’Elul” — “this is the month of Elul.”

The yifas to’ar is leaving her past behind, entering a new world. According to Rabbi Akiva in the Sifri, the “father and mother” over whom she cries refer to the idolatries of her past, as per the prophet’s rebuke: “They say to the wood, ‘You are my father,’ and to the stone, ‘You bore us’ ” (Yirmiyahu 2:27). Her tears are tears of regret, for having been in idolatry’s thrall. And, perhaps, tears of joy at entering a new world, as part of the Jewish nation.

During Elul, we mourn our pasts too, and express joy (V’gilu bir’ada — rejoice in trembling -Tehillim 2:11), as we enter a new world, a new year. 

After the night’s drunken revelry, a New Year’s Eve celebrant may find himself experiencing delirium tremens, the infamous “DT’s”. 

Jews who fully embraced Elul will wake up as BT’s.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Clock is Missing

Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday on the Jewish calendar occuring at the new moon, beginning on a night when the moon isn’t visible at all. That fact is hinted at in the posuk “Tik’u bachodesh shofar bakeseh liyom chageinu” (“Sound the shofar on the New Moon, at the appointed time for the day of our festival”) — Tehillim 81:4. The word bakeseh, “at the appointed time,” can be read to mean “covered.”

The moon is, famously, a symbol of Klal Yisrael.  It receives its light from the sun, as we receive our enlightenment from Hashem; it wanes but waxes again, as we do throughout history; and it is the basis of our calendar.

Various ideas lie in the oddity of Rosh Hashanah being moonless.  One that occurred to me has to do with that latter connection, that the moon is our marker of time, our clock, so to speak.  When we repent of a sin, Chazal teach, the sin can be erased from our past — even, if our teshuvah is complete and sincere, turned into a merit!

And so, we are particularly able on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the ten days of teshuvah, to undermine time, to go back into the past and change it. 

What better symbol of that power than to remove our “clock” from the sky?

Ksiva vachasima tovah!

Who We Are

The famous early 20th century German-born American financier Otto Kahn, it is told, was once walking in New York with his friend, the humorist Marshall P. Wilder.  They must have made a strange pair, the poised, dapper Mr. Kahn and the bent-over Mr. Wilder, who suffered from a spinal deformity.

As they passed a shul on Fifth Avenue, Kahn, whose ancestry was Jewish but who had received no Jewish chinuch from his parents, turned to Wilder and said, “You know, I used to be a Jew.”

“Really?” said Wilder, straining his neck to look up at his companion. “And I used to be a hunchback.”

The story is in my head because we’re about to recite Kol Nidrei.

Kol Nidrei’s solemnity and power are known well to every Jew who has ever attended shul on the eve of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.  It is a cold soul that doesn’t send a shudder through a body when Kol Nidrei is intoned in its ancient, evocative melody.  And yet the words of the tefillah – “modaah” would be more accurate – do not overtly speak to the gravity of the day, the last of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

They speak instead to the annulment of nedarim, vows, specifically (according to prevailing Ashkenazi custom) to undermining vows we may inadvertently make in the coming year.

Nedarim, the Torah teaches, have deep power; they truly bind those who utter them.   And so, we rightly take pains to avoid not only solemn vows but any declarative statements of intent that could be construed as vows.  So, that Yom Kippur would be introduced by a nod to the gravity of neder-making isn’t entirely surprising.  But the poignant mournfulness of the moment is harder to understand.

It has been speculated that the somber mood of Kol Nidrei may be a legacy of distant places and times, in which Jews were coerced by social or economic pressures, or worse, to declare affiliations with other religions.  The text, in that theory, took on the cast of an anguished renunciation of any such declarations born of duress.

Most of us today face no such pressures.  To be sure, missionaries of various types seek to exploit the ignorance of some Jews about their religious heritage.  But few if any Jews today feel any compulsion to shed their Jewish identities to live and work in peace.

Still, there are other ways to be unfaithful to one’s essence.  Coercion comes in many colors.

We are all compelled, or at least strongly influenced, by any of a number of factors extrinsic to who we really are.  We make pacts – unspoken, perhaps, but not unimportant – with an assortment of mastinim: self-centeredness, jealousy, anger, desire, laziness…

Such weaknesses, though, are with us but not of us.  The Amora Rav Alexandri, the Gemara teaches (Berachos, 17a), would recite a short tefillah in which, addressing Hashem, he said: “Master of the universe, it is revealed and known to You that our will is to do Your will, and what prevents us? The ‘leaven in the loaf’ [i.e. the yetzer hora] …”  What he was saying is that, stripped of the rust we so easily attract, sanded down to our essences, we want to do and be only good.

Might Kol Nidrei carry that message no less?  Could its declared disassociation from vows reflect a renunciation of the “vows”, the unfortunate connections, we too often take upon ourselves?  If so, it would be no wonder that the recitation moves us so.

Or that it introduces Yom Kippur. 

When the Beis Hamikdosh stood, Yom Kippur saw the kiyum of the mitzvah of the Shnei Se’irim.  The Cohen Gadol would place a lot on the head of each of two goats; one read “to Hashem” and the other “to Azazel” – according to Rashi, the name of a mountain with a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was sacrificed as a korban; the second was taken through the desert to the cliff and cast off.

The Torah refers to “sins and iniquities” being “put upon the head” of the Azazel goat before its dispatch.  The deepest meanings of the chok, like those of all chukim in the end, are beyond human ken.  But, on a simple level, it might not be wrong to see a symbolism here, a reflection of the fact that our aveiros are, in the end, foreign to our essences, extrinsic entities, things to be “sent away,” banished by our sincere repentance.

In 1934, when Otto Kahn died, Time Magazine reported that the magnate, who had been deeply dismayed at the ascension of Hitler, ym”s, had, despite his secularist life, declared: “I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, and I shall die a Jew.”

Mr. Kahn may never have attended shul for Kol Nidrei.  But perhaps a seed planted by a hunchbacked humorist, and nourished with the bitter waters of Nazism, helped him connect to something of the declaration’s deepest meaning. 

© 2019 Hamodia

A column from 2010: Great Expectations

Thoughts of consequence can sometimes arise from the most mundane experiences, even a headache.Opening the medicine cabinet one day, I was struck by a sticker on a prescription container.

“Not for use by pregnant women,” it read.

“And why not?” part of my aching head wondered.

Because, another part answered, a fetus is so much more sensitive to the effects of chemicals than a more developed person.  Partly, of course, because of its very tininess, but more importantly because it is an explosively, developing thing.  While a single cell is growing to a many-billions-of-unbelievably-variegated-cells organism in a matter of mere months it is easily and greatly affected by even subtle stimuli.

Which thought led, slowly but inexorably, to others, about the creation of the world – the subject, soon, of the parshas hashovua – and about the beginning of a new Jewish year.

“The Butterfly Effect” is the whimsical name science writers give to the concept of  “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” – the idea that beginnings are unusually important.  A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow – or an error of a single digit at the beginning of a long calculation – can yield a difference of miles, or millions, in the end. For all we know, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world yesterday might have set into motion a hurricane in the Atlantic today.

The most striking butterfly effects take place during formative stages, when much is transpiring with particular rapidity. Thus, the label on the medication; the gestation of a fetus, that single cell’s incredible journey toward personhood, is strikingly responsive to so much of what its mother does, eats and drinks. The developing child is exquisitely sensitive to even the most otherwise innocent chemicals because beginnings are formative, hence crucial, times.

Leaving the realm of the microcosm, our world itself also had a gestation period, six days’ worth. Interestingly, just as the initial developmental stage of a child takes place beyond our observation, so did that of the world itself. The event and processes of those days are entirely hidden from us, the Torah supplying only the most inscrutable generalities about what actually took place then. Thus, Chazal applied the posuk “the honor of Hashem is the concealment of the thing” (Mishlei, 25:2) to the days of creation. Honest scientists admit the same.  E.A. Milne, a celebrated British astronomer, wrote “In the divine act of creation, G-d is unobserved and unwitnessed.”

Despite our inability, however, to truly know anything about the happenings of the creation week, to think of those days as a gestational time is enlightening.  It may even help explain the apparent discrepancy between what we know from the Torah is the true age of the earth and what the geological and paleontological evidence seem to say

Consider: What would happen if the age of an adult human since hisconception were being inferred by a scientist from Alpha Centauri, using only knowledge he has of the human’s present rate of growth and development?  In other words, if our alien professor knew only that the individual standing before it developed from a single cell, and saw only the relatively plodding rate of growth currently evident in his subject, he would have no choice but to conclude that the 30-year-old human was, in truth, fantastically old. What the Alpha Centurion is missing, of course, is an awareness of the specialized nature of the gestational stage of life, the powerful, pregnant period before birth, with its rapid, astounding and unparalleled rate of development.

If we recognize that a similar gestational stage existed for the universe as a whole at its creation – and the Torah tells us to do precisely that – then it is only reasonable to expect that formative stage to evidence a similarly accelerated rate of development, with the results on the first Shabbos seeming in every detectable way to reflect millions of years of development, eons that occurred entirely within the six days of the world’s explosive, embryonic growth.

Rosh Hashana is called “the birthday of the world.”  But the Hebrew word there translated as “birth of” – haras – really refers to the process of conception/gestation.  And so, annually, at the start of the Jewish year, it seems in some way we relive the gestational days of creation.  But more: those days are formative ones, the development period for the year that is to follow.  Beginning with the “conception-day” of Rosh Hashana itself and continuing until Yom Kippur, the period of the early new Jewish year is to each year what the creation-week was to the world of our experience: a formative stage.

All of which may well lend some insight into a puzzling halacha.

We are instructed by the Shulchan Aruch to conduct ourselves in a particularly exemplary manner at the start of a new Jewish year. We are cautioned to avoid anger on Rosh Hashana itself.  And for each year’s first ten days, we are encouraged to avoid eating even technically kosher foods that present other, less serious, problems (like kosher bread baked by a non-Jewish manufacturer), and to generally conduct ourselves, especially interpersonally, in a more careful manner than during the rest of the year.

It is a strange halacha.  What is the point of pretending to a higher level of observance or refinement of personality when one may have no intention at all of maintaining those things beyond the week?

Might it be, though, that things not greatly significant under normal circumstances suddenly take on pointed importance during the year’s first week, because those days have their analogue in the concept of gestation?

Might those days, in other words, be particularly sensitive to minor influences because they are the days from which the coming year will develop?

Observance and good conduct are always in season, but our mesora teaches us that they have particular power during Rosh Hashana and the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah – that we should regard these days with the very same vigilance and care an expectant mother has for the rapidly developing, exquisitely sensitive being within her.

Let us seize the days and cherish them; they are conceptual butterfly-wings, the first unfoldings of a new Jewish year.

© 2010 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Traffic Jams and the Yom Hadin

As a young teenager davening daily in the shul that my father, a”h, served as Rav, a congregation whose clientele ranged from totally non-observant Jews to fully observant ones, I considered myself something of an expert in Jewish sociology.

I wasn’t anything of the sort, of course, and my assumptions that none of the non-observant shul members would ever one day begin to keep Shabbos or undertake kashrus or study Torah were happily proven wrong. I underestimated the power of my father’s warmth and his standing on principle, and the respect that those things engendered in his congregants. And the ability of people to change.

But before I saw the power of an unabashed but warm presentation of Jewish right and wrong, I looked down at the shul members who expressed their Jewishness only on the “High Holidays” – “three day Jews,” some called them – and yahrtzeits, and I considered them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism, after all, can’t be “compartmentalized” and “practiced” only in shul. It’s an all-encompassing, non-stop way of life.

Around the same time I stopped looking down my young nose, I started looking into my young heart, and realized that I, too, compartmentalized Yiddishkeit, living it fully at times and places but… less fully at other ones.

The truth is that it’s a problem many of us, young or old or in-between, regularly need to confront. We may live observant Orthodox lives, doing all the things expected of a frum Jew – eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing whatever de rigeuer head-covering our communities expect of us, avoid things that must be avoided – but may still, at least to some degree, in other environments or areas of our lives… compartmentalize. It’s a challenge to keep foremost in our consciousnesses that the Creator is as manifest on a July Tuesday in a traffic jam as He is in shul on Yom Hadin.

Compartmentalization explains how it is that an otherwise committed Orthodox Jew can, in his workplace, engage in questionable business practices, or mistreat a child or a spouse. Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how he can cut others off on the road, speak rudely to another person, or blog irresponsibly.

It’s not, chas v’shalom, that such people don’t acknowledge Hashem’s presence or their responsibilities. It’s just that, while going through the daily grind, they don’t always include Him in their activities.

Even many of us who think of our Jewish mindfulness as healthy are also prone at times to compartmentalize our avodas Hashem. It’s painful to ponder, but do we all maintain the Hashem-awareness we (hopefully) attain in shul on a Shabbos at all times, wherever we may be? Do we always, wherever we may be, think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or even take care to pronounce every word clearly)? Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety? Do our observances sometimes fade into mindless rote?

When it comes to compartmentalization, I suspect, there really isn’t any “us” and “them.” All of us occupy a point on a continuum here, some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-present reality of the Divine, some less so.

Rosh Hashanah and the rest of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are suffused with the concept of Malchiyus, or Kingship. The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and we say Hamelech Hakadosh in our tefillos. We might well wonder: What has Kingship to do with teshuvah?

Consider: a king rules over his entire kingdom; little if anything escapes even a mortal monarch’s reach, and no subject dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case not of a king but a King.

And so, we might consider that kingship (or, at least, Kingship) is diametrical to compartmentalization, to the notion that the Monarch rules only here, not there; only then, not now. There are, ideally, no places and no times when Hakadosh Baruch Hu can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is a yearly opportunity to internalize that thought, and to try to bring our lives more in line with it.

And, no less than some of those once-“three day Jews” did, to change our lives.

Ksivah vachasimah tovah.

© 2018 Hamodia

Recidivist Repentance

It’s easy to feel disheartened, even despondent, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, at the realization that some of the things we did teshuvah for last year are things we need to repent for again this year.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt”l, notes in his sefer L’Torah Ul’moadim that the ben sorer umoreh, the “wayward son,” is punished not for what he has done – stolen from his parents and acted gluttonously – but rather for what the Torah teaches us he will one day do: become a violent bandit.

Yet, Rav Zevin points out, we find Hashem refusing to allow the evil that will be wrought by descendants of Yishmael to affect His mercy on the boy himself, abandoned in the desert. Yishmael is judged only baasher hu sham, “where he is” at that time.

Explains Rav Zevin, the ben sorer umoreh is currently a sinner, and his present behaviors are the roots of what will become his future deeds.

Yishmael, by contrast, although he, too, exhibited negative behavior hinted at by Torah in the word “mitzachek,” did not act in so egregious a manner, and his bad behavior was not what led to the terrible crimes of his descendants. At the time of his crisis, he was effectively innocent, and so is judged in the moment.

As are we.  Which may be why, Rav Zevin continues, we read the account of Yishmael on Rosh Hashanah.

Several years ago, I was struck by a one-liner in an obituary of a comedian. The fact that Rosh Hashanah was approaching may have predisposed me to notice it.

“I used to do drugs,” the hapless performer had deadpanned. “I still do, but I used to, too.”

It’s never a good idea to try to deconstruct a joke. But why, I wondered, was the line funny? Was it simply that the comedian had found an absurd way to characterize his long-time substance abuse? To me, the joke was more profound. What I think the fellow meant to convey was that he had once (likely more than once) quit his drugs, only to re-embrace them. When he was clean, he “used to do drugs”; now, fallen off the wagon, he does them once again.

Can we recidivist penitents relate?

We who find ourselves resolving to improve in some of the very same ways we had resolved to improve last year, do we not “used to” do things that we currently do, too?

Among the collected letters of Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, is one that was written to a talmid whose own, earlier, letter to the Rosh Yeshivah had apparently evidenced the student’s despondence over his personal spiritual failures. The Rosh Yeshivah’s response provides nourishing food for thought.

Citing the maxim that one can “lose battles but win wars,” Rav Hutner explains that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the exclusive company of one’s yetzer tov but rather the dynamic struggle with the yetzer hara.

Shlomo Hamelech’s maxim that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up” (Mishlei, 24:16), continues Rav Hutner, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to gets up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is only and precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles – even the failures – are inherent elements of what can, with sincere determination and perseverance, become an ultimate victory.

Facing our mistakes squarely, and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of teshuvah, carries a risk: despondence born of battles lost. But allowing failures to breed hopelessness, explains Rav Hutner, is both self-defeating and wrongheaded. A battle waged, even if lost, can be an integral step toward an ultimate victory to come. No matter how many battles there may have been, the war is not over.  We must pick ourselves up. Again. And, if need be, again.

Still, it’s a balancing act. The knowledge that we are Divinely judged only in the moment and that failing isn’t forever cannot permit us to treat aveiros lightly. Even as we reject dejection, we must sincerely resolve to be better people than we have been.

The comedian who “used to do drugs” but still did may have given up on trying to change his ways; he left the world young, the result of an overdose.

As the Aseres Y’mei Teshuvah begin, may we all find the fortitude to refuse to give up, and rededicate ourselves, as often as we need, to embracing teshuvah.

And thereby, baasher anachnu sham, merit a kesivah vachasimah tovah.

 

© 2017 Hamodia

(in slightly edited form)