Category Archives: Rosh Hashana

Be Alarmed

Back in 2007, at just about this exact time of year, a priest in the Netherlands city of Tilburg was fined the equivalent of several thousand dollars for ringing his church’s bells early each morning. Local residents, it seemed, were not amused.

That very week, though, shuls around the world were sounding an early morning alarm of their own, as they will be doing soon enough this year.  No complaints were reported in Jewish communities then, or are expected to be registered this year, about Elul’s daily tekias shofar.

The Rambam famously described the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call – bearing the unspoken but urgent message “Uru yisheinim mishinaschem”— “Awaken, sleepers, from your slumber.”   The slumber, he went on to explain, is our floundering in the “meaningless distractions of the temporal world” we occupy.

No doubt, the shofar sounds we hear throughout Elul carry that message no less, calling on us to refocus on what alone is meaningful in life: serving the Boreh Olam.

Elul.  As old Eastern European Yiddish sayings go, the observation that, in Elul, “even the fish in the river tremble” is particularly evocative.

The image of piscine panic is meant to evoke the atmosphere of our hurtling toward the Yemei Hadin.  And, in fact, the weeks before Rosh Hashanah are infused with a certain seriousness, even nervousness, born of a sharpened cognizance of the fact that the world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us who are not perfectly righteous – that would be all of us – rightly feel.

Sleeping through a physical alarm clock is always a temptation, and a danger. And even if the sound registers, we are all too easily drawn to hit the snooze button on the spiritual timepiece, busy as we are with all the “important” issues and diversions that take over our lives.

Sometimes, though, some of us wake up even before our alarm clocks go off.  It’s nice to get a sort of head start on full consciousness, so that we’re not terribly shocked when the beeping intrudes upon our sleep, insisting against all reason that the night is already over.

It may still be Av when you read these words, but there’s nothing wrong – and perhaps, in these particularly unsettled and challenging days, everything right – with getting a head start on Elul, with beginning to wake ourselves up even before Rosh Chodesh.  Just as Elul’s tekios are there to remind us of Tishrei, it’s ideal to discern the ethereal clock’s ticking during the month prior.

Hamodia’s Rabbi Hershel Steinberg recently related to me something the Pnei Menachem, zt”l, told him in the name of his father, the Imrei Emes, zt”l.  The Gemara in Brachos (61a) quotes Rabbi Yochanan as stating that it is better for a man to walk “behind a lion than behind a woman.”  The Imrei Emes perceived a deeper meaning beyond the straightforward one. “It is better to begin doing teshuvah during the month of Av, whose mazal is a lion (Leo),” he said, “than to wait until Elul, whose mazal is a woman (Virgo).”

At a family simchah last week in a shul hall, some of the celebrants held a minyan for Maariv.  While I was in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, I felt a tug on my pants leg. I lifted one of my closed eyelids slightly to see that it wasn’t a snake or scorpion but rather one of my (utterly adorable, needless to say) grandchildren, a little blue-eyed girl of three.  She wasn’t in any danger or distress; she just wanted my attention.  I tried to keep it, though, on my tefillah.   There would be ample time to reassure her of my love for her after davening.

Before she gave up her quest, though, and decided her cousins were more fun than I was being, she gave it one last try and I heard her little voice implore: “Zaidy!  Wake up, Zaidy!”

I had to pause a moment at so delightful an “einekel moment.”

Now, however, thinking about Elul, even with Rosh Chodesh still a few days off, I wonder if there might not have been a more serious, if unintended, message for me in her words.

© 2015 Hamodia

Time After Time

Ever since the famous science fiction writer H. G. Wells penned “The Time Machine” in 1895, the notion of a protagonist traveling through time by means of magic or fantastic technology has captured the imaginations of countless writers and readers.

Wells’ famous work involved travel into the future.  But many subsequent flights of fancy concerned going back in time to an earlier period and, often, tinkering with past events to change the future.

It might not immediately occur to most of us that our mesorah not only anticipated the idea of time travel but in fact teaches that it is entirely possible, an option available to us all.  And, unlike so many popular fiction time travel fantasies where havoc is wreaked by intruding on an earlier time, Jewish travel to the past is sublime.  And, in fact, required of us.

Is that not the upshot of how Chazal portray teshuvah, repentance?  It is, after all, nothing less than traveling back through time and changing the past.  The word itself, in fact, might best be translated as “returning.” We assume it refers to our own returning to where we should be.  But it might well hold a deeper thought, that teshuva involves a return to, and recalibration of, the past.

How else to understand the Talmudic teaching that sins committed intentionally are retroactively rendered by even the most elemental teshuva (that born of fear) into unintentional sins? Or the even more astonishing fact that when teshuva is embraced out of pure love for Hashem, it actually changes sins into good deeds?

What a remarkable thought.  Chillul Shabbos transformed into honoring of Shabbos?  Eating treif into eating matzah on Pesach?  Telling loshon hora into saying a dvar Torah?  No, not remarkable.  Stupefying.

Time is the bane of human existence.  The Kli Yakar notes that the word the Torah uses for the sun and moon—“me’oros,” or “luminaries,” (Bereishis, 1:16), which lacks the expected vov, can be read “me’eiros,” or “afflictions.”

“For all that comes under the influence of time,” he explains, “is afflicted with pain.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, notes, similarly, that the term “memsheles,” (ibid) which describes those luminaries’ roles, implies “subjugation.”  For, the Rosh Yeshiva explains, we are enslaved by time, unable to control it or escape its relentless progression.  Our positions in space are subject to our manipulation.  Not so our positions in time.

Except when it comes to teshuvah.  By truly confronting our misguided actions and feeling pain for them and resolving to not repeat them, we can reach back into the past and actually change it.  We are freed from the subjugation of time.

Which might well lie at the root of the larger theme of freedom that is so prominent on Rosh Hashana.  Tishrei, the month of repentence, is rooted in “shara,” the Aramaic word for “freeing”; the shofar is associated with Yovel, when slaves are released; we read from the Torah about Yitzchak Avinu’s release from his “binding”; and Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of Yosef’s release from his Egyptian prison, and of the breaking of what can be thought of as Sarah and Chana’s childlessness-chains.

There happens to be an exquisite symbol of our Aseres Yemei Teshuva ability to transcend time in the Rosh Hashana night sky.  Actually, the symbol is the absence of one.

The sun may mark the passage of days for others, but for Klal Yisroel, it is the moon to which we look to identify the months of our years.  It is not only, by its perpetual renewal, a symbol of the Jewish People.  It keeps time for us.  It is, one might say, our clock.

And on Rosh Hashana, the first of the Asers Yimei Teshuvah, it goes missing.  Of all the holidays in the Jewish year, only Rosh Hashana, which by definition occurs at the beginning of a Jewish month, sports a moonless sky.

That observation isn’t a meaningless one.  “Sound the shofar at the new month, at the appointed time for the day of rejoicing,” declares the passuk in Tehillim (81:4) in reference, Chazal teach us, to Rosh Hashana.  And the word for “at the appointed time”—“bakeseh”—can be read to mean “at the covering” – a reference to the moon’s absence in the Rosh Hashana sky.

So it might not be an overreach to imagine that sky, with its missing “Jewish clock,” to be a subtle reminder that time can be overcome in an entirely real way, through the Divine gift of teshuvah, and our heartfelt determination.

© 2014 Hamodia

Guilt Is Good

The piece below appears at The Times of Israel.

As old Eastern European Yiddish sayings go, the assertion that, in Elul, the Jewish month soon upon us, “even the fish in the river tremble” is particularly evocative.

The image of piscine panic is meant to evoke the atmosphere of our hurtling toward the Days of Judgment.  And, in fact, in observant Jewish communities, yeshivot and seminaries, the weeks before Rosh Hashana are infused with nervousness, born of believing Jews’ sharpened awareness that they, their fellow Jews and the entire world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us not perfectly righteous – that would be all of us – rightly feel.

Some view guilt as an annoying smudge on their souls, something to wipe clean with a bit of all-purpose self-esteem.  Like Jewish worrying and Jewish frugality, though, Jewish guilt gets a bad rap.

All those “negative” traits attributed to Jews, in fact, are misreadings of sublime Jewish ideals.  Worrying is the opposite of mindless dancing through life, a refusal to be oblivious to how much must go right for us to even wake up in the morning and find our breath.  Worry entails a recognition, in the words of the Modim prayer, of “the miracles that are with us daily.”  We Jews are instructed to acknowledge the Creator’s kindnesses when we awaken, in each of our prayers, even when we exit the bathroom (when the blessing of “Asher Yatzar” is recited), to remind ourselves to not take even the most mundane functions of our bodies for granted.  We worry because we recognize how terribly fragile life is.

And valuing every dollar isn’t (or at least needn’t be) stinginess; it can bespeak sensitivity to the truth that every material thing has worth, and can be harnessed for good.  Our forefather Jacob, the Torah relates, made a dangerous trip back over a river he had crossed, in order to retrieve “tiny jars” that had been left behind.  Teaching us, says the Talmud, that “the righteous value their property even more than their persons.”

A dollar, in other words, can buy a soft drink or almost half a New York subway fare.  But it can also buy a drink for a thirsty friend, or almost half the fare to visit someone in the hospital.  It has potential eternal worth, as good deeds are everlasting, and shouldn’t be wasted.

And guilt?  That’s an easy one.  It’s the engine of growth.

To be sure, being consumed by guilt leaves a person paralyzed.  But a modicum, or even a bit more, of facing our faults is a most salubrious thing.  It’s essential to the process of true self-improvement. That is the meaning of teshuva, often rendered “repentance,” a somewhat off-putting word.  “When they said ‘repent’,” broods the bard, “I wonder what they meant.”

“Self-improvement,” though, might better resonate with the modern mind.  And it well describes teshuva, literally, a “return” – to a better, purer, self.  And, ultimately, to the Creator.  “The soul that you placed in me,” continues the traditional waking-up formula, “is pure…”  It is easily stained, however, and we do well to try to restore it to its natural luster.

And doing so, Maimonides informs us, first entails regret for actions, or inactions, we realize were wrong.  There’s no way to take that initial step without confronting our misdeeds, and feeling… guilty for them.

Whether our lapses are in the realm of “between God and man” or “between man and man,” Elul is an especially propitious time to take stock of them.  The feelings we cultivate over its weeks will crescendo over the course of the “High Holy Days,” of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  Those “Ten Days of Repentance” are difficult ones for those who take Judaism seriously.  Difficult but valuable.

The Hebrew letters of “Elul” (aleph, lamed, vav, lamed) have famously been portrayed as an acrostic for the words of the verse phrase “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs, 6:3).  That’s a pithy tradition.  The guilt we feel this time of year is not an end but a means; it’s intended to lead not to despair but to a stronger, more real, relationship with our Creator and His other creations.

At the end of the daily morning services, the shofar will be blown each day of Elul (except for the day before Rosh Hashana, to make a distinction between the custom and the Torah-commandment to hear the shofar on the holiday itself).  I don’t know whether the sound will cause the fish in the rivers to tremble, but it should bring a frisson, born of fear and guilt, to all sensitive Jews.

Compartment Syndrome

It’s easy for many of us Orthodox Jews to look down our noses on our fellow members of the tribe who express their Jewishness only on the “High Holidays” and yahrtzeits, to consider them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism can’t, after all, be “compartmentalized.”  It’s an all-encompassing way of life.

There are, though, even Orthodox Jews, living what seem to be observant Orthodox lives, doing, at least superficially, all the things expected of a religious Jew – eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing the de rigeuer  head-covering of his or her community – who also seem to religiously compartmentalize, who seem to leave G-d behind in shul (if they even think of Him), who seem to not realize that the Creator is as manifest on a Tuesday in July as He is on Yom Kippur.

Which explains how it is that an Orthodox Jew can engage in unethical business practices or abuse a child or a spouse.  Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how one can cut others off in traffic, act rudely, or blog maliciously.  Or, for that matter, how he can address his Maker in prayer with words so garbled and hurried that, were he speaking to another mortal, the soliloquy would elicit no end of mirth.

It’s not necessarily the case that such Jews don’t acknowledge Hashem.  It’s just that they don’t give Him much thought – even, ironically, while going through the myriad motions of daily Jewish lives. In the most extreme cases, the trappings of observance are essentially all that there is, without any consciousness of why religious rituals are important.  What’s left then is mere mimicry, paraphernalia in place of principle.

What’s wrenching to ponder is that even those of us who think of our Jewish consciousnesses as healthy and vibrant are also prone to compartmentalize our Judaism. Do all of us, after all, maintain the G-d-consciousness we (hopefully) attain in shul at all times, wherever we may be? Do we always think of what it is we’re saying when we make a bracha (or even take care to pronounce every word distinctly)?  Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety?  Or do our observances sometimes fade into rote?

Most of us must sadly concede that when it comes to compartmentalizing our lives there really isn’t any “us” and “them.”  All of us live on a continuum here, some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-present reality of the Divine, some less so.  Obviously, those who do think of Hashem and His will when engaged in business or navigating a traffic jam are more religiously progressed than those who don’t. But still.

Rosh Hashana presents all of us a special opportunity to hone our Creator-awareness.  The Jewish new year, the start of the Ten Days of Repentance, is suffused with the concept of Kingship (malchiyus).  The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and malchiyus is prominent in the days’ prayers.  We might well wonder: What has Kingship to do with repentance?

The answer is clear.  A king rules over his entire kingdom; there is little escaping 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) and compartmentalization are diametric, incompatible ideas.  If Hashem  rules over all, then there are no places and no times when He can be absent from our minds.

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

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Jewish Guide to Time Travel

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the brilliantly insightful 16th century author of the Torah commentary Kli Yakar, comments on the fact that the word the Torah uses for the sun and moon—“me’oros,” or “luminaries,” (Beraishis, 1:16) is spelled in such a way that it can be read “me’eiros,” or “afflictions.”

“For all that comes under the influence of time,” he writes, “is afflicted with pain.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, the renowned Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, saw similar meaning in the term “memsheles,” (ibid) which describes the luminaries’ role.  Its most literal meaning, he said, is “subjugation.”  We are, in other words, enslaved by time.

What is subjugating and frightening about time is not only that it brings about entropy and dissolution, that each day’s passing leaves us (as a poet once put it) “shorter of breath and one day closer to death,” but that it is entirely beyond our control.  We can change our positions in space—moving here or there at will—but time seems frustratingly one-directional; its effects are entirely, utterly unchangeable.

Jewish tradition, however, informs us otherwise. We can travel, the Talmud teaches us, in time too.

“Sound the shofar at the new month, at the appointed time for the day of rejoicing,” declares the posuk in Tehillim (81) in reference to Rosh Hashana.  The word for “at the appointed time”—“bakeseh”—is most simply read to mean “at the covering”—a reference, the Talmud tells us, to the fact that the moon, in pointed contrast to the situation on other Jewish holidays, is not visible at the onset of the Jewish new year. Rosh Hashana, of course, coincides with the “new moon,” when the lunar luminary is invisible to us.

Intriguingly, a mystical tradition attributed to the Zohar conceives of the moon’s apparent absence on Rosh Hashana as representative of the lack of “two witnesses” to the Jewish people’s sins. The sun, witness #1, is there—but the moon?  Missing.

The moon has a direct role in Jewish life.  It keeps time for us. The sun may mark the passage of days for all humanity, but it is to the moon that Jews are commanded to look to identify the Jewish months.

The moon is our clock.  Perhaps it goes missing on Rosh Hashana because the holiday reminds us that we can transcend time.

Our time machine is teshuva, repentance.  And that is no mere metaphor.  We are actually empowered by teshuva to reach back into the past and alter it.

How else to understand our tradition’s teaching that sins committed intentionally are rendered by even the most elemental teshuva (born of fear) into unintentional sins? Or the even more astonishing fact that when teshuva is embraced out of pure love for Hashem, it actually changes sins into good deeds?

Consider that shocking idea for a moment.  An act of eating of non-kosher meat years ago can be “accessed and edited” into the equivalent of consuming matzah on Pesach.  We can travel back in time and change the past.

And so if one is a successful penitent on Rosh Hashana, there can indeed be no complement of “witnesses” to his past sins; the sins are no longer there to be witnessed.

The Rosh Hashana night sky, with its missing “Jewish clock,” reminds us that time can be overcome in a meaningful way, through sheer force of will.

This tossing off of time’s shackles may be what lies at the root, too, of the theme of freedom that is so prominent on Rosh Hashana.  The name of the month it introduces, Tishrei, is rooted in “shara,” the Aramaic word for “freeing”; the day’s central mitzvah, the sounding of the shofar, is associated with Yovel, or the Jubilee Year, when slaves are released; one of the holiday’s Torah readings is about Yitzchak Avinu’s release from his “binding”; and Rosh Hashana is the anniversary of Yosef’s release from his Egyptian prison.

All of us, too, if we honestly and critically confront our lives and resolve to change for the better, can break free from the seemingly unshakeable bonds of time.

Gmar chasima tova!


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 his conception 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

No Laughing Matter

It’s never a good idea to analyze a joke.  All the same, I recently found myself deconstructing a stand-up comedian’s one-liner quoted in a newspaper article.  It may have been because Rosh Hashana was approaching.

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

Why was the line funny?  It could be that the comedian had simply found an amusing, absurd way to characterize his long-time substance abuse.  But what I think he meant to communicate was something more: that he had once (perhaps 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.

And so my thoughts, understandably (no?), went to the Yom HaDin and Aseres Y’mei Teshuva.

No, I don’t abuse drugs.  I take my daily blood-thinner responsibly, pop an occasional Tylenol and have a glass or two of red wine with Shabbos seudos, but that’s about it.  Nevertheless, I related well to the comedian’s self-description.  Because I find myself resolving each year to improve in some of the very same ways I had resolved to improve the year before.  Indeed, the years – plural – before, in more cases than I care to ponder.  I, too, “used to” do things that I 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 Yeshiva had apparently evidenced the student’s despondence over his personal spiritual failures.  The Rosh Yeshiva’s response provides nourishing food for thought.

Citing the saying 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 of one’s battle with the yetzer hora.

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 determination and perseverance, become an ultimate victory.

Rav Hutner’s words are timely indeed at this Jewish season, as thoughtful Jews everywhere recall their own personal failures.  For facing our mistakes squarely, and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance, carries a risk: despondence born of battles lost.  But allowing failures to breed hopelessness, says Rav Hutner, is both self-defeating and wrong.  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, after the fact, that falling isn’t forever cannot permit us to treat aveiros lightly.  Even while not allowing failures to leave us dejected, we must maintain the determination to be better people tomorrow than we are today.  If, after raising ourselves from the ground, we don’t renew the battle with resolve, if we become complacent about our sins, seeing them not as boons to redoubled effort but as fodder for jokes, we flirt with true failure – the ultimate kind.

The article containing the one-liner, as it happens, was an obituary.  The comedian who “used to do drugs” and still did died of an overdose, at 37.

© 2008 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Food For Rosh Hashana Thought

An odd Rosh Hashana custom, duly recorded in the Talmud and halachic codes, is the lavishing of puns on holiday foods.

Most Jews know that on the first night of the new Jewish year, it is customary to eat a piece of apple dipped in honey, to symbolize our hope for a sweet year.  Less known is the Rosh Hashana night custom of eating foods whose names augur well for the future.  Though the Talmud’s examples are, of course, in Hebrew or Aramaic, at least one halachic commentary directs us to find pun-foods in whatever language we may speak.

“Help us pare away our sins” before consuming a pear might thus be an appropriate example.  Or an entreaty that G-d be our advocate, before eating a piece of avocado.  “Lettuce have a wonderful year” might be pushing it a bit, but maybe not.  One respected rabbi once smilingly suggested partaking of a raisin and stalk of celery after expressing the hope for a “raise in salary.”

Such exercises might seem a bit out of place on the Jewish holy “day of judgment.”  But that is only because we regard the custom simplistically, as some quaint superstition.  In truth, though, it is precisely Rosh Hashana’s austere gravity that lies at the custom’s source.

There are other telling Jewish customs regarding Rosh Hashana, like the recommendation that the Jewish new year be carefully utilized to the fullest for prayer, Torah-study and good deeds, that not a moment of its time be squandered.  Mitzvos and good conduct, of course, are always “in season,” but they seem to have particular power on Rosh Hashana.  Similarly, Jewish sources caution against expressing anger on Rosh Hashana.  The Jewish new year days are to reflect only the highest Jewish ideals.

The 16th century Jewish luminary Rabbi Yehudah Loewy, known as the Maharal, stresses the crucial nature of beginnings.  He explains that the trajectory of a projectile – or, we might similarly note, the outcome of a mathematical computation – can be affected to an often astounding degree by a very small change at the start of the process. A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow – or an error of a single digit at the first step of a long calculation – can yield a surprisingly large difference in the end.  Modern scientific terminology has given the concept both the unwieldy name “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” and the playful one “the butterfly effect,” an allusion to the influence the flapping of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world could presumably have on next week’s local weather.

Rosh Hashana is thus much more than the start of the Jewish year.  It is the day from which the balance of the year unfolds, a time of “initial conditions” exquisitely sensitive to our actions.

Perhaps the Rosh Hashana puns, too, reflect that sensitivity.  After all, word-play is not suggested for any other day of the year.

Maybe by imbuing even things as seemingly inconsequential as our choice of foods with meaning on Rosh Hashana, we symbolically affirm the idea that beginnings have unusual potential.  That there are times when the import of each of our actions is magnified.  By seizing even the most wispy opportunities to try to bestow blessing on the Jewish new year aborning, we declare our determination to start the year as right as we possibly can.

While we are not explicitly informed by the Talmud about whether the puns actually have any direct effect on our year, they unarguably impress upon us the extraordinary degree to which our actions at the start of a Jewish year affect how we will live its balance.

And that is an invaluable lesson, one that should lead us to begin the new Jewish year working to make ourselves better Jews in our relations both to one another and to our Creator.

May all we Jews merit a Rosh Hashana with only sweetness and joy, devoid of sadness and anger.  And may we seize every chance to make the start of 5768 as perfect as we can – ushering in a year in which the Jewish People’s collective life and all of our individual lives take a distinct and substantial turnip for the better.



A Time To Cry

Chemical analysis of human tears seems to bear out something we all innately feel: emotional pain and physical pain occupy different universes.  The tears our eyes produce when they are irritated or when the bodies we carry through life are hurting have different components from those that trickle down our cheeks when it is our souls that ache.

Only humans produce the latter sort.  As Shlomo Hamelech wrote in Koheles: “The one who increases in knowledge increases in pain.”

Only one commandment in the Torah involves crying, though it is not readily recognized as such.  For the crying is done by proxy, through the shofar, on Rosh Hashana.

The shofar call is, of course, above all, a call to teshuva, a sort of alarm clock of the conscience, as the Rambam describes it.  But Chazal characterized it as a literal cry.  While the tekiah is a call to attention, the truah, the central component of the Rosh Hashana shofar-sounds, they said, is either a wailing sound or a series of moans; we incorporate both opinions in our practice today.  What, though, is the shofar crying about?

Rosh Hashana, to be sure, is the Yom Hadin, and so we are rightfully uneasy at the implications of that fact.  But might there be something deeper to the shofar’s wailing and moaning than simple fear?  A haunting Talmudic passage may hold a hint.

In massechta Berachos, we are told of several instances of great Tannaim who became seriously, painfully ill; one was Rabbi Elazar.  Rabbi Yochanan, renowned not only for his scholarship but for his ethereal handsomeness, came to visit and found his ill colleague lying in a dark room.  He pulled up his sleeve, the Gemara recounts, and light spilled from his beautiful skin into the room.  He saw Rabbi Elazar crying and asked him why.

If it was for the Torah he hadn’t been able to study – Rabbi Yochanan reassured the bedridden sage – that is no reason to cry; Hakodosh Boruch Hu judges people not by how much they accomplished but rather by whether they made their best effort.  And if it was because of  the elusiveness of material success, “not every man merits to sit at two tables” – Rabbi Elazar may not have attained wealth in this world but surely had amassed much reward in the World to Come.

And, continued Rabbi Yochanan, if you are crying because of the death of your children, I have suffered more; ten of my own have perished.

Finally, Rabbi Elazar spoke up. “I am crying,” he said, indicating Rabbi Yochanan’s shining arm, “because this beauty is destined for the dust.”

“For that?” responded Rabbi Yochanan.  “For that, indeed, it is fitting to cry.”  And the two scholars cried together.

No one with warm blood running through his veins could read that account without a shudder born of the realization of what brought those sages to weep.

We all try to crowd our lives with enough diversions to minimize opportunities for reflecting on our mortality.  But serious people cannot forever avoid the thought, and righteous ones make no effort to do so at all.

The late, revered Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, perceived in the act of blowing the shofar a hint to the earliest event commemorated by Rosh Hashana: the creation of man.  Shofar-blowing, he observed, involves a force of breath, recalling the animation of Adam Harishon– “And He blew into his nostrils the spirit of life, and man became a living soul.”

The Zohar describes Adam’s physical state before his sin as “shining” with a special splendor – referred to as his “shufra,” or beauty.

It is the precise word Rabbi Elazar used to describe Rabbi Yochanan’s skin.  Could it also be… the root of the word “shofar”?

Might the shofar, in other words, be crying out its own name, in memory of the perfection with which our ultimate ancestor was created – squandered by sin, destined for death?

Shufra!” it may be calling from earth to heaven.  “Beauty!  The beauty that is a human being, that was once the perfect human being!  Now subject to decay!”

For such, indeed, it is fitting to cry.  And through our shofaros, we cry together.

Our crying, though, is not an expression of hopelessness.  On the contrary, the very recognition of what sin has wrought is, according to our mesorah, the first step toward regaining it, the first step on the road of teshuva.  When our regret of our individual loads of sin are total and sincere, we are taught, then we will have utilized our pain for ultimate gain.  Even death itself, as Yeshayahu Hanovi foretold, “will be swallowed forever, and Hashem will wipe tears from every face…”

And that same novi describes that day, when death is erased and history ended.  “On that day,” he foresees, “there will be sounded a great tekiah.”

© 2006 Rabbi Avi Shafran

[R.  The essay above is adapted from a longer version I wrote for The Jewish Observer in 1989. It is dedicated to the memory of mydear mother and teacher, Rebbetzin Pu’ah bas Rav Noach HaCohein Kahn, a”h, whose incredible righteousness and shufra still shine brightly in the hearts of all who knew her.]