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Preparing for Rosh Hashanah - The Weekly Shiur - Nitzavim 5779

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Welcome. I just returned from the elections in Israel, where the Israeli citizens, after a political battle, made their choices. But now we come to the choices that really matter, in the true battlefield of life known as Rosh Hashana. Here the battle is not between Netanyahu and Gantz but between the good inclination and the evil inclination. Here, there will be no compromise rotation where one prime minister rules for the first two years and the other for two years after that. Here, there will be a clear choice, a clear decision, on the part of every one of us. I was reminded this week of a statement from Frantz Werfel:

“Our generation has become so interested in the left and the right that it has completely forgotten that there is also an above and a below.”

Rosh Hashana is a deep and holy day that is full of meaning, so that we may feel small and diminished. After all, on Rosh Hashana, we crown G-d as our king.  So we will speak today about the simplest things, the simplest words, the simplest acts. Still, to honor the new year, we will try to learn new meanings regarding the days ahead – Monday and Tuesday, the first days of 5780.

1. “New Year” – What Exactly is Renewed?

A new year begins. We are so accustomed to the word “new,” but the Torah asks us to stop and think about it, to truly be renewed. What actually is renewed, in the world and in us, at this time? In the Jewish sources we find three things that our sages ask us to think about every day as if they are new:  Torah, the Land of Israel, and Marriage.

1. Torah

One of the most popular words in Deuteronomy, that we read throughout the month of Elul, is the word “today.” Again and again, prior to entering the Land of Israel, we were asked to relate to past events as if they occurred that same morning -- and so we continue to do, to read these passages with the same sense of daily renewal and urgency, three thousand years later.

On this day the Lord your G-d commands you (Deut. 26:16),  the verse states, and Rashi comments: “Each day they (the commandments) should be in your eyes like new (as if you just received them at Mount Sinai).” Another verse states, On this day you became a nation (Deut. 27:9) and Rashi explains again: “Each day should be in your eyes as if (only now) you came into a covenant with Him (to be a nation).”  Now is the most fitting time of the year to refresh and renew our connection to the Torah, to think about her as a gift that we just received and to decide how we are going to look at her in the new year, in a completely new and different light.

(This is one of our main problems today. We may think of the Torah as old and tired and of the prevailing culture as new and fresh and constantly changing. And it’s as if new Netflix series will always be more easy to enjoy and more timely, and that the latest CD will be more exciting, than Torah. In my opinion, there are two ways to solve the problem of making “old” Torah new again.

The first Torah renewal strategy requires a serious effort, a simple investment of time in Torah. The beauty and pleasure of Torah are granted to those who delve deeply into it, its secrets revealed to those who study it with continuous devotion. This is not just a matter of becoming a Torah expert, but of continual growth, renewal, and change as a person.  I see this happening with my dear husband in his study of the Daf Hayomi, a daily Gemara study. No daily Netflix can provide a feeling like this. Renewal from such study does not come right away, but only for those who are prepared to make a serious effort to unveil the secrets that lie within.

The second way to make Torah a continual source of renewal in our lives is to find ways to integrate it with the prevailing culture.  In our generation, we have made a separation between culture and Torah and we need to bring them together. Not to make a separation between the music played on the radio and Torah but to integrate them.  One example of many is Ishay Ribo and his music video, “Seder Avodah.”  This video gives new and highly emotional meaning to the Yom Kippur service as it was performed in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. If you have not yet heard it, I highly recommend that you do.  But don’t listen to it as background music. Pay attention and you will need tissues to wipe away the tears as the video develops.  For two thousand years we have occupied ourselves with imagining what the service of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) in the Holy Temple must have been like. And now, all of a sudden, a young man from the Land of Israel comes along, and with the assistance of a common device known as a music video, he elevates this ancient ritual until it soars to the highest spiritual heights.  We need books like this, and movies and television series, too, in order to create possibilities for Torah renewal among those who do not sit all day opposite a page of gemara, in order that the gap between holy and profane, religious and secular, will slowly close.)

2. Land of Israel

The Land of Israel is the Promised Land, the Holy Land, but is it a New Land? Here we are, telling – and with justification – ourselves and the whole world that we have an ancient historical right to this land.  This is true, but it should never happen that our relationship with the Land of Israel grows old.  The verse states:  And it shall come to pass that the Lord will bring you into the Land of the Canaanites as He swore to you and to your forefathers and He will give it to you (Exodus 13:11).  Rashi explains:  “And He will give it to you – it should be in your eyes as if He gave it to you today, and it should not be in your eyes (only) as an inheritance of your forefathers.” It does not make any difference where we live, we need to create a living, effervescent bond with the Land of Israel and not to rely solely on what grandpa and grandma told us. And again, the months of Elul and Tishrei are the time to think about how to bring into our lives a new and authentic connection with the Land of Israel.

(Here in the United States, sometimes people get more excited about the Land of Israel than those who live there.  There is great enthusiasm here and concern, too. I have noticed that you really care. Almost always when an American Jew asks me where I’m from and I answer, “Jerusalem,” he asks “From which neighborhood?”. In other words, you are involved, you care, you know what’s going on. Sometimes you need to remind us how special it is to live in Israel).

This past week I had the privilege of looking at the Land of Israel anew. When I got on the plane, I smiled at the flight attendants and they did not understand what I wanted, and when I arrived I in Israel I nearly kissed the ground.  I realized that I had missed everything, from the Kotel to Tenuva cottage cheese, even Lieberman . . . well, not really.  But this was the longest period of time I had ever been away from Israel, almost a month, and this was an opportunity to look at and experience everything from a new and fresh perspective – the landscape, the Kotel, even the air of Eretz Yisrael.

4. Married Life and Family

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy we received instructions regarding married life and education of children (questions children will ask, answers that we will give, and the way they should be educated after entering the Land of Israel). Here, too, precisely in our most familiar and intimate place – the marriage relationship – we are obligated to find renewal.

Under the chupah, we declare: “Behold, you are  consecrated unto me with this ring in accordance with the laws of Moses and (the people of) Israel.” A hundred years ago, Rav Tzvi Kinstlicher from Hungary, in his book “Be’er Tzvi,” asked why the emphasis is placed on “in accordance with laws of Moses and Israel.” His answer was:  Just like the relationship of Moses and Israel to the Torah was meant to be so close that it was if the Torah was given anew each today, so too married life should abide by this motto: “every day should be like (when your marriage was) new.”  Here, too, just as Torah study in which we invest time renews us on a continuing basis, we need to invest time, thought, and creativity in order to reignite the flame and renew the bond between us, inside the home.

(I want to tell you something from the heart.  Many people complimented me in Israel:  “Good for you! You did a live broadcast for fifteen hours straight.”  “Well done!  We saw you on the morning program and on the evening program.”  “Wow, how did you do it?  At two in the morning, I saw you interviewing Arab and ultra-Orthodox Knesset members"… and on and on. This is a little fake. This is a lot fake. I was in Israel by myself.  Yedidya my husband stayed with our five children in New York.  Believe me, you need to go to him and say “Good for you! Well done! And how did you do this?”. In Israel I felt strange. I got into a taxi and turned around and I saw that I didn’t need to fasten any child’s seat belt.  I went into a restaurant and ordered for myself without checking to see what other people wanted to eat.  I went to sleep when I felt like it (even if it was three o’clock at night) and I got up in the morning without having to make a morning snack for anyone or check what was inside everyone’s backpack. So here is a confession: To wake up five children, to make sure they all get dressed and make them something to eat before going off the school, to sign permission slips, to find a rubber band for a pony tail, to find a lost notebook, and to check five backpacks each morning – this is more difficult that presenting a morning television program!  But no one is going to compliment a father or a mother who is seen in the street with a bunch of little children.  Many people, in fact, might regard such a sight as trivial.  But the Torah tells us: its not trivial, this is the most awesome and revolutionary act in the world, an act of continuous renewal and creation, upon which the very future of the world depends.  Know this and find sweetness and meaning and renewal in this, in your daily routine with your spouse and with your children, and not in crazy election newsrooms . .)

To summarize:  The “new year,” to our sages, represents the biggest challenge of our time:  not to take the three greatest gifts that we have received – Torah, the Land of Israel, and marriage – for granted.  The prevailing culture that surrounds us broadcasts a message that ancient texts, a specific land that we call home, and the unique partnership of marriage are values that have departed from this world.  As if renewal can only be found outside, but never inside, of us.  The Torah cries out to us to find a new flavor to add to the ingredients that make up our life.  Here’s wishing that we should all enjoy a good year, G-d willing, a year that is truly new.

2. Shofar

Many nations celebrate their new year by counting backwards and loudly gathering at a public place such as at Times Square with a party. But then there is another nation that gathers together in silence, and turns inward, quietly listening to the simple sounds of the Shofar.

We are full of seriousness at the starting point of the new year. We don’t shout “mazel tov” and open a bottle of champagne, we don’t go out and celebrate, but instead we gather together inside a shul for a moment to listen to that “still, small voice.”

What should we be thinking about when we hear the blast of the shofar?  What is its meaning? First of all, before we get into some of the commentaries, this is a positive mitzvah from the Torah. Let’s remember, above all, that we are keeping the commandment designated for this day.  This is the simple meaning of shofar.  And so too is it stated in our Torah.  Sometimes we forget about that in the middle of so many new revelations and interpretations.

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day for you when the horn is sounded.  (Numbers 29:1)

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.  (Leviticus 23:24)

And the Rambam opens his halachot pertaining to shofar with the following declaration:  “It’s a positive mitzvah of the Torah to hear the loud blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, as it is stated:  “a day for you when the horn is sounded.”  (Rambam, Hilchot Shofar, 1:1)

So, first of all, we are doing what needs to be done on this day, in these shofar blowing moments.  This is important even if we do not understand the full meaning of shofar, and, after all, how is it really possible to understand the full meaning?

Here, for example, is what Rabbenu Bachya writes about this mitzvah:  “This (shofar) paragrah is more enigmatic than any other paragrah regarding the festivals, and the reason is well known:  the more something is hidden and the deeper its inner meaning – the more enigmatic it is and so it is conveyed in abbreviated language and with few words.”

So here we have a secret.  I thought to myself that perhaps the secret, first of all, is the silence itself, the stillness, the retreat within ourselves in the absence of noise.

The “restart” moment on Rosh Hashana is so important, and each year is more important than the last. We reset the entire system. We quiet things down. We, ourselves, become silent. This is actually found in the blessing that we recite over the shofar blowing. Pay attention to the wording:

Blessed art Thou, O Lord our G-d, who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.

Typically, blessings are recited over a physical action:  lighting a candle, putting on tefillin, eating bread, drinking wine, sitting in a Sukkah, reading the Megillah. Here, however, we are blessing the experience of hearing the shofar, "he commanded us to hear". To hear and not to be heard. To hear and not to be heard. To hear and not to speak.

But this is not only for the sake of experiencing some quiet time. If it were, we would just take "a moment of silence".  We do shout something, but without words, something higher that words, in these special seconds.

Sometimes, however, shouting, represented by the shofar blast, is needed, too, as illustrated in a parable told by the Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement.  The headline for this parable could be:

1. I have come home, father!

A king had an only son, the apple of his eye.  The king loved him dearly but wanted him to broaden his education, so he sent him off to learn about other cultures and explore the globe.  The son was supplied with an enormous quantity of gold but, far away from home, the gold was eventually spent. Poor and in rags, the son finally made it home to the king’s palace.  However, none of the king’s guards recognized him and, during his long absence, the son had even forgotten his native tongue.  Desperate to see his father the king, the son cried out in a loud voice, which the king recognized.  The king brought his son into the palace, kissing and hugging him.

This is our cry, sounded by the shofar:  I am here.  I have come home.  It doesn’t matter how far away I went, many years ago or just last year.  Now I am here, and that’s what matters.  The king hears our shouts, that we believe he is our father our king, that this connection is important to us and that we accept his kingship over us.

The Netivot Shalom summarizes our situation with words you might want to ponder during the blowing of the shofar:

“All of the obstacles and barriers (to connecting with G-d) are nothing compared to the barrier a Jew fixes in his heart, that he is far from the Lord, may He be blessed, which is the hardest barrier of all to overcome.  And so this is the main preparation for the Days of Awe, to believe that your being a child of the Lord your G-d is an eternal reality."

2. Our King

But He is not only our Father, He is also our King. The shofar reminds us that He is our Father, our King.  And it is also noteworthy that Professor Yosef Dov Soloveichik goes in a Chasidic direction when he recalls his Rosh Hashana as a child.  This is not a halachic discussion, not an academic or philosophical statement, but a Chasidic childhood story about the coronation of the king.

“My childhood years were spent in the Chasidic town of Chaslavitch.  Every year, when erev Rosh Hashana arrived, I could see on the face of my Chabad teacher great joy and unusual excitement.  Once, when he wanted to share with us, children of the “heder,” his feelings, he said, ‘Do you know what will happen tomorrow night?  Tomorrow, once again, the crown will be placed on the head of the Holy One blessed be He.  And do you know who will put it there?  Yankel the tailor and Berel the shoemaker.’

“Over the years I have given many sermons and written many discourses on the concept of Rosh Hashanah, but nothing ever made me feel the true depth and power of the day as the words of my childhood teacher. Every year, when I recite in the Rosh Hashanah prayers the words, ‘Rule over the whole world in Your glory,’ I remember my teacher in Chaslavitch.”

Let’s summarize:

We spoke about the new year as a time for renewal in three areas:  Torah, the Land of Israel, and married life and family.  If only we can find new meaning in those areas of life!

And we learned that the shofar commands us to be quiet and to listen, to hear two messages:  First, our Father, our King; we have come back home.  And second, we coronate you as our King.

Have a happy and sweet new year, may you be inscribed and sealed in the book of life.

Thanks you very much.

We will meet b”H after the holidays, on Tuesday evening, here at Stern College. Shana Tova!


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