Elul 2019: Is This The Real Life? Rosh Hashanah and the Purpose of Life

 

Sources:

  1. Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b

Our Rabbis taught: For two and a half years were Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel in dispute. The former said, “It would have been more pleasant for man not to have been created than to have been created,” and the latter said, “It would have been more pleasant for man to have been created than not to have been created.”

They finally voted and decided that it would have been more pleasant for man not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past deeds or, as others say, let him examine his future actions.

 

Birth

 

  1. Tefillah of Yom Kippur


My God, until I was created, I was not worthy. Now that I was created, it’s as if I was not created. Dust am I in my life, all the more so in my death. I am before you as a vessel filled with embarrassment and shame.

 

  1. Rav Kook, Olat Hare’iyah, vol. 2, 356

Before I was created, the whole infinite time from eternity until I was created, there was certainly nothing in the world that needed me. Had I been lacking for some purpose or completion, I would have been created. Thus, the fact that I was not created is a sign that I was not worthy to be created then, and there was no need for me except at the time when I was created, because the time had arrived when I needed to fulfill some purpose for the completion of reality. If I dedicate my actions to the purpose of my creation, then I am now worthy, but since my actions are not intended for the good of this purpose, then I have not achieved the purpose of my creation and I am still unworthy, as before.

 

Death

 

  1. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, Selection

Since free choice is granted to all men as explained, a person should always strive to do Teshuvah and to confess verbally for his sins, striving to cleanse his hands from sin in order that he may die as a Baal-Teshuvah and merit the life of the world to come. (7:1)

A person should always view himself as leaning towards death, with the possibility that he might die at any time. Thus, he may be found as a sinner. (7:2)

Even if he transgressed throughout his entire life and repented on the day of his death and died in repentance, all his sins are forgiven. (2:1)

If a person’s sins exceed his merits, he will immediately die because of his wickedness (3:2)

Just as a person’s merits and sins are weighed at the time of his death, so, too, the sins of every inhabitant of the world together with his merits are weighed on the festival of Rosh HaShanah. If one is found righteous, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his [verdict] is sealed for death. A Beinoni’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his [verdict] is sealed for life. If not, his [verdict] is sealed for death. (3:3)

When does the statement that these individuals do not have a portion in the world to come apply? When they die without having repented. However, if such a person repents from his wicked deeds and dies as a Baal-Teshuvah, he will merit the world to come, for nothing can stand in the way of Teshuvah. (3:14)

 

  1. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 77

The day a person dies is not a predetermined date set for a person’s judgment day, it is simply an immanent result of their situation. The judgment is nothing other than the person’s state at the moment he dies, and this is his eternal fate. This fact heightens the tension surrounding repentance and judgment, a tension that expresses the combination of the incidental–man’s fleeting existence–and the fact that this incidental thing has an absolute, total, and infinite character. The anxiety of judgment, its fateful and decisive character, comes from exactly this combination. The fleeting receives eternal force. The fact that a person dies at a specific moment, something typically entirely incidental, and that this is what determines a person’s eternity, causes the fleetingness itself to gain the urgency and fatefulness of eternity.

 

  1. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 81

It seems that a single day judgment–Rosh Hashanah–was established in order to emphasize in actual practice the acuteness and intensity of existence, the ethical consciousness according to which we should live every day of the year. This is why Rambam constructs Rosh Hashanah on the model of the day of death. Rosh Hashanah is the judgment and the life in the shadow of death that is eternity.

Rambam puts in effort to solve the problem of why a specific day of judgment was established, because a person’s judgment is a function of his inner condition, something that is true each and every day.

According to Rambam, the selection of Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgments to a large degree arbitrary and incidental. He compares this happenstance to the happenstance of the day a person dies, and thus sets up the fatefulness of the judgment on Rosh Hashanah. Just was the day a person dies is incidental, so too is Rosh Hashanah.  That’s when a person’s fate in this world is decided. There’s something specifically both incidental and arbitrary about this judgment, but that is its nature. The concept of judgement as absolute happenstance is the basis of this day.

 

Apocalypse

 

  1. Blessing of Kedushah, Tefillah for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, etc.

You are holy and Your Name is holy and holy beings praise You every day, forever.

And so, grant that Your awe, Adonoy, our God, be upon all Your works, and Your dread upon all You have created; and [then] all [Your] works will fear You, and prostrate before You will be all [Your] created beings.

And may they all form a single band to do Your will with a perfect heart. For we know Adonoy, our God that rulership is Yours, strength is in Your hand, might is in Your right hand and Your Name is awesome over all You have created.

And so, grant honor, Adonoy, to Your people, praise to those who fear You, good hope to those who seek You confident speech to those who yearn for You, joy to Your land, gladness to Your city, flourishing of pride to Dovid, Your servant and an array of light to the son of Yishai, Your anointed, speedily in our days.

And then the righteous will see [this] and rejoice, and the upright will be jubilant, and the pious will exult with joyous song; injustice will close its mouth, and all the wickedness will vanish like smoke, when You remove the rule of evil from the earth.

And You Adonoy will reign alone over all Your works on Mount Tziyon, dwelling place of Your glory, and in Yerushalayim, city of Your Sanctuary, as it is written in Your holy words, “Adonoy will reign forever; Your God, Tziyon, throughout all generations. Praise God.”

Holy are You, and awesome is Your Name, and there is no God beside You, as it is written, “And Adonoy Tzevaos is exalted through justice and the Almighty, the Holy One, is sanctified through righteousness.”

Blessed are You, Adonoy, the King, the Holy One.

 

  1. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 165-166

In order to understand these wondrous, magical depictions, which are not of this world, we can look to a somewhat parallel literary phenomenon, science fiction. Both science fiction and the rabbis’ homilies (midrashim) about the future redemption describe an alternative world. This world’s primary purpose, if we can speak of such a thing, is to lay bare the mystery (mistorin) of our lives, aiding the collapse and destruction of our banal, boring everyday life.

In the rabbis’ days there were no rockets; the eschatological homilies don’t talk about distant galaxies or about worlds full of robots and beyond-human creatures. However, they contain just as much magic and wonders just as great [as science fiction contains]. They provide the realistic possibility of a substantive alternative to this world, an alternative that many of the rabbis certainly thought would arrive one day. […] In this way, the miraculous and wondrous bursts into the world and disrupts its factual, scientific stability.

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Calling Upon God In Truth – Rav Amital on the High Holidays

Calling Upon God In Truth – Rav Amital on the High Holidays

WGIN

When God Is Near, Maggid Books’ newly released anthology of High Holiday sermons by Rav Yehuda Amital zt”l, is an important step in making the teachings of R. Amital accessible to the English speaking public. The sermons are masterful glimpses into the thought of one of the leaders of Religious Zionism in the 20th Century. They contain the unique blend of erudition, intellectual sharpness, and emotional sensitive that characterizes all of R. Amital’s torah. The book is divided into several sections, with each containing sermons on a specific topic: Seliḥot, Rosh HaShanah, Shabbat Shuvah, Akedat Yitzchak,  Yom Kippur, and Ne’ilah; each with it’s own themes and focuses. The section on Ne’ilah, for example, focuses on the opening of not just the gates of heaven but also, and more importantly, the gates of the heart. When God Is Near is a treasure trove of ideas and inspirations for the holidays.

Appreciating the book requires appreciating the book’s format; Rather than being a book, it’s a collection, and it collects not essays but derashot, sermons. This has several important ramifications. Though the derashot are overall short, with the largest around 9 pages in length, they cannot be raced through. Each one traverses a number of biblical and rabbinic texts and explains the text through innovative homiletics, typical of the classic rabbinic sermon. Further, the sermons do not attempt to discuss a single topic or fully convey a single idea, attempting instead to inspire the reader, to evoke an emotional response from the audience. Consequently they are short, and the texts of a given sermon are often only loosely related. The meaning of the texts lies not in their explanation, but in their internalization, as the reader thinks over the explanations and ponders them at length after reading them. However, the somewhat meandering feel of each sermon can leave the reader feeling like they don’t have a solid grasp of R. Amital’s derashot and his approach to the holidays. In service of this, When God Is Near has a phenomenal afterword, by R. Amital’s son-in-law Rav Yehuda Gilad, discussing many, though not all, of the philosophical and educational themes in the sermons.

The themes discussed in the sermons are representative of R. Amital’s unique approach to religious life. There is a strong emphasis on humanity, on the moral sensitivity that makes us human, even when it seems to run against the grain of piety. For R. Amital, piety that ignores morality is cruelty. One section of the book features discussions of Akedat Yitzchak, “the Binding of Isaac”, with a focus on the struggle that must have been going on within both Avraham and Yitzchak, a struggle often manifest in the religious life of all Jews. However, R. Amital does not suggest letting the struggle consume a person, but rather suggests a certain simplicity, not despite complexity but in light of it, in our approach to faith. Without ignoring the problems we struggle with, we can embrace God and faith wholeheartedly. This simple faith cannot, however, come at the expense of those around us. The religious man is a man of the community, not in addition to, but as part of, being a man of God.

What I found most compelling, however, is a feature which is not discussed in the afterward, namely, R. Amital’s creativity in reading and interpreting rabbinic sources. Many of the sermons, particularly those in the section on Seliḥot, focus on the tension between the life of an individual and their existence as a member of a community. In this context, R. Amital discusses, in several sermons, a midrash from masekhet Rosh Hashanah (17b).

And ‘the Lord passed by before him and proclaimed…’ R. Yohanan said: Were it not written in the text, it would be impossible for us to say! This verse teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped Himself like a leader of a congregation (sheliaḥ tsibur) and showed Moses the order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever Israel sin, let them carry out this service before Me, and I will forgive them.

The gemara here describes God telling Moshe that in order to be forgiven, the Jewish people ought to recite God’s thirteen attributes of mercy, originating from Shemot 34:5-7. These attributes are the subject of another famous rabbinic midrash.

Just as He is called ‘merciful,’ so should you be merciful; just as He is called ‘gracious,’ so should you be gracious … just as He is called ‘righteous,’ so should you be righteous … just as He is called ‘pious,’ so should you be pious. (Sifri, Devarim 11:22; also Shabbat 133b)

This rabbinic text asserts an obligation of Imitatio Dei, imitating God, in connection to God’s attributes of mercy. R. Amital’s sermons quote this midrash (though, notably, the book does not give a textual source), and then take it one step further, extending the obligation of Imitatio Dei past the biblical text and into the previous midrash, requiring a person to metaphorically “wrap themselves like an agent of the congregation (sheliaḥ tsibur),” to suppress their ego and take upon themselves the responsibility of working on behalf of the community. On the High Holidays, argues R. Amital, we thus stand before God as individuals, confronted with our personal actions and responsibilities, and as agents of the community, seeking its betterment and conscious of how our actions affect it.