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.

Advertisements

Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 – Identity vs. Actions

There is an oft-quoted midrash that most people are familiar with about how the four species, one of Sukkot’s most notable mitsvot, correspond to four different types of people found in the nation of Israel. This midrash is often quoted to talk about the value of diversity or how ever Jew has a place within Judaism, ideas that are important, to be sure, but ones that I think miss the power of how the midrash follows up the typology of Israelite-flora correspondences. Below is the text of the midrash and an English translation,[1] after which I will examine some of the neglected lines, without pretending to exhaust the meaning of this midrash.

דבר אחר: פרי עץ הדר, אלו ישראל. מה אתרוג זה, יש בו טעם ויש בו ריח. כך ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם, שיש בהם תורה, ויש בהם מעשים טובים. כפות תמרים, אלו ישראל. מה התמרה הזו, יש בו טעם ואין בו ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם תורה ואין בהם מעשים טובים. וענף עץ עבות, אלו ישראל. מה הדס, יש בו ריח ואין בו טעם.כך ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם מעשים טובים ואין בהם תורה. וערבי נחל, אלו ישראל. מה ערבה זו, אין בה טעם ואין בה ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם שאין בהם לא תורה ולא מעשים טובים. ומה הקב”ה עושה להם? לאבדן אי אפשר, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא יוקשרו כולם אגודה אחת, והן מכפרין אלו על אלו, ואם עשיתם כך אותה שעה אני מתעלה, הדא הוא דכתיב (עמוס ט): הבונה בשמים מעלותיו. ואימתי הוא מתעלה? כשהן עשויין אגודה אחת, שנאמר (שם): ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה. לפיכך משה מזהיר לישראל: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון:

Another explanation: “The fruit of a beautiful tree” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this citron (etrog), which has taste and has smell, so too Israel has among them people that have Torah and have good deeds. “The branches of a date palm” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this date, which has taste and has no smell, so too Israel has among them those that have Torah but do not have good deeds. “And a branch of a braided tree (a myrtle)” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them those that have good deeds but do not have Torah. “And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.” And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.” Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The majority of the text of the midrash is taken up by laying out the correspondences one after the other. After the midrash gets to the last correspondence, however, it does not simply move on.

“And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.”

Faced with a category of Jews who do not have any meritorious actions, ritual or ethical, to their name, the midrash asks what God should do with such people. It raises the possibility that they should be destroyed by way of rejecting the possibility, in favor of proposing that national unity can enable “these” to “atone for those.”

The first point of note here is that the midrash is asking what should be done with such people. The question implies that the whole description of the various types of Jews isn’t just an exercise in description, or in midrashic creativity. There is a sense that some sort of Divine judgment[2] is at work, and this group of Jews have no merit that should enable them to survive. Presumably this is working off the way Sukkot comes hot on the heels of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, traditionally understood as a time of Divine judgment and forgiveness.

What’s interesting is that it is inconceivable that God would destroy this section of the Jewish people. Given that fact, God has to then justify their survival, which he does by way prescribing national unity. This national unity does more than simply justify their survival, however; it actually atones for these Jews.[3]

This is an important turn in the midrash. Just a few lines before, these Jews had not a single merit on their side, to the point where their survival of Divine judgment had to be justified by God himself. Now they have been atoned for.[4] They are now worthy to survive in and of themselves.

This leads to a different conception of Divine judgment than what the midrash started out with. The initial standard of evaluation used by the midrash was based on people’s actions, ritual and ethical, and to receive a positive evaluation was to have performed positive ritual or ethical actions. Now, however,  the midrash is suggesting that identity is an important factor in Divine evaluation. A Jew can be deemed meritorious not by virtue of actions they have performed, but by virtue of being part of the Jewish people.

“Being part of the Jewish people” is something of an ambiguous idea. It might just mean identifying as a Jew, without any external actions attached to that. Or it might mean that you have to express this identity in some way, likely in your relationship to your Jews. However, given that the midrash says they Jews don’t have any ethical or ritual actions to their merit, it seems likely that this national unity is just a function of internal identity. We thus emerge from the typological correspondences of the midrash with a standard of evaluation where, in order to survive Divine Judgment, you have to either have performed certain actions, or simply possess the identify as a part of the Jewish nation.

This unity of national identity is articulated not just as an ideal state by which to survive judgment, but as an instruction from God to the Jews to unite in order to make sure even the most marginalized survive judgment. To paraphrase, the Jews who have acted righteously are essentially told, “You want to save the rest of the Jews? Help them feel Jewish.” Importantly, they are not told to help the other Jews perform more mitsvot or to do more good in the world. That would potentially be a solution, moving the Jews of the fourth category, the “willow Jews,” into the previous floral categories But God, according to the midrash, does not take that route; God does not turn to what we typically think of as “kiruv.” It seems to be less important to God, at least for the purposes of the present Divine judgment, that the Jews perform ritual and ethical actions than that they identify as Jewish. The next line of the midrash takes it beyond just the practical needs of the present judgment, however.

And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.”

The unity of the Jews leads to the elevation of God. The identifying of all of the Jews as Jewish, more even than their performance of mitsvot, leads to the elevation of God. This unity is not just a practical move in order to help the Jews survive judgment; it is a goal unto itself. It might be argued that it is the survival of the Jews in judgment that elevates God, but the midrash preempts that argument by using a verse from Amos to explicitly link God’s elevation to Israel’s unity. It is thus the very fact of the Jews’ collective existence and identity that elevates God.

This may serve as an explanation for why God cannot destroy the meritless among the Jewish people. The midrash posits an inherent connection between the elevation of God (whatever that means) and the national body of the Jewish people. So destroying Jews, even just a small part of the larger collective, goes against God’s elevation.

This also leads to a sharp conclusion: It is more important that the Jews exist as a collective group with a shared identity than that Jews should perform specific actions. While this might seem strange to some, it is well grounded in an important idea from Tanakh. This is the idea that God sometimes saves the Israelite nation for the sake of God’s name.[5] God is connected to the bodily existence of the Jewish nation (a relationship of elevation, according to our midrash) so it’s destruction is something God has an active interest in avoiding. Thus even when the Israelites are sinning, to the point where they would merit destruction, God may still avert this destruction for the sake of God’s Name. This midrash can thus be seen as extending this idea to a new and exciting conclusion: it is not just the national collective that God is interested in saving for the sake of God’s name, but also individual Jews, meritorious or not.

 

Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The midrash then funnels all of this theological momentum into the mitsvah of of the four species. The mitsvah is a reminder of the importance of Jewish identity. Regardless of the importance of what actions we do or not perform, the essential point is that we identify as part of the Jewish nation.

 

[1] Hebrew text and translation from http://www.sefaria.org/Vayikra_Rabbah.30.12?lang=bi&with=Amos&lang2=en.

[2] Judgment in this article should be understood as shorthand for judgment of the Jews specifically.

[3] Due the the midrash’s use of inherently vague pronouns, it is possible to understand the midrash is suggesting that each type of Jew atones for some lack in all the others, and perhaps even that God has to justify not destroying all of different types of Jews. I find such a reading unlikely and forced, however, but rejecting that specific reading goes beyond the scope of this article.

[4] Notably, “atonement” usually has to do with removal of actual sin rather than a lack of merit. The midrash seems to assume that people who lack merit are inherently sinful, or are for sure also sinning, or something to that effect. Examining this understanding of merit and human nature would be an intriguing topic for a different composition.

[5] I have written about this theme in this essay.