Compendium Of Rosh HaShana Articles
1. Preparation for Rosh HaShana – As broadcast on Chai FM
Welcome and thank you for listening.
Rosh HaShana, the beginning of the year, is a time for introspection and reflection on the past year and a time to look forward to the year ahead. It is during this time, the time of G-d’s Judgment, that we become very aware of our vulnerabilities and the changes in our lives.
Life is not static, and this change often instills fear and uncertainty within us. However, it should be seen as an opportunity to improve our lives for the better. Teshuva, repentance, is a means to improve the world for the better and our lives. When we turn to G-d to have our prayers answered we appeal to Him to change His decrees so that they should be good and sweet for the upcoming year. The Talmud teaches that we should always pray for a good and sweet year because everything that G-d does is for the good. Sometimes the good things are bitter and painful, so we ask that it be a sweet year as well.
Getting back to basics At the same time we acknowledge our own responsibility to change our hearts that we ourselves can change for the better. One of the most important things we can do is to go back to the basics and core principles of Judaism by uncluttering our lives. The Talmud says that the best time of our lives is when we are fetuses in the womb, as all of our needs are taken care of there. We have safety, security, food and drink and all our needs are met. But there is a passage in the Talmud, Tractate Niddah pg 30b, that says that the fetus inside the mother’s womb looks like a folded over account book; a candle burns above the fetus’ head so it can see from one side of the world to another during this time, an angel teaches the fetus all the principles and laws of the Torah; but as the fetus emerges into the world, the angel touches the fetus on the mouth and the newborn baby enters the world having forgotten all the Torah wisdom it had learnt.
On a Shabbat Teshuva, the Shabbat of Repentance between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the Maharal of Prague – one of our great philosophers who lived in the 1600s – quoted this passage in his sermon. He interpreted it by saying that the fetus represents the essence of man. It is described as a folded over account book showing that we are accountable for all our deeds and that our deeds are ‘written’ on our souls because we are like a book. G-d does not write our deeds in some remote book; they are written on whom we are because our actions influence whom we, and we are ultimately judged and held accountable for those choices.
A core principle of being human is accountability and responsibility. It is in this area that the first human being stumbled so badly. When Adam and Eve sinned they did not take responsibility – Adam blamed his actions on Eve, and Eve accused the serpent. This was the birth of our humanity and it became part of the human condition to avoid taking responsibility.
The Sforno, one of our perceptive commentators of the Middle Ages, points out the contrast between Adam is avoiding responsibility, and King David who when he sinned and was approached by the Prophet about his wrongdoings, immediately admitted them. And that’s what Rosh HaShana is about. We need to have the honesty and to accept the responsibility to say that we have done something wrong and are prepared to be accountable before G-d to and begin the process of repentance.
Rosh HaShana is the Day of Judgment but it’s also the beginning of the ten days of repentance which climax in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That atonement is dependent on our repentance which is dependent on our accountability and responsibility.
The Maharal says that the fetus’ hands are by his temple symbolising the fact that human beings must think. He says that emotions are the most powerful force within the human being, but we should strive to rise above them and think clearly about life and our purpose in this world.
There is the famous image used by the Prophet Jeremiah. He says people act as if they are horses in a cavalry charge. These horses are not thinking about the reason for their charging; they are simply doing so because they are driven to do so even if it is to their detriment. Similarly in modern day horse racing, the horses don’t know why they must run to the finish line or the purpose of the race; they run because they are forced to. In life, the Prophet says, we must not simply charge ahead and run because everyone else is doing it. Rosh HaShana is about stopping and asking what the purpose of our lives is and whether we are in fact fulfilling that purpose.
The Maharal explains further that the fetus is in a bowing position with its heels tucked underneath it as if it is bowing before G-d and submitting before His authority. A major theme of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah is the Kingship of G-d because Rosh HaShana is the anniversary of the day that G-d became King. This is because prior to the creation of Adam and Eve there were no beings in the world who could freely choose and acknowledge G-d as King. By recognizing G-d as King we are acknowledging His authority over our lives and submitting before His Will. Seeing the bigger picture
Although the fetus is folded over, it still has great vision and can see from one side of the world to the other. The Talmud compares this to a person who, while sleeping in one place, can dream and see things in a completely different world. The Maharal explains that this image of the Talmud refers analogously to the human capacity for vision and for understanding life’s bigger picture. Often in life we get entangled in details and become distracted. Distraction is one of the enemies of leading a great life. The Ramchal, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, explains that one of the greatest threats to growing and becoming a great person is busyness. The Ramchal is one of our great Jewish philosophers who lived in Italy in the 18th century. He writes this in one of his classics of Jewish philosophy and ethical conduct – The Path of the Just. He says that people get so busy with life that they forget about the bigger picture. He brings the example of Pharaoh when Moshe and Aharon came before him, saying let our people go. Pharaoh’s immediate response was that the people were thinking about freedom and liberation so he made them work harder in order that they would be distracted and wouldn’t have time or the headspace to think lofty thoughts of liberation. So too, in our lives the busier we get the more cluttered our vision becomes until we are unable to see the bigger picture.
Rosh HaShana is about clearing the space in our lives to see the bigger picture and where we should be headed. According to the Talmud, that bigger picture should be influenced by two things. It says that “the flame of G-d is the soul of man,” and that a flame burns above the head of each child. This flame represents the neshoma, the soul of man which is given to us by G-d. The Talmud explains the comparison between the soul and G-d by saying that we can sense the spiritual reality of the world –G-d’s presence. One of the most powerful factors we have access to when it comes to the presence of G-d in the world is our own soul. When the fetus is in the womb, the soul within the fetus is the light that burns. The big picture connects us to the depths of our soul, which is why it must be clear and uncluttered as it is the soul that guides us and tells us when we are doing right and wrong.
Why would an angel teach a child the entire Torah and then, as they are leaving the womb, cause them to forget it. The Maharal explains that this is not literally about being taught every line of the Torah, but rather that the Torah is the blueprint for our lives and that that blueprint is placed onto the heart of who we are. Who we are and the way we live our lives is the very blueprint of our souls and is in our subconscious.
As the fetus is being born, the Talmud says it takes an oath to be righteous and not wicked. The child then goes out into the world and tries to maintain loyalty and commitment to the original oath that was taken when that child entered the world.
Another passage in the Talmud says that one day when a person leaves this world, the same angel will come to call them to give an account of their deeds before G-d.
That is what Rosh HaShana is all about – understanding that we came into this world to do good according to G-d’s Will and are now accountable for our actions. We have to review our lives, have broad vision, submit before G-d and stay loyal to Judaism’s core principles.
As we look to the year ahead we acknowledge that along with the changes in the world, we too are physically changing. As a person grows, they enter different phases of their lives. They are either growing and getting stronger and bigger, or they are deteriorating. We cannot alter this as change is part of life. But what we can do is ensure that our lives are anchored to the fundamental core, unchanging principles that G-d created within us. When we connect to those fundamental core principles then we transcend all of the changes of this world, and that’s part of what Rosh HaShana is about. We go back to G-d and we clarify, we take responsibility for our actions, we submit before G-d and we say let’s get back to the basics.
As we head towards Rosh HaShana we can all use the time to introspect, to reflect and to realise that Rosh HaShana is the beginning of the ten days of repentance which will reach its climax and high point on Yom Hakippurim, the Day of Atonement. This is a gift from G-d. It is an opportunity to reflect, renew and refresh ourselves to enter upon the New Year with the confidence of being anchored to our core principles.
All that remains for me is to wish you a Good Yom Tov and a Shana Tova U’Metuka, indeed a good and sweet year filled with G-d’s abundant blessings. May we all be written and sealed for a year of life and of blessing.
G-d bless you and thank you.
2. Message published in the Jewish Tradition
Last year the South African Jewish community made history. News of our inspiring experience of The Shabbos Project spread like wild fire around the Jewish world. E-mails from Jewish communities in different parts of the globe came pouring in saying how inspired they were by us and by how our community embraced The Shabbos Project, and how they would so much like to have a Shabbos Project experience for themselves.
And so this year as we prepare for The Shabbos Project which will be taking place, please G-d, on the Shabbos of 24/25 October, parshat Noach, communities in more than 340 cities around the world will be joining us. It is our mission to lead and show the way for what can be done.
What made our Shabbos Project experience last year so powerful was that men, women and children across our community made it their own. It had not become a community project that is presented to a passive audience receiving it. The Shabbos Project was created by the spontaneous and proactive embrace of the experience by Jews from across the full diverse spectrum of our community. People spontaneously organised Shabbos dinners in their gardens and streets, at shuls; they invited each other and decided amongst families to go ahead and take the lead and become fully immersed in the experience. As we prepared to do the same for this year’s Shabbos Project, it becomes a very important message and symbol for our day-to-day lives as we prepare for Rosh HaShana and new year’s resolutions.
The mishna in Pirkei Avot famously says in the name of the great sage Hillel, “if I am not for myself then who will be for me?” Rabbeinu Yona (12:10 – 12:63) says that this refers to our mitzvot. Each and every one of us has to take personal responsibility for our mitzvot, for our good deeds, for our relationship with Hashem and with those around us. As we come before Hashem on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we stand accountable for all of our deeds and thoughts throughout the year. We do so in a one-on-one experience. Certainly there is a great merit in being part of the community, which is why we pray together and hear the shofar together. But after all is said and done each and every single one of us needs to take personal responsibility for our lives and to be proactive and not rely on those around us to do our mitzvot for us. We are responsible for our own mitzvot. We are responsible for our own lives and duties before Hashem.
This atmosphere of proactive, personal responsibility is what made The Shabbos Project so remarkably successful last year. Let us, as a community, as we prepare for this year’s Shabbos Project, summon the same spirit of proactive, creative and energetic responsibility for embracing The Shabbos Project and leading the world in showing how it can be done. Let this spirit of personal proactive responsibility fill our lives in the new year, and in this merit may Hashem indeed bless us all to be signed and sealed for a good and sweet year, filled with His abundant goodness.
3. Message published in the Jewish Report
It was a decision that changed everything, yet had to be made on the spur of the moment and its consequences are still felt being almost 2,000 years later. The Roman Empire had invaded the Land of Israel and surrounded Jerusalem. Vespasian, the Roman military commander in Judea, had just been appointed emperor. He had deep respect for Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the great Talmudic scholar and leader of the Jewish people, and so granted him one request, including the possibility of saving Jerusalem and the Temple. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai boldly requested, “Give me Yavneh and her sages.” (Gemara Gittin 56b). He believed that Torah learning is vital to the Jewish future, that it is our lifeblood and the secret to our continuity.
Jewish history has vindicated the seemingly controversial decision of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: it is an undisputable fact that throughout the centuries since then, communities and individuals for whom Torah learning has been a central value and way of life, are the ones who have survived and thrived; they have been beacons of vitality, growth and inspiration. The depth and breadth of Torah learning going on in the South African Jewish community is an important sign of our vibrancy and strength, and bodes well for a future of vitality and growth. We have much to be proud of and grateful for. As we approach Rosh HaShana with all of our resolutions for the new year, let us all commit to enjoy the full benefit of the wonderful Torah learning programs offered by our shuls.
Torah learning is spiritually, intellectually and emotionally refreshing. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (6:1) says that a Torah scholar is like a ma’ayan hamitgaber, a spring which flows stronger and stronger. Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains the analogy: even if there is mud covering the spring, the waters will burst forth and wash away the mud until the spring returns to flow as it did before. Like an overflowing spring the life-giving waters of Torah give us increasing strength. As long as the fresh waters of pure Torah are pumping, they will cleanse all impurities, uplift us, and bring renewed vitality. Thus, according to the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah), G-d says, “Even if they were to leave Me but would learn my Torah, the light within it will return them to the good.” Torah learning changes our perspective on life and enables us to understand Hashem’s worldview, thus bringing us closer to Him.
The poignant prayer of Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father Our King, refers to two different aspects of our relationship with Hashem. Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that describing G-d as a king reflects our identity as His loyal servants who must obey His commandments, even against our will; describing Hashem as a father refers to our identity as His children, which reflects a relationship of love and closeness. When we learn Torah, we relate to Hashem as a caring Father who lovingly explains to His children how to live and why. As we learn Torah we gain a better understanding of His instructions, guidance and wisdom for our lives. The exact sequence of the wording is significant: we refer to Hashem first as our Father and then as our King.
This Rosh HaShana let us all resolve for the new year to rejuvenate and inspire ourselves by embracing and participating in the Torah learning opportunities available across our community. In this merit may Hashem inscribe and seal us all for a good and sweet year filled with all blessings.
4. Message published in The Star and Independent Newspapers
This week is the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, and millions of Jews around the world gather in synagogues to welcome the year 5775 with prayer. According to Jewish tradition it is a time when G-d judges the world, and so it is a time for nations and individuals to introspect and repent.
As citizens our understanding of South Africa can be fragmented as we lurch from one headline to the next, one crisis to the next, without seeing a broader moral vision. Politics and policies, personalities and slogans come and go, but there are certain eternal moral principles that underlie an enduring robust society. Rosh Hashana calls on us to return to these key moral values. Part of answering this call is to give our full attention to the children of the new South Africa. They are our future. They are who our society will be in the years ahead.
We must defend and strengthen our children. We must hold government accountable for its responsibility, to protect children from crime, violence, disease and the ravages of poverty. But it goes beyond that. We need to rededicate ourselves to the holy task of raising our children with moral vision and ethical commitment.
The Book of Proverbs says, “Educate a child according to their way, and when they are old they will not depart from it.” The Hebrew word in the original text for “educate” has its root in the Hebrew word which conveys both training and habituation.
Parenting is training our children to be good people in the most practical way possible. Why do we assume that our children will just work it out? We are happy to train them that 1+1=2, but we assume that, somehow, they will work out for themselves basic good character traits. We are well trained in so many areas and we place a great deal of emphasis on training for careers and development; we train people to make money; and yet we don’t bother to train them how to be good. Parents must train their children in the basics of being decent human beings. It’s like the training to be a good sportsman: going over and over the right way to do things, until it becomes natural and easy. Judaism teaches that we all need training and habituation to be good people.
Moral education has to be very practical. We need to train children to help other people and to move beyond self-centred living. We all, even adults, need constant training to develop good character traits, such as integrity, honesty, decency and responsibility. Judaism teaches that moral greatness is to be found in the application to the detail of how to be a good person in all areas of life, and it includes instruction on such matters as giving charity, speaking kindly, greeting warmly, being humble, protecting the vulnerable, and praying to G-d. One of the positive dimensions of the Bill of Responsibilities becoming part of the South African schooling system is that it also gives real practical guidelines for abstract moral values. For example, the Bill of Responsibilities says that to uphold the right to dignity means, “to be kind, compassionate and sensitive to every human being, including greeting them warmly and speaking to them courteously.”
The Hebrew word for education is also based on the word for “dwell”. Education is about living in a certain moral space in the same way that we live in a physical space. A few years ago, I came across the phrase “the basic furniture of the human mind” in a book by famous historian Paul Johnson. Furniture serves two purposes: functionality, you need a table to eat off and a chair to sit on; it also serves to create an atmosphere, giving a sense of what goes on in that home. A person who walks into a home with no furniture sees it empty, soulless and lifeless. Furniture makes it come alive because it gives presence and soul.
And the basic furniture in children’s minds is the result of their childhood training. What a child grows up with, they will consider normal and natural. When a child grows up in a family where he or she hears loving interactions conducted with dignity, kindness and gentleness, this becomes, in their mind, the normal and natural way to talk. However, if they grow up with the sounds of aggression and anger, this too becomes normal and natural for them. If a child lives in a home where hard work and commitment to family is the norm, then they will grow up with a good work ethic and loyalty. Parents must set the tone in their house. I realize myself as a parent of young children that everything my wife and I say and do in our home becomes a point of reference for our children.
TV can do enormous damage by determining for our children their value system when it comes to sex, violence and the very definition of success in life, measured in money, good looks and status. We need to teach our children that real success is about being a good person. There is an ancient Jewish tradition which determines, when a baby is born, that we pray that the child grows up to be committed to good religious values, marriage and good deeds. We don’t ask for the child to grow up to fame, fortune, success, degrees or status.
We want our children to be good, but when they turn on the television, they are getting a poor definition of what this means. There are so many forces constructing their reality for them. Their world-view on violence, sex and life itself is being constructed all the time by the loud and confident voices of the volatile and aggressive world around them. Into the noise of the bombardment of words from all sides we need to pro-actively and confidently give our children new words and a new spirit : the words and spirit of giving and contributing, of accountability and responsibility, of respect and decency, of tolerance and understanding, of integrity and loyalty, of kindness and compassion. To achieve this we must stand together with moral clarity and with confidence.