Compendium of Rosh HaShana Articles
1. Article published in Jerusalem Post
One of the most significant moments of Jewish history took place between a father and son on a lonely mountain top. Avraham had been prepared to sacrifice Yitzchak, until G-d stopped him at the last moment. The ram, Yitzchak’s substitute for the altar, was entangled in the bushes and as it extricated itself, it got entangled again and again, lurching from bush to bush.
The Oral Torah, recorded in the Midrash, says that with this picture Avraham was given a prophetic vision about his children. He was given a glimpse into the future of the great nation of Jews that would one day come from him. It was to be a future of entanglements and complications; lurching from one entanglement to the next, from one challenge to the next. The Midrash says that the entanglements come in two forms: internal and external – our sins from within and our enemies from without. And so it has been throughout the millennia of Jewish history: all crises and obstacles can be divided into one of these two categories, assimilation and anti-Semitism, and sometimes both together.
Today we find ourselves living part of that ancient prophetic vision revealed to our forefather Avraham. One the one hand, we face fearsome external enemies. Having recently extricated ourselves and survived, just barely, the horrors of the Holocaust, we now face another enemy threatening the same fate. Global anti-Semitism is on the rise and takes the form of a grotesque and aggressive media and political campaign to demonize the Jewish State, and an orchestrated and ruthless campaign of terror against Jewish targets all around the world.
Today we are also entangled in the other major historical threat that has plagued Jews throughout the millennia, that of assimilation and loss of Torah values. Whilst in certain sections of the Jewish world there has been a miraculous revival, millions in others have drifted far from Torah observance, and are even marrying out of the faith; a deep and wide ignorance of anything Jewish has seeped into the essence of so many Jewish communities around the world.
The prophetic vision shown to Avraham also directs us on how to free ourselves from the entanglements of our times. The Midrash says that the secret to our future is the shofar. The shofar blasts are the sounds of freedom. It is the call of the shofar that heralds the Jubilee year, the year of freedom as the Torah states, “And you shall proclaim freedom throughout the land” (Vayikra 25:10). These blasts are also the sounds of our founding principles as a nation, given to us by G-d at Mount Sinai, where a heavenly shofar heralded that awesome occasion as we heard the very first words of our moral and strategic blueprint: “I am the L-rd your G-d …” The shofar on Rosh Hashana shows us that the path to freedom from the entanglements of life through returning to our core values as given to us by G-d in His Torah.
When confronted with the challenges of inter-marriage and assimilation, we need to return to our founding principles. One cannot argue with history. History has proven time and again that the only form of Jewish identity and value system which is sustainable generation after generation, without fail, is that of authentic Torah Judaism. Only Jewish communities centred around Torah learning and living have stood the test of time. Only communities in which children learn Torah from a young age, and are raised to live a life of mitzvot, are guaranteed to survive and thrive. There is no other form of Jewish identity or living that has endured more than a few fleeting generations before disappearing forever; no other system has produced an unbroken chain of successive generations of strong, proud and inspired Jews.
We also need to return to our founding principles when confronting those who seek the physical destruction of Israel. Our Torah gives us the sense of Divine purpose and mission to withstand the unrelenting attacks, and the bravery and strength we need to ward off genocidal enemies and to face the future with confidence. Our foundational moral and strategic blueprint – the Torah – is particularly important when confronting the political and media forces which seek to demonize, isolate and ultimately destroy Israel as a Jewish state. It is through this overarching blueprint that we affirm our ancient connection and moral right to the land of Israel. From a position deeply rooted in the Torah, we can proclaim with confidence to the world that we are not colonial usurpers, and that Israel is an integral part of our identity and Divine mission.
The shofar is a plain unadorned instrument that produces simple uncomplicated sounds. It calls us to return to our Divine founding principles of truth. The message of the shofar is that sometimes we over complicate our lives. Life may be difficult but its basic truths are simple. We were created by G-d to fulfil His will, to sanctify His name and live in accordance with His Torah values. This is the heart and soul of our mission on this earth. Straying from this straightforward path ultimately brings unnecessary complication into our lives.
The image of the ram entangled in the bushes is particularly poignant; the ram is unable to lift its head and see the bigger picture. So too we often get so entangled in the complications and entrapments of our destiny that we are unable to see the bigger picture and see our greater calling. It is into these problems that the shofar enters, with a call to a return to simple, clear values of who we are and where we come from, and what our mission on earth is. The shofar has a message which is simple and uncluttered: to successfully confront any challenges we need to return to our nation’s founding principles. Life may be filled with difficulties and complications, but our basic purpose on this earth is simple – to learn and live our Torah values.
As millions of Jews around the world gather in synagogues over this Rosh Hashana, may the sounds of the shofar which ring out across the four corners of the globe, bring the inspiration for us all to return to our Divine founding principles, which show us the path to the future, and may we all merit to soon hear the sounds of “the great shofar of our freedom” heralding the Final Redemption for all klal Yisrael and all mankind.
2. Article published in Jewish Tradition
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 its 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. Thus, to see the vast and detailed learning programs offered by our shuls and which are published in this edition of Jewish Tradition is heart-warming and exciting. 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 Hashanah 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 Hashanah 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.
3. Article published in Jewish Life
As I was standing at this year’s memorial service for Israel’s soldiers who died in battle, I was filled with sadness at the seeming futility of remembrance. The clichés of fallen soldiers living on through our memorials seemed so empty. What is human memory after all? Nothing but images, recollections and thoughts – intangible, ethereal and even more fleeting than our physical lives on this earth. Mere mortals, we are here today and gone tomorrow, with no trace left of our physical existence, and certainly no trace left of the intangible memories embedded deep in our fragile brain tissue. And yet, the sacredness of memory and the commandments to remember are important parts of Judaism: “Remember the day you left Egypt”; “Be careful lest you forget what your eyes saw … on the day you stood before G-d at Sinai”; “Remember the Shabbat day”; and many other mitzvot to remember. How do we make sense of all of this?
“There is no forgetfulness before Your throne of glory.” These words of our Sages contained in the Rosh Hashana Mahzor are the secret to understanding the concept of memory. Human memory is indeed fleeting and is as temporary as the human body, which comes from dust and returns to dust. But G-d is eternal and He gave the gift of immortality to the soul which He implanted in a brittle body; and He also gave the gift of eternity to our deeds in this world. No deed – great or small, good or bad – is forgotten by G-d. Rosh Hashana is also called Yom HaZikaron – the day of remembrance – because it is the day that the remembrance of all our deeds comes before Hashem to be judged. Every mitzva a person does in this world has eternal merit before Hashem, who gathers together and records every action of every human being throughout the billions of lives over all of these millennia. “For a thousand years in Your eyes is like yesterday that has passed” (Tehillim 90). From G-d’s perspective the passage of time means nothing. The soul and its legacy of deeds in this world are forever.
True remembrance resides only with G-d. The memory and eternal merit of the righteous heroes of the past are not in our hands. They don’t need us for that. And indeed we couldn’t even begin to do that for them. How can we temporal beings bestow eternity on others? “Yizkor”, the great remembrance prayer of Jewish tradition, says “Yizkor Elokim” – may G-d remember, not us – because only He can; it is only with the Eternal One, Who was, is and always will be, that any concept of eternity exists. It is a comfort for us to know that the legacy of our loved ones is not dependent on the fleeting fragility of our mortal memories and our temporary earthly lives. It is Hashem who remembers our beloved family members, their good deeds and their eternal legacies of mitzvot. And it is He who remembers, as we also mention during our Yizkor service, the martyrs of Jewish history. These holy souls and their holy actions are never forgotten by G-d and their merit is eternal, more eternal than anything we know of in this physical world. Thus, the souls of the fallen Israeli soldiers stand before G-d forever with eternal merit – the merit of defending the State and the people of Israel and Jews around the world, the merit of their bravery and absolute selflessness in sacrificing life itself so that their fellow Jews can live in safety and security. And so too we take strength in knowing that the six million holy souls of those murdered in the Holocaust, together with all the martyrs of Jewish history, are “bound up in the eternal bond of life” with G-d Himself, Who continually gives them eternal reward and blessing for their horrific suffering and painful martyrdom which they endured for His sake.
This begs the question: if human memory is so fleeting and futile why are there so many commandments in the Torah to remember? Perhaps, the secret to understanding this lies in the commandment, “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy”. How can the concept of memory possibly apply to something which occurs each week? Clearly, from a Torah perspective, memory is not only about remembering past events but about remembering the ideas which emerge from those events and keeping them in the forefront of our hearts and minds as part of our mitzvot for today and the future. Thus, the mitzva to remember Shabbat is not merely about remembering the very first Shabbat in history, but about living today with an awareness of the centrality of Shabbat and its related principles of faith in G-d as a loving, involved and awesome Creator. Certain defining events of the past are moral signposts for how to live today, and we are called upon as part of the mitzvot of the Torah to remember them. Remembering the Exodus from Egypt is a mitzva about understanding that we were born into slavery and were freed by G-d; and that our faith in Him, as our liberator and a director of history, is central to our identity and destiny. Remembering the experience of receiving the Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai is about embracing our Divine mission, moral vision and mitzvot for today and into the future. In other words, human memory is fleeting, but when it is part of fulfilling a mitzva it becomes eternally significant before G-d like all of our mitzvot, which are the eternal legacy that accompanies us to the next world when we leave this temporal one.
As we reflect on the generations who have left this world we realize how fleeting and almost pathetic life is. As the verses from Tehilim recited during Yizkor say: “But what is man that You notice him? Man is like a fleeting breath. His days are like a passing shadow. In the morning he blossoms and is rejuvenated and by evening is cut down and brittle.” And yet there is a very deep psychological need for immortality. The Tree of Life was the tempting counterpart to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. People are constantly seeking ways to grasp some fragment of immortality. Our physical bodies are indeed fleeting; however, through our souls G-d has placed immortality at the heart of our beings. As the Yizkor verses go on to express, “The dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns to G-d Who gave it”. How pathetic and empty is any attempt to find immortality in the dust of the physical world. No building, monument, or physical memorial of this world can ever give a person the gift of immortality. The only eternal monuments of our lives are the good deeds we take with us when our immortal souls return to G-d after leaving the physical world, thereby fulfilling the final of the Yizkor verses, “I, in righteousness, will see Your face, and be blessed with a vision of You when I awake.”
4. Article published in Jewish Report
“It is not good for man to be alone.” (Bereishit 2:18). G-d created us to live as social beings, who interact with one another in communities. The most basic community is the very first one formed in history – that of the marriage between Adam and Eve. We all operate within some sort of community: some are very small, like a marriage, or slightly larger, like the family unit comprised of parents and their children. Some communities are much larger, such as a shul or a school. Then there is the national Jewish community and, of course, the broader global Jewish community. As we prepare for a good new year, it is vital that we rededicate ourselves to nurturing and strengthening all of these communities.
One of the outstanding features of South African Jewry is the fact that we go to and are involved with our shuls in much higher proportions than in similar Jewish communities around the world. The first shuls in South Africa were set up as soon as Jews began to arrive. Cape Town’s first shul was established in Gardens in 1863, and Johannesburg’s, on President Street, in 1887. We, the descendants of the brave pioneers who started our first congregations, have inherited their passion and commitment to our shuls. A shul is much more than the sum of its parts. It is comprised of individuals who join together to form a community or, in Hebrew, a kehilla. Thus, a new entity is formed, unifying people around the eternal Divine values of our faith.
The secret to successfully creating and sustaining all these different types of communities, such as marriages, families, shuls or schools, is the same; as the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (4:14) says in the name of Rabbi Yochanan HaSandlar, “Any community dedicated to Heaven will endure forever.”
What is “a community dedicated to Heaven”? The Tosfot Yom Tov, a classic commentary on the Mishnah, says that dedication to Heaven means putting aside personal interests. A community can thrive only if its members are able to rise above their ego, pride, jealousy and selfishness. The focus has to be for the sake of Heaven and the upholding of Hashem’s values; without this, communities disintegrate. If people are in it for themselves, their interests compete and the resulting tensions place enormous strain on the community, preventing it from achieving success, and even, possibly, destroying the community, completely.
A marriage is successful when both husband and wife are dedicated to Heaven, committed to doing the right thing and caring for one another, and are not in it merely for what they can take for themselves. When husband and wife compete with each other for the fulfilment of their personal interests, their marriage will not endure happily. The same applies to the family. It, too, cannot endure if its members go their own selfish ways; but when unified in their dedication to Heaven, the family unit can hold together all its members. So too a shul or any community organisation can only be successful if there is a willingness to work for the sake of the cause, putting aside petty selfish interests and aspiring to be truly “dedicated to Heaven.”
Another explanation offered by the commentaries is that a “community dedicated to Heaven” refers to the Jews who stood at Mount Sinai when G-d revealed the Torah, and to the successive generations of Jews who have received it and passed it on. Living with Torah values is the formula which has withstood the test of time as the only way to ensure vital and dynamic Jewish communities. This applies broadly to the Jewish people as a national entity, as well to our personal communities, namely, our families. We are well aware of the generation gap between parents and children, and there surely are differences – in tastes of music and clothing, in worldview and technology, and in many other trends and fads. But if the family’s value system in anchored in Torah, then our eternal Torah values have the ability to hold the family together, no matter the differences and no matter the place, time or circumstances.
As we approach the New Year, we as a community and as individuals face many opportunities and challenges, locally in the South African context and more generally as members of the global Jewish people – especially in Israel. In order to meet these challenges and maximise these opportunities, we need to stand together to create and nurture families and communities “dedicated to Heaven”.
Gina and I would like to take this opportunity to wish the entire community a good Yom Tov. May Hashem inscribe and seal us all in the Book of Life, and bestow upon us all His abundant blessings for a good and sweet New Year.
5. Article published in Shul Magazines
Some people think that Rosh Hashanah is a time to reflect on major world events of the previous year and to look ahead to the New Year. In South Africa there have been cabinet reshuffles, e-tolling protests, and a presidential race; in Israel tensions with Iran continue to rise, with terrorist attacks on Israeli targets around the world and Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons.
But Rosh Hashanah is also about our personal lives. In our Rosh Hashanah prayers we say: “Today the world was created,” which refers to the creation of Adam and Eve. In G-d’s eyes, each person is a whole world, and our personal lives are very meaningful to Him. Despite major world events taking place, G-d is interested in each one of us as individuals.
Judaism is about the personal interaction between us and G-d. In fact, the very first word that G-d spoke to us as a people when we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai was anochi, Hebrew for “I”: “I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of the Land of Egypt.” This is unexpected. Parliamentary statutes establishing the laws governing the country are all phrased in the third person. By beginning the Ten Commandments with the term “I,” G-d set the tone for all times that Judaism is not an impersonal set of rules but a direct connection with Hashem through His mitzvot. According to the Gemara (Shabbat 105a), the Hebrew word anochi is an acronym for the sentence “I give you My soul in these words.” G-d, so to speak, gave us a part of Himself when He gave us the Torah; it is a personal interaction with Him. He loves us, cares about us and is interested in our lives.
All of the mitzvot connect us with Hashem, but the mitzvah of tefillah – prayer – has a special power to do so. The mitzvah to pray is important throughout the year but especially during Rosh Hashanah, when we spend so much time in shul. Prayer is a gift. In the world of politics, everything is about how to gain access to presidents and prime ministers. But G-d, the King of all Kings and Master of the universe, is accessible to each one of us. All we need to do is talk directly to Him with prayer.
This is the awesome opportunity of prayer. G-d waits to hear our words, particularly during the Amidah; hence, we take three steps forward into His presence. One of the laws of the Amidah is that one should whisper so that the words are audible only to oneself but not to others. A whisper connotes intimacy. When we pray, it is a private, one-on-one session with G-d; there is no intermediary. We have direct and immediate access to the King of all Kings every day of our lives. Whenever we want to talk, He is listening.
This remarkable privilege is an invaluable gift. Let us use this gift by praying to G-d daily with our siddur, which is a treasure of uplifting prayers composed by our prophets and sages and which has been a source of inspiration and comfort to Jews for thousands of years. Let us use this gift throughout the year by coming to shul and praying with inspiration, as individuals and as a community.
In the merit of our heartfelt prayers, may Hashem inscribe us all for a good and sweet year filled with all blessings.
With warmest wishes from Gina and me for a good Yom Tov to all.
6. Edited Transcript of Chai FM Broadcast
Rosh HaShana : The Birth of Freedom
The key to understanding the themes of Rosh Hashanah is the date. The Day of Judgment for the world was not chosen arbitrarily, but is specifically on this date – not because it is the first day of the year (in fact, the Mishnah mentions four different kinds of new year), but because it is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. As we say in the Rosh Hashanah davening after each time the shofar is blown, Hayom harat olam, “Today the world was created.” This is because human beings are the reason for Creation. As the well-known Mishnah says, “He who saves one life is considered to have saved an entire world; and he who destroys one life is considered to have destroyed an entire world.”
We understand that Rosh Hashanah is the day Adam and Eve were created. But what is the connection between this and judgment?
To answer this, we must first take a look at what makes the human being unique. G-d created many things in the world; why is the human being considered to be “an entire world” unto himself?
The Rambam (Laws of Teshuva ch. 5) explains that what makes human beings unique is our ability to choose between good and evil. He quotes the verse from the beginning of Bereishit, where man’s potential is described as yod’ei tov vara, creatures who “know good and evil.” The Rambam explains that this means two things: firstly, it means humans have a conceptual understanding of good and evil. Animals, no matter how seemingly intelligent, cannot grasp such abstract, intellectual concepts. The human being’s intelligence is qualitative superior to that of an animal, because human beings have been granted moral reasoning. Secondly, says the Rambam, we have free will to act upon this knowledge. As the Rambam puts it, nothing can prevent the human being from exercising his or her G-d-given free choice.
The first of Tishrei is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first human beings, with their gift of free choice. Thus, on Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate not only the creation of human beings, but the creation of free-willed human beings.
The Rambam further explains that since a person has free choice, he has only himself to blame for his sins. We cannot blame our mistakes or our sins on our DNA, our upbringing, society or anything else people use to excuse their actions. Of course these are all factors, but ultimately every human being exercises free choice and is therefore held accountable for his or her actions. Furthermore, says the Rambam, having free will means we have the ability to change. Just as we chose to do wrong, we can choose to do right and repent. Some people believe in free will but not in their power to change. However free will means that we can change.
Now we can begin to see how the themes of Rosh Hashanah are interrelated: Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of man – a free-willed being. Because we have free will, we are held accountable for our sins and good deeds and hence Rosh Hashanah is also the Day of Judgment; and because we have free will, we also have the power to change and hence Rosh Hashanah is a day for repenting as well.
Rosh Hashanah, then, is a time to contemplate the concept of free choice. As the Rambam says further in the same chapter, free choice is the pillar upon which the entire Torah stands, for it provides the logical framework for everything in the Torah; how can Hashem command us to do mitzvot and offer us reward for our good deeds if we are not free to choose? The concepts of reward and punishment make sense solely in the context of free choice.
This is why, interestingly, the Rambam codified the principle of free choice specifically in the Laws of Repentance. The Rambam codified all Torah law in a masterwork of fourteen books, each with sub-sections. When studying the Rambam’s work, the first step is to understand why he chose to codify a particular topic under a particular section. The Rambam could have codified the principle of free will in his opening section, which is the Laws of the Foundation Principles of the Torah; yet he codified it in the Laws of Repentance because unless we believe in free will, repentance makes no sense. We have to believe in free will, firstly to understand that we are accountable for our actions, and secondly, to understand that we have the power to change.
Perhaps this is also why Rosh Hashanah is the day we crown Hashem as King. The Talmud says, Ain melech belo am, “A king is not a king without a nation.” G-d only became King once He created Adam and Eve, free-willed beings who chose to recognise Him as King. Hashem is a King only when people recognise Him as such, of their own free will. And so on Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of Hashem’s kingship over us, we crown Him once again.
The symbolism of the Shofar
Where does the shofar fit into all of this?
The shofar, as we know, symbolises repentance. The Rambam (Laws of Teshuva ch. 3) writes that even though the mitzvah of blowing the shofar is, as he terms it, g’zeirat hakatuv, a Divine decree which we do not fully understand, nevertheless we can find a message for ourselves in the mitzvah. (We like to attribute reasons to mitzvot, and though there are indeed many inspiring explanations for them, we have to step back with humility and acknowledge the fact that we keep the mitzvot because G-d has commanded us to do so, and we will never fully understand the depth of His reasoning.) The Rambam says that the message of the shofar is Uru yesheinim, “Awake, those who sleep.” The shofar is our spiritual alarm clock, waking us to examine our deeds. We develop certain habits; we get locked into a certain way of thinking and a mode of behaviour. Rosh Hashanah is a time to step out of the routine and the habits we have developed, to take stock of our lives and assess where we are holding. The shofar calls upon us to take responsibility for our actions, both good and bad, and to chart a path of change, improvement and repentance.
In addition to symbolising repentance, the shofar also symbolises freedom. It was the sound of the shofar which announced the Jubilee year, the fiftieth year in the cycle when all slaves were freed and all ancestral land was returned to its original owners. The shofar blown at the beginning of the Jubilee year heralded a great spirit of freedom, as the verse says Ukratem d’ror ba’aretz, “you will call freedom throughout the land.” (Vayikra 25:10)
What is the connection between freedom and repentance?
Based on what we have said, the connection is clear: the ultimate freedom is the ability to choose between good and evil, and the freedom to change our ways.
Now we can begin to see how all the themes of Rosh Hashanah come together: Rosh Hashanah is on the first of Tishrei, the anniversary of the creation of mankind; it also celebrates the uniqueness of human beings, namely, free choice; having free choice means we are accountable, and therefore Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment; and lastly, it is also a day for repentance because having free choice means we have the ability to change and become better people. Hence the shofar, which represents freedom as well as repentance, is the main mitzvah of the day.
The danger and blessing of free will
One more point to consider on Rosh Hashanah, as we contemplate free choice and how we have exercised it throughout the previous year, is that there is a dimension to free choice which is not entirely positive; it is actually quite frightening because, in effect, free will enables the most terrible acts of evil to be committed. When G-d gave human beings free choice it was a radical step on His part and indeed a big risk because He was creating creatures that could, theoretically, do whatever they want.
The idea that G-d has given humanity such freedom is quite a terrifying thought. It is like a parent giving a teenager the car keys, saying, now it’s in your hands, you choose how you are going to use it. Are you going to get a driver’s licence and act responsibly, or are you going to drink alcohol and be reckless? G-d gave us the keys, so to speak. He said, you are free to run your life the way you want to. We will be held accountable for your choices, but we can freely choose how you want to live.
This is indeed a terrifying concept, and this is why the Gemara debates whether it would have been better for man had he not been created. The Gemara comes to the conclusion that Noach lo la’adam shelo nivra, “it would have been better for man not to have been created, but now that he has been created, he should repent and improve.”
Rav Yitzchak Hutner, one of our great rabbinic thinkers of the twentieth century, asks, how can the Talmud say that “it would have been better for man had he not been created,” when G-d Himself said, after He had created man, that everything He created was “very good”? This question is backed by the Midrash which says that when G-d said it was “very good” He was referring to the human being. How can the Gemara say that it would have been better not to create man, when the Torah says clearly that it was very good?
Rav Hutner resolve this contradiction with the following story: a young Torah scholar who was appointed to be a Dayan, a judge, in the Beth Din of his city came to his mentor and said he didn’t want to take the position because he was terrified of making a mistake in ruling on halachic matters. His mentor assured him that he should take the position and said to him, who should be appointed – someone who is not afraid of making mistakes?
Rav Hutner uses this story to explain what should be our attitude toward the concept of free choice. This young Dayan was certainly more than qualified: he had a fine mind, knew the material and was able to interpret and apply the halacha appropriately. But what made him a good Dayan was the fact that he was afraid of making a mistake. In other words, what qualified him for the position was his fear of his power.
Free choice, says Rav Hutner, is indeed a terrifying thing because inherent in it is the possibility of evil. However, as the Rambam said, free will is a prerequisite for fulfilling mitzvot: without belief in free choice mitzvot have no meaning. It may be difficult to live with free choice, but it is impossible to live without it. Thus, says Rav Hutner, if we regard free choice as our right to do whatever we please, then indeed it can lead to terrible consequences. But if we are afraid of free choice, if we realise what an awesome responsibility it is, then we are certainly qualified to exercise it and it is indeed a blessing. This resolves the seeming contradiction in the Gemara: if a person believes that it would have been better for man not to have been created, because he is so afraid of the power G-d has given him, then indeed the creation of man is “very good.”
Rosh Hashanah is a mixed celebration. Rav Hutner quotes a verse from Nechemia, which says Al tivku, ki chedvat Hashem hi ma’uzchem, “Do not cry [on Rosh Hashanah] because the joy of G-d if your strength.” The prophet told them not to cry, because they did indeed have reason to cry – namely, because on Rosh Hashanah we were given the mixed blessing of free choice. Yet the prophet tells them not to cry, that there is in fact reason for joy, precisely because free choice is what enables us to serve G-d in the first place, to perform good deeds and be rewarded accordingly.
Rav Hutner says this is reflected in the two sounds of the shofar: the straight sound, which is the tekia, and the broken sounds, the shevarim and teru’a. The broken sounds, according to the Gemara, are like a sob, while the straight sound is the clear, joyful sound of celebration. On Rosh Hashanah, we have both. It is true that when G-d created human beings on the first of Tishrei so many years ago He created the possibility for terrible destruction in the world. But we can still rejoice with this knowledge, because free will means we can do good.
We cannot take this freedom for granted. Free choice is the essence of who we are, making us accountable for our actions but also providing the possibility of repentance. We have been entrusted with an awesome gift which can also be the most destructive force and therefore we must regard it with trepidation. Rosh Hashanah is a time to think about how we have used our freedom. When we approach it with the right attitude, then we will truly respect this gift of freedom and use it for the good.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish our entire community a good and sweet year. My wife always says that we wish a good and sweet year because although everything G-d does is good, sometimes we have to go through bitter experiences which are ultimately for the good. So we ask G-d to give us a good year but also a sweet one – that whatever we have to go through should not only be for our ultimate good but it should also be a sweet experience.
May we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life and be blessed with a good year filled with G-d’s abundant blessings.