Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Thought on Rosh Hashanah

More Kingship, Less Judgment

Rosh Hashanah is a Yom HaDin, a Day of Judgment. We will stand before God, and God will take measure of our deeds of the past year. This characterization of the day opens and frames the Zikhronot of Musaf: "Atah zokher ma'aseh olam, u'foked kol yitzurei kedem," "You, God, remember the deeds of everyone in the world, and recall all those from previous times ... and regarding the countries it will be said which is for sword and which is for peace, which is for hunger and which for abundance, and all creatures are recalled, to be remembered for life or for death." We engage in the process of teshuvah because of this impending judgment, assessing our behavior, owning up to our wrongs, feeling true remorse for our sins and misdeeds, and making an honest commitment to act differently in the future.
But there is more to Rosh HaShanah. Rosh HaShanah is also a day of malkhut, of God's kingship. The Malkhiot precedes the Zikhronot in Musaf, and it might be seen as defining the essence of the day. Not only in Musaf but in every Shmoneh Esrei from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur, our third blessing changes to "ha'Melekh ha'Kadosh," "Blessed are you, God, Holy King." Kingship is also part of the blessing recited over the sanctity of the day of Rosh Hashanah, in Kiddush as well as Shmoneh Esrei: "Blessed are you, God, King over the entire world, Who sanctifies Israel and this Day of Remembrance." Kingship may indeed be a more central theme of Rosh Hashanah than judgment.

It's taken me a while to realize this in a deep way. For many years, I viewed Rosh Hashanah as a Day of Judgment, using kingship merely to frame this conception: to stand before God in judgment can only take place after we recognize God's sovereignty over the world. The focus, however, was din, being judged by God and by oneself. This certainly allowed me to connect to the intensity of the day and to have a sense of eimat ha'din, fear and awe of the impending judgment. But in some years it led beyond healthy introspection to self-criticism and self-flagellation. This was unhealthy psychologically, religiously, and spiritually. Too much emphasis on din, on one's sins and faults, can lead to getting deeper in the muck rather than rising out of it. What would it mean to focus on the theme of kingship instead?

When we speak of God's kingship on Rosh Hashanah, we do so not only in terms of the past and the present, but most significantly in terms of the future: "Vi'khein tzadikim yiru v'yismachu," "And then the righteous will see and rejoice."; "Al kein n'kaveh," "therefore we will hope to quickly see in the glory of Your strength." Rosh Hashanah is a day when we imagine what a more perfect world - a more holy world, a more moral world - could look like. It is a day when we strive to envision a world in which God and God's presence can be truly seen and truly felt.

What would happen if our Rosh Hashanah prayers were infused with a yearning for such a world? The answer is obvious: We would be driven to work toward making our vision a reality. We would strive to model this imagined future in our own lives and in our interactions with others. We would seek out opportunities to make a real difference in the world, to bring our world just a little closer to that more perfect, more Godly vision.

Sefat Emet says this beautifully. On Rosh Hashanah, he says, we pray for God to be recognized by all of creation; we pray for a world in which the Divine is more fully realized. But then something amazing happens. When we pray for others, we are answered first. When we work to envision a more perfect world, we will start to see changes taking place in our own lives. Our vision will be, first and foremost, transformative not for others, but for ourselves.

This striving for a more perfect world and working to actualize it can itself be considered a form of teshuvah. The classic conception of teshuvah is associated with judgment. We are judged by God, and we judge ourselves: Are we living up to our standards? Are our standards high enough? Are they the right ones to have? Can we look at ourselves in the mirror each morning?

But there is also the teshuvah associated with kingship. This teshuvah says: Spend less time looking in the mirror. Spend more time looking out the window. If you want to change, you need a vision, and not just for yourself. A vision for a better you remains, ultimately, self-centered. The teshuvah of kingship requires a vision for the world.

In his famous work, Orot Hateshuvah, Lights of Repentance, Rav Kook describes this teshuvah in metaphysical terms, as a cosmic yearning of the entire world to achieve a more perfect state. This higher teshuvah preceded creation, and it infuses all of creation with an impetus to achieve its fullest potential. In a moving passage from chapter five, Rav Kook writes:

Every removal of sin resembles the removal of an obstruction from the seeing eye, and a whole new horizon of vision is revealed, the light of vast expanses of heaven and earth and all that is in them. The world must inevitably come to full repentance. The world is not static, but it continues to develop, and a truly full development must bring about the complete state of health, material and spiritual, and this will bring repentance along with it (Ben Zion Bokser, trans.).

Kingship calls on us to see differently, to refuse acceptance of all the problems in the world, our communities, and our personal lives as unfixable givens. It demands that we "remove the obstructions from our eyes," that we see new horizons, that we see the world not as it is, but as it can be.

This approach can give a new understanding to Zikhronot and to what it means to be remembered and to be inscribed.

Alfred Nobel made a fortune from inventing dynamite. A French newspaper mistook the death of Nobel's brother for his own and ran his obituary. The newspaper announced: "The merchant of death is dead." It continued, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday." Nobel realized that were he to die at that moment, this was what people would write about him, this was how we would be remembered. He committed himself to redirecting his life and to reshaping his lasting legacy. When he is remembered today, people write about the Nobel Prize and above all, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Zikhronot calls upon us to ask ourselves how we want to be remembered. What do we want to be written about us when we are no longer here? Our vision for the larger world must translate into a vision for ourselves: What will I do to turn my vision for the world into a reality?  What must I do differently than I am doing now? What am I doing so that I will be remembered for having done good in my life? This is the work of Zikhronot.

And then we turn to Shofarot. The Rabbis tell us that God says, "Say the Malkhiot to make Me King over you. Say the Zikhronot so that you will be remembered for good. And through what? Through the shofar." The shofar is the kli, the vessel, which lets us achieve the vision of Malkhiot and of Zikhronot. When we finally have a vision for the world and for ourselves, we must find those vessels, those tools, that will allow us to turn our vision into reality. We must identify the things that we have the capacity to do, the skills that we can develop, and the changes that we can make. And we must know that we are not alone. The shofar is not just an individual mitzvah; it is a mitzvah done by the community. We cannot hesitate to turn to others for help, to say to a spouse, friend, or colleague, "I need your help. You can help provide me with the structure, the guidance, the assistance I need to realize my goals." This is the work of Shofarot.

Malkhiot, Zikhronot, Shofarot: a vision for the world, a vision for oneself and one's legacy, and the tools to get it done. Through these, we can start to move closer to that day when yi'hiyeh Hashem echad u'shmo echad.

Shana Tova!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Thought on the Parahsa

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Nitzavim

Parashat Netzavim opens with a gathering together of all the people of Israel to enter into a covenant with God. The Torah goes out of its way to make it clear that every single person is present and accounted for:

You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water. That you should enter into the covenant with the Lord your God, and into his oath, which the Lord your God makes with you this day (Devarim, 29:10-12).

It is rare for the Torah to underscore with such detail the full presence of all members of the community. One of the other rare instances the Torah does this is found just a few chapters later. There we read that Moshe writes the Torah and gives it to the kohanim. He then instructs them in the mitzvah of hakhel, that every seven years, at the end of shmita, they are to gather all the people together and read the Torah to all present:

When all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their ears. Gather the people together, men and women, and children, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this Torah (Devarim, 31:11-12).

The similarity of these two passages compels us to look at them side by side. When we do, we note that both of them - the reading of the Torah and the entering into the covenant - parallel momentous events that occurred at Mount Sinai.

Let's first examine the reading of the Torah to the entirety of the people. This can be understood as a reenactment of the divine declaration of the Ten Commandments, also proclaimed to all the people. This comparison is somewhat imprecise, however, as here the entire Torah is read and not just the Ten Commandments. What's more, the Ten Commandments were declared, not read from a scroll as is the custom during hakhel. The event that hakhel replicates is not the giving of the Ten Commandments but what took place after. Moshe, having received all the detailed laws in Parashat Mishpatim, comes down to the people and writes down all these laws in a book. This book is called the sefer ha'brit, the book of the covenant. This is what happens next:

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the ears of the people: and they said, "All that the Lord has said will we do, and we will obey" (Shemot, 24:7).

Notice the direct parallels. In both cases Moshe writes the words of God in a book. He then either reads this book to the people or gives it to the kohanim that they should read it to the people. In both cases, the words are read, or are to be read, to the entire people "in their ears." What we have is not a replication of God's giving of the Torah, but rather, a replication of the transmission of God's word.

Now, the dominant concern in the book of Devarim is ensuring that the next generation - which did not experience the miracles of the desert let alone the theophany at Mount Sinai - will continue to remain faithful to God and God's commandments. Sadly, there is no way that future generations can experience or replicate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, but the mitzvah of hakhel is signaling to us that this is not necessary. Even for those who were present at Mount Sinai, very little of what they received came directly from God. The vast majority of the mitzvot were received through the process of transmission, God's word as communicated by Moshe. This is something that can be replicated, for just as the human Moshe could put those words in a book and read them to the people, so can we continue that process, passing down the written Torah, recopying those words, and communicating them from one generation to the next.

This brings us back to the beginning of our parasha and the entering into the covenant, which was also done with the entirety of the people. This event also finds a parallel in an event from the time of the giving of the Torah. The Torah makes this point explicitly at the end of Parashat Ki Tavo: "These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, beside the covenant which He made with them in Horeb" (Devarim, 29:1).

Rashi states that the covenant at Horeb (Mount Sinai) to which the verse refers is the one at the end of Vayikra (chapter 25), where the Torah lists all the tragedies that will befall the people if they violate God's commandments. The problem with this interpretation is that those verses speak about the consequences of violating the covenant but do not constitute the covenant itself. More precisely, then - and this is probably what Rashi meant - we may say that the verses in Vayikra are "sealing" the covenant, or that they are the "penalty clause" of the covenant made at the foot of Mount Sinai. The covenant in the Plains of Moab likewise has a penalty clause: all of the curses in Parashat Ki Tavo. But the covenant itself, the one that the entirety of the people is entering into at the beginning of our parasha, is a reenactment of the original covenant at Mount Sinai.

And what was that covenant? It was nothing more than Moshe's reading of "the book of the covenant" into "the ears of the people" and their willing acceptance of it upon themselves with their famous declaration, "We will hear and we will obey." What emerges, then, is both a formalized reentering of the covenant for the generation that was about to enter into the land and a once-every-seven-years reenactment of the transmission of the Torah, the substance of the covenant. The significance of these two events lies in the fact that they were done by the people and with all the people.

First, let us consider "by the people." What made the covenant possible was the willing participation of the people. Their ability to be autonomous agents and meaningful partners in the covenant was only made possible when God's commanding voice at Mount Sinai receded and Moshe stepped forward to represent God to the people. When that happened, the people, who until this point had retreated and cowered from the direct word of God, were able to move close, to engage, and to enter into the covenant. God's word had to be taken from heaven and brought to earth. For God's Torah to be a Torah for humans, it had to be a Torah transmitted by humans.

And hence, "with all the people." For in order for this transmission to continue, it cannot be the responsibility of a few individuals. It must be the responsibility of the entire people. The covenant is not just a commitment to observe the laws of the Torah. It is a covenant to preserve the Torah itself: its words, its memory, its power, its commanding force. If everyone is bound by the Torah, then everyone must become an active part of the mesorah, ensuring that the Torah is taught, that it is heard, and that it is passed down from one generation to the next.

We have often failed to live up to this responsibility. Secular Jews might delegate this responsibility to the religious. Lay people might delegate it to rabbis or Torah scholars. Parents might delegate it to their children's teachers. When this happens, we have robbed the Torah and the mesorah of all the voices that are an integral part of the covenant - and we have made the Torah smaller. It becomes a Torah that increasingly speaks to a smaller and smaller segment of society.

To quote another verse from this week's parasha, the Torah is not in heaven (30:12); it comes from heaven but is now found here on earth, transmitted through humans, accessible to humans, and able to speak to humans. We can be equal partners in the covenant because the Torah can and must be embraced and transmitted by us, as individuals and as a community. It is only in this way that the Torah can continue to be passed down and continue to talk to all of us in all our wonderful diversity.

Shabbat Shalom!