A Compassionate Reminder

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jewish people, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and a miracle would be accomplished - the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say a prayer.” And again, the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Lieb of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say; “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know all the prayers. I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story and this must be sufficient.”

We are the inheritors of this powerful story. Like these Chassidic rabbis of old, we have sought to continue the patterns of ritual and liturgy that sustained our ancestors, waxing and waning in each subsequent generation. We come together on Rosh Hashanah, to connect with that piece of ourselves that feels most inherited – the stories that were woven long before we were, whose power draws us together year after year. This ancestral tug might not be the only motivation to engage in Rosh Hashanah worship, but I would wager that within each of our spiritual DNA is a common gene that binds us together in a shared past, and a strong connection to something greater than the self. And so we find ourselves here together to celebrate the new year. We may know the story and follow the ritual, but there is much more to the significance of this day than meets the eye.

Many of the meanings of this holy day can be found within its pseudonyms. Head of the Year is a straight translation of Rosh Hashanah, signifying the beginning of a new measure of time. The mystics would have us delve further in to this metaphor – if Rosh Hashanah is like a head sitting atop a body, and the head holds the command center for the body (i.e. the brain/personality/soul), then what happens during Rosh Hashanah will set the command, as it were, for the year that has just begun.

The Day the World was Created - Yom HaRat HaOlam offers another layer of understanding to the celebration of the Rosh Hashanah. Our sages teach that God began the seven day process of Creation immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah. With each subsequent day of the countdown to Rosh Hashanah there was another day of Creation, so that by sunset on the sixth day, Erev Rosh Hashanah, the world had appeared fully formed, Rosh Hashanah itself, then, is the anniversary of the first Shabbat. These two explanations offer some of the most easily accessible understandings of what we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah; but there are two more, interrelated and increasingly profound layers of meaning to our worship today.

Day of Remembering, Yom HaZikaron is another name for Rosh Hashanah. It strikes me as strange that this holy day, not Yom Kippur, carries the title of Yom HaZikaron; after all, it is not until Yom Kippur that we say Yizkor which enjoins us to the act of remembering those who came before us. The name, Day of Remembering, begs the question: Who is doing the remembering (and who is being remembered)? One could think that the intention, as translated in the English, would be for us to remember God on this day, but Yom HaZikaron is about God remembering to help us, to remind us. God may not need the reminder, but we sure do. This is a day when we ask that God please remind us each of our purpose, for that is the big question. Rosh Hashanah and these Days of Awe offer us the chance to ask those questions of ourselves and see what thoughts emerge to direct us toward our answers. Yom HaZikaron is a day of reminding us each individually of who we are and what we are about. This is why we insert the words zochreinu l’chayim in to our t’fillah in each and every service between now and Yom Kippur – to remind us that we need to be reminded.

This leads us to yet another name for this holy day, Yom HaDin, The Day of Judgment. Again, it would seem more fitting for this to be an attribute of Yom Kippur; after all, we are supposed to take these next 9 days to do the work of atoning so that we may be inscribed in the Book of Life. Luckily for us, God’s judgment is not the kind of judgment that we imagine. Contemporary Chasid, Rabbi Simon Jacobsen, teaches: “it is the ultimate insult . . . to think that God judges us the way we judge each other.” We are our own harshest critics, to be sure, but we are also, by design, critical beings. We praise God for giving us the ability to “understand and discern,” in our morning blessings, because those skills are key to our survival. To discern between safe and dangerous is a primal instinct that leads us to form judgments. We judge for self-preservation, God’s judgment does not. Rabbi Jacobsen further argues that to think such is “…nothing more than an anthropomorphic projection imposed by human beings upon God.” [i]

So how does God judge us? God created a universe of mortal, imperfect human beings. Our Creator imbued us with the skills and limitations that would make it possible for us to exist in this world – perfection is not one of them. How impossible, then, is it for us to think that God now demands to know why we are not perfect? In the words of Rabbi Jacobsen, “clearly, that can’t be.”[ii] We are in partnership with God, that is what it means to be a People of the Covenant – the term covenant itself necessitates willing partners, each accountable to the other in their own ways. During Elul, we have tallied up our spiritual accounts, our individual Heshbon HaNefesh. Rosh Hashanah is when we share these accounts with our partner, and hope that our care in God’s investment has been sufficient cause to renew the contract.

This judgment, then, is one of compassion. We are given an invitation to renew our contracts, to renew our lease on life, and we really shouldn’t pass up the offer. Our partner does not look for perfection in us, for that is not our end. “Why aren’t you perfect,” isn’t the question. It is “Why aren’t you as much as you could have been?” There once was a great Hassidic teacher named Zusia who came upon this understanding. One morning he arrived at the house of study to teach, as he did most every day, but on this particular morning his eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear. His followers crowded around him to ask what was wrong. Zusia replied, "Last night I had a strange dream. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life." His students were puzzled, and began to heap reassuring praise upon their beloved teacher. "But Zusia, you are a good man!” they exclaimed, “You are wise and humble, and kind! What question about your life could be so bad that you would be afraid to answer it?" Zusia replied, "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?' Nor will they ask me, 'Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people into the Promised Land?' They will ask me, 'Zusia, why weren't you more like Zusia?'"

These rabbis knew that perfection was not the aim of human life. They saw that the will of spirit, the desire to be moved, to be encouraged, to be forgiven – that these impulses of the human condition were far preferable than adherence to an unattainable, and futile end. If we can forgive ourselves half as easily as we forgive others (and we should) then we can come closer to a true understanding of the meaning of God’s judgment on Rosh Hashanah. A passage in the Talmud teaches that if, on Yom HaDin, your bad deeds slightly outweigh the good, the compassionate forgiveness of God will be as a thumb, pressing down on the side of your good deeds so that they outweigh the bad. God is rooting for you, and Rosh Hashanah is your chance to see what repentance and forgiveness (and self-forgiveness) can feel like. This is the great gift of Rosh Hashanah: God’s confidence in us that we can be our fullest selves, reminded of our best selves, and ultimately that we are able to forgive ourselves, because God certainly doesn’t want us standing in our own way any longer.

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[i] Jacobsen, Simon. 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays.
[ii] Ibid.