The rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah feature

September 3, 2018 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple writes about Rosh HaShanah.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

THE AKEDAH CAST – DO THEY REALLY HAVE A SAY?

On the second day of Rosh HaShanah the centrepiece of the Torah reading is “Akedat Yitzchak”, the Binding of Isaac.

The story has three characters, not just one… not just Abraham, but Isaac and God too, and we wonder whether any of them has any real say in the unfolding events.

ABRAHAM
Abraham is being “tested”, whatever the word “tested” means. Does anyone ask him whether he is prepared to go along with the plan?

One answer: he could (at least in theory) say No. God doesn’t command him: He entreats him. He says, “Please take your son…” He is given time to think it through.

The Sefat Emet notes that it takes the patriarch three days to reach his destination, three days to think the plan through and either to reject it or decide to go ahead.

ISAAC
Does Isaac have any say? The text says – twice – “And they (father and son) went ahead together.” The implication is that Isaac knows what is going on and is prepared for it to happen.

He had a dream that family destiny would be assured because of him, and now he has acquiesced in the fateful decision that there might be no destiny, no family, no dreams fulfilled.

It would help our understanding of the event if the chapter began, “God tested Abraham and Isaac” instead of leaving Isaac out.

GOD
Despite the wording of the text, is God not caught up in events that might get out of His control?

The Torah is adamant that man has free will. How can God be certain that Abraham (and Isaac) will exercise that free will to act in a way that proclaims God in the world?

Has God any option but to put the patriarch and his son through the harshest test that any human heart and mind could ever be asked to contemplate?

Isn’t God putting Himself through a test too, to ascertain whether He possesses the determination to ask His creatures to give Him the apparently impossible?

HARD OF HEARING

It’s customary to call it “teki’at shofar”, the blowing of the shofar, but that in fact is not the mitzvah at all. The mitzvah is “lishmo’a kol shofar”, to hear the sound of the shofar.

There are two aspects, two obligations: the blowing must be by a competent person who follows the rules, whilst the congregation as a whole need not have the ability to blow but must hear the sounds.

By analogy, there is a wider sense in which everyone has a duty to hear.

When someone is in pain, others must hear their cry. When God says, “I shall hear, for I am compassionate” (Ex. 22:26), we human beings have a duty to emulate the Almighty. When we hear the call, “Sh’ma Yisra’el” – “Hear, O Israel”, we must be receptive and take the message seriously.

Rabbi Elazar ben P’dat asks in the Talmud (Ket.5b), “”Why do fingers look like pegs?”, and the answer is given, “So that when a person hears something unworthy, they can plug their ears”.

Conversely, when one hears something important, they must listen intently and not pretend to be deaf.

WRITING OUR OWN RECORD

“Un’tanneh Tokef” is an unending source of emotional, spiritual and intellectual fascination.

Its depiction of the Heavenly court on Rosh HaShanah is unrivalled. The court scrutinises a stream of defendants. The prosecutor makes his accusations; the defending counsel makes a response. God Himself sits in judgment.

As the proceedings unfold, every case is entered in the court books. But not by a court official. No: each person’s record writes itself.

The idea derives from a Talmudic passage (RH 16b), which says, “Three books are opened on Rosh HaShanah… the wholly righteous are written and sealed at once for life and the wholly wicked for death; the intermediate category have their cases suspended”.

The text does not say that any specific official makes the entry in the record. The words are passive, not active: “the wholly righteous are written and sealed…”

By whom? The answer of Un’tanneh Tokef is unequivocal: our deeds write their own record.

To which the Chafetz Chayyim adds: it all depends on how we deal with other people. If we judge them uncharitably and speak ill of them we are inviting the Chief Justice to judge us negatively.

“Therefore a man needs to bear in mind that whenever he judges another human being, either favourably or otherwise, with his words, he is actually, literally, arranging and determining his own judgment in heaven” (Sh’mirat HaLashon, Sha’ar HaT’vunah 4).

ROSH HASHANAH AMAZES ME

I have known it, Baruch HaShem, all my life.

I cannot remember a time when Rosh HaShanah was not a highlight of my year. As a small child I was not quite certain what it was all about, but I knew something solemn was in the air, and I constantly hummed the yom-tov melodies I heard in shule.

Then I grew up and discovered the serious content of the occasion. Not merely the sounding of the shofar, but the liturgy that celebrates God as king, judge and redeemer, the majestic words and uplifting thoughts – all gave me something for the mind as well as the heart and soul.

Every year since then the Rosh HaShanah experience has been a trusty old friend. But every year it speaks to me with a new freshness and challenge that never ceases to amaze me.

As a ba’al k’ri’ah I know well the Torah readings for the two days, and the haftarot. Not just their phraseology and trope, but their substance.

All deal with yearnings, hopes and fears. All are ancient stories, but it could be my yearnings, hopes and fears they depict.

On the first day the Torah reading is the story of the birth of Yitzchak after so many years in which his parents were barren. The haftarah tells a similar story, of Channah’s prayer answered by the birth of Shmuel.

On the second day the Torah portion is Avraham’s anguish at the Akedah; the haftarah is of Rachel’s tears when her children go into exile.

My mind is awash with thoughts evoked by these familiar stories. Four in particular –

1. The age-old Jewish concern for continuity. Avraham and Sarah, Channah and Rachel, Jews in every generation were apprehensive that the tradition might end with them unless there was a future generation to maintain the heritage.

2. The confidence that God will help. When almost consumed with worry, none of the Biblical figures gives way to pessimism or thinks there is no way out. They – we too – understand that if we play our part, God will match us and play His.

3. The innate piety of Jewish women, even greater than that of the men. All the Rosh HaShanah readings focus on prayers offered by women. Judaism recognises that men need more rituals than women in order to cultivate a spiritual feeling: women, on the other hand, seem to have a more natural spiritual sensibility.

4. The fulfilment of dreams does not come easily. The Rosh HaShanah readings show that sometimes you are in danger of losing what is most precious to you – in one chapter Yitzchak is given, in the next almost taken away; in the haftarot – especially on the second day – mothers weep at the possibility that their children may be lost to them. What you have you must cherish and guard with fierce determination, but if you have to let go you must do so with dignity.

This is part of what I read into and out of the Rosh HaShanah tradition.

Shanah Tovah Um’tukah… a year of peace, health and Divine blessing!

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