From the Beginning of the Year to Its End
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 5, 2018
From the Beginning of the Year to Its End
How can we maximize the potential of Rosh Hashanah?
Wednesday, September 05, 2018
he period leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and Rosh Hashanah itself, are times of powerful and varied emotions. On the one hand, there is apprehension and trembling in the face of the judgment to come. On the other, there is a feeling of hopefulness as well, a consciousness that improvement is possible, and that we have it within ourselves to become better Jews in the year to come.
And even in the apprehension, there is cause for rejoicing. Rav Noach Weinberg ztz"l used to define yiras Hashem as a constant awareness that life is a serious affair, that everything we do has consequences. That awareness is heightened during the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.
If we thought about it, each of us would choose to live in a world where actions have consequences and everything is recorded. For such a world is also one that gives our lives meaning. One of the explanations of the shofar is that it is we who summon Hashem to judge us, precisely because the awareness of judgment and the consequences of that judgment is uplifting.
HOW CAN WE maximize the potential of Rosh Hashanah? Rav Moshe Shapira ztz"l characteristically pointed to the verse hinting to the judgment of Rosh Hashanah in the Torah to answer that question. The concept of a judgment taking place on the first day of the year for the entirety of the year is hinted to in a verse that describes the unique characteristics of Eretz Yisrael: "A land that Hashem, your G-d, seeks out; the eyes of Hashem, your G-d, are always upon it from the beginning of the year to year's end (meireishis hashanah v'ad acharis shanah)" (Devarim 11:12).
But what is unique about Eretz Yisrael that connects it to judgment? We are commanded to remember three things as if they are happening today: the Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation at Har Sinai, and the Land. Of the Land, the Mechilta says, "It should be in your eyes as if it were being given to you today and not as an inheritance." Even when we are living elsewhere, we have to retain the awareness of Eretz Yisrael as something being given today. Just as Yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah are the central events in Jewish history, so is Eretz Yisrael the unique makom (place) of the Jewish People, the place where we can most fully flourish.
Makom is related phonetically to mekayem — to sustain. And Eretz Yisrael is that place which uniquely sustains the Jewish people. There is no worse punishment than to be without a makom. After Kayin murdered Hevel, he was punished with becoming a perpetual wanderer — na v'nad — without a place. The earth, which swallowed the blood of Hevel, would no longer provide sustenance as before.
Just as the Jewish People exist above nature, so is the Land exempt from the normal rules of physics: It is an eretz hatzvi that expands and contracts according to the number of Jews living within its borders. Through the makom of the Jewish People, the presence of Hashem, Who is referred to as HaMakom, is most intensely felt. Chazal learn the concept of Hashem as the mekomo shel Olam, the One within Whom all Creation exists from the verse, vayifga [Yaakov] bamakom. That place refers to the even hashesiyah, the center point of the world, upon which the Kodesh Hakodoshim would one day be built in Eretz Yisrael.
What is the unique characteristic of Eretz Yisrael that the Torah emphasizes? That it is a Land where nothing happens just because it happened like that the day before. It is unlike Egypt, where the Nile provides a constant source of water, from which it is easy to irrigate the fields. Rather it is a land that depends upon the rains from heaven. Just as the earth awaited the creation of Adam Harishon l'avdo — i.e., to work it by praying for rain — before the vegetation sprouted from the ground, so does Eretz Yisrael require our prayers for rain. It is a land that Hashem seeks constantly because we are ever aware of our utter dependence upon Him.
That dependence is expressed in prayer. Through prayer we remain constantly aware that everything we do is "before Hashem," and that just as His eyes are constantly upon Eretz Yisrael, so they are on each of us. The word reishis in the verse m'reishis hashanah is written missing an alef, which hints to how we have to pray to Hashem. As a pauper — rash — completely lacking in all that he requires. From the prayer to Hashem requisite for our existence in Eretz Yisrael, our makom, we learn the form for all our prayer "lifnei haMakom."
That prayer must express a recognition of our utter dependence on HaKadosh Baruch Hu. It can never be rote, routine, just like the day before — i.e., not like the irrigation of the fields in Egypt. Rather it must take the form of beseeching Hashem for mercy (see Pirkei Avos 2:18). In one form or another, that was Rav Moshe's message every year before Rosh Hashanah. The judgment of the day is based on our recognition that we have no existence except insofar as we attach ourselves to Him and make His purposes our own. That is the meaning of Hu mekomo shel Olam: all existence depends on connection to Hashem. He is the source of life, a never-ending spring. Only when we recognize that fact are we truly alive and worthy of further life.
THERE IS ONE MORE aspect to the recognition of our connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu that is implied in making Him melech over us. Rav Ahron Lopiansky, in his important new sefer, Ben Torah for Life, quotes the final words of Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl, one of the greatest heroes of wartime rescue work, to his kehillah, just weeks before his passing.
Rav Michoel Ber began by quoting the Sifri, which interprets the description of Hashem as Keil emunah to mean "He had faith in the world and created it." In other words, Hashem had faith that no matter how circuitous the route, the world will one day come to fulfil the purpose for which it was created. And then Rav Weissmandl continued:
"I am one of the countless millions of people that Hashem created in This World because He believed that this person can contribute to the task of bringing kevod Shamayim into this world. This is not haughtiness, pride or vanity. Every person's creation was preceded by the faith that G-d believed in him, and only afterwards did He actually create him. He was created with the goal that man will believe in himself and perform actions that will cause others to believe in Him. Every person must say, "For me the world was created. I am the person Hashem is waiting for..."
It is not enough that Hashem believed in us. We must believe in ourselves and our capacity to be mekadesh Sheim Shamayim. And when we dedicate ourselves to that task of expanding recognition of Hashem as mekomo shel Olam, we become worthy of being inscribed for life.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur
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