A World of Giving
At one level, Rosh Hashanah forces us to focus on ourselves more intensely than any other day of the year. The description of passing before Hashem "k'bnei Meron" conveys this idea. All three of the definitions mentioned in the Gemara for the phrase share one thing in common: They emphasize our status as solitary individuals standing before Hashem in judgment. The questions we will be asked and should be asking ourselves are: Who are you? What is unique about you? What is your specific mission in life based on your unique qualities and circumstances? How have you done in fulfilling that mission in the past year that would justify a renewal of your contract?
From the point of view of that focus on our individual selves, it might seem odd that Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner in his Pachad Yitzchak on Rosh Hashanah begins with a series of ma'amarim on chesed, for any act of chesed necessarily presupposes a dyad of giver and receiver.
Even before we stand alone before Hashem, it would seem, we have to know something fundamental about Whom we are in dialogue with. And while we cannot know His essence, we can at least discern how He expresses Himself through His creation. Chesed is the Divine middah that precedes all others. It is not just the means through which Hashem maintains the world, but the purpose for which He brought it into existence.
"Olam chesed y'bane – the world is founded on chesed (Tehillim 89:3). As the Ramchal explains, the entire creation came into being only in order that Hashem could bestow of His goodness on others.
Of all the Divine middos, only chesed returns us to "tehillas ma'asecha – the first of Your great works." When Avraham Avinu first apprehended that there is a "baal habirah," a master to the Creation, that recognition could only come through the path of chesed. Only one who exemplified the middah of chesed could intuit from within himself that chesed is inherent in the very fact of Creation.
Just as chesed is the foundation upon which Creation exists, writes Rabbi Hutner, so is it the fundamental middah, the one that must be the starting point for all others. It is the middah upon which our inner beings must be founded because it is our most fundamental connection to our tzelem Elokim. Just as Hashem's bringing the world into being was an expression of chesed, of the desire to give to another, so too our emulation of Hashem must begin with chesed.
There is another aspect to Rav Hutner's emphasis on the middah of chesed in the context of Rosh Hashanah. Though the judgment of the day forces us to ask what is our particular mission in life, we have to know that for a Jew that mission can never be purely individual. It is always within the context of Klal Yisrael. That is hinted to in the berachos that precede bris milah, through which an eight-day old male is entered into the covenant of Avraham Avinu. Besides the berachah over the act of milah itself, we make a second berachah, l'hachniso l'briso shel Avraham. Avinu. The latter requires a specific intention that the newborn infant be included within a larger collective, i.e., all those joined in the covenant of Avraham.
And how do we achieve that inclusion? The covenant of Avraham Avinu is specifically a covenant of chesed. Only be developing our own quality of chesed do we show ourselves worthy of inclusion. The mitzvah of gemilus chasadim has the special aspect that one benefits from its fruits in this world and the principal remains in the world to come. Chesed generates fruits that co-exist with the tree and do not diminish it. Those fruits are identifiable by their similarity to that which gave rise to them, i.e., the original tree or father. Thus all those who are not gomlei chassadim cast doubt on their descent from Avraham Avinu, the pillar of chesed.
At the time of Creation, Hashem intended to set into motion a continuous flow of chesed, of new fruits being produced to resemble their original source. We can either increase that flow or stop it.
Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, in his Kuntras HaChesed, famously divides people into two categories – givers and takers -- though we all have aspects of both. The question inevitably arises: If there are no takers, how can there be any givers? To which the answer is that there is a distinction between takers and receivers. The taker views everything as his by right, and therefore cannot appreciate the gift he has received. The receiver, however, is fully appreciative of all that he or she receives. Nothing is taken for granted.
The receiver, it turns out, is another form of giver. Through his gift, the giver changes and molds reality, he becomes a creator and expresses his tzelem Elokim at the deepest level. By facilitating that expression of the giver's tzelem Elokim and giving him the opportunity to identify most closely with his Creator and the divine spark within him, the receiver is simultaneously a giver.
Miriam Kosman discusses at length in Circle, Arrow, and Spiral (Chapters 4-7) the art of being a mekabel (receiver), as a form of giving that increases the flow of chesed. She offers a homely moshol to make the point. Every speaker knows that an attentive and appreciative audience spurs one to give more.
One who cannot show appreciation of the benefits bestowed on him by others, by contrast, stops up the flow of chesed into the world. He causes, in Rav Hutner's words, the tree that gave rise to fruits of chesed to be consumed. Thus do Chazal use similar language to describe one who does not engage in acts of gemilus chasadim – "he resembles one who has no G-d" (Avodah Zara 17b) – and one who denies the benefit another has conferred upon him – "he resembles one who denies the good provided by the Makom."
Both stop up the flow of chesed that Hashem set in motion on "hayom harat olam," and to which it is our task to continue adding new fruits.
From the Bitter Comes the Sweet
I have a very close friend who became a ba'al teshuva in his late fifties together with his wife. At that point, all three of their children were already ba'alei teshuva.
While still in hospital after birth, my friends' third child contracted a life-threatening infection that required hospitalization for many months and numerous surgeries over many years.
My friend was raised with virtually no Jewish education, though his wife's family was Yiddish-speaking and considerably more identified. After marriage, he would dutifully attend High Holiday services with his wife and that's about it. The Rosh Hashanah just after their infant son had been finally released from the hospital, the rabbi gave a sermon in which he spoke forcefully of the need for every Jewish community to have a Jewish school.
To the rabbi's great surprise, my friend was the first to approach him after services. He explained that he was filled with gratitude that his newborn son's life had been spared and wanted to do something to express that gratitude. Helping start a Jewish school seemed the perfect solution. Thus did a young lawyer, with no Jewish background, become one of the founders and long-time president of the local Jewish school.
Inasmuch as my friend was president of the new school, there was little question that his two sons and a daughter would attend. I should emphasize that the school was not a Torah U'Mesorah school, but an officially non-denominational community school. There was not then a demand in Tuscon for anything more.
Over a recent lunch, I asked my friend whether he thought that early experience in the communal school had dramatically increased the chances of his children becoming ba'alei teshuva. He was sure that it had. And I confirmed that judgment with one of the sons, who was then visiting in Israel with his family for his nephew's bar mitzvah.
Many of the teachers were, in fact, observant, which made Orthodox Jews a little less forbidding many years later when the children began exploring their Judaism. Orthodox Jews were not for them an unknown species, indistinguishable from the Amish. And they learned how to read Hebrew proficiently and developed a familiarity with the davening, both of which would also serve them well when they did become religious. (Several other graduates of the communal school eventually became ba'alei teshuva as well.)
I did not even have to ask my friend whether he and his wife would have become religious if not for their children. The answer to that question is too obvious. I was friendly with two of the children before they were married, and remember all too well how their mother fought tooth and nail against their becoming religious.
What's my point in mentioning this story now, except for the slight connection to Rosh Hashanah? Actually, I think there is a lesson here.
The original infection their son contracted after birth was the worst thing that ever happened to my friends at that point in their lives. Both were blessed at birth with about every good quality that a person could ask for, and the husband was already well on the way to great professional success as a litigator.
Yet had it not been for that post-natal infection all that is most satisfying and rewarding about their present lives would never have come to be. They would not have nearly twenty beautiful grandchildren to whom they are very close. They would not have been embraced by a large Jewish community and have the deep friendships with people of spiritual elevation that they have today.
I'm not suggesting that we are always zocheh to see that which appeared to be a great tragedy at the time turn out to be the source of our greatest joy. Only in the Olam HaEmes will we understand the purpose of certain suffering and tragedies. But one of the nice things about aging is that one has experienced or observed enough such instances that believing that the other tragedies will one day find their explanation is no longer difficult.
And what of the infant who almost died in the hospital? He is today a rosh yeshiva, with close to seventy bochurim and avreichim in his yeshiva.