By demonstrating our confidence in the impending judgment, we show our recognition of Hashem's infinite love
apparent paradox lies at the center of our celebration of Rosh Hashanah. On the one hand, everything hangs in the balance on the awesome Day of Judgment. Even the angels are seized with fear, as we recite in Unesaneh Tokef: "Angels will be terrified, a trembling and dread will seize them, and they will say, 'Behold, it is the Day of Judgment.'"
On the other hand, we are upbeat and joyful. We cut our hair in advance, don our best festive attire, and enjoy sumptuous meals. Even in the most dour yeshivah, the special melodies of the day uplift and enlist all in enthusiastic singing. Despite the length of the davening, we neither enumerate our sins nor plead for mercy.
My brother Rabbi Mattisyahu Rosenblum ztz"l offers two resolutions of this paradox in Rays of Wisdom. The first begins with two oddities of human behavior, worthy of anthropological investigation of the sort usually reserved for primitive tribes. Why do so many people become so intensely involved in the fortunes of their local sports teams, manned by phenomenally well-paid athletes, with no particular attachment or loyalty to the city in which they now play? I once came into Chicago in the middle of spring training and asked a friend how he thought the Cubs would fare that year.
He replied, "I couldn't care less, and I can't imagine why any adult would."
I had nothing to respond.
Second question: Why in days of yore did so many march off so enthusiastically to battle, and their possible deaths, on behalf of kings with whom they would have scant contact and from whom they could expect little direct benefit if victory was attained?
Rabbi Rosenblum suggests that there is a strong human urge to be part of something higher and loftier than oneself and to thereby reveal a purpose to life above one's narrow self-interest. We do not wish to view our lives as nothing more than the pursuit of our own benefit.
More frequently, that urge to be part of a kingdom, of something beyond ourselves, takes an ersatz form, such as fan culture. But for us, Rosh Hashanah is coronation day of the one true King; Hashem's Malchus and the first man came into existence simultaneously, as there is no king without a nation.
Rosh Hashanah, the day of man's creation, provides an opportunity to visualize a world in which His sovereignty is acknowledged by all, and from which iniquity has disappeared as a wisp of smoke. And that contemplation fills us with joy.
His second explanation of the festive quality of the day — and the one that moved me even more — lies in our confidence in a favorable judgment. The source of that confidence is our recognition of the infinite Divine love that permeates the Creation and underlies it.
Hashem did not require our service. Indeed, He needed nothing from us; He is, by His very nature, complete. Only His desire to give to Man, as the pinnacle of Creation, explains the Creation. That is the meaning of "ki olam chesed yibaneh — the world is founded on chesed."
But for that gift to be complete, we had to have a way of earning the good that Hashem wants to bestow upon us so that it not be nehama d'kisufa, "bread of embarrassment" — i.e., unearned. Our means of doing so is by revealing His glory to the world.
Our judgment on Rosh Hashanah is based on how well we have filled that mission of giving kavod (honor) to Hashem and our determination to do so looking forward. But the entire system of reward and punishment, within which judgment is essential, is ultimately based on His unlimited love for us and desire to provide us with every manner of good, in particular the ability to earn His beneficence.
By focusing on the love underlying the system, Avraham Avinu was able to discover the Creator as the root of chesed. And we, his descendants, by demonstrating our confidence in the impending judgment, show our recognition of Hashem's infinite love. And in doing so, we merit to experience yet more of that love in the year to come.
The Micromitzvah App is Here
Elazar Yitzchak (Azi) Koltai, a"h, who was among those killed in the Meron disaster, embodied the ability of each of us to make the world around us a happier, more sustaining place.
The Koltais received a shivah visit from the local postman, who told them how Azi had often helped him distribute the mail to the building's mailboxes and never neglected to ask him how he was. Three Arab street cleaners also came to the shivah house, and related how Azi never failed to flash them his smile and thank them for keeping the street clean and the neighborhood looking good.
During shivah, the family coined the term "micromitzvos" for these acts of kindness that require little effort but pay big dividends in terms of making people feel good, and in which Azi excelled. It takes nothing more than a smile or a quick compliment to brighten another's day. Studies show that in a hospital setting in which members of the cleaning crew are treated as members of the team by other staff members, which generally depends on nothing more than the way they are addressed, they do a better job of keeping the wards clean, and thus safer.
To perpetuate Azi's memory and legacy, his parents, Rob and Sue Koltai, have now issued through the Azi Foundation a micromitzvah app in Hebrew, English, and Spanish, which can be downloaded at www.micromitzvah.org. Users identify some micromitzvah — which they are advised to then split into an even smaller daily action — they want to undertake over a 40-day period. The app sends daily reminders and charts users' progress. By the end of 40 days, the micromitzvah has hopefully become habitual.
I asked Azi's mother for some examples of the micromitzvos she had heard about thus far. Most were in the area of mitzvos bein adam l'chaveiro: I will say good morning to my husband as soon as he returns from davening; I will call my mother every day this month; I will call one friend a day just to say hello; I will be sure to smile at my children when I pick them up from school. But others were in the realm of mitzvos bein adam l'Makom: I will say Modeh Ani with kavanah; I will make sure my children wash their hands as soon as they get out of bed, and we will call it our "Azi mitzvah": I will stand still, with my feet together, for the opening bircas hashachar; I will say birchos haTorah with intention.
I'm sure all my readers will be able to come up with their own micromitzvos to strengthen themselves or give chizuk to others, especially with the approach of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah. And when you do, you will be carrying forward all the positivity that Azi Koltai, who was just past his bar mitzvah at the time of his passing, introduced into the world.
Next Time, Chezky
On a recent midnight flight from Warsaw to Tel Aviv, a young man slipped into the aisle seat next to me just as the plan was about to take off. We had met the previous day at Birkenau as a group gathered for Minchah. Then he was together with his father, but now he was headed alone to Israel for a few days of touring before returning to yeshivah.
The day before, he had told me he was a fan, and now he proceeded to prove it. "I remember you have written that if you sit next to someone on an airplane and can't get a column out of him, you consider that you have failed in some way," he reminded me, with a cheerful, expectant look on his face.
I replied that he had not been sufficiently medayek in what I wrote. I had specified that if I sat next to someone on a transatlantic flight and did not have a column, I would deem it a failure. And in any event, I noted, we would be landing in Tel Aviv just over three hours later, at around 4 a.m., and I needed the sleep.
Chezky W., I do hope we'll meet again, and I'll have a chance to extract a column. In the meantime, I hope this will do.