A multilayered judgment
by Jonathan Rosenblum
Baltimore Jewish Times
September 10, 2004
On Rosh Hashanah, all mankind passes before Him k'b’nei Meron. In the elusive and allusive term b’nei Meron, the Mishnah encapsulates the entire judgment of Rosh Hashanah.
What do we mean by b’nei Meron? The Talmud asks and provides three answers. The first understands the term as referring to a flock of sheep. The second views the term as referring to a specific place, the ascent to Beit Meron, a steep incline that climbers must traverse one at a time. The third opinion is that b’nei Meron refers to the troops in the army of King David.
This is puzzling. Why would the author of the Mishnah have chosen such a highly ambiguous term to capture the nature of the judgment on Rosh Hashanah? Only if we know what faces us on the Day of Judgment can we prepare ourselves accordingly. Surely the Mishnah should have expressed the nature of the judgment in the clearest possible terms.
The approach to such obscure aggadic passages followed by Rabbi Yehudah Loewe, the Maharal of Prague, is to view each of the apparently contradictory opinions as complementing the others, and we shall follow the Maharal.
The essential quality of sheep is that they do not differ greatly from one another. They follow one another docilely, each treading the same path. Accordingly the first understanding of b’nei Meron emphasizes some shared quality. We are equal to one another in that themitzvos of the Torah are equally incumbent upon us. At one level, our task is to hew to the path upon which the Shepherd, G-d, leads us.
Yet we must admit there is something unelevated about the comparison of human beings to stupid, docile sheep. We resist viewing ourselves as like anybody else, much less everybody else. And our Sages emphasize repeatedly the uniqueness of each individual: "Just as their faces are each different, so too their way of the thinking."
The second understanding of the Mishnah stresses our individuality. The ascent to Beit Meron could only be traversed by one person at a time. There is an aspect to our judgment on Rosh Hashanah in which we are absolutely unique.
A passage in the Zichronos section of the Mussaf prayer captures this dual nature of the judgment: "Every created being passes in front of Him - a man's actions and his mission." "A man's actions" may be understood as those actions that are equally incumbent upon each Jew; "his mission" refers to our individuality. No other person was ever created with our particular constellation of talents, born into the same familial situation or at the exact same moment. No one else ever confronted precisely the same challenges. Therefore the judgment of Rosh Hashanah must take into account all that is unique about us.
On Rosh Hashanah, man is judged. And what do we bring? We bring ourselves. We stand before G-d in judgment and He forces us to ask, "Who am I? What makes me different from my friend? Why was I created? What aspect of G-d is it my task to reveal through my life?"
And yet it would be inadequate to define the judgment of Rosh Hashanah only in terms of our individuality. For our task in life is not only to develop ourselves as individuals, but to join ourselves to G-d through the performance of His commandments, which He gave us for our benefit. Thus we must not lose sight of the first dimension of the judgment either.
The third reference in the Mishnah to b’nei Meron as soldiers in the army of King David captures the social aspect of our judgment. In an army, each soldier has a different task - some are in infantry, others artillery, etc. But even as each soldier has a different task, they are joined by a common purpose. Only by each executing his individual task in the larger context can the shared goal of victory be achieved.
This third understanding would seem to be the most sophisticated, for it encompasses in one metaphor man's duality: he is both a unique individual and a social being joined by necessity to others. Yet even here the metaphor of our judgment in terms of our unique contribution to the achievement of a larger social goal could, by itself, obscure some important aspect of our task. Too great a focus on the larger societal goal could cause us to forget the need to develop our individual capacities to their maximum potential.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur
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