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Rav Yosef's Rosh Hashanah Drasha

09/09/2021 11:44:23 AM


The answer is such a classic, that we rarely pay any serious attention to the question that precedes it.  The answer is, “on a day when the books of life and death are open, would you expect that Israel would be singing?!” 

It’s an important answer, epitomizing the unsettled, even anxious feelings that we bring into the day. But it’s an answer which creates a misleading impression if we don’t treat the question that spawned it with the same degree of seriousness. To remind of us of the question:

אָמַר רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ אָמְרוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם מִפְּנֵי מָה אֵין יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹמְרִים שִׁירָה לְפָנֶיךָ בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה

Rabbi Abbahu said: The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, “Master of the Universe, why does Israel not sing (i.e. recite Hallel) before You on Rosh HaShana?”

This is no rhetorical set-up. The angels have a legitimate point. Rosh HaShana, in the book of Vayikra, is a full-blown “mo’ed” right alongside Sukkot and Pesach. In Tehillim it’s referred to as a “chag”. When the Biblical Nehemiah sees that the people are distressed and in tears on Rosh HaShana he says to them,

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֡ם לְכוּ֩ אִכְל֨וּ מַשְׁמַנִּ֜ים וּשְׁת֣וּ מַֽמְתַקִּ֗ים ... וְאַל־תֵּ֣עָצֵ֔בוּ כִּֽי־חֶדְוַ֥ת ה' הִ֥יא מָֽעֻזְּכֶֽם׃

 “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks …. Do not be sad, for rejoicing in God is your strength.”

R. Simon amplifies the idea in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashana 1:3). Contrary to what you’d expect…

א"ר סימון .....  ישראל ...  לובשים לבנים ומתעטפין לבנים ומגלחין זקנם ואוכלין ושותין ושמחים, יודעין שהקב"ה עושה להן ניסים

On their day of judgement the children of Israel wear white, eat and drink, and are happy, confident in the knowledge that God is performing miracles for them.

What miracles? This is spelled out in Vayikra Rabba (29:3):

רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בְּרַבִּי נַחְמָן פָּתַח ... בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יוֹשֵׁב וְעוֹלֶה עַל כִּסֵּא דִּין, בַּדִּין הוּא עוֹלֶה ... וּבְשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל נוֹטְלִין אֶת שׁוֹפְרֵיהֶן וְתוֹקְעִין לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, עוֹמֵד מִכִּסֵּא הַדִּין וְיוֹשֵׁב בְּכִסֵּא רַחֲמִים, ... וּמִתְמַלֵּא עֲלֵיהֶם רַחֲמִים וּמְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם וְהוֹפֵךְ עֲלֵיהֶם מִדַּת הַדִּין לְרַחֲמִים

Rabbi Yehuda son of Rabbi Nachman opened and said, …  In the moment when the Holy One sits on the Throne of Judgement, He ascends with judgement… When Israel take their shofarot and sound them before the Holy One, He stands up from the Throne of Judgement and sits on the Throne of Mercy…. and is filled with mercy, has mercy on them, and changes the attribute of judgement to the attribute of mercy.

This is the miracle of Rosh Hashana. No less a miracle than the splitting of the sea of the theophany at Sinai.

So why don’t we say Hallel?! The angels are right.

The answer that God gives the angels is not that the people of Israel aren’t obligated to say Hallel today, for we actually are. God’s response to the angels is that when the children of Israel reach the customary spot for Hallel, we simply cannot recite it. Our throats close up. We just can’t do it. Why? Because anxiety – anxiety about life and death and all the gradations in between, about what may be awaiting us in the year to come, anxiety is a real thing.  And it tends to suppress joy.

And God is telling the angels that they have no right to fault us over this.

When we understand the answer against the power of the question, we appreciate the full import of this passage. God is acknowledging our reality. The reality that at times we feel overwhelmed, immobilized by uncertainty, wondering where God even is and what He’s thinking.  God’s response to the angels is the ultimate affirmation that is not only acceptable, but natural for human beings to look up and say, “I’m sorry. I just can’t sing to you right now. I understand that you are seated on a throne of compassion, but right now that just seems like an abstraction to me.  In a strange twist, one of the rituals of Rosh HaShana is the ritual of arriving at the spot for Hallel and being unable to say it. Or as  R. Tzidkiya ben Avraham put it in the 13th century, we arrive at Hallel, but what comes out of our mouths instead is Avenu Malkeynu.

And God understands this. Acknowledging that this is not only normal, but acceptable.

The script of Rosh HaShana of course moves on from there, ushering us into a glorious coronation ceremony, leading us through the studded and fraught halls of memory, and generally exhausting our entire range of emotions, culminating in an exuberant היום תאמצינו! היום תברכינו!, “Today You will give us strength! Today You will bless us!” This exuberance is not about our having magically become convinced that all is well in the world, rather about our having become convinced that this is no time to give up. Over the course of the day we have become deeply aware of the perils and of the promise, of the ways things can go wrong and of the ways they can go right. Of what is out of our control, and the “more than we realized” that is within it.

It’s been quite the 5781. The blessing for 5782 is Nechemiah’s blessing. May we discover again that rejoicing in God – in God’s Torah and in the beloved people whom God has given to us – is a remarkable source of strength, perhaps even possessing the power to restore Hallel to our lips.

Just a month ago, our 8-day old grandson was placed on my lap. I was masked of course, as were all the members of the numerically depleted crowd. At that moment I heard God saying to me, “I understand your truth. I acknowledge your situation. And, I would also like you to see the miracles that I have woven into the fabric of your life.”

אַל־תֵּ֣עָצֵ֔בוּ כִּֽי־חֶדְוַ֥ת ה' הִ֥יא מָֽעֻזְּכֶֽם

Do not be sad. For rejoicing with your God is our strength.

Mon, June 17 2024 11 Sivan 5784