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Rosh Hashana Drasha 2

09/19/2023 10:02:08 AM


Malka Popper

I want to tell you a little bit about my grandfather. My grandfather was born in Hamburg, Germany and escaped to Shanghai during the war. He lived in the ghetto and would often describe to us what Rosh Hashanah was like. He knew how to blow shofar and would go from area to area helping other people fulfill the mitzvah. That’s how he met my grandmother, he was in her neighborhood blowing Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. My grandmother was younger than him, but when they came to the US after the war, they married and began setting up their home in Seattle.
My grandfather was many things- he was a hardworking salesman, starting with nothing and building a life for his family. He was a chazan who both led tefillah and taught others to lead, a baal kriah reading the Torah each week in his shul, and he was also an incredible cook. He had a few specialties that are part of our family mesorah  - the potato leek soup was my favorite and his secret ingredient in almost anything was a little bit of fresh ginger. And, he was a true yekke, with specific rituals, tunes, practices for every event and occasion. One of his rituals was what our family calls the PSN - the pre shabbat nap. My grandfather was the originator, but he made sure it was passed down to the next generation. I’d love to say that I’m a devout follower of this minhag, and I do aspire to be a PSN person, but alas, I have fallen short.  If you were to question the PSN ritual, my grandfather would quickly make sure that you (and everyone else) understood that it’s critical to making sure that you’re ready for Shabbat. The PSN was not just pragmatic, so you won’t fall asleep at the shabbos table. But it was his ritual to help him transition from the hectic chaos of the week into Shabbat. It was just one of the ways he took preparing for Shabbat seriously. In his devout yekkiness, he and my grandmother would set the table on Thursday and they would taste every dish to make sure it was Shabbat ready, and, of course, he made sure to take his PSN. On Friday, he prepared the laining, said Friday tehillim, etc. He was, what Rav Soloveitchik, The Rav, would have called, the quintessential erev shabbos Jew.

"There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America,” he shared in many of his famous Teshuva sermons. 
“but there are no 'erev Shabbat' Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, or with their mouths - but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart! It is not for the Sabbath that my heart aches, it is for the ‘eve of the Sabbath.”

Said in other words, אין קדושה בלי הכנה There’s no holiness without preparation. 

Erev Shabbat, the time spent preparing for Shabbat, is just as, or perhaps more important than Shabbat itself. 
And I believe that even though today is Sunday, it is actually erev shabbat.Let me explain.

The Torah, in describing the sacrifices brought for each of the holidays in Parshat Pinchas, uses the same formula for each holiday. The date, name, and theme of the holiday are provided - 10th of the month, Yom Kippur, Fasting. 15 of the month, Chag HaSukkot, celebration. And then it continues to describe the korban - the sacrifice - that is offered. For each holiday the language is identical - והקרבתם עלה ריח ניחוח  - and you will bring close a burnt offering of pleasing order. Every holiday uses the same verb to describe offering the sacrifice, להקריב - to approach, to offer, to come near. Every holiday, except one - Rosh Hashana. 

When describing the sacrifice for Rosh Hashana, the Torah chooses to use a different verb to describe the process of offering the korban - ועשיתם עלה ריח ניחוח - and you will perform, you will do, you will make this sacrifice. The verb לעשות - to do, to perform - stands in contrast to the verb used by all of the other Korbanot. Why? What is the meaning behind using the verb “to do or perform” instead of the verb “to approach or offer”?

I was recently at a Shabbaton in Running Springs with our freshmen and senior classes. During Shabbat lunch, one of the seniors  sat down with a bunch of the teachers who were there and nonchalantly turned to us all and said, “So, tell me what you think the secret to a happy marriage is.” We all laughed for a sec, but then we started answering.
The first teacher said that you have to strike the balance between the romance of  boyfriend/girlfriend and the vulnerability and rawness of a best friend. And someone else, who just had her youngest child leave home for college, proudly said that the key is to know you’re in it for the long haul and then the kids leave home and you get to fall in love all over again. 

And then I read a beautiful article written by a colleague who said that the key to a happy marriage is to develop the capacity to be bilingual. There’s the spoken and the unspoken. Always. 
“How was your day, honey?” 
“It was fine.”
My friends, if you want to have a happy marriage you need to recognize that the spoken words, “it was fine” means something entirely different. It was not fine. In fact, it was a lot. Or something might have happened. I’m for sure still processing. I may need some space, I probably want to talk or vent at some point. I’m still in it. 
The key is to be able to understand that there’s always a deeper meaning. In life, there’s what is said and then there’s what it means. 

And this holds true not just in our spoken, interpersonal communication styles, but also as students of text. How often do we encounter a text, a pasuk, a narrative where we are asked to understand not just what it says, but the meaning behind the words, the sentiment, idea or value that the Torah is trying to communicate. 

So what is the meaning behind the written word of ועשיתם - and you will do? Why does the Torah diverge from the language used for every other korban?

The Netziv, the 19th century Scholar from modern day Poland, explained that the verb לעשות cuts to the core of this holiday - it highlights that on Rosh Hashanah דומים כאילו נעשים מחדש - It’s as if we are made anew. The power of this day is so awesome that within the day is the real possibility of emerging as a new person. The idea of being made into a new person, a person who should be inscribed in the book of life and is no longer deserving of punishment, is alluded to in the very verb chosen to describe the ceremonial sacrifices of this holiday.

And yet, over in Germany, Rav Hirsch around the very same time, argues something quite different. He explains that the Torah would have never described the sacrifices of Rosh Hashana using the verb להקריב - Here are his words: “You do not yet approach near to God, you do not yet Dare to approach Him with the symbolic expressions of the ideal of your calling…All you can do is ועשיתם to perform objectively the ideal of your mission, which the Sanctuary of the Torah holds before you.” In other words, להקריב indicates a closeness, approaching for the sake of connection and relationship. It would be chutzpah to think that on Rosh Hashana you can describe the relationship using such language. Rather, today is about לעשות, doing the basics one action at a time so that in 10 days, on Yom Kippur, you will hopefully be ready for the closeness. 

It’s a gorgeous idea, beautiful in its simplicity. In order to be in a space where you can approach Hashem and seek closeness and connection, you first start with ve’asitem - the hard work that you need to do. Fully engaging in RH means that you are doing something. Rosh Hashana isn’t about closeness because we’re not there yet, we first need to prepare for that through taking small steps and being ready for the opportunity of closeness. 

אין קדושה בלי הכנה

Holiness, transcendence, growth, doesn’t just happen, it necessitates planning and preparation. Rosh Hashana is the first day of this preparation. It begins right here, right now, with one action followed by another. 

My challenge to each person here is to pause for a moment and think about what your first step will be. It may be calling a friend who you haven’t connected with in a while to check in on them, it may be saying yes when someone asks you to help volunteer at the next event, setting a monthly reminder to give tzedaka to organizations that need it, making sure to make a bracha before you eat and drink, or davening with a little more kavana- each person has their areas of growth and committing to that first step is what Rosh Hashanah is all about. 

So as we transition into Mussaf, as we recite our tefillot, as we listen to the sound of shofar or the sound of silence, realize that today is about being the Erev Shabbos Jew - the person who sets the table and tastes the food, the person who takes a short nap, to clear your head from everything else and focus on what is right in front of you: the opportunity to say hineni - I am here and ready לעשות to do the hard work one small act at a time. 

Mon, June 17 2024 11 Sivan 5784