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Rosh Hashanah Sermon

09/13/2018 08:03:03 PM


Rav Yosef

Twice in the last 4 months, I was surprised at my own happiness. This sounds a little crazy, but it is honest.  As the last boxes from Pesach were being stored away, Sari and I began our countdown toward the wedding of a child, and the arrival of a grandchild. And it was around then that I began struggling – really struggling - with feelings of dread which were completely tangled up with the more normal feelings of excitement and happiness. The dread bubbled up from my fear – on certain days, my belief  – that the world is becoming a less-good place in a whole variety of ways, and that the world that my children and grandchildren will inhabit will be less good than the world I have known -  perhaps dramatically so.

Somehow though, as the long-awaited days drew near and then arrived, the dread turned out to be no match for the joy. Without even putting up a fight, it simply gave way to dancing with abandon, and to crying with elation. And I’ve been trying to understand how that happened. And what it means.   


אמר רבי אבהו אמרו מלאכי השרת לפני הקב"ה רבש"ע מפני מה אין ישראל אומרים שירה לפניך בר"ה וביום הכפורים אמר להם אפשר מלך יושב על כסא דין וספרי חיים וספרי מתים פתוחין לפניו וישראל אומרים שירה:

Rabbi Abbahu said: The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, for what reason does Israel not recite Hallel before You on Rosh HaShana? He said to them: Is it possible that while the King is sitting on the throne of judgment and the books of life and the books of death are open before Him, that Israel is reciting joyous songs of praise? (Rosh HaShana 32b)


A familiar sentiment. One that sufficed to quiet those querulous ministering angels. What’s odd though, is that while today is in fact not a day of Hallel in the technical sense, it is certainly no stranger to songs of praise, Ein Kitzva…. V’chol maminim, Imru Lelohm! – or to expressions of optimism and confidence:  

הַיּוֹם תְּאַמְּצֵנוּ

הַיּוֹם תְּבָרְכֵנוּ

הַיּוֹם תְּגַדְּלֵנוּ 

These are not supplications. They are expressions of our confidence that these will indeed be the outcomes of the day. We will emerge from today strengthened, blessed, and better than we were before.  Yes, המלך יושב על כסא דין וספרי חיים וספרי מתים פתוחין לפניו, yes we come in to Rosh Hashanah knowing that uncertainties and, to be frank, some pretty awful possibilities accompany the journey into every new year, and yet, and yet, by the time we’re done dread has largely left the building, and we are exulting in hope, and even singing with joy. Again, how does this happen? And what is there to be learned?

Two Midrashic interpretations of the same phrase found in Kohellet. Equally true, yet diametrically opposed: 

Says Kohellet:

אֶת־הַכֹּ֥ל עָשָׂ֖ה יָפֶ֣ה בְעִתּ֑וֹ גַּ֤ם אֶת־הָעֹלָם֙ נָתַ֣ן בְּלִבָּ֔ם

“God brings everything to pass in its proper time.” Fine. Now here we go.  “Also the world He has put in our hearts.”

Our first MIdrashist, Rebbi Achva concedes that he really doesn’t know what this phrase means, and so he creatively re-reads it, not as “ha-olam”/the world, rather as “he’e’lem” / He concealed, and proceeds to express a deep and dreadful lament about the state of the world.  

הָעֳלַם מֵהֶם שֵׁם הַמְפֹרָשׁ.

God soncealed His true, awesome name from humanity. Why? Rebbi Achva invokes a parable in which a king invites his subjects to a feast, upon whose conclusion the subjects request swords and spears from the king, so that they may “sport” with each other. The king gives them myrtle branches instead, with which they still manage to inflict mutual injury, but the king expresses relief that at least he withheld more dangerous weapons from them. 

. כָּךְ אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא,

Similarly, God says, I gave humanity various names by which to refer to me, and look at how they have killed one another using my name. Can you imagine if I had revealed to them my great and awesome name?!

Rebbi Achva lived with the dread that things could go terribly wrong at any time. He lives in dread of humanity’s capacity to wreak havoc on this earth and upon all its inhabitants. And who could study the record of history and tell him that his fears were exaggerated? And who could tell someone living in the second decade of the 21st century that human beings cannot actually wreak devastation, that destruction and unthinkable violence aren’t possible? 

Same verse, different Midrashic take:  Rebbi Yonatan, believes he knows the answer: Rebbi Yonatan doesn’t re-read the word “ha’olam”; instead inserts one word in front of it.

גַּם אֶת הָעֹלָם נָתַן בְּלִבָּם, אַהֲבַת עוֹלָם נָתַן בְּלִבָּם,

In His creative genius, and as an indispensable feature of His strategic plan, God implanted love of world in our hearts. As a group, and as individual members of the group, we keep falling in love with this world. We embrace it as our home, we marvel at its mysteries, we love exploring it, touching it, smelling it, breathing its air, and loving its people. We desire passionately - even if not always rationally - to LIVE in it.  God implanted this in us.

And what’s the best proof of this? Rebbi Yonatan, continues:

אַהֲבַת תִּינוֹקוֹת נָתַן בְּלִבָּם,

That we love babies. Our own babies; other people’s babies. Rebbi Yonatan also has a king parable, though frankly I have no idea why it needs to be about a king:

מָשָׁל לְמָה הַדָּבָר דּוֹמֶה, לְמֶלֶךְ שֶׁהָיוּ לוֹ שְׁנֵי בָנִים, אֶחָד גָּדוֹל, וְאֶחָד קָטָן, הַגָּדוֹל מְכַבֵּד וְהַקָּטָן מְטַנֵּף, אַף עַל פִּי כֵן הוּא אוֹהֵב אֶת הַקָּטָן.

A king has two children. One is older, and cleans up his own room. The other is little, a baby, who dirties his diapers. And despite that, the king loves the little one no less…

God did this to us. He placed love of world and love of life in our hearts. And so we dance till we plotz at weddings, and watch the same 15 second video of a newborn granddaughter over and over again.  And we even read Rebbi Abahu’s statement about Rosh Hashana with a different punctuation mark at the end:

אפשר מלך יושב על כסא דין וספרי חיים וספרי מתים פתוחין לפניו וישראל אומרים שירה!!

It’s not only possible. It’s what we do! It’s the way we were manufactured. The way we were fashioned by a Creator who loves us, the way we were designed so that we’d never give up on the task we were ordained to do, to be holy, to be kind, to be just, to be loving.

הַיּוֹם תְּאַמְּצֵנוּ

הַיּוֹם תְּבָרְכֵנוּ

הַיּוֹם תְּגַדְּלֵנוּ 

When all is said and done, we will emerge from these days strengthened, blessed, and better than we were before. We will have experienced one of those events that comes around every now and then, when our love for life, our love for world dwarfs everything else.

We will be pumped up, wound up, exhausted to the point of ecstasy, reinvigorated with love of world. Baruch haba; bruchah ha’ba’ah…. The Divine voice will sing to us in 10 days. Welcome to 5779.  Journey from here with strength.

Mon, June 17 2024 11 Sivan 5784