BY: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld
Rosh Hashanah is here, and I don’t know about you but I always have a strange feeling of ambivalence when it comes to this time of year. We are taught that we are supposed to be afraid, but we also hear דברי תורה about Hashem being kind and loving, and that we are supposed to trust in Him giving us a new lease on life.
What does the Torah itself say about these days? The name given is not Rosh Hashana, rather it is יום תרועה or יום זכרון תרועה, the day of the shofar blast or the day to remember the shofar blast. But which shofar blast are we supposed to remember exactly? Also, the Torah talks about the קרבנות on Rosh Hashanah, but other than that, not much mention of what we are meant to focus on this יום טוב. We sit in shul and daven most of the day, and the davening is inspirational yet we are told not to cry. Even the Pasuk from תהלים that Chazal apply to Rosh Hashana seems ambiguous or contradictory, וגילו ברעדה, rejoice with trembling. Try to imagine people dancing and being elated while simultaneously trembling, it’s such a strange image.
What would it look like if we could get a glimpse into how RH was observed back in the days of תנ”ך? And not regarding the קרבנות, because sadly those don’t apply to us now. What would the davening look like? What would the מוסר schmooze look like? Thankfully and surprisingly, there is a Rosh Hashana story in תנ”ך which takes place at a time when there were no קרבנות that is a real eye opener and I’m sure it will help us understand the nature of the day and how we are meant to experience it. I heard the following from Rabbi David Fohrman.
נחמיה פרק ח’: let’s set the stage, Ezra has just led a small remnant of the nation back to ירושלים, the total equaling 42,360 which is a tiny percentage of the Jewish population. The group finished the construction of the wall around ירושלים on the 25th day of Elul, then we get to our section of text (it’s a 13 פסוק section in פרק ח’, Pasuk 1-13 so I am going to quote pieces of it here and explain in between them):
ויגע החדש השביעי ובני ישראל בעריהם: ויאספו כל העם כאיש אחד אל הרחוב אשר לפני שער המים ויאמרו לעזרא הספר תורת משה אשר צוה יה-וה את ישראל:
The 7th month came and the Jews were in their cities: All the people gathered like one man to the street was in front of the water gate and they said to Ezra to bring the Torah of Moshe that Hashem had commanded the Jewish people:
ויביא עזרא הכהן את התורה לפני הקהל מאיש ועד אשה וכל מבין לשמע ביום אחד לחדש השביעי: ויקרא בו לפני הרחוב אשר לפני שער המים מן האור עד מחצית היום נגד האנשים והנשים והמבינים והאזני כל העם אל ספר התורה: ויעמד עזרא הסופר על מגדל עץ אשר עשו לדבר…
Before we go any further, I’d like to point out that there are no less than 4 textual references in this Pasuk to another major event in תנ”ך. Let’s see what they are and which event the Torah is paralleling with this RH service. When was the last time, the only other time, that the Jews gathered together “כאיש אחד”? you guessed it, הר סיני. And here also there is one man standing higher than the rest, reading something to them, but this time instead of Moshe on a mountain it’s Ezra on the wooden platform, but they are both reading the same Torah. What about the random details we get about where the Jews are? אל הרחוב אשר לפני שאר המים, on the street at the water gate. Who cares where they’re standing? Well, what is the name that the Torah gives הר סיני? חורב. Rearrange the letters in רחוב, and what do you get? רחוב. The water gate, שער המים, שער המים, say those two words a few times and it starts to sound an awful lot like… שמים. Which is exactly where חורב was connected to so many centuries earlier, and שמים really is our own little water gate isn’t it? Clouds gather and the life-giving water comes through the water gate of שמים to sustain civilization here on Earth. According to the text these people are symbolically standing in almost the exact same place as their ancestors did before them!!
(Parenthetically this sheds a whole new light on what the גמרא in Sanhedrin tells us about Ezra, it would have been proper for the Torah to be given through Ezra had Moshe not come before him).
We also said before the Torah calls Rosh Hashana the day of the [remembrance of the] shofar blast, and by הר סיני the Torah tells us ויהי קול השופר הולך וחזק מאד. There was a shofar blast there too! Hashem descended onto the mountain and His Voice came out as a shofar blast, and before it coalesced into words that we know as the עשרת הדברות all we heard was a Voice. Is it possible that this is the זכרון תרועה that the Torah is referring to in the name that’s given to Rosh Hashana? It seems obvious that the Torah wants us to be reminded of מעמד הר סיני when reading this Rosh Hashana story from Ezra. But let’s put that proposal on the back burner for a minute while we read the rest of the story, and then we’ll tie it all together.
Ezra reads the Torah to them from dawn till halfway through the day, a 7-hour service (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?), he blesses the people and they say AMEN AMEN! And they bow to Hashem. Sounds like a beautiful ceremony. And to cap it off the Torah tells us כי בוכים כל העם כשמעם את דברי התורה. The people were all crying when they heard the words of the Torah. If you were Ezra or נחמיה, you just hit the jack pot! “Inspiring”, “uplifting”, “pulls at your heart strings”, “glorious”, the reviews will read. You would imagine that they would give some wonderful מוסר, make a public קבלה and begin the appeal. What more could anyone ask for? But strangely that’s not what happens.
ויאמר נחמיה … לכל העם היום קדוש הוא ליקוק אלקיכם אל תתאבלו ואל תבכו … ויאמר להם לכו אכלו משמנים ושתו ממתקים ושלחו מנות נכון לו כי קדוש היום לאדנינו ואל תעצבו כי חדות יקוק היא מעוזכם:
He tells them, don’t mourn or cry! Eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, send presents to those who can’t afford to do so because to today is holy for our Master, and don’t be sad because Hashem’s “חדוה” is your strength! נחמיה is telling them that Rosh Hashana is not a day to be sad and cry, it is a day to rejoice and to bask in Hashem’s love.
It seems clear that crying and being sad is not what Rosh Hashana is about, we are meant to rejoice with Hashem, and feel empowered by Hashem’s intense happiness. How is this meant to make us feel empowered and happy?
Let’s go back to הר סיני and see what we can make of all this.
הר סיני was all Divine, Hashem came down to earth, lighting, fire, smoke, shofar blasts. Over 2 million people gathered together to meet their Creator. Intimidating and powerful. What happened here was a small man made wooden structure, on a small street with one man’s voice and no fire show. 42,360 people total, not very impressive in comparison. Yet we saw from the textual parallels that the Torah wants us to be reminded of מעמד הר סיני here. The story in נחמיה tells us that and so does the name that the Torah gives these days. What did that small service look like to Hashem? What does it look like to Hashem when we are doing our service to Him these days? This story shows us that it looks exactly the same as מעמד הר סיני itself.
We are going to gather together and hear the shofar sound in a few hours, that sound is supposed to remind us of the Voice that we all heard as a nation 3,331 years ago. The Voice that exuded love and caring for a brand-new people, and we are supposed to know that this love is eternal and that we each deserve and get the same love that they did gathered around the mountain. We may be used to thinking that we can’t get to the level that our forefathers did, but look at the story in נחמיה. Do you think they looked at themselves as if they were gathered around הר סיני? Doubtful. They probably felt like a straggly band of people trying to piece together a broken nation with a Torah they weren’t familiar with. Yet the Torah writes this story in a way that sends us back to הר סיני. You want to know how significant they were? They were on the רחוב by שער המים, almost exactly where their ancestors were, at חורב touching שמים. We too, in shul, listening to the shofar are meant to feel that same closeness to Hashem. We are meant to be empowered to know that Hashem looks at our actions the same way as הר סיני! The strength that נחמיה was talking about is the חדוה and intense joy that Hashem feels when He sees us doing our best to serve Him.
Once a year we get to hear Hashem’s Voice coming out of the shofar, let’s take that time this year to try and feel the connection that we each have with our Father in heaven and crown Him as our King, so that we can be zoche to a new year fulfilling our role in the story that began 3,331 years ago when we stood at חורב.
Have an amazing יום טוב.