Rosh Hashana Prayers
The first thing to keep in mind is that if you are in a loving relationship with somebody, you want to be deserving of your partner’s love. At times, many people who are in a loving relationship feel that perhaps they are not acting in a way that is deserving of the love that they are receiving. One might ask one’s self, “Am I putting into this relationship what I am getting out of it?” If some one is in love with someone they respect, then even more than being deserving of their love, they want to be deserving of the relationship.
The theme of Elul is, “Ani L’dodi, v’dodi li,” I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. The essence of Elul is the intense love relationship between God and the Jewish people. Those of us who have experienced an Elul of intense, passionate love, it is great. But eventually we reach a point where we have to ask ourselves whether we deserve this relationship. Do we deserve what we are getting out of it? Moreover, since we admire God so much, are we really asking in such a way that we are deserving of what we are receiving from God.
It’s painful, because we are going to reach a level of intensity on Erev Rosh Hashanah during which everything is hanging in the balance. The only way to take advantage is to maintain the relationship despite the risk. That’s why a week before Rosh Hashanah, before the relationship hits its peak, we recite Selichot and do Teshuvah. We introspect and ask ourselves, “Are we deserving?”
Moreover, on Erev Rosh Hashanah we will declare God as King. Will we proclaim “God is King” as schleppers or as people of substance? Picture if Steven Gould, the great Paleontologist, brilliant writer for Natural History Magazine, fantastic teacher, believer of evolution to the core, would write in one of his essays, “I’ve examined everything I’ve learned all my life, I’ve put everything together, and I have no question that there is a God. All the science is true. I don’t surrender anything I’ve done. But the fact is, nothing would make sense if there weren’t a God.” People reading that would take that declaration far more seriously, than a bum standing in the middle of Times Square holding a sign.
Who are we on Erev Rosh Hashanah? Imagine going to one of our friends and proclaiming, “God is King!” How much of an impression would that make? It depends on how we carry ourselves, how we speak, and how people view our character. In the days preceding Rosh Hashanah, we have the opportunity to prepare ourselves so that our prayers will really mean something.
This year there is an added bonus in that Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. The Midrash relates that following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe came down from the mountain for the second time having prayed that God should forgive the Jews. He brought with him the 13 attributes of mercy and the news that they were forgiven. However, he did not have a new set of Tablets. The Jews knew something was missing. So when they saw Moshe returning empty-handed, they went into their tents where they had two crowns, one for Na’aseh — “We will do,” and one for Nishma — “We will understand.” The Jews took the crowns to the entrance of the their tents and put them on the floor, thus forfeiting their royalty. The angels gathered them up and they, according to one opinion, gave them to Moshe, or according to another, took them back up to the Heavens. In any case, the Midrash says that on Shabbat, Moshe restored the crowns back to Bnei Yisrael.
In other words, there is an element of royalty that is restored to the Jewish people each and every Shabbat. This is an added advantage when Erev Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat because it makes the proclamation that God is King that much easier.
We must also work hard before Rosh Hashanah in viewing ourselves differently. If we were to finish Selichot or Viddui and say, “I am a bum! I have screwed up, messed up my life. I am a worthless piece of garbage. I am a total embarrassment,” this is not a good indication of a good Teshuva. The purpose of Teshuva between now and Rosh Hashanah is to feel that I’ve gotten rid of the bad. The Teshuva of the confession has to be done in such a way that I’m getting rid of garbage, without tearing myself apart. I you have any negative or self-deprecating thought – take it and get rid of it! “I could have had a much better life” – dump it! “I could have done things differently” – trash it!
This helps us. It allow us to act as royalty and declare God as King. Remember — what are we judged on? The real judgement of Rosh Hashanah concerns our potential. I have to envision my potential. Obviously, it’s far easier to envision my potential as royalty, than as a schlepper. Using the time preceding Rosh Hashanah to look at ourselves with respect helps us when we daven. Our declaration that God is King will have far more substance. We, here in the modern world, don’t experience royalty. Just imagine Imperial Japan and Emperor Hirohito during World War II. The Japanese would slice open their stomachs and put a picture of him inside so that the American soldiers wouldn’t destroy a picture of him! Royalty means you give your life for the king.
Q: We said that B’chein is part of the third bracha of the Shemoneh Esreh. Could you explain?
RSW: The theme of the third bracha, “Atah Kadosh” is that God creates Divine Influences that help us and empower us. Otherwise, the notion to praise God because the angels praise God is silly. God created the angels to praise God! Obviously God doesn’t need the praise of the angels. The reason is for our benefit. By having the angels praise God, God creates for us a spiritual reality, so that we can pray in a way that we could not otherwise. All we have to do is look for that connection. The added prayers of “Bechein” are placed into “Ata Kadosh” are Chazal’s way of teaching us that God created these influences. The challenge is for us to take advantage of them.
There are three main sections of the Rosh Hashanah Shemoneh Esreh – Malchiot, Zechronot, and Shofrot. Each contains 10 verses. The first three come from the Torah, the second three from the writings, and the third set of three, from the prophets. The remaining verse is again from the Torah. We might think that the only connection between the verses and the respective sections are the key words. The truth is that these verses have a lot to teach us.
The theme of Malchiot is that God is judging every detail of creation. The fact that God is judging at all means that He cares about us. God cares about what we do, and not only that, there is a record of what we have done, thought about, and said. God cares about each and every second of our existence. If I knew that God cared about me that much, why should I be bothered if some shmoe dissed me? Who is he? We can let the biggest idiot insult us. It’s kind of ridiculous because the Creator of the world loves us! If God didn’t want us to exist, we wouldn’t be here. It’s just that we don’t believe it. One of the things you will find as we go through the verses of Malchiot is that they are in fact exercises to learn how to treat God as a reality. God isn’t this archetype monarch who sits at a distance and judges us from afar. God is intimately involved in all of creation.
“Hashem shall reign for all eternity” (Exodus 15:18)
There is a verse in Proverbs that says, before you eat bread with a king, know what is in front of you. Rashi explains that if you sit down to eat with a king and you are served an incredible feast, you may wonder: “Is he generous, and if I don’t eat a lot he will be insulted, and therefore I should eat a lot; or is he stingy, and if I eat too much he will be angry with me?” This concept was acted out by God at the crossing of the Red Sea.
In the Haggadah we read that there were 50 miracles that were performed for the Jews as they were crossing through the Red Sea. There are some wild Midrashim about what the miracles were. Chazal are trying to give us a taste for the kindness that God bestowed on us, even though we don’t take the Midrashim literally. They draw this scene that if someone were thirsty a water fountain would pop out of the sea wall as they were crossing. When he was finished, the stream would recede back into the wall with out spilling any on the ground. If you were hungry, a fruit would pop out. Whatever you liked to eat, whenever you wanted it. If your animals were hungry, hay would sprout from the ground. Moreover, the crossing was air-conditioned. For those who were cold, it was heated. Free Rockports for everyone.
The details of this Midrash are dizzying. Whatever really happened, there was great attention to detail. Every need, however insignificant compared to this monumental event, was taken care of. While the Egyptian were drowning, the Jewish nation was being saved from certain death, and the rest of the world was recognizing that God is the ultimate King, could God really be interested that my every need is satisfied? Yes – because as the Jews enter the desert they have to know that God does care about the details. How many people say, “God has to deal with so many things, is it really appropriate for me to pray that I make the train on time?” Or, “God has so many things to worry about, and I’m going to daven that I find the right color socks?” If you’re God, you’re infinite. There is no difference between saving a planet and finding the right color socks. If you’re infinite, it’s all the same.
Here, God gave them a taste before they entered the wilderness. Before they ate the manna, they had to know that God care about every detail. That’s why the manna could taste like anything you wanted. Therefore, in Shirat Ha’yam, at the climax of the song, everyone yells, “Hashem Yimloch L’olam Va’ed – God will rule forever.” This means God is infinite. If God were finite, all the attention to detail would be impossible. When we say that God judges all the details of our lives, we are speaking of both the details of what we have done and the details of what will happen over the course of the coming year. That same attention to the “small stuff” has also been expressed in terms of care. That is, a king. A king who not only cares about the larger details – the infrastructure of his kingdom, its financial stability, etc. – but also about the everyday. There is a Gemara about King David who says to God, “I sit on the floor of my palace and every morning women line up and show me their blood stains.” He looked at their period and could tell them if they were to become pregnant or not! The king! A king, by definition, is one who cares about everything.
Note that in this verse we say that God will be king forever – meaning tomorrow. We are confronting the fact that none of us really believes all these things that we say we believe. Why is this? Because we are always thinking, “I will do this,” or “I will stop doing that.” In other words, I put off till tomorrow what I don’t want to do today. There is no sense of immediacy. But if so, then it is not a reality to me. To be a reality, it must be now. As we say in Yehi Kevod in the morning prayers, “Hashem melech l’olam va’ed,” God reigns, in the present. Therefore our verse comes to teach us that G-d pays attention to the details, but I have to deal with this reality now.
“He gazes at no iniquity in Jacob and sees no evil schemes in Israel; Hashem his G-d is with him, and the affection of the King is in him.” (Numbers 23:21)
What is the word that the verse uses for affection? “Teruat melech bo.” Teruah — it appears strange that the cry of the Teruah is also used to denote friendship. The answer is that the Teruah is not our crying. The Shevarim is our crying – from “shavar,” to be broken up. It is we who are broken. The cry of the Teruah is God crying for us. The sound of the Teruah conjures up the image of God crying when we are in pain, when we are broken hearted, and when we are suffering, because He loves us so much. If someone can care enough about me that when I am broken he will sit down and cry with me, this means more to me than you can imagine. You experience that during Shiv’a.
Rambam, in his commentary on Pirke Avot (6:1), writes that the highest form of friendship is re’ut. Rashi, on the verse “And you shall love your neighbor as your self,” quotes the Gemara, which asks, “Who is your friend? – God. (There are two opinions; one opinion is that it’s God.) A re’ah knows exactly what is important to me, and what my goals are. S/he is ready to push me, is ready to tell me what I need to work on and in what direction I need to go in. Moreover, a re’ah is equally open to me pushing him/her.
“And he became a King in Jeshurun when the leaders of the people assembled, the tribes of Israel together.” (Deuteronomy 33:5)
There is a certain clarity when the Jewish people are united in their praises and understanding of God. This is hinted at in the third bracha on the Shemoneh Esreh of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (“They will all become joined together…”). That’s also why we hold the lulav and etrog together. When we are united, then we can see clearer how everything fits together. At Rosh Hashanah, we stand in that unity. We are all saying that the most important thing is to proclaim God as King.
This is a subtle point and it is very important. Here I am standing before God on Rosh Hashanah, and I have to pray for everything in my life. By virtue of the fact that I pray to God, this means that G-d is listening. And this means that God cares. Otherwise, why pray? As soon as I hit that point of awareness, automatically I have to realize that God is King. But there is a price – the moment I realize God is King, I am being judged – and I have to be willing to pay that price. The first step of Rosh Hashanah is when I say to God, “Listen, we know I am going to be in big trouble, nevertheless I want to declare You as King.” The metaphor used is Jacob going in to Isaac’s tent wearing the clothes of Esau. In other words, Jacob (Israel) goes to Isaac for din, judgement, while wearing our sins, the clothes of Esau.
Ramban writes that the King in Jeshurun alludes to God who is described as King of Israel when Israel is yashar – upright. This implies that God is King of Israel when all Israel is together. Unity is essential to declare God as King. That’s why Na’aseh V’Nishma is said in the plural. Kli Yakar says that the King in Jeshurun refers to Moses. In the final hours of his life, everyone declares, “Moses, you were alright!” After all the aggravation Israel gave him for 40 years – he’s OK! Applying Kli Yakar’s reading to the Shemoneh Esreh, it is as if we were saying to God, “This past year we haven’t appreciated what You did for us, all we’ve done is complain, accuse, and attack You. But looking back over all the pain of the past year, we can truly see how everything has balanced out.” So too, whatever You decide for us this coming year should also be yashar, balanced.
Nora Shaykin: Regarding tearing one’s self down…
RSW: I have some bad news for you. People refuse to accept it, but I am convinced it is a reality. It is simply a bad habit. However, it is a habit that can be broken, if you want to. It’s not “part of you personality.” If you say that it “is just a part of me, of who I am,” you will not be able to fix it. You’ll give up, and accept that your life is a failure. If people are convinced that they are nothing, why don’t they kill themselves? Because they know that it isn’t the truth. I know a lot of people who are convinced that they are nothing. They are definitely fooling themselves. It’s a game – a game of feeling sorry for myself, a game of escaping responsibility, etc.
It’s very much like the Nevardik Yeshivot. This guy Nevardik would open a Yeshiva of 10 guys in every community. They would learn, but a good part of the day they would beat their chests with their right hands, and chant together, “Icht bin ein gournisht! Icht bin ein gournisht! – I am a nothing! I am a nothing!” The fact is that everyone is a nothing. The only reason we are something is because God wants us to be something. When we face God, however, we are nothing.
So there’s that famous story that a guy walks into a Nevardik yeshiva and sees everyone going “Icht bin ein gournisht!” So he sits down and starts beating his breast and chanting repeatedly “Icht bin ein gournisht! – I am a nothing!” So someone walks over to him and says, “You’ve been here half-an-hour and already you’re a nothing?” There’s a lot more to that joke that meets the eye.
“For the sovereignty is G-d’s and He rules over nations.” (Psalms 22:29)
This is the 22nd chapter of Tehillim, which is all about Esther. That is, she taught us how to see when God is hidden. This is absolutely necessary when we stand before a God we cannot see, and receive a sentence that we will not read. Its not like Esther gave a Jewish Philosophy class to the Jews describing how all the “coincidences” were really meant to be. She lived it as a reality. The lesson is that we need to be open to God’s influences on Rosh Hashanah.
“But I didn’t feel like I was standing in front of the King” – So what! As long as there is but one person for whom it is real, that person will carry the day. Our job is to be open to the influences of the day. You don’t have to understand everything. That is saying that I am in control. The idea of Esther is that, no, I’m not. Even if I don’t know or understand every word of Shemoneh Esreh, and even if (God forbid) my mind wanders on Rosh Hashanah, (“Oh, no! I’m being judged for my life and my mind wanders?! Obviously I don’t take it seriously enough. If I took Rosh Hashanah seriously, my mind wouldn’t wander. Even O.J. paid attention when the jury gave its verdict!”).
In Yeshiva they said, “And, if your mind vanders for vone minite in Shemoneh Esreh – then you don’t really believe.” Obviously it was a lie! Just the opposite! Do you think by your mind not wandering — you know you’re being judged? It’s a joke! That’s why Esther is here. Your mind will probably wander at one point or another. And you might not understand every word in Shemoneh Esreh. We might not even experience trembling in front of God. Big deal! You know what the Jews did during the days of Ezra and Nechemia? They sent Mishloach Manot! It says in a verse in Nechemia – Eat, drink, and be merry & send Mishloach Manot. Why? Because people would moan, “Woe is me!”
Know in general what is going on, and understand that there are influences in the world. Stop trying to control everything. God knows what He is doing. Do what you can as a human being. When you can do that, then God is King. Until you can say that, then you are king.
“God will have ruled, he will have donned grandeur, he will have donned might and girded himself, even firmed the world that it should not falter.” (Psalms 22:29)
I got to tell you the truth — I’ve never understood this verse. The Hebrew I can get a sense, but forget about the translation. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that the basic approach to this verse is this: The previous ten chapters of Tehillim were written by Moses, and there God is described as the One who is most high, and exalted. Now God is described as the One who dresses himself in grandeur, as if to say that God allows Himself to be seen. Tzfat Emet writes in his commentary on Pesach that the degree to which God is dressed, that is, how much He is visible to mankind, depends on our choice to accept Him as King.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes at the end of the Gates of Wisdom that there are three purposes to Creation: (1) to do good to another, (2) so that each of the attributes of God should be expressed as a separate entity, and (3) so that everything, though broken up, should be rejoined and reunified. Here, our verse is referring to the second purpose. Everything in the world is an expression of God existence. What we see in the world is akin to clothing. It’s just a way for a thing to be expressed, but it’s not the thing itself. In other words, every particle of creation is merely a detail of God, and far beyond my comprehension. This is the essence of Malchiot.
“Raise up your head, O gates, and be uplifted, you everlasting entrances, so that the King of Glory may enter. Who is this King of Glory? – Hashem, the mighty and strong, Hashem the strong in battle. Raise up your heads O gates, and raise up, you everlasting entrances, so that the King of Glory may enter. Who then is the King of Glory? Hashem Master of Legions, He is the King of Glory, Selah!” (Psalms 24:7-10)
These verses are practically the same. The difference between the two is that in the first, “…be uplifted” is passive, and “…raise up” in the second, is active. These verses echo the two contradictory aspects of Rosh Hashanah – the dread and the joy. The dread of being judged and the festivity as recorded by Nechemia. When the jury is out, does the accused sit down to a great feast? We are not allowed to fast on Rosh Hashanah. Why these contradictions? One part is passive – Says God, “I will do what I want. You have no power. You have no say. You are nothing.” Thus, “You will be raised up.” The moment we accept that God is in absolute control and we have a sense of dread, then we are OK. Once we have dread, we have room for the joy. But you must feel the fear, first. Otherwise, the joy will become arrogance and over-confidence.
“So said Hashem, the King of Israel and its Redeemer; Hashem of Legions: ‘I am the first and I am the last and aside from Me there is no other god.” (Isaiah 44:6)
The Midrash on this verse is very straightforward. God is saying, “There were times when Victoria ruled the world. And Nebuchadnezzar ruled the world. And the United States almost ruled the world. And Rome and Greece. But I was the first and I will be the last” – meaning, the only one to rule the world was God. In other words, the power that nations have is only an illusion.
“The saviors will ascend Mount Zion to judge Esau’s mountain and the kingdom will be Hashem’s.” (Ovadiah 1:21)
This refers to the meeting between Jacob and Esau, making peace after 22 years. Esau says, “Let me travel with you.” Jacob replies, “You go ahead, I will meet you at Mount Seir.” So Esau goes. The Gemara says that you never see Jacob going to Mt. Seir. When the Messiah comes, however, then Jacob will ascend Mt. Seir to kill him. Jacob is saying, “This world is yours. I only want the world to come.” We are saying in this verse that we are reclaiming this world for God.
Now wait. It’s one thing to declare that God is King in the security of Nora Shaykin’s home, but how about trying it out on Central Park West. Now maybe on the other side of the fence in Central Park someone might seriously believe you, but on this side they won’t. So it’s a nice little secret you have. But do you really believe it?
This is because Jacob said to Esau, “This world is yours.” It’s not just because you’re embarrassed. But then, if you’re speaking the truth, why does it sound so strange? I always knew that if I sat my father down with anyone who wanted to, he would be able to prove to him or her that there is a God. I never saw anyone argue with him and win the argument. Never. I saw brilliant people, from Hopkins, Harvard, Yale…Steven Gould…’if you want to be honest Mr. Gould, you will say that I am correct.’ The state of not being able to freely declare God as King is unacceptable. How about sitting down with someone and saying, “I want to talk to you about God.” Are you really comfortable?
MB: Even when you say it, it feels uncomfortable.
Cheryl Sandler: Why then did Jacob give this world over?
RSW: Because he felt that we wouldn’t be able to handle it.
“Then Hashem will be King over all the world, on that day Hashem will be One and His Name will be One.” (Zechariah 14:9)
Obviously God is One. Why is the verse telling us that God is One? I don’t know He’s One? No – He’s not One. Everyone has a different experience of God. It means, on that day, all of our perceptions will be united.
All of us have different names for God. “He’s so compassionate,” or another might say, “He’s so tough.” We don’t speak of God as God. We speak of God as Hashem – the Name. We only know God as names – perceptions of God, experiences of God. But we don’t know God as God. The only one who knows God as God, is God. We can’t, we’re finite. We can know a lot about God, and we can experience God in many ways, but my experience of God will be different than his way. The Gemara says that now we make one blessing when good things happen, and another blessing when bad things happen. This means that we perceive God in different ways. When Mashiach comes, he will bring with him so much clarity into the world that any perception that every person that ever lived will all fit together as a whole. Messiah is clarity. That’s when God will really be King. As long as there is not clarity, God is not King. “…And His Name will be One.” His Name will be One. But it will still be a name.
“Hear, O Israel: Hashem is our God, Hashem, the One and Only.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
This refers to the third purpose of creation, in which is that everything will be united. This is the World to Come, a.k.a. the first day of creation.
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