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TorahAnytimes Newsletter Nitzavim

Parshat Nitzavim

Compiled and Edited by Rubin Kolyakov


"The TorahAnyTimes" Newsletter

Parashat Nitzavim                                                                                     Print Version
28th of Elul, 5778 | September 8, 2018

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik

Ms. Chevi Garfinkel
What is Rosh Hashanah?

Imagine the following. It is the first day of a new school year, 5779. The school bell rings and you begin your year meeting new teachers, orienting yourself to new classes and rekindling old friendships and starting some anew. After an exciting full day back at school, you head on home.

And then you see, hidden away so ever slightly, an envelope in your mail box. It’s from your school. “Already?” you think. “What’s this about?” Tearing it open, your eyes scan the page and quickly catch a glance of the header: Report Card for School Year 5778. Confused, you wonder to yourself, “This is last year’s report card. Why is it coming on the first day of the new school year?”’

Scene change.

Your standing in shul. It’s Rosh Hashanah 5779. Your body gently sways back and forth as tears begin to well up in your eyes. The Day of Judgment is here and everything will be decided. Your future will be written today and sealed in just ten days.

After spending most of the day in shul, you make your way back home and see, hidden away so ever slightly, an envelope in your mail box. It is from G-d. “Already?” you think. “I was just in shul.” Tearing it open, your eyes scan the page and quickly catch a glance of the header: “Heavenly Report Card for Year 5778?” Confused, you wonder to yourself, “This is last year’s report card. Why is it coming on the first day of the new year?”’

Let’s ask the simple question. What happens on Rosh Hashanah? We all would be quick to respond that we are judged, along with the entire world, how our upcoming year will be. Will we live, let alone be healthy, wealthy or happy? But take a moment and ask yourself, what is the judgment based upon? There must be something that Hashem looks at to determine what our next year will look like. But what is that?

If it is the past year, then the above anecdote is accurate. You come home after praying in shul on Rosh Hashanah and notice an envelope. You take a look at it and it reads: You prayed ordinarily well, though often failed to concentrate; you generously gave charity, but not as much as you could have; you learned many hours of Torah, but not with as much diligence as you are capable of. Overall grade: Beinoni (mediocre, average). You have one week to repent and improve, after which you will receive a second report card detailing your final results.

To this day, we may view the process of the High Holidays in such a manner. Rosh Hashanah is when we are judged about how our upcoming year will be. If we sinned, we will suffer the consequences over the course of the next year. If we performed many good deeds, our upcoming year will be filled with blessing, goodness and Divine mercy. That is why on Yom Kippur we regret our past misdeeds committed over the course of the previous year and ask for forgiveness.

But then the very bothersome questions must be addressed. Why does the Day of Judgement usher in the beginning of the year? Why would we receive last year’s report card in the beginning of the new year? It should have been received on the last day of the previous year. Unless they did exceptionally well, students generally prefer having their past year’s school grades kept to the past and not dragged with them into the future. They are looking for a clean slate, which empowers them to direct all their energies into their present obligations. Why then does the judgment of Rosh Hashanah take place at the start of the new year? If it is all about new beginnings and a fresh start, why would we want all of our past deeds to be something we think about at the outset of a new year? Wouldn’t we rather have our past indiscretions sorted out and dealt with before embarking on another yearly cycle? Keep the past to the past and the future to the future.

In truth, the question is the very answer. Hashem does not drag the past into the future. We rather deal with the present point of where we are and where we are heading moving into the future, using the past purely as a benchmark and barometer.

Rav Chaim Friedlander, in his classic Sifsei Chaim (Moadim, Vol. 1, p. 94), writes that the judgment which takes place on Rosh Hashanah fares very different from the way judgment in human courts proceed. In the world we live, the judicial system focuses on crime and punishment. Either an individual is guilty, in which case an appropriate consequence will be set forth, or innocent, which lets the accused off with no adverse charges.

The above method of judgement will be applied after the times of Mashiach, when the Final Day of Judgement will take place and we pass on to the Next World. But on Rosh Hashanah, something very different occurs. Rav Friedlander explains:

One’s past deeds are looked at on Rosh Hashanah, but the main focus is on the future, not the past. On Rosh Hashanah, it is decided what will be given to each person for the coming year, with the determination predicated upon how one dealt with what they had over the past year. In example, a factory manager makes an accounting at the start of the new fiscal year relating to what needs to be allotted for the upcoming year. How much of this material and that material should or shouldn’t be ordered? Is it really worth it?

Upon what basis is this decision made? How last year went. If only a minute amount of steel was utilized but a large amount of iron, then that says something. Perhaps too much money was spent on steel and it was not used appropriately or to its maximum capacity. For this year, we will not spend as much money on steel, but more on iron. The past is thus simply the gauge and measure of what to do for the future. But, all in all, the calculation is for the purposes of the future, not the past.”

The same is true of Rosh Hashanah. It is time of calculation, not of judging crimes and meting out punishment. Hashem determines what we will need for the upcoming year to fulfill our job in the factory of life, and looks to our past to see our record. How have we spent our money? How have we used our health? If our life was well spent over the past year, then we have showed that we appreciate the many things in our life and merit their keeping or enhancement and improvement. If not, then potentially the opposite could occur to realign our lives.”

Such is the incisive explanation of Rav Frielander. But what is most key to be understood is the fact that the judgment does not transfer the past to the present. It is not, “You sinned/did well over the course of last year, and now let’s punish/reward you with a difficult/blessed upcoming year.” Rather, the judgement uses the past to project what deserves to be for the future. Hashem’s calculations are so ever deep and take into account more than we can fathom, which is why we do not always understand why things happen to us; but the overall judgment taking place on Rosh Hashanah functions in this manner.

But there is more.

Rav Wolbe in his monumental Sefer Alei Shur cites the incident of Yishmael and Hagar to explain how the judgment of Rosh Hashanah precedes. After Sarah learned that Yishmael had been negatively influencing Yitzchak, she prompted Avraham to banish Hagar and Yishmael. Avraham, despite his hesitancy, eventually followed suit and sent them into the desert. But without provisions, survival soon became a struggle and death hovered over for Yishmael. It was then, at a time of intense despair and desperation, that Yishmael let out a cry and evoked Hashem’s compassion, signaling an angel to call out to Hagar, “What troubles you Hagar? Do not be afraid, for Hashem has heard the cry of the boy where he is” (Bereishis 21:17). As the Torah continues to narrate, a spring appeared before Hagar and Yishmael, from which they replenished themselves.

Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains the seeming superfluous words “where he is” as the response Hashem gave the angels after they argued the case against saving Yishmael. “Master of the Universe!” the angels cried out. “Would you bring up a well for one who will one day harm your children with thirst (years later in the times of the Jews’ exile en route to Babylon)?” “Where is he now?” asked Hashem. “Righteous,” replied the angels. “I judge man only as he is at the moment,” Hashem said.

Hashem did not condemn Yishmael for what bad he had done in the past or what sins he would commit in the future. He looked at him in the present moment under the present circumstances, and from there made a decision.

This, says Rav Wolbe, is how Hashem deals with us on Rosh Hashanah. Like Yishmael, a rotten past or an even more spoiled future doesn’t dictate our judgement. What does is the here and now, the day on which we stand before Hashem. What are our thoughts and feelings then? If they are filled with teshuva and earnest yearning to turn ourselves around, we have the ticket to a good judgment.

The picture which thus forms when combining both insights from Rav Friedlander and Rav Wolbe is as follows. Rosh Hashanah is the day when Hashem considers how we have spent the resources of our life in the past year and from there, decides what will be for the next year. However, teshuva and a change of heart even on the day of Rosh Hashanah itself, shows Hashem that the mistakes and misuses of our resources in the past year were not in line with our true selves. We really can do better and want to do better. Such deep-seated sentiment holds the power of disconnecting our past from our present, at which point we are judged. We are judged where we are now, and if we prove that our past is not who we really are, then we can in fact undo the past and be viewed from our present.

Our past therefore plays a role when Hashem examines who we are, but only inasmuch as it provides a picture of what we have done, but not a definition of who we are. We may have done this and that, but with teshuva, that is not what Hashem looks at on Rosh Hashanah. He looks at who we are at the core of our inner selves deep down. Such is the power of teshuva.

In this sense, we can appreciate why the moment of the Blowing of the Shofar is so instrumental in our judgment, such that Hashem moves from His Seat of Justice to Seat of Mercy when it is sounded.

It is because the Shofar represents not merely a sound we wish to hear, but a sound we wish to live by. In our heart of hearts, we affirm to live with the same conviction as the Shofar. At the outset of blowing, a tekiah – a straight, strong and flat sound – is blasted. This is followed by either shevarim or teruah, both of which consist of broken sounds, namely three brief blows or several short, staccato blasts. We then conclude again with tekiah.

Applying the shofar to the human condition, the underlying message is that at our core, we are wholesome and pristine, like the tekiah. We have unbelievable potential for greatness and closeness to Hashem. At times, though, we veer off the road and lose our balance, as with the shevarim or teruah. We lose our poise and falter. But then, after much effort and energy, we regain our composure and rekindle our passion, as with the final tekiah. We recalibrate and restart our journey to greatness from where we left off before.

As the Shofar therefore sounds, Hashem looks into the depts of our souls and sees where we are at that very moment. Who are we and where is our journey taking us? That is what the judgment on Rosh Hashanah looks like. It is a penetrating, zoomed-in analysis of our present aspirations and future goals.

And so, to return to our above analogy, the Heavenly Report Card received on Rosh Hashanah is not a read-out of how our past year has gone. It is rather a report card for the future, using our past, and if teshuva is done, the present, as the mirror with which to reflect off.

Every moment of this time of year is so precious. Realize what potential it holds. You can change yourself, your life and your coming year. We just need to take stock of our past, rebuild our present, and project towards the future. We all want that, and we all can have that. It is right within our grasp.

A Short Message From
Rabbi Label Lam

On Rosh Hashanah, we read about a woman named Chanah, who launched what was probably the most successful prayer of all time. It was from that prayer that Shmuel HaNavi, who changed the landscape of the Jewish people, was born. What though was the secret of her great success?

She employed something we could call “the irresistible prayer.” Her appeal was not, “I want a child, so I can bounce him on my knees and my friends can give me attention.” It was rather, “I need a child for you Hashem. I need a child so he can serve You.” And she meant it. The proof was that two years old after Shmuel was born, during those cutest years, Chana made him a coat and shipped him off to the holiest man in the generation, to Eli, to begin his career in serving Hashem in the Mishkan.

The same is true of us all. Anything that we seek, if it is with such sentiment, it goes far. “I need parnassah (income), not for me, but for you Hashem, to serve You. I need a child for you Hashem. I need a shidduch for you Hashem.” It is so ever powerful to couch our prayers in those terms. Our only job is to really mean it. Because if we can, it is truly an irresistible prayer for Hashem not to answer.

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