Category Archives: Rosh Hashana

No Laughing Matter

It’s never a good idea to analyze a joke.  All the same, I recently found myself deconstructing a stand-up comedian’s one-liner quoted in a newspaper article.  It may have been because Rosh Hashana was approaching.

“I used to do drugs,” the hapless performer had deadpanned.  “I still do, but I used to, too.”

Why was the line funny?  It could be that the comedian had simply found an amusing, absurd way to characterize his long-time substance abuse.  But what I think he meant to communicate was something more: that he had once (perhaps more than once) quit his drugs, only to re-embrace them.  When he was clean, he “used to do drugs”; now, fallen off the wagon, he does them once again.

And so my thoughts, understandably (no?), went to the Yom HaDin and Aseres Y’mei Teshuva.

No, I don’t abuse drugs.  I take my daily blood-thinner responsibly, pop an occasional Tylenol and have a glass or two of red wine with Shabbos seudos, but that’s about it.  Nevertheless, I related well to the comedian’s self-description.  Because I find myself resolving each year to improve in some of the very same ways I had resolved to improve the year before.  Indeed, the years – plural – before, in more cases than I care to ponder.  I, too, “used to” do things that I currently do too.

Among the collected letters of Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, is one that was written to a talmid whose own, earlier, letter to the Rosh Yeshiva had apparently evidenced the student’s despondence over his personal spiritual failures.  The Rosh Yeshiva’s response provides nourishing food for thought.

Citing the saying that one can “lose battles but win wars,” Rav Hutner explains that what makes life meaningful is not beatific basking in the exclusive company of one’s yetzer tov” but rather the dynamic struggle of one’s battle with the yetzer hora.

Shlomo Hamelech’s maxim that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up” (Mishlei, 24:16), continues Rav Hutner, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to gets up again.”  What it really means, he explains, is that it is only and precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness.  The struggles – even the failures – are inherent elements of what can, with determination and perseverance, become an ultimate victory.

Rav Hutner’s words are timely indeed at this Jewish season, as thoughtful Jews everywhere recall their own personal failures.  For facing our mistakes squarely, and feeling the regret that is the bedrock of repentance, carries a risk: despondence born of battles lost.  But allowing failures to breed hopelessness, says Rav Hutner, is both self-defeating and wrong.  A battle waged, even if lost, can be an integral step toward an ultimate victory to come.  No matter how many battles there may have been, the war is not over.   We must pick ourselves up.  Again.   And, if need be, again.

Still, it’s a balancing act.  The knowledge, after the fact, that falling isn’t forever cannot permit us to treat aveiros lightly.  Even while not allowing failures to leave us dejected, we must maintain the determination to be better people tomorrow than we are today.  If, after raising ourselves from the ground, we don’t renew the battle with resolve, if we become complacent about our sins, seeing them not as boons to redoubled effort but as fodder for jokes, we flirt with true failure – the ultimate kind.

The article containing the one-liner, as it happens, was an obituary.  The comedian who “used to do drugs” and still did died of an overdose, at 37.

© 2008 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Food For Rosh Hashana Thought

An odd Rosh Hashana custom, duly recorded in the Talmud and halachic codes, is the lavishing of puns on holiday foods.

Most Jews know that on the first night of the new Jewish year, it is customary to eat a piece of apple dipped in honey, to symbolize our hope for a sweet year.  Less known is the Rosh Hashana night custom of eating foods whose names augur well for the future.  Though the Talmud’s examples are, of course, in Hebrew or Aramaic, at least one halachic commentary directs us to find pun-foods in whatever language we may speak.

“Help us pare away our sins” before consuming a pear might thus be an appropriate example.  Or an entreaty that G-d be our advocate, before eating a piece of avocado.  “Lettuce have a wonderful year” might be pushing it a bit, but maybe not.  One respected rabbi once smilingly suggested partaking of a raisin and stalk of celery after expressing the hope for a “raise in salary.”

Such exercises might seem a bit out of place on the Jewish holy “day of judgment.”  But that is only because we regard the custom simplistically, as some quaint superstition.  In truth, though, it is precisely Rosh Hashana’s austere gravity that lies at the custom’s source.

There are other telling Jewish customs regarding Rosh Hashana, like the recommendation that the Jewish new year be carefully utilized to the fullest for prayer, Torah-study and good deeds, that not a moment of its time be squandered.  Mitzvos and good conduct, of course, are always “in season,” but they seem to have particular power on Rosh Hashana.  Similarly, Jewish sources caution against expressing anger on Rosh Hashana.  The Jewish new year days are to reflect only the highest Jewish ideals.

The 16th century Jewish luminary Rabbi Yehudah Loewy, known as the Maharal, stresses the crucial nature of beginnings.  He explains that the trajectory of a projectile – or, we might similarly note, the outcome of a mathematical computation – can be affected to an often astounding degree by a very small change at the start of the process. A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow – or an error of a single digit at the first step of a long calculation – can yield a surprisingly large difference in the end.  Modern scientific terminology has given the concept both the unwieldy name “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” and the playful one “the butterfly effect,” an allusion to the influence the flapping of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world could presumably have on next week’s local weather.

Rosh Hashana is thus much more than the start of the Jewish year.  It is the day from which the balance of the year unfolds, a time of “initial conditions” exquisitely sensitive to our actions.

Perhaps the Rosh Hashana puns, too, reflect that sensitivity.  After all, word-play is not suggested for any other day of the year.

Maybe by imbuing even things as seemingly inconsequential as our choice of foods with meaning on Rosh Hashana, we symbolically affirm the idea that beginnings have unusual potential.  That there are times when the import of each of our actions is magnified.  By seizing even the most wispy opportunities to try to bestow blessing on the Jewish new year aborning, we declare our determination to start the year as right as we possibly can.

While we are not explicitly informed by the Talmud about whether the puns actually have any direct effect on our year, they unarguably impress upon us the extraordinary degree to which our actions at the start of a Jewish year affect how we will live its balance.

And that is an invaluable lesson, one that should lead us to begin the new Jewish year working to make ourselves better Jews in our relations both to one another and to our Creator.

May all we Jews merit a Rosh Hashana with only sweetness and joy, devoid of sadness and anger.  And may we seize every chance to make the start of 5768 as perfect as we can – ushering in a year in which the Jewish People’s collective life and all of our individual lives take a distinct and substantial turnip for the better.



A Time To Cry

Chemical analysis of human tears seems to bear out something we all innately feel: emotional pain and physical pain occupy different universes.  The tears our eyes produce when they are irritated or when the bodies we carry through life are hurting have different components from those that trickle down our cheeks when it is our souls that ache.

Only humans produce the latter sort.  As Shlomo Hamelech wrote in Koheles: “The one who increases in knowledge increases in pain.”

Only one commandment in the Torah involves crying, though it is not readily recognized as such.  For the crying is done by proxy, through the shofar, on Rosh Hashana.

The shofar call is, of course, above all, a call to teshuva, a sort of alarm clock of the conscience, as the Rambam describes it.  But Chazal characterized it as a literal cry.  While the tekiah is a call to attention, the truah, the central component of the Rosh Hashana shofar-sounds, they said, is either a wailing sound or a series of moans; we incorporate both opinions in our practice today.  What, though, is the shofar crying about?

Rosh Hashana, to be sure, is the Yom Hadin, and so we are rightfully uneasy at the implications of that fact.  But might there be something deeper to the shofar’s wailing and moaning than simple fear?  A haunting Talmudic passage may hold a hint.

In massechta Berachos, we are told of several instances of great Tannaim who became seriously, painfully ill; one was Rabbi Elazar.  Rabbi Yochanan, renowned not only for his scholarship but for his ethereal handsomeness, came to visit and found his ill colleague lying in a dark room.  He pulled up his sleeve, the Gemara recounts, and light spilled from his beautiful skin into the room.  He saw Rabbi Elazar crying and asked him why.

If it was for the Torah he hadn’t been able to study – Rabbi Yochanan reassured the bedridden sage – that is no reason to cry; Hakodosh Boruch Hu judges people not by how much they accomplished but rather by whether they made their best effort.  And if it was because of  the elusiveness of material success, “not every man merits to sit at two tables” – Rabbi Elazar may not have attained wealth in this world but surely had amassed much reward in the World to Come.

And, continued Rabbi Yochanan, if you are crying because of the death of your children, I have suffered more; ten of my own have perished.

Finally, Rabbi Elazar spoke up. “I am crying,” he said, indicating Rabbi Yochanan’s shining arm, “because this beauty is destined for the dust.”

“For that?” responded Rabbi Yochanan.  “For that, indeed, it is fitting to cry.”  And the two scholars cried together.

No one with warm blood running through his veins could read that account without a shudder born of the realization of what brought those sages to weep.

We all try to crowd our lives with enough diversions to minimize opportunities for reflecting on our mortality.  But serious people cannot forever avoid the thought, and righteous ones make no effort to do so at all.

The late, revered Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, perceived in the act of blowing the shofar a hint to the earliest event commemorated by Rosh Hashana: the creation of man.  Shofar-blowing, he observed, involves a force of breath, recalling the animation of Adam Harishon– “And He blew into his nostrils the spirit of life, and man became a living soul.”

The Zohar describes Adam’s physical state before his sin as “shining” with a special splendor – referred to as his “shufra,” or beauty.

It is the precise word Rabbi Elazar used to describe Rabbi Yochanan’s skin.  Could it also be… the root of the word “shofar”?

Might the shofar, in other words, be crying out its own name, in memory of the perfection with which our ultimate ancestor was created – squandered by sin, destined for death?

Shufra!” it may be calling from earth to heaven.  “Beauty!  The beauty that is a human being, that was once the perfect human being!  Now subject to decay!”

For such, indeed, it is fitting to cry.  And through our shofaros, we cry together.

Our crying, though, is not an expression of hopelessness.  On the contrary, the very recognition of what sin has wrought is, according to our mesorah, the first step toward regaining it, the first step on the road of teshuva.  When our regret of our individual loads of sin are total and sincere, we are taught, then we will have utilized our pain for ultimate gain.  Even death itself, as Yeshayahu Hanovi foretold, “will be swallowed forever, and Hashem will wipe tears from every face…”

And that same novi describes that day, when death is erased and history ended.  “On that day,” he foresees, “there will be sounded a great tekiah.”

© 2006 Rabbi Avi Shafran

[R.  The essay above is adapted from a longer version I wrote for The Jewish Observer in 1989. It is dedicated to the memory of mydear mother and teacher, Rebbetzin Pu’ah bas Rav Noach HaCohein Kahn, a”h, whose incredible righteousness and shufra still shine brightly in the hearts of all who knew her.]