Commentary for Rosh Hashanah

6 Oct

The main thrust of the morning services on the High Holidays begin in a remarkably different manner than on other days of the year. Usually the leader of the service, the shaliach tzibur, (literally “messenger of the congregation”) ascends to the podium, and then begins to pray. On the High Holidays, though, the leader begins to pray from wherever he or she happens to be standing at the time, and continues to do so the whole way up to the podium.
The prayers the leader recites (beginning at the top of page 106) speak of God’s awesome might and glory, and praise God as the sovereign of the universe, sitting on a throne like a monarch before the royal court, ready to render judgment. The purpose of this is twofold. In addition to the standard goal of glorifying God, it is also intended to help instill the humility necessary for the day’s task in all of those present. In this way, the shaliach tzibur serves not only as a messenger of the community, but also as a messenger to the community, reminding them before Whom they stand, so that they can enter the proper mindset for this important day of prayer.
We all like to think that when we pray, we show up already with the proper mindset, but there is nothing wrong with a little ego check just in case, because we might not even realize that our disposition is not quite as reverent as we thought it was. This even happens to the best of us, as Abraham and Sarah learned. At ages one hundred and ninety respectively, when each of them was first told that God would provide them with a child, each responded by bursting out into laughter (Abraham in Gen. 17:16-17, and Sarah in Gen. 18:9-12), apparently not believing that God, the creator of the universe, had the power to cause an elderly couple to conceive a child. Both are given a slight reprimand for this conduct, Abraham in 17:19, together in 18:13-14, and Sarah in 18:15), with God pointedly asking in 18:14, “is anything too wondrous for the LORD?” God, of course, proved them wrong, and as promised, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, as we read in the Torah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
The rest of chapter eighteen continues with Abraham escorting the angels who informed Sarah that she would bear a son off towards their next destination: Sodom and Gomorrah.    Once they have been sent on their way, God decides to reveal to Abraham the impending destruction of those cities, due the sins of their wicked inhabitants. Abraham responds by starting to argue with God. “Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will You also stamp out the righteous along with the wicked? What if there should be fifty righteous people in the midst of the city? Would you still stamp it out rather than spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked; so the righteous will be treated like the wicked. It would be sacrilege to You! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18:23-25).”
God agrees to spare the cities if fifty righteous people shall be found within them, but instead of quitting while he is ahead, Abraham them presses on, eventually negotiating God down to needing only ten righteous people between the two cities in order to spare them. Unfortunately there are only four righteous people between the two cities (Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family), but God sends two of the angels to escort them to safety, saving the righteous while destroying the wicked.
While Abraham was renowned for his honesty, generosity, and hospitality, this is the first recorded instance of him attempting to intercede with God on behalf of others. God’s earlier reprimand humbled Abraham, reminding him of his own flaws, but it did not break him and send him into a spiral of depression, believing himself to be completely and irredeemably flawed. Instead it helped Abraham to focus on the fact that he had both flaws and virtues, positive qualities as well negative ones. In Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham saw himself.    The entirety of his being should not be destroyed simply because he had some negative qualities, and so, too, should the righteous people within those two cities not suffer the same fate as the wicked ones who do deserve this destruction. Thus, God pointing out Abraham’s flaws to him spurred Abraham to advocate on their behalf.
The musaf service on the High Holidays starts in pretty much the same starkly different manner from other musaf services of the year that the main thrust of the morning service does, except that instead of his or her seat, the leader starts from the back of the sanctuary and approaches the podium while reciting one long prayer specially designed for the shaliach tzibur of the High Holiday musaf service. In this prayer, the Hineini (literally “here I am,” found on page 236), the leader humbly acknowledges that it is completely unreasonable for him or her to beseech God and expect to receive positive results as Abraham did, due to the many sins he or she has likely committed over the course of the year, but begs God not to let his or her own transgressions factor into the judgment of those whose prayer he or she is carrying: the congregation that has appointed him or her its messenger. And yet, paradoxically, by reciting the self-effacing Hineini, the leader is demonstrating that he or she has understood the message of humility that was sent earlier, and is now, like Abraham, ready to advocate on behalf of others.
The musaf service for Rosh Hashanah has three main components that are unique to Rosh Hashanah: the Malchuyot (Kingship) portion is about accepting God’s right, as Sovereign of the universe, to judge us according to our deeds, humbly accepting that our lives are in God’s hands. Next is the Zichronot (Remembrances) portion, where we plead with God to take everything into account when judging us. Not just our past deeds and our present mindset, but also the future potential for good that our virtues provide us with, by invoking instances in which our ancestors were judged favorably for these reasons, even though they, like us, were flawed.
The third and final unique section of the Rosh Hashanah musaf service is the Shofrot section, in which the focus is on the blowing of the eponymous shofar.    Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin describes the shofar as a pure, raw, cry from the heart, expressing a desire to be cleansed of bad influences, demonstrating to God that we desire to be better than we have been, but we rely on a merciful judgment from God to have the chance to do so.
On Rosh Hashanah, we, like Abraham, see Sodom and Gomorrah in ourselves. In the Malchuyot section we ask that God destroy our flaws by helping us to overcome them. In Zichronot we ask God to judge us favorably because of our righteous virtues. Then, in Shofrot, we express our sincerity to God with the primal sounds of the shofar.
We then owe it to God to spend the year proving that we are worthy of merciful judgment we are asking for.    We must not leave the lessons of Rosh Hashanah behind once the High Holidays are over.    The leaders of the morning and musaf services start leading the service from within the congregation because their messages can be delivered by anyone. Similarly, the messenger angels who helped teach Abraham and Sarah their lessons of humility are described in the Torah as “men” rather than angels because that is how they appeared to Abraham and Sarah. God’s messages can be delivered by anyone, anywhere. If we want to prove ourselves worthy of favorable judgment we are asking God to give us, we need to make sure we keep our ears open at all times.

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