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By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff | Series: | Level:

Rosh Hashana, 5632 & 5634

The Sfas Emes’s notes on Rosh Hashana are unusually sparse. Moreover, he prefaces his notes for 5632, the first Rosh Hashana for which he left us his notes, with the comment “irbuvei devarim” (“mixed up words”). So it may require even more than the usual dose of siya’ata di’shemaya (help from on High) to understand this ma’amar …

The Sfas Emes begins with a comment on the simanim” (the ‘signs’). The reference here is to the minhag (practice) of eating certain special foods on the evening of Rosh Hashana, and accompanying them with a heartfelt cry out to HaShem. The foods selected are foods whose names are merameiz (allude) to concerns that are inevitably on our minds as we begin the Yom Hadin (Day of Judgment). For example, we eat karsi (leeks) and ask — Actually, we should not ‘ask’; we should implore: Yehi ratzon she’yikarsu son’einu!” That is, working with the Hebrew root KaRoS — to cut down — we eat some leek and say, “May it be Your will to cut down our enemies! ”

(Parenthetically, note two points. First, this practice is not some far- out chassidische innovation. It is based on a Gemara (Kerisus, 6a); and a siman (583) is devoted to it in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim. Second, as you may have noticed, I have translated the word ‘minhag’ as ‘practice’ . Why do I prefer to translate ‘minhag’ as ‘practice’ rather than ‘custom’ — the word usually used? Because the word ‘custom ‘ implies ‘only a minhag, not something to be taken seriously.’ By contrast, the word ‘practice’ conveys the authentic meaning of: ‘this is what we actually do.’)

Why do we follow this practice of alluding to our this-worldly needs (e.g., health, wealth, happy interpersonal relations …) as Rosh Hashana begins ? The Sfas Emes explains that this practice is in line with the Zohar’s perspective on the meaning of Rosh Hashana. The Zohar tells us that on Rosh Hashana, the thrust of our prayer should be that all human- kind accept HaShem as King. Thus, the special Rosh Hashana section of the Amida begins: “U’vechein tein pachdecha … ” (“May the entire world fear HaShem.”)

Why the focus on fear? Because if a person allows himself a bit of reflection on life, he cannot avoid recognizing how vulnerable he/she is. This vulnerability comes in multiple dimensions. It may involve, for example, the secure parnasa (livelhood) that evaporates when the person is ‘let go ‘; the solid marriage which unexpectedly cracks; the disabling illness that comes seemingly from nowhere.

Recognizng one’s vulnerability, in turn, means recognizing one’s total dependence on HaShem. Thus, in a very matter-of-fact way, fear can be the first step in developing a relationship with HaShem. I say “first step” because fear can start a process that ultimately leads to love of HaShem.

Because the main theme of Rosh Hashana is our accepting HaShem as Melech (King), we address our olam hazeh concerns (concerns that involve this world) only indirectly, by the “hints” (the remazim) of the simanim. In doing so, we are making an important statement to ourselves. That is, we are relegating those concerns to the status of mere auxiliaries or helpers in our primary avoda. We are also making a statement: that the main item on the Rosh Hashana agenda is accepting Malchus Shamayim (HaShem’s Kingship).

Thus, the Sfas Emes’s ko’ach he’chidush (innovative power) shows us two new perspectives in explaining the minhag of the simanim. The simanim are conventionally viewed as simply another venue for placing our personal requests before HaShem. Moreover, the usual assumption — taken as a matter of course — is that these ‘hints’ are directed to HaShem.. By contrast, the Sfas Emes is telling us to view the simanim as a tool for demoting our personal concerns. As such, we are really addressing our personal concerns not to HaShem, but rather to ourselves!

The Sfas Emes concludes this paragraph by noting that on Rosh Hashana, HaShem metes out a new measure of chiyus (vitality) to each of us. And He does so according to each of our desires. In other words, to get it, we have to want it. The Sfas Emes urges us to prepare ourselves to receive this new infusion of life for the purpose that HaShem intends — to give new life and joy to our avoda.

We move on now to the first ma’amar of 5634. This brief paragraph begins with a quote from Maseches Rosh Hashana (11a): “BeRosh Hashana batla avoda mei’avoseinu beMitzrayim. ” That is: “On Rosh Hashana, the toil of our ancestors in Egypt ceased.” Rashi comments: “The servitude stopped”. Rashi’s remark may imply a broader view — the cessation of Bnei Yisroel’s psychological subordination to the Egyptians. Let us see how the Sfas Emes understands this statement of Chazal.

As we know, hester panim (HaShem’s concealing Himself from us) is a prominent theme in the Sfas Emes. Why is this theme is so important? Because of the great gap between the world as seen by the naked, untutored eye and the world that the Torah tells us is truly out there. One obvious example: To the naked eye, the world seems clearly to be leis din veleis dayan” — without justice and without a judge. But we know that in reality, HaShem holds every person accountable for his actions. How can we deal with this contradiction? By recognizing that we are experiencing hester panim. As the Torah warned us in advance, in punishment for our misdeeds HaShem hides His Presence from us.

Where do we encounter hester in its worst, most powerful form? The Sfas Emes tells us that hester is at its worst in the context of time. That is, HaShem’s Presence. is least discernible in current events. In that context, the Sfas Emes explains, Rosh Hashana provided our ancestors in Egypt with a marker in time. Passing a milestone in space conveys the message that one is traversing a road with a destination. So too, a marker in time enables a person to see the passage of time as part of a meaningful experience,

Rosh Hashana provided Bnei Yisroel with such a sense of history. By giving our people a milestone in time, Rosh Hashana enabled Bnei Yisroel to see meaning in the events that they were living. Thus, they were now able to recognize that they were experiencing the servitude that HaShem had foretold to Avraham Avinu, And so too they would have the liberation that HaShem had promised. Before Bnei Yisroel had Rosh Hashana, they had lived lives that had seemed to be utterly devoid of meaning. Rosh Hashana freed them from that darkness.

The Sfas Emes explains that more generally, as we make the transition from one year to the next, Rosh Hashana removes the hester of the previous year. Thus, looking back, we may be able to see meaning in the flow of events. But, the Sfas Emes continues, at the same time, a new cloud of hester descends to engulf the new year. Thus, hester always covers the present and the future. Note how commonsensical is the Sfas Emes’s perspective. In fact, we are generally clueless about what is happening now, and certainly about what is going to happen in the future. Being clueless is not a happy state of affairs. The Sfas Emes continues with a thought that may seem like a total non sequitur -until we recognize that he may be trying to cheer us up from that unhappy state. Thus, the Sfas Emes concludes by telling us how the Radak understood the mitzva of shofar on Rosh Hashana. The Radak (and presumably the Sfas Emes, who quotes the Radak with approval) take the shofar of Rosh Hashana to be an echo of the shofar that was sounded at yoveil; i.e., a time of liberation.

As we approach Rosh Hashana, we should not be discouraged; for we have a Friend up there. Rashi tells us in Bamidbar, 23:21, we can understand the word “teruah” as coming from the Hebrew root rei’us -friendship. We can have that connection in mind when we hear: ‘teruah’!

Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and