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Rosh Hashana 5767

By: Rav David Milston

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim is known as Shabbat Shuva – a Shabbat with an emphasis on repentance; but surely it would be even more pertinent for such a Shabbat to take place immediately prior to Rosh Hashanah? Would it not be preferable to enter the New Year on a wave of ongoing introspection, rather than begin the process in the aftermath of Rosh Hashanah, almost dare we say as an afterthought? Indeed, if we are to understand Rosh Hashanah as ‘The Day of Judgment’, then unquestionably it would be better to enter the supreme court of the King of Kings with a real statement of intent?

 

Furthermore we talk of ‘The Ten days of Penitence’ that are supposedly between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Hakippurim, but in truth if we are to take the ten-day title literally, then we must include the High Holidays within the overall infrastructure.

 

So why does Teshuva ‘officially’ begin after Rosh Hashanah?

 

We have spoken on countless occasions in the past of the emphatically obvious theme of Rosh Hashanah – Malchut Hashem. The essence of this holy day is to deeply consider the Creator of the Universe and His Omnipotence, in fact on this day we annually crown the Almighty God as King of Kings, but what exactly does that mean?

 

If I proclaim someone to be my King, then to my mind, I am openly declaring absolute loyalty to that supreme ruler. I am also stating my total trust and belief in everything that He does, irrespective of how it may be interpreted by the human eye. By crowning the Almighty God as King of the universe, I implicitly bare witness to His ongoing involvement in the world, and to His ultimate control over the day to day running of our lives. By committing myself to such a belief, I do not deny my right to free choice, but I do recognize my confines as a human being.

 

As a believing Jew, I fully understand that my real achievements in this world are my ‘soul’ responsibility. My spiritual successes, my mistakes, my falls to temptation, and my elevated religious status – all of these are in my hands and my hands alone; yet at the same time, I believe that Hashem is God of the universe, He is in overall control, my material well-being is essentially in His hands. Hence the everyday challenges that I face are part and parcel of a real path in life that I choose by way of my decisions, but are simultaneously under the direct supervision of God Himself. My real achievements in life are less determined by what actually happens to me, and more to do with the way in which I deal with the varying realities that I face. Sometimes I have the true ability to change a situation and I must always endeavor to do the very best that I can to influence developing circumstances, but even if I were to fail in those endeavors, even if the Almighty has decided that ‘this is the way that it has to be’, I am still left with the choice of how to deal with my new reality.

 

“God is my King” that must be the starting point. If I do not accept that fundamental truth, then it is my belief that my path in life will be one of confusion, a tower of Babel, with no real direction, no clarity of vision, and no ultimate objective outside of my egotistical world. We have only two real possibilities to choose between, either I am king or God is king, we often choose the former, sometimes without consciously being aware of that decision, but in reality such an option, at least to my mind is superficial, and devoid of real truth. In the depths of our hearts we know that we are not in control, we know that however ‘advanced’ man appears to be we are ultimately limited in our ability to achieve all that we wish to achieve in material terms – how many times do our plans not realize themselves? We try to convince ourselves that we are in total control of the destiny of the world, but time and again history proves otherwise.

 

If I do not accept this ethos fundamentally, then there is no reason for me to regret transgressing Torah directives, why be sorry for discarding the directives of a King that I do not believe in? There is no reason for me to pray to God if I do not truly accept His Omnipotence. Why ask for deliverance, if I do not believe that He can deliver? Why pass new resolutions, if you feel no real obligation to see them through. A statement without honest intent is pointless in real terms.

 

Shabbat Shuva cannot precede Rosh Hashanah, because until we truly accept the Almighty God as the supreme ruler of the universe, repentance is simply an irrelevance, an insult to the intelligence

 

The first stage of Teshuva must be acceptance of God as King, and this is the sole objective of Rosh Hashanah. In truth it is not enough to initiate this process annually. We need to actively educate ourselves on a daily basis. Indeed, twice a day we remind ourselves of the oneness of God by declaring that Hashem is our God and that He is one. We need to constantly remind ourselves of this absolute truth, because it is so easy to be lead astray by our human rationale that recurringly tries to convince us that man is god, that man is in control, that man is the height and sole ruler of creation.

 

There are ten days of penitence; the first begins with the initial coronation of the Almighty as active ruler of the world. The last day ends with the unanimous declaration of all of Am Yisrael that ‘God is the Lord’. These are the last words of the final prayer on Yom Hakippurim, and they encapsulate the intensive ten-day process that we begin on Rosh Hashanah.

 

 Ahead of us are ten days of intense introspection. The book of life for next year lies open in front of us – much of how we live next year depends on how we decide to approach our lives, we cannot always dictate what will happen, but as Chazal tell us, it is not the place nor the event that defines man, rather man who defines both the place and the event. These days are a true statement of intent; there can be no truer more important period in the year than our approach at its outset. Our eventual target must have solid foundations, and then we must surge forward with real direction based on those foundations that we have heart-achingly established. Rosh Hashanah is the founding stone of our new year – the religious excellence and real human achievement of the year to come very much depends on whether we really do crown the Almighty as the supreme ruler of the universe. Over the next week and a half, we will arise earlier in the morning or go to bed later at night in our search for ultimate happiness and true achievement, we will open up our hearts, analyze, review, only with one objective - to look forward. Some will conclude either de-facto by inaction, or by rationalizations, that all is well, their book will show nothing knew, there will be no progression, because they see themselves contentedly as more or les okay, they see no reason for change, the pursuit of excellence being relevant for them in every sphere of life except apparently in life itself.

 

There will be others amongst us who though readily aware of being on the wrong path, will somehow convince themselves that all is well, like the addicted smoker who every time he opens a new packet of cigarettes sees in big black letters that smoking kills, but for some reason or another, intelligent as he or she may be, chooses to ignore the irrefutable statement, riding ‘fearlessly’ into oblivion, like a war horse on the front line, eagerly sprinting to almost certain disaster.

 

But there is a third group of people, a group that we should be members of; A group that sees an open book in front of them, fresh clear pages. What an opportunity to start again, to make good, excel, to reach places within ourselves that we have as of yet not reached; to discover strength in our hearts that we never knew existed. What a chance we have, a unique situation to build anew, to consolidate and expand on previous discoveries. To turn over a new leaf, to start again, what an opportunity! It is never to late in life to reconsider ones direction, let us all make that extra effort, and after all we are the main beneficiaries of introspection and self-analysis.

 

We dare not be complacent, we must pursue inner excellence in at least the same manner that we pursue material well-being, for the former is eternal and the latter is oh so temporary.

 

It is not enough to hope and pray for a good year, we must also make the effort, we need God’s help, but Hashem will only help those who truly help themselves.

 

What is true of the individual is equally true of our Nation. We do not stand in front of the Almighty as singular entities, but as Am Yisrael. And here too we need some real cheshbon nefesh. Let us ask some questions of ourselves:

 

What am I doing for my people?

Where are my people headed?

 

Am Yisrael is a truly incredible phenomenon, the mere fact that we exist as a people today is a miraculous reality; but we have some crucial decisions to make as members of this people, and every individual, however irrelevant they think that they may be has an essential role to play. In the Diaspora we face increasing assimilation, in Israel we face radical enemies, after 57 years of war we are still unable to secure our borders. How can we breathe fresh air into those disillusioned teenagers who are in search of truth, but are almost totally unawares of the absolute truth that their very own religion offers them? How can we refill our shuls with fervent and enthusiastic prayer? What can we do to bridge the gap between religious and irreligious? How can we stop the polarization of our people? What can I do to make the dream of our homeland develop into an eternal reality?

 

All of these issues are all of our issues. The fact that A Jew lives in the Diaspora does not release him of his absolute responsibility towards our country. If that country is at war, then every single member of our people should be actively involved in helping the war effort, in any way that they can. If there is enormous assimilation in the Diaspora, this is a problem for every Jew, even if he lives in Israel, and he must do all that he can to try and enthuse our youth and revitalize the future generations of our people.

 

We all share total responsibility, and we all have something essential to offer. The physical and spiritual enemies of Israel are waving their flags in the Diaspora and in Israel, and we must as always, stand firm in our commitment and belief towards our people and our country. There are surely hard days ahead of us, but it is my absolute faith that if Am Yisrael stands together there is no country and indeed no phenomenon that can stand in our way, bezrat Hashem.

 

So as we enter 5767, we aim to look at ourselves as individuals and as proud members of Am Yisrael. We hope and pray that the coming year will be a year of good health, religious prosperity, and success in the pursuit of excellence. We also hope and pray that for Am Yisrael this will be a year of peace, a year with no casualties, with no prisoners of war. But when we hope and pray, when we stand in shul with our eyes closed listening to the awe inspiring sounds of the Shofar, we must also realize that it is not enough to hope and pray – we must do, we must do as much as we possibly can, and we must never, not even for a moment, stop doing. We all have a role to play no one is exempt. It is my firm belief that if we truly hope and pray, and if we combine that prayer with real effort, then Bezrat Hashem we will surely succeed, and the year of 5767 will be recorded in the annals of world history as the year of redemption, the year that Am Yisrael crowned the holy city of Yerushalayim as the capital of the world, the year of the third Bet Hamikdash!

 

Ketiva veChatima Tova

Rav Milston

 

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