Rosh Hashanah 3

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


Rosh Hashanah

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The High Holiday season is a special time of year. Within it lays potential to reach the pinnacle of spiritual ecstasy. However, like anything else in life that is meaningful, it must be understood to be appreciated.

This is the time of year when people, regardless of their shortcomings, are presented with a special opportunity to reach within themselves, and pull themselves closer to G-d. Let us not squander this wonderful opportunity.

Starting from the Saturday night a week before Rosh Hashana we recite Selichos (special prayers) in order to prepare us for Rosh Hashanah. The focal point of Selichos is the thirteen attributes of mercy. These attributes are also said three times on Rosh Hashanah, the days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and approximately twenty times on Yom Kippur. Obviously they have a major role in the High Holiday season.

What are these thirteen attributes? After the Jews had committed the grievous sin with the golden calf, Moshe despaired of the Jews ever being able to find favor in G-d’s eyes again. G-d, however as explained in the Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 17b) donned a talis (prayer shawl), and, in the role of a chazzan, showed Moshe the order of the thirteen attributes of mercy. G-d then told Moshe, “whenever the Jews sin they should do these thirteen attributes before Me, and I shall forgive them.”

The thirteen attributes are:

(1) G-d of Mercy

(2) G-d of Mercy (these two will be explained further down)

(3) G-d source of power (whose power is manifest in his mercy)

(4) Compassionate (G-d eases the punishment of the guilty; He never gives a person more than he can handle)

(5) Gracious (even to the undeserving)

(6) Slow to anger (the sinner has an extraordinary amount of time to reconsider)

(7) Abundant in kindness (towards those who don’t have much merit, He also tips the scales towards good)

(8) Truth (He never goes back on His word, even if we don’t completely deserve it)

(9) Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations (deeds benefit far into the future)

(l0) Forgiver of iniquity (even intentional sinners)

(l l) Forgiver of willful sinners (even rebellious sinners)

(12) Forgiver of error (unintentional sinners; why mention unintentional? If intentional can be forgiven, surely unintentional? If one repents on a certain level, they can have their intentional sins judged as unintentional and if one repents on the highest level they can even turn them into merits)

(l3) Who cleanses (the residue left over from the sin).

Why is it necessary to mention G-d of Mercy two times? With this answer we will, G-d willing, understand the thrust of the thirteen attributes, and more than that, a deep insight into our relationship with G-d.

There are two ways that we can relate to G-d: Love and Fear. The lower and beginning level is fear -  “the beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d (Psalm 11 l)”. The higher level is love. Sins can be turned to merits if one apologizes out of love and not fear (Yoma 86b). G-d relates to us also in two ways: Lovingkindness and Justice (depending on how we relate to Him).  The first attribute "G-d of Mercy" is referring, before we have sinned, to lovingkindness. The second "G-d of Mercy" is referring, after we have sinned, to justice. But the justice we receive from G-d is only a means to an end, the end being lovingkindness. This is the level of ultimate closeness. When we recite these thirteen attributes, we are expressing G-d’s ultimate level of mercy: that even after we have sinned, we still have an opportunity for a relationship with G-d. Only now in order to rectify us, this love must be tempered with justice.

Order of the Holidays

One of the most basic questions that can be asked is the order of the holidays. Why does Rosh Hashanah come before Yom Kippur? If Rosh Hashanah is the new year (this year being 5763 from creation of man), and Yom Kippur is the day of forgiveness, the day when we have the chance to apologize for all the sins committed in the past year (5762), would it not make more sense to have Yom Kippur come before Rosh Hashanah? Why start the new year, and ten days later revisit the sins of the previous year?

In order for us to understand the order of the High Holidays, let’s first define the words sorry / apology. What do these words mean? Are they arbitrary words to be thrown out when we are caught doing something wrong, so we can still get our way? The Jewish definition of sorry/apology goes a lot deeper than that. Maimonides brings down in the Laws of Returning to G-d that one must do three things before he is forgiven. 1. Verbally confess to G-d. 2. Have sincere regret. 3. Accept onto one’s self not to repeat the act. If this sin is done to a person (as opposed to sins between man and G-d), he must apologize and ask that person’s forgiveness. In other words, in order to be forgiven one must do some sincere soul searching as to what he did wrong before he can apologize. That is sorrow. So before we can apologize and beg G-d’s forgiveness for having pushed ourselves away, and having made barriers between us and G-d, thus preventing ourselves from achieving goodness, we must first clarify why it is wrong to have done these things. That is our role on Rosh Hashanah - to understand our role and our responsibilities (the word in Hebrew for “pray” is “hispallel”, from the root peellel that means to clarify). Once we understand our role, and how sins have disrupted our achieving this (Rosh Hashanah), then we are ready to apologize on Yom Kippur.

So what is our role?  What are our responsibilities?

Rav Yoseph Albo in Sefer Haikkrim (Book of Principles) writes there are three beliefs incumbent upon every Jew. 1. The belief in G-d and that He created the world. 2. Reward and Punishment [Providence]. 3. Belief that the Written and Oral were given by G-d.

Now would it not be appropriate and logical, he writes, that on Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of man, the day when the world is judged if it lived up to its responsibilities, and the Jews in particular who are responsible to reveal G-d goodness to the world, to enumerate our belief system, our charter, on this day?

It says in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a), G-d said “Say before me on Rosh Hashanah Malchiyus (Kingship), Zichronos (Remembrance), and Shofaros. Kingship in order that you should make me your King, and Remembrance so that your remembrance should arise before me for good. How is this done (how are Kingship and Remembrance accomplished)? Through the Shofar.”

The three above mentioned concepts are the three topics of the most vital service of the Rosh Hashanah day, if not the most vital service of the year, the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf.  And, writes Albo, they represent the three principal beliefs incumbent upon each Jew. Kingship is belief in G-d, Remembrance is belief in Reward and Punishment / Providence, and Shofaros is the belief in the Torah.


Our belief in G-d is predicated upon the knowledge that not only did G-d create the world, but that He is, was, and will be the King of the world. What is the ideal of a King? This ideal is that the nation over whom he rules wants to fulfill his ruling and laws in order to benefit their own lives. The King’s laws make them better people. Unfortunately, throughout history there have been very few kings who have met this ideal. But our belief in G-d as King can and does meet this ideal. When we fulfill G-d’s laws, we are not doing a favor to G-d, we are doing good onto ourselves. When we praise Him, we do it so that we should understand who He is, and why we should listen, and that His will is, by definition, Goodness. As we mentioned earlier, G-d said, “When Israel does these attributes, I will forgive them.” How can we do these attributes? The Talmud tells us we have the ability to imitate G-d (Sotah 14a). Just as G-d provides food for His creatures, so can we. Just as G-d is compassionate to those who do not necessarily deserve it, we can be compassionate to those who do not deserve it. Even more, on Rosh Hashanah, we have the unique opportunity to “crown” G-d as King! (Pachad Yitschok-Rosh Hashanah).

By our proclaiming His Kingship, by accepting upon ourselves His Will and all its implications voluntarily, we raise mankind in general and ourselves in particular to a much closer bond with G-d. When we accepted the Torah we proclaimed “Naaseh V’nishma” - We will do and we will listen. When G-d heard this He said who revealed the secret of the angels to mankind. The secret is the concept of the complete acceptance of the will, and the goodness of G-d, even without completely understanding it.

But how could we do such a thing, accept without complete understanding? Let us look to the incident of the Sacrifice of Isaac, which is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In that story, G-d tells Abraham to offer as a sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham immediately acquiesces. How could Abraham have agreed to such a request? The answer is that Abraham already had a relationship with G-d. True, he did not know the reason behind this latest request, but he knew anything requested of him by G-d, however unreasonable it may seem, was in reality good, and in reality right. That is accepting the Kingship of G-d.

On Rosh Hashana we have the opportunity to act to proclaim G-d’s Kingship. Through this proclamation of the Kingship of G-d, we are telling him we desire a relationship with Him.


How do we wish to be remembered, i.e. judged by G-d? Maimonides brings down (Laws of Fast Days Ch. 1 Laws 2-3), “If a series of misfortunes befall a community and some people say ‘what happened here was a run of bad luck’, these people are called cruel. Why? Because nothing happens through arbitrary luck - everything happens for a purpose. By people saying it was luck, however, they are robbing themselves, and others, of the opportunity for true introspective thought, i.e., why did this happen - where did we go wrong?” One might not usually be able to pinpoint exactly what he did to deserve this; one is able, however, to understand that everything happens for a purpose, and to grow, i.e., improve one self for the good, accordingly. When we are punished it is never arbitrary, it is to make us take notice of who we are, and where we are going. If G-d did not love us or care about us, then why would He interact in our lives?

One of the verses of Remembrances (each of these three concepts - Kingships, Remembrances, and Shofar - is followed by several verses from the Torah, Prophets, and Writings) is Exodus 2:24: “G-d heard their groaning, and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Before G-d heard their groaning, did He not remember they were in Egypt, or that He had made a Covenant with their forefathers? Obviously, He remembered them, and remembered the covenant, but only when they cried out to Him, in essence saying ‘Okay, G-d, we realize You must have put us here for a reason.’ Once they said that, Hashem saw they were ready to come out, and He responded accordingly.

Another aspect of G-d’s remembrance is His complete judgment. Normally when a person is judged, it is not the person, but rather what is known about the person, that is judged. When G-d judges a person, it is on what the person is, past, present, and future (potential). Let’s say there are two people, Herman and Kummings. They both are compulsive liars. They both told 250 lies that year. The year before, however Herman told 400 and Kummings told 150.The year before that Herman told 1000 and Kummings told none, so even though they each told 250 and caused the same amount of damage, they are two people headed in totally different directions and cannot be judged the same way. This is an obvious example, but even on the most minute details, G-d’s judgment is precise. He also takes into account our existence regarding other people’s reality. One thing we should strive to do this time of the year is to forgive all grudges, even those we deem legitimate, because if we can forgive grudges against other people, G-d can forgive us. When He sees how we relate to His creations so too He relates to us.

When we express our belief that G-d interacts with us, He will interact with us.


So now we know we must proclaim G-d’s Kingship, and accept His will upon ourselves, and we know how we remember G-d, so will we be remembered, but how do we reach these elusive goals?

As we stated earlier from the Talmud, “How are Kingship and Remembrances accomplished? Through the Shofar.” As we also stated previously, regarding our three principal beliefs, Shofar represents belief in the Torah.

When the Jewish people received the Torah, it was heralded by the sound of the Shofar, as produced by G-d. When we received the Torah we were in a passive role as acceptors. On Rosh Hashanah when we blow the Shofar, we are imitating G-d, but as opposed to the receiving of the Torah when we had a passive role, now we have the aggressive role; through the Shofar, we are crowning G-d. The Shofar is symbolizing the Torah and the dichotomy of the Torah. On the one hand, we receive the Torah from G-d, and accept upon ourselves to follow it. On the other hand, it is our responsibility and our destiny to interact and interpret the Torah, as the Torah is not in Heaven, but on earth (Deut 30:12).

What is the sound of the Shofar? It plays no notes, and if its sound can be identified, it would be that of a wail. Our connection to G-d is through the Torah. In the words of the great eighth century philosopher Rabbi Sa’adiah, “We are Jews by virtue of the Torah.” It is our blueprint. But we are not perfect and sometimes we even fail miserably. But even when we don’t keep to our potential, G-d forbid, the Torah, the Shofar, can step in and renew our connection with G-d (contingent on our acceptance to rectify our noncompliance with the Torah (Sfas Emes; Rosh Hashanah). The mystics tell us the wail of the Shofar translated into words means, “It is our will to do Your will.”  Yes, we have strayed, but we desire to return home to You, G-d. That is the heartfelt plea of each and every Jew, whether that Jew can express it into words or not. That is the sound of the Shofar and the role of the Torah: connection through doing the will of G-d. We can achieve G-d’s will and have an interactive relationship with G-d, a connection with G-d, through the Shofar, and all year long, through the Torah.

This seems like a lot to accomplish. Even if we can’t do everything, there is one sure way to have a successful Rosh Hashanah and year. That is to strive - to constantly grow. This time of year gives us a unique opportunity to step off the carousel of life and to honestly look in the mirror and see where we are going.

A person could go ten years or more without monitoring his growth, to see where he is going. This is tragic. One of the things the Rabbis recommend this time of year is acceptance upon oneself of new things, i.e. "resolutions". It should be small things that are doable. We should not resolve to change ourselves overnight, for real change is gradual, but over a period of time which will lead to true changes within ourselves. That is how one grows and makes a connection with G-d.

May all of us and the people of Israel merit a year of true growth, and may we be written and inscribed for a good year.

Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.

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