Assessment and Accountability

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15 Sep 2017
Rosh Hashanah

The mishna says we pass before Hashem (in judgement) like “bnei maron.” The Gemara gives three explanations of this phrase. Why do we need three different metaphors to explain the same idea?

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            One of the most striking images in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is a line in the Nesaneh Tokef borrowed from Mesechet Rosh Hashanah: “And all mankind will pass before You kivnei maron, like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff…” What does kivnei maron mean? The simplest and most obvious translation is, as ArtScroll translates, “Like members of the flock.” Rabbi Leff in Festivals of Life explains this phrase as each sheep being counted separately. But he continues to cite two additional metaphors the Gemarrah uses for this phrase. There was a narrow pass up to Beis Maron through which people could ascend only in single file. Perhaps this was what the phrase refers to. Finally, perhaps the phrase refers to the soldiers in King David’s army who would pass before him for inspection individually. How does each of these metaphors add understanding to kivnei maron? While the metaphors strongly suggest individual assessment, they also allude to communal responsibility. How can these metaphors together help us in our search for teshuvah, for return to our root purpose, the theme of the Day of Rosh Hashanah?

The purpose of mankind and of all the mitzvoth is to create a connection with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. That is the goal of Rosh Hashanah every year as it was the goal of our nation at Sinai, to return to the state of purity and connectedness to Hashem that was Adam before the sin. Indeed, writes Rabbi Pincus z”l in Mo’adei Hashanah, the word Adam itself carries this meaning. We are striving for the Aleph, the Alufo shel olam, the Master of the universe to be the Master of our dam, our blood, our life force. As Hashem breathed the breath of life into Adam, so we should envision the breath, symbolizing Hashem’s breath, leaving the shofar as it sounds and entering our bodies, animating our lives.

Let us now return to our first image of the shepherd examining his flock. The shepherd is looking for three things, continues Rabbi Leff. First, are all the sheep accounted for or have any strayed away from the flock. Second, are they healthy or sick. Finally, does each sheep bear his brand and can be identifies as his.

It is easy to recognize the parallels between these sheep being inspected by the shepherd and Bnei Yisroel being inspected by Hakodosh Boruch Hu. First, are we all accounted for, or have some strayed off the path and are missing. Second, have we nurtured our positive midos so they are healthy and strong. Finally, how do we represent God in our lives and bring glory to His Name, both in public and in private? In essence, how do we represent Hashem’s sovereignty over the world; how are we coronating Hashem on this day and in our lives?

Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, of all creation. Each creature is being judged. Are they living up to the purpose for which they were created, asks the Netivot Shalom? Are we? Do we project kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s Name in our lives? If we are being recreated on this day as was Adam on that first day, we must reexamine how we are living our lives, how we are interacting with others. As Rabbi Rothberg writes, the mitzvah of the day is to choose life. How do we do that? By choosing a lifestyle that will be a reflection of God’s will, that will return the primal light of creation that existed for the first 36 hours of Adam’s life. We have to choose the path of teshuvah, of return to the spiritual even within the physical. It’s easy to get caught up in the physical aspects of the holiday, thinking about our wardrobe, anticipating wonderful meals, and perhaps getting upset at the necessity of cooking for a three day yom tov. Perhaps these mundane (albeit necessary) concerns are leading us off the path. Perhaps it was another desire that led us away from Hashem and took our focus off the goal and onto the fringes. Our work of teshuvah is to find that first point of departure so we can go back to that point and recalculate our true path.

The teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah is to consciously remember Hashem and to seek the path pf return, writes Rabbi Schlesinger in Eleh Hem Mo’adai, to understand that He is the Ruler of all and that nothing exists save Him. This is the umbrella under which teshuvah for all transgressions falls. It also explains why we do not recite al chet, the confession of individual sins.

While we are being judged individually, we are also being judged against the model of ourselves of the past year, writes Rabbi Leff. Have we been ascending the path to Beit Maron, or have we stagnated in our spiritual growth? The Torah calls us bonim/children of Hashem. But we can also read it as bohnim/builders for Hashem. If we have not grown, we will be found wanting.

Rabbi Frand echos this idea. Inertia is anathema to a Torah way of life, for inaction, as on the escalator of life, always results in descent. After all, the Medrash sees great wisdom in the name Adam called himself, a name derived from adamah/earth. How are Man and earth similar? Rabbi Frand cites the Alter of Slabodka who posits that Man is indeed like the earth, requiring constant work and effort to achieve growth.

Rabbi Pincus ztz’l brings a different Biblical metaphor to our discussion. The Prophet Yechezkel sees Hashem’s glorious chariot in his vision. He describes it as being surrounded by four chayot hakodesh/holy animals. They resemble adam, but each has four faces and four wings, and face different directions. They rush back and forth, like the appearance of a flash of lightening. Rabbi Pincus zt”l points out that these chayot hakodesh move back and forth, but they go nowhere. Sometimes they face one direction and sometimes another, but their interconnected legs carry them nowhere.

Rabbi Pincus zt”l understands this vision as a sad metaphor for man. While, like the animals, we appear to be human beings, we too are being pulled in multiple directions according to our whims and animalistic desires, and we cannot move forward. We may move forward for short periods of time, taking upon ourselves defined hours of Torah learning, or dedication to a certain mitzvah. But how do we act at other times? Do we then revert to animalistic behavior, or do we continue to maintain our human/Godlike countenance? When Rosh Hashanah is over, will we maintain our resolve to keep Hashem at the center of our lives, or will we revert to past destructive behavior?

This is also a problem for practicing Jews we consider religious. Yes, they observe the mitzvoth and go to shul regularly. But where is their life focus asks Rabbi Eliyahu Roth zt”l. Does a new acquisition excite them more than a new insight in Torah? Do his physical amenities and pleasures occupy more of his thoughts than do spiritual pursuits? At the end of a tiring day, will she run out to a huge clearance sale but claim exhaustion when asked to attend a shiur? The purpose of teshuvah is more to refocus our energies rather than to refrain from a particular sin. The lapse in focus will inevitably lead to the lapse in behavior and to transgression.

Reuven son of Leah is recognized as the first person to do true teshuvah, continues Rabbi Roth zt”l. Reuven’s teshuvah was different from the teshuvah of those who had preceded him. Adam and Cain, for example, did teshuvah for particular acts. Reuven, on the other hand, did teshuvah for the impetuousness that led to his sin. He understood that unless he trains himself to control this negative trait, he would most likely stumble into sin again. It is because of this insight that we read the prophecy of his descendent Hoshea on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat within the Ten Days of Repentance. We need to do teshuvah for not living up to our potential, for not growing spiritually from last Rosh Hashanah to this one. This is the aspect of Zichronot, of Memory inherent in Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Leff now continues with the third theme of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, the theme of shofrot. Here, each of us is called upon individually, for we are each unique. In addition to observing mitzvoth and learning Torah, we each have unique talents and characteristics that give us the tools to fulfill our unique mission in life. We must search ourselves to find an innate talent or characteristic within ourselves that we can use toward glorifying and emulating Hashem, writes Rabbi Eisenberger in Mesilot Bilvovom. If we are good cooks, perhaps we can bring a dish over to a housebound neighbor while we cook our own meal. When we shop, perhaps we can also buy a toy for a poor neighbor’s child. If we are knowledgeable, perhaps we can give helpful advice, or relate a Torah thought or give a shiur. Just as our talents are not interchangeable, so too are our major missions unique. (This does not mean that we cannot contribute in an area which is not our expertise. We can and should contribute where we can. But our energy and focus should be in the area of our greatest ability.) These talents and these individual missions are manifestations of Hashem’s personal involvement in our lives, His hashgacha perotit. I will be judged if I utilized opportunities to use these talents and gifts for the common good this past year. As the Sifsei Chaim points out, if we have squandered last year’s gifts, Hashem will give us less this year. If we have used our gifts purposefully in His service, He will bless us with more this year.

This idea leads us easily into our third metaphor of the soldiers lined up before their commanding officer, King David. King David’s army was so proficient, writes Rabbi Pincus zt”l, they they usually had individual missions, seldom going out as a larger unit. If one soldier failed in his personal assignment, the entire plan was at risk. Therefore, when we are judged, we are judged both individually and collectively, writes Rabbi Leff. We have our “assignments” as part of the group, whether it is in service to our immediate community, to our city and to the world at large. How are we enhancing the world Hashem has envisioned? By our behavior and contributions, are we serving as an inspiration to others?

Each of us must therefore understand that Hashem judges us from two different perspectives, writes Mesilot Bilvovom. Therefore, each of us must recognize our own uniqueness as well as our purpose in the greater picture. When we realize that “the whole world was created for me,” we appreciate our own importance both as individuals and as part of Klal Yisroel and the world. A single action on our part can shift the balance of the world’s judgment in either direction, toward the positive or toward the negative result. I am significant, and must do my part not just for myself, but also for the benefit of the community and the world.

This is an important point to keep in mind. One should always strive to be a contributing part of his community. Then, when Rosh Hashanah comes, he will be judged not only on his personal merits, but also on how his actions positively impacted the community, writes Rabbi Leff. The good of the entire community that he impacted will also then be counted in his favor.

There are many ways one can help others, but not everyone is gifted with every way to help. The one contribution everyone can make toward others is to pray on their behalf, whether it’s for the parnassah/sustenance/job for a friend, a refuah shelaymah for a sick member of the community or for a single to find his/her bashert. Our prayers make an impact not only for those we pray for, but for ourselves as well.

This is the beginning of the new year. We are being judged on our aspirations for the coming year rather than on our meriting reward and punishment for the past year, explains the Sifsei Chaim. Our actions of the past year serve as a litmus test for our new task and on what tools we will need to fulfill our task for the coming year rather than as a means of passing down a sentence for the previous year.  May Hashem give us all good health and many other blessings so that we may continue reflecting His presence and glorifying His Name in the coming year.

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