This article was written for The Jewish Press, September 19, 2017 edition. Reprinted with permission.
In this essay, I hope to introduce to a fresh perspective on the Festival of Rosh Hashanah. In order to do so, I ask you to join me in a simple thought experiment.
Imagine that Rosh Hashanah began in a manner similar to Passover, to Pesach. The festival of Pesach begins with the Four Questions, the Mah Nishtanah. With these questions, we compare our behavior on this night with our behavior during the rest of the year. The rest of the year, we eat unleavened bread, chametz, but on this night, we need only matzah. And so forth.
Suppose we would begin Rosh Hashanah with similar questions. What might those questions be?
We might begin by asking why we eat a standard menu at our meals all year long, but on this night, we eat an apple dipped in honey, and a variety of other foods which are in some way symbolic of our hopes for the New Year. We could then proceed to ask why we utilize no musical instruments in our prayers during the rest of the year, but we sound the shofar repeatedly during our prayers on Rosh Hashanah.
I would like to propose another sort of question, one that calls for introspection, cheshbon hanefesh, which is of course the essence of our spiritual task at this time of year.
Here is the question: Why are our concerns during the rest of the year limited to ourselves and our close family, to our own narrow social group and to our immediate geographical environment? Yet, on Rosh Hashanah, we are called upon to expand our horizons to include not only the rest of the Jewish people but the rest of the human race. We engage in the coronation of the Almighty as Melech al kol ha’olam kulo, the King of the entire universe. We become aware that not only are we being judged, but that every human being stands in single file before His seat of judgment. Those of us who live in the Diaspora do not restrict our prayers to our local communities but instead plead for simcha le’artzecha vesasson le’irecha, for “joy for Your holy land and happiness for Your city.”
On this day, we celebrate nothing less than the birthday of the entire cosmos, Hayom haras olam. But during the rest of the year, the cosmos is notoriously absent from our spiritual consciousness.
Finally, for most of the rest of the year, we are content, perhaps even smug, in our self-evaluations. We restrict our awareness to the good deeds that we do, to the mitzvos that we perform. On Rosh Hashanah, we are tasked with expanding our awareness to include misdeeds that we have long forgotten, and even meritorious acts that were performed for improper motives. All year, we are satisfied with our actual behavior; on Rosh Hashanah, we are enjoined to consider the great potential that lies within us, but which we have hitherto largely suppressed.
Why is this night—or, better, this day and these next ten days–different from “all other days?”
I was inspired to formulate these questions by a remarkable passage in the classic Hasidic work, Sfas Emes, authored by that outstanding spiritual master, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, the second Gerrer Rebbe. It is to be found in one of the Rebbe’s sermons in the Torah portion we read several weeks ago, Ki Setze (Deuteronomy 22:3-4). Its context is the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah, returning a lost object to its owner.
The text reads: “You should do the same with any lost property of your brother which he has lost, and you have found. You should not turn a blind eye to it. You should not watch your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road and turn a blind eye to him.”
The Rebbe is fascinated by the phrase, repeated twice in two short verses, “turning a blind eye.” The Rebbe writes: “In order to properly fulfill the mitzvah of returning a lost object, one must develop the habit of never turning a blind eye, not to physical reality nor to spiritual reality. One must keep his eyes open, and only then can he restore lost objects, lost thoughts, and lost ideals.”
As I understand the typically terse remarks of the holy author of Sfas Emes, this is what he is saying: Generally, most of us go through life cautiously restricting our field of vision. We wear blinders designed to confine our field of vision to that which is directly before us. We turn a “blind eye” to so much, if not most, of our surroundings.
We limit ourselves to our own “four cubits,” our own daled amos. In the process, we fail to perceive the needs of others, the suffering of friends and neighbors, and the trials and tribulations of others in our community.
We certainly do not look beyond our own community. We are blind to the larger concerns of society. We are even blind to the wonders of nature. We “turn a blind eye to lost objects”.
The Rebbe insists that we must expand our field of vision to include the many “lost objects” that could be recovered if only we ceased to “turn a blind eye to them.” He masterfully concludes his brief sermon with the insight that there are many “lost objects” within our own souls, and that we must take notice of them if we are to be spiritually redeemed.
The Rebbe is bemoaning an aspect of human behavior which has long been observed by others. Psychologists, for example, are fascinated by our tendency to avoid facing the full range of our experiences and emotions. Instead, we resort to defense mechanisms such as denial and repression in order to protect ourselves against discomfort, pain, and challenge. Psychotherapy is designed to help people to “open up” and become aware of the real sources of their problems. Thus, they come to learn of new options and are able to consider more effective alternative behaviors.
But one need not undergo formal psychotherapy in order to wake up from his habitual slumber. Rambam famously understands the sound of the shofar as a “wake up call” to rouse us from the slumber in which so many of us are customarily enveloped. Synagogue regulars have been hearing this “wake up call” every morning for the past months. All of us will hear it during the upcoming two days of Rosh Hashanah.
Rambam and Sfas Emes employ different metaphors to describe the same phenomenon. According to Rambam, we have been asleep and must arouse ourselves. According to Sfas Emes, we have been turning a blind eye to the full scope of our reality and must open our eyes to the full breadth of our surroundings.
How can we wake up? How can we open our eyes? These are the questions which we must each ask ourselves on Rosh Hashanah. But, unlike the answers to the questions we ask on Pesach, each of us must find his or her personalized answers to these questions.
Permit to me to suggest some readily available “alarms” or “eye openers.” I begin with an example that, in one way or another has impacted us all in the past month or so. I draw this example from the Almighty’s world of nature, a world in which we often fail to see His hand.
I begin by referring to the solar eclipse which we witnessed just a short time ago. Some of us went to great lengths to directly observe this wondrous phenomenon. All of us were compelled, if only for a fleeting moment, to abandon our characteristic indifference to the celestial sphere and to “raise our eyes upwards and ask, ‘Who created these?’” (Isaiah 40:26). For those brief moments, we did not “turn a blind eye” to one of the feats of the Master of the Universe. We must all learn to somehow preserve those “open eyes”. We must recover our ability to wonder.
Soon afterwards, He allowed the forces of nature to impact His earthly creatures even more directly. I refer, of course, to the fierce hurricanes which deluged the city of Houston and the State of Florida, and to the earthquake which wrought such destruction upon the west coast of Mexico.
Let us face the sad truth. Most of us do indeed “turn a blind eye” to natural disasters that occur in faraway places. Even the media do not give much attention to volcanoes in remote Pacific islands or to tsunamis in Southeast Asia or the Eastern coast of Africa.
But none of the readers of this essay was able to “turn a blind eye” to the scenes of the flooded homes of people we know in Houston or Miami. The images of ruined synagogues and irreparably soaked Torah scrolls were much too vivid for us to simply shrug off. Thankfully, and to our credit as a Jewish community, we were not blind to these human tragedies and will persist with our compassionate and charitable responses.
Many seek to explain such events in theological terms. They seek to determine whether these hurricanes were punishments from Above, indications of the Almighty’s displeasure with His human creations. Some even seek to specify the sins which may have provoked His wrath.
I find such theological speculation futile at best, and often simply foolish. Rather, I suggest that we use our temporarily opened eyes to envision two vital spiritual opportunities.
The first is the opportunity to confront our own vulnerability. We typically narrow our field of vision to our current conditions of health and success. We think that these conditions are permanent, that we are immune to illness and failure. We deny our mortality. As King David expressed it, “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be shaken.’” (Psalms 30:7)
The images we see of the instant destruction of an entire Caribbean island; the personal accounts we hear from friends and loved ones of lost homes, businesses and possessions, and even of narrow escapes from death, should eliminate our false confidence and convince us, once and for all, of our fragility. This is no small opportunity for spiritual growth, and Rosh Hashanah is the ideal time to take advantage of it.
But these recent catastrophes have proven to be an opportunity of another sort entirely. We can pride ourselves on not having turned a blind eye to their victims. We have seen the actions of first responders coming from distant places. Again, foremost among them have been the government of the State of Israel and many Israeli organizations. The Orthodox Union, and many other Jewish organizations across the United States, mobilized human and financial resources to assist the victims in their struggle to recover. These efforts dare not cease when the dramatic footage disappears from our TV or computer screens. Our eyes, once open, must remain open, and not just to victims of these disasters, but to all in our now expanded visual field who are in need.
Hopefully, we will not have to resort to such fearful events to help us expand our visual field. Hopefully, we can take our inspiration from the Torah itself, and from verses such as the one upon which the insight of the Sfas Emes is based: Do not turn a blind eye!
I am reminded of a remark by Rav Daniel Movshovitz, of blessed memory. He was the dean of the Yeshiva of Kelm, and was tragically murdered by the Nazis along with his students, colleagues, and the townspeople of Kelm.
The founder of that yeshiva was Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, of blessed memory. He was known as the Alter, or “old man”, of Kelm, and he emphasized to his students the importance of being nosei b’ol im chavero, sharing your fellow’s burden. This is one of the values listed in Pirkei Avos as a prerequisite for becoming a true talmid chacham.
Many years after his passing, students at the yeshiva he founded worked hard to develop this virtue and to become a person who shared in his chaver’s, or fellow’s, burden.
One day, Rav Movshovitz, interviewed a candidate for admission into his school. He asked him, “What important character trait are you trying to develop?” The young man answered, “I am striving to become a nosei be’ol im chavero.”
To which Rav Movshovitz humbly responded, “I envy you. You are way ahead of me! I’m still trying to make myself aware that there exists a chavero, a fellow with a burden that I must share!”
Too often, we restrict our field of vison so that we fail to even notice those around us who are in need. There are chaverim in our immediate vicinity with all sorts of burdens—financial, emotional, and spiritual. We typically do not even see them, let alone help reduce their burdens.
I intend the thoughts that I have shared with you, dear reader, for myself, as well as for you. We all too often “turn a blind eye” to our surroundings, and we all can open our eyes and see a wider expanse.
I close with a poem by Harav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, which expresses his soulful search for a broader field of vision:
My soul desires the breadths, the breadths,
The breadths of G-d.
Do not enclose me in any cage,
Neither physical nor spiritual.
My soul soars in the breadths of heaven.
The walls of the heart cannot contain her…
My soul soars beyond all these and flies upward,
Beyond anything that can be given a label,
Higher than any pleasure,
Higher than any pleasantness and loveliness…
“I am sick with love.”