The Torah at Rosh HaShanah

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In the heart of the people of Israel resides the Torah. As time went by, this nucleus allowed for the creation of the multiple variables continuously being added to the complex fabric of Judaism in our day. It is difficult for us to grasp our culture, language, folkloric traditions and our history in general without going back to the Torah. In the tradition of Israel, the Torah, is a starting point containing condensed energy. As this energy expands and multiplies, the many faces of who we are and what we do as Jews are created.

A midrash says that when G_d decided to create the world, He used the Torah as his master plan (Bereshit Raba 1:1). We, who were created in the image and likeness of the Divine and who have been called to imitate His work of creation with consistency and commitment, are reminded by this midrash that the symbolic worlds we inhabit are rooted in the Torah. We are therefore invited to return to the Torah time and time again to discover and recover new angles, no only on the text we read but also – and mainly – on the way we live and shape our lives.

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Rosh HaShanah is the time in the Hebrew Calendar when we celebrate another anniversary of the creation of the universe and the subsequent coronation of G_d as King of All Creation. Without a creation to enthrone Him, G_d would be a king without a crown.

Unlike Greek philosophy, that presents us with an immovable motor that neither desires nor needs anything since it lacks nothing, in the Jewish tradition, man needs G_d, but G_d is also engaged in incessant search for humanity and all creation for them to all unite in harmonious symphony and together demonstrate the unity that roots us in our common origin and inspires us to take up a common cause.

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Judaism does not merely believe in an original creation that took place millions of years ago. What mainly interests the Jewish people is the one that takes places every day. This is why, while only devoting two chapters to the creation of the world, when he got to the part about building the Tabernacle, the author of the Biblical text would devote page after page to a description of its architectural details and an operations manual for its proper functioning.

Indeed, a number of rabbinical interpretations point to the relationship between the Tabernacle and the world. In the Talmud we are told, for example, that one of the fundamental virtues of Betzalel, the artisan in charge of building the mobile structure for making offerings while the people wandered in the dessert, was that he “put together the holy letters used for the creation of the Heaven and Earth” (Brachot 55a). The midrash also records that “the Tabernacle is like the world, which is called ‘tent’ as the Tabernacle is called ‘tent” (Bemidvar Raba 12:13). And lastly, in the sages’ interpretation, the 39 activities forbidden on Shabbat – the weekly celebration of the creation of the world – were to be gleaned from the works needed to build the Tabernacle (Shabbat 49b).

Yeshaiahu Leibowitz had this to say about the Torah’s emphasis on human creation:

“The Torah is not there to provide man with information on the structure of the world, but to tell him something about the meaning of the existence of the man in the context of the world; and this meaning is nothing other than to serve G_d […] But the structure of the Tabernacle is not something given in nature but rather a creation that is the product of humanity’s task according to the ordinances of the Torah […] Man must do it […] Everything pertaining to the tasks that fall upon man rather than the things given to him by nature – everything that is evidence of the request expressed to man, the obligations imposed on man – this is what is important and meaningful […] The world in and of itself has no meaning: The meaning lies in serving G_d in the world. This is why the part about the Tabernacle in the Torah holds a much more important place than the creation of the world does.” (1)
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One of the liturgical poems we customarily read during Yom Kippur holds that man is like clay in the hands of the potter, who molds it according to his will. At first glance it would appear that this poem is stating that humanity does not have a great say in its own shaping, which is always left up to the will of G_d. However, anyone who has ever worked with clay knows that the only way to shape it is to accept the possibilities and limitations of the material one is working with. The true artisan in this sense is not the one who denies the imperfections or capabilities of the material, but the one who attains the best possible version of the clay in their hands.

G_d is the potter who gives us our inspiration. We are the ones in charge of shaping our existence and giving it meaning.

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The first step in initiating teshuvah, repentance and return, lies in our recognizing that we are imperfect beings but ones we can work with. If we do not know who we are, our virtues and faults, we will have a hard time setting out on the task of repairing ourselves and becoming the best version of ourselves.

It is in this spirit that we should read one of the most beautiful teachings – to my mind at least – passed on to us by the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. In a compilation text of some of his sayings and reflections we read:

“Rise from your sleep with alacrity, because you have been renewed and became a different person that is capable to beget.” (2)
Every day we are born anew. As a result, past mistakes cannot condemn us, and yesterday’s successes cannot shelter us. Thus, when we do teshuvah, we go back to square one in the rebirth every new morning signifies. At daybreak, we reaffirm ourselves in the creative task of giving shape to our dreams and aspirations once more, without being held prisoner by our guilt or trapped by our resentment.

Looking at things from this perspective, remembering that we are created every single day, gives a whole new meaning to the words of Rabbi Eliezer, who asserted that it is our duty to repent on the day before we die (Avoth 2:10). If we are reborn every day, every yesterday spells goodbye to who we no longer are; our commitment to return therefore needs to manifest itself on a daily basis. Every day we are renovated and born anew, because the person we were yesterday is no longer there. The future is an endless number of possibilities at our disposal.

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Children are the point where future, creation and transcendence intersect. In our tradition, this knot is a braid of three strands: the father, the mother and G_d (Kidushin 30b). And perhaps it is no coincidence that at Rosh HaShanah – the day for celebrating the creation of the universe, the start of the year, and the dawn of new mornings on which to create our own being – the materials chosen by our sages to be recited during the ritual take us back to the stories of three children, and to the relationships forged between them, their fathers, their mothers, and G_d. The three offspring making an appearance on this day when the world was called into existence are Ishmael, Isaac and Samuel. A review of their stories will allow us to contemplate some of the aspects we have been discussing up to this point.

Ishmael, Isaac and Samuel all share in common that they were sons who were long sought after. Ishmael was the outcome of Sara’s idea that Abraham find a surrogate womb in their servant Hagar, since Sara was sterile. But things did not turn out the way our matriarch had planned. In a society that awarded women status based on their motherhood, a servant girl who gave birth could become much more than a threat to an infertile lady.

The discomfort Sara feels at seeing Hagar take the place of the mother of the family and watching Ishmael position himself as Abraham’s heir creates such tension that Sara demands of her husband that he expulse the servant and her son. The discomfort Hanna feels when another wife of her husband Elkana has children when she cannot, is translated into the tension that arises when a married couple fails to reach agreement, when a husband cannot see that his wife needs something besides his love, besides his words of consolation. When Elkana asks rhetorically “Am I not better than ten sons?” (I Samuel 1:8), Hanna’s reply – which is not recorded in the text – is “definitely not!”

The Talmud records the words with which Hanna is supposed to have beseeched G_d:

“Said [Hanna] to the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the world, Of all the things that you have created in a woman, you have created nothing without a purpose – eyes to see, ears to hear, a nose to smell, a mouth to speak, hands to do labor, legs to walk, breasts to nurse – these breasts that you have placed on my heart , are they not for nursing? Give me a son, so that I may nurse him.” (Brachot 31b)
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In light of what we have been saying up to this point, it should come as no surprise that the sages chose texts describing dysfunctional families as the ritual readings for Rosh HaShanah. Still, the fact that we are not surprised does not mean the texts are easily digested by everyone. Indeed, some contemporary machzorim propose replacing the story of Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion and reading about the creation of the world instead. It is easier to seek refuge in the story of a Creator-G_d than to come to terms with texts that present us with fallible heroes who seek not perfection but perfectibility.

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Let us not forget. Rosh HaShanah is not merely the day when we remember another anniversary of the creation. It is also a time for drawing a balance and the Day of Judgment on which, in the Jewish narrative, G_d decrees who shall live and who shall die. This is the frame of reference for reading the Biblical texts selected by our Rabbis. These are not particularly cheerful times but days of great commotion and worry.

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There are those who claim to see the knight of faith Soren Kierkegaard speaks of in Fear and Trembling in the Abraham invoked at Rosh HaShanah. I personally see a man who fails again and again, allowing himself to be swayed by what Sara says to him in one story and what G_d commands him in the other. During the Yamim Noraim we do not read of the heroic deeds of untainted characters but of the struggles of each of those characters – and the struggles of each of us – in creating of the best version of themselves. Sara suffers from jealousy, Abraham fails to stick up for any of his children, and Hanna is so wrapped up in herself she cannot get anyone to comprehend her. Hagar abandons Ishmael so as not to have to watch him die, and Isaac lets his father tie him up as a divine offering. All, without exception, reveal their shortcomings and imperfections.

What we are called upon to imitate is not the unwavering faith of one who is prepared to sacrifice his own son in order to prove his blind trust, but the capacity, inherent in all the characters in the stories we read at this time of the year, of recognizing that we can make mistakes, and that there are always ways to start over.

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This might be why each of the three stories chosen for Rosh HaShanah reaches a turning point when those driven to despair manage to break the vicious cycle, and instead open the doors to new possibilities. In this transition from what we are to what we can be lies the true power of teshuvah and one of the fundamental underpinnings of the Yamim Noraim.

In the story of Hagar and Ishmael, the chance of a fresh start comes in the moment when hope is all but lost. Refusing to watch her own son die, Hagar runs off and hides, but just when she opens her eyes, she fortuitously discovers a source of water. The capacity to see what we could not see before attests to our growth and the possibility of our changing. Conversely, falling to pieces when there appears to be no way out ends up smothering us in our own blindness. The moral of this first story is clear: Even when circumstances do not come to our aid, even when everything seems to conspire against us, we still have the final say in our not being taken hostage by a destiny that neither exists nor has been written. But for this, we need to be able to hold our heads high, open our eyes, and see what we failed to perceive before.

In the story of Isaac’s bondage, we also encounter an Abraham who in the moment of greatest expectancy manages to listen to the celestial voice and desist from sacrificing his own son. It is at that point that he sees the ram caught in a thicket that will take Isaac’s place.

In the Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 65d) we are told that, all throughout that day, Abraham watched the ram getting tangled in the brambles then setting itself free, only to get caught in another bush and free itself again. But it was only once he was able to see the answer to his dilemma in the animal that both Abraham and Isaac were able to return home after their experience in Moriah.

Like Hagar’s ability to open her eyes and see the water that had always been there, Abraham teaches us that sometimes the solution to our problems involves discovering new elements in the things around us with which to resolve the conflicts that plague us. The ram had been there all day long, but it was not until our patriarch integrated it into the solution of his problem that Isaac was saved.

Concerning the midrash that tells of the ten tests our first patriarch had to pass (Avot 5:3), there are those who suggest that Abraham failed the tenth, since instead of interceding on behalf of his son, as he had interceded on behalf of the innocent in Sodom and Gomorra, he chose to remain silent and act according to the supposed will of a G_d who actually wanted him to rebel. However, although this message might be significant for the days of Yamim Noraim, I think we could also interpret that the tenth test did not consist of displaying immaculate faith, but of finding alternative solutions to given problems in moments of difficulty. If Abraham passed the test, it was because when he felt the situation had become terribly complicated, he was nonetheless able to open his eyes, see the ram and realize that all was not lost.

Finally, and in regard to Hanna, I think the verse that marks the breaking point and the possibility of change is the one that reads: “So the woman went her way, and ate, and had her countenance no more.” (I Samuel 1:18), on which Rashi comments that her no longer having her countenance means that she stopped being irate.

After prostrating herself and weeping, lamenting and pitying herself for her bad luck, Hanna was able to recreate herself, say her prayer and get up on her feet. In the triple act of walking, eating and getting rid of her anger, this woman was finally able to move on.

The third moral we are regaled with at Rosh Hashana when we read the stories of these Biblical families is a reminder that, in order to free ourselves of the predicaments we sometimes get tangled up in, our attitude has to be to get back on our feet and start walking. Above all, we have to pay attention to our attitude towards the things around us. Being held captive by ire will not help us to resolve difficulties any faster. Quite to the contrary, the story reaffirms the idea that anger against the world is a state of the soul, a state that does not depend on what goes on “out there” but on how we decide to face the things that happen to us. As Viktor Frankl said, the last of human freedoms is to choose our attitude in facing what life throws our way. (3)

To open our eyes, discover new solutions and keep walking straight ahead without getting snared by negative feelings are three ways our tradition offers us at this time of Rosh HaShanah to contemplate teshuvah, reaffirm our capacity to recreate ourselves and be reborn, and to discover in the millenarian stories of the Torah certain echoes by which to orient our own existence.

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