1. ELIE WIESEL
Rosh HaShanah is the anniversary of the world’s creation, when God examines His world by the standards He established at the beginning of time. We, his creatures, are said by the sages to be His partners in working on the world, so it’s only logical that we have a share in rendering judgment.
When He looks at us and wonders how well we have handled our role, we are likely to reciprocate and assess the quality of His work. Maybe, we dare to think, we humans could do a better job.
Elie Wiesel picks up the theme and says that one day man and God agreed to exchange roles. God assumed man’s position; man assumed God’s. Man said he wasn’t afraid; God said that He was.
God’s fears were not unfounded because man now refused to go back to the original situation. The result was that neither man nor God were no longer what they appeared.
Eventually – maybe after generations, even centuries – neither side could carry their burden. But neither could move without the other. They had no choice but to resume the old dialogue…
Read into Wiesel’s story the interpretation that fits. As far as I am concerned, neither I nor any other human being can speak for God. But I see – as you must – a mighty danger in man thinking he can be God. Isn’t it more than enough for man to decide to be truly human?
2. LEVI YITZCHAK OF BERDITCHEV
The phrase Tikkun Olam, mending the world, has a long history going back to at least the 3rd century if not earlier. It symbolises a task which applies to all of us at all times, though there are moments when it has a special urgency. A story about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev bears this out.
It is said that before the High Holydays, early in the month of Ellul, Levi Yitzchak was standing at his window late one afternoon, looking out on the world.
Down there in the street, the people of the town were going about their business, some moving briskly on the way to a task that awaited their attention, some moving slowly so as not to miss an opportunity of plying their trade.
Along came a cobbler who looked up at the window, saw the rabbi and called out, “Have you anything that needs mending?”
“Anything that needs mending?” echoed the rabbi, “but the evening will soon be here, and how will you finish the job before dark?”
“Rabbi,” said the cobbler, “There is still enough light. While I have light I can still do some mending.”
“And thus it is with us,” said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak to himself; “the year is coming to an end, but while there is still time we can do some mending!”
We all have so much to do to make the world a better place. While we still have time we can get a lot of mending done.
3. THE CHAFETZ CHAYYIM
The Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah begins, K’chu immachem d’varim v’shuvu ad HaShem – “Take with you words, and return to the Lord” (Hos. 14:3). Which words? About God, about humanity, about the world, about being Jewish… and about yourself.
It’s part of Yom Kippur to say things about yourself, mostly negative things: Chatati, aviti, pashati, “I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed”. The negative admissions are probably quite justified. None of us is perfect. We all have things to regret and repent.
But Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel warns in Pir’kei Avot (2:13), Al t’hi rasha bif’nei atzm’cha – “Don’t be wicked in your own estimation”. No-one is so bad that there is nothing good to say about them. The Haftarah makes this point when it asks God to accept “the good” – i.e. not just to see our failings but to value our virtues.
According to the Chafetz Chayyim, one of the worst sins is undervaluing your own self. Not only should you speak well of others, but of yourself.
Erich Fromm says that when the Torah tells us, V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), the assumption is that we love ourselves, at least to a reasonable extent.
The Chafetz Chayyim says that a lesson about not under-appreciating oneself came to him because of an incident in a carriage.
He was a fellow passenger with a stranger who did not know him. The stranger excitedly explained that he was on the way to visit the famous scholar called the Chafetz Chayyim.
The latter muttered to himself, audibly enough to be heard, “I’m not sure the Chafetz Chayyim really deserves your praise!”
The stranger was so shocked that he turned on his travelling companion and slapped him.
Reaching home the Chafetz Chayyim said, “I always knew not to denigrate one’s fellow man. Now I know that one should also not denigrate oneself!”
4. SHMUEL YOSEF AGNON
We all put our trust in things that we hope will save us from disaster, but they turn out to be a broken reed.
There once was a rooster that was very depressed at the approach of Rosh HaShanah because he dreaded the day when some people take a rooster and twirl it about their heads with the idea of transferring sins onto it, and then the rooster is given to the shochet to be slaughtered.
A mouse told the rooster not to be so afraid: “I’ll help you! “ he said; “I’ll be clever like my father, for when a lion was captured and tied up with strong ropes my father gnawed through the ropes and set the lion free!”
“Good idea,” said the rooster, “but how will you show your cleverness?”
The mouse said, “Don’t worry. I will work it – but will you remember me and save me?”
“Of course,” said the rooster.
The mouse said, “This is my plan. On the Holydays when all the human beings are in the synagogue I shall eat up their book of customs and no-one will be reminded to send you, O rooster, to the slaughter!”
Lo and behold, the people duly went to the synagogue, the mouse came out to eat up the holy book – and the cat jumped on him and gobbled him up…