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    The Rosh HaShanah seder

    September 22nd, 2019

    On Rosh HaShanah evening many people put an array of simanim, symbolic foods, on the table – not just apple and honey but other foods too, which are tasted one by one as their meaning is explained.

    The apple and honey signify our prayer for a sweet year. There are also dates, leeks, carrots, beets, pomegranates, beans, apples, and a fish head. If you haven’t recently eaten one of these foods and require a Shehecheyanu, it is covered by the Shehecheyanu in the Kiddush.

    Each food has its explanatory words; the pomegranate (rimmon), for example, expresses the hope that just as the fruit is filled with seeds, so the year will be filled with mitzvot. The beet (selek) suggests the hope that any unhappiness will depart (yistalek).

    There are many customs as to the order of the foods. What we share is our yearning that the year ahead will bring us only good things.

    The question is whether we deserve everything we seek. That’s what lies behind the last line of Avinu Malkenu, “Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, for we have no good deeds”.

    An old custom was to say these words quietly and hesitantly, because we asked for so much and lacked good deeds to pay for it.

    These days we sing this line loudly and confidently to assure God that this year He can rely on us because we plan to accumulate good deeds.


    Fear & the shofar

    September 22nd, 2019

    Saadya Ga’on says there are ten uses of the shofar. One is to announce danger.

    In the song from “The Sound of Music”, Julie Andrews says, “Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect…”

    Yet the final words of Adon Olam don’t go along with the notion of fear. They say one shouldn’t feel afraid.

    So who is right – Julie Andrews or the unidentified author of Adon Olam?

    It all depends on what one means by fear.

    It can denote being frightened. It can also indicate being awestruck.

    Amos 3:6 says, “Shall the shofar be blown in the city and the people not tremble?”

    Why would the shofar be sounded – to herald danger, from an enemy, from an earthquake or fire?

    The inhabitants want to live a quiet life, but now danger looms. The people are frightened, for good reason.

    The way to handle the fear is set out in Adon Olam. It says, HaShem li, v’lo ira – “The Lord is with me: I feel no fear”.

    The danger does not magically dissipate, but God holds our hand and we are not alone.

    That’s one type of fear. The other is awe in the presence of God. Jacob said at Bethel, “How awesome is this place (“The Place”, HaMakom, is one of the names of God)” (Gen. 28:17).

    Fear of God is what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “amazed, wondering awe”. That is what we feel when we hear the shofar.

    It is as if the shofar proclaims, “Sense the awe of the moment!”


    Thirteen Attributes

    September 22nd, 2019

    The High Holyday prayers constantly repeat the 13 Divine Attributes that derive from Exodus 34:6-7: “The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and gracious God…”

    Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed goes into great detail about the Divine attributes and concludes that there is no way we can spell out the nature of the Almighty.

    We know God exists, but what is God? We haven’t the language or the understanding to define Him, but we can set out His actions – not His essence but His deeds.

    Says Maimonides, the list of God’s qualities is a list of merciful deeds, an expression of benevolence.

    The exception seems to be that He punishes descendants for the sins of their ancestors, which is a warning to parents to give their children a good example and not try God’s patience. His own preference is to reward future generations for the piety and goodness of their ancestors.

    The sages say (Talmud Rosh HaShanah 17b) that God appeared to Moses and told him, “If Israel sin, let them repeat the 13 Attributes of Mercy and I will forgive them”.

    God’s mercy is always open and if we return to Him, He will return to us.


    Divine secrets – Nitzavim

    September 22nd, 2019

    The secret things belong to God; the revealed things are ours. (Deut. 29:28)

    In the basic sense, the secret things are the sins we commit away from human scrutiny, but it is also possible to interpret the verse as saying that there are limits to the human mind and we will never be able to delve into the Divine secrets about God and His universe.

    It is a mistake to expect a sudden flash of understanding so that everything in the world is laid bare.

    Humans are very clever beings and there is hardly an area of investigation which remains outside our ken – except for the really important things, the elements of existence and Creation.

    It’s hard to discover that we have limits and have to learn humility. Yet the fact is that God is Melech Elyon, the Supreme King, and man is merely Melech Evyon, the Lowly King who finds it hard enough to understand himself.


    It’s hard being Jewish – Nitzavim

    September 22nd, 2019

    “This commandment which I command you this day,” says the Almighty, “is not too hard for you, neither is it far off” (Deut. 30:11).

    It’s hard to be Jewish. Not just because it makes so many demands but because – as Jules Isaac, the French educator and thinker, said – the Jew seems to be “the eternal negative symbol of history”.

    For no logical reason, we have been constantly targeted for tragedy. Being Jewish has a habit of bringing prejudice and persecution. That’s the external side of Jewishness – the hostility from without.

    Internally, it’s hard to be a Jew because God expects so much from us – piety and prayers, mitzvot and morality, Torah learning and living.

    One of the hardest things is the simple rule of being honest and upright, as against the greasy, grubby mentality of the environment.

    That’s not to say that we have always lived up to our Divinely-ordained obligations, but we try to do our best.