Three Things We Should Never Say Before Rosh Hashanah
President Obama recently got into trouble for three statements he made about his role as the leader of the free world.
Obviously his words are important. His decisions play a crucial role in determining our national destiny. They will eventually face the verdict of history. Our personal resolutions almost assuredly pale in comparison.
Yet in the view of Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher held by tradition to be second only to Moses, there is reason to believe that the choices we make in our own lives may very well have cosmic significance comparable to those of the most powerful political leader.
As we approach the High Holy days, Maimonides asks us to imagine that the fate of the world is placed on a scale weighing its good versus its evil – and is found to be perfectly balanced. Every one of us must view our lives as bearing the potential to sway God’s divine decree to one side or another based on the quality of the deeds we add the total equation.
It is a remarkable insight that imposes upon each of us the notion of a kind of collective responsibility which grants inestimable meaning and value to the seemingly minor roles we play on the stage of the world’s history.
Let us explore the words of President Obama – not as a political jibe – but in order to gain some insight that will help us properly prepare for Rosh Hashanah.
1. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
The words were in response to Islamic extremism.
In The Washington Post, Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz observed that while Obama’s no-strategy remark “may have had the virtue of candor,” it in no way projected “an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness at a time of international turmoil.”
In a time of national crisis – and as several commentators have pointed out you can only spell the word crisis with Isis – a clear strategy is key to our very survival.
So too, I think it is fair to point out that in order to successfully confront the challenges and the crises of our own lives we dare not put off the need to develop a strategy for living, a strategy that incorporates the values and ideals that justify our presence here on earth.
Some years ago I received an amazing invitation. A group known as the Gathering of Titans, comprised of 100 CEOs of major corporations in America, annually get together at a retreat – in this case at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – to discuss issues relevant to their business practices and to hear from prominent experts in various aspects of corporate management. As part of their program, they asked if I could come and lecture as well.
Stunned, I asked what role I could possibly play. I have no business expertise. My rabbinic background hardly qualifies me to teach these titans of industry how to improve their corporate bottom line.
"We understand that," they countered. "That's not why we want you to address us. We all know how to make money. But more and more of us have come to recognize that in the process of making ourselves very wealthy we've impoverished ourselves spiritually. We want to know what a religious leader such as yourself can suggest for us to feel greater meaning and purpose to our lives.”
Define your personal mission statement.
So I shared with the Gathering of Titans a concept they were very familiar with in their corporate world and asked them to integrate it into their personal lives as well.
Every major company prepares a mission statement. It is a short and succinct summary of what they hope to accomplish as well as the ideals that motivate them. Imagine if we had similar clarity about personal goals and how we plan to achieve them. Imagine if we took our personal mission statement as seriously as a business manifesto. Imagine if we took the time to decide why God put us here on earth and then went ahead and fulfilled our life's purpose. In short, imagine if we had a strategy for the way in which we lead our lives. After all, making a success of our lives is as important as making a success of our businesses.
The insight I shared with them from Ethics of the Fathers, to "Know before whom you are standing and before whom you are destined to give a final accounting," seemed to make a profound impression. And that’s why one of the chief goals of the High Holy days is to find the wisdom to turn God’s will into our personal strategy for living.
2. “The world has always been messy.”
Sure we read about masked madmen holding a crude knife to the necks of Americans on their knees in the desert and beheading them, witnessing the rise of a barbaric Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, watching as Russia downs a civilian airplane murdering all aboard and taking illegal possession of its neighboring country, observing the rise of anti-Semitism in a post-Holocaust Europe that was supposedly cured of this lethal disease – but we cannot take comfort from a historical perspective that is willing to accept evil as inevitable and wickedness as inescapable.
Let’s be clear that “We’re never going to make this a better world” is a philosophy totally alien to Judaism. The messianic ideal is another way of saying that we have faith – faith in a world that can be improved by our efforts and our commitment to change it day by day in accord with the values of Torah.
The high priest in the days of the temple followed a remarkable sequence in which to seek forgiveness and atonement from God. He began with himself, followed by his household and then by his concentration on the entire Jewish people. How do you change the world? First from within; begin with yourself. Then reach outward to those closest to you. Only then you may accept the challenge of the larger community.
Every one of us can change the world.
That is a doable project. And on the High Holy days God reaches out to every one of us and asks us to improve in the knowledge that every one of us can eventually lead to all of us.
The key to success is not to resign ourselves to the fact that the world has always been a mess but to believe that every new year carries within it the potential for a new beginning that can lead to a truly happy ending.
3. “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
Jewish law is divided into two categories. There are 248 positive commandments and 365 negative ones. The beauty of Torah is that it contains a dual message: it not only teaches us the forbidden but also the obligatory, not only what we have to stay away from in order to be considered righteous but what we are required to be committed to in order to deserve God’s favor.
“I never did anything to hurt anybody” sounds like a declaration of piety but falls far short from a biblical perspective. Don’t simply tell me what you never did wrong but share with me what you did right if you want divine respect.
“I never said anything bad about him” is meant to suggest kindness. True care and concern for others would include finding it possible at least occasionally to say something good about others.
“Don’t do stupid stuff” isn’t good enough to serve as the key to our national policy. So too, simply avoiding the irresponsible isn’t good enough to express our personal goals for the coming year. We need to clarify the specific goals that we are proactively committing to this year.
The High Holy days are the time for serious consideration of our life’s direction. It is a period of heavenly judgment. We dare not ignore the need for a strategy for living. We dare not excuse our reluctance to change with the paltry defense that it never was and never will be better. And we dare not make a claim upon righteousness solely by virtue of not being guilty of having made the wrong choices.
Take a few minutes to think about these three important ideas. They have the power to transform your life.
רוש חודש אלול
Rosh Chodesh Elul
The month of Elul is a month of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That’s why Jews blow the shofar (almost) every day of the month.
For lots of reasons. Here are just a few:
a. After Israel sinned with the Golden Calf, Moses spent 40 days pleading for forgiveness. Then he ascended the mountain once again for another 40 days—after which he descended with the second tablets. This ascent, which began on the first of Elul and lasted until Yom Kippur, was accompanied by shofar blasts. To commemorate this, we blow the shofar during the month of Elul.3
b. Elul is the month during which we search our souls in anticipation of the High Holidays. The soul-stirring shofar blasts inspire us to come closer to G‑d, as we read, “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid?”4
c. Blowing the shofar – which is actually a Rosh Hashanah activity – for a month in advance, confuses the prosecuting angel, who now has no idea what day is the real Rosh Hashanah.5
Huh? How is blowing the shofar for a month going to confuse the prosecuting angel? Nobody ever delivered a Jewish calendar to his door? Wouldn’t the crafty angel catch on after a few hundred years?
The Rebbe6 has a wonderful insight into this:
First of all, this isn’t the only time we’re out to befuddle the prosecution. On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar more than necessary, the Talmud tells us, “to confuse the prosecuting angel.” On that talmudic passage, Rashi7 explains: When the prosecutor sees how we cherish G‑d’s commandments—going far beyond the strict requirements—he simply has nothing to say.
Something similar happens when we blow shofar for an entire month before Rosh Hashanah. By doing so, inevitably we’ll feel remorse over past misdeeds and set ourselves upon a fresh new path. If so, the case is already sealed—and we won. G‑d has already inscribed us in the Book of Life for the coming year—even before Rosh Hashanah. This leaves the prosecutor confused. What’s left for him to do when the trial date finally arrives?
That’s the meaning of “not knowing what day is Rosh Hashanah”—he can no longer tell when the judgment occurs. Because we proactively took care of the whole thing on our own accord—sort of a backroom deal between us and G‑d.
This is also why we do not blow on the day before Rosh Hashanah: By that point we are so confident that G‑d has accepted our sincere repentance during the first 29 days that we do not even need to blow on the last day of the month.
And the prosecution is out of a job.
The Hebrew month of Elul begins the season of blowing the shofar (ram's horn) and seeking God in sincere repentance.
"Return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey His voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul." (Deuteronomy 30:2)
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways.’” (Haggai 1:7)
Today is the first day of Elul, the last month of the Jewish civil calendar that ends on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year's Eve (September 24, 2014).
As the last month of the calendar, it commences the critical liturgical season of return and repentance.
The Hebrew word for repentance or returning to the Lord is teshuvah. This is a word that indicates a turning back (shuv) to God.
We see this word used in Genesis 3:19 when the Lord tells Adam “and to dust you will return (va-el afar tashuv).”
Teshuvah indicates both a turning away from evil as well as a turning toward what is good. In turning toward God, one dedicates his entire soul to serving Him.
“Return, faithless Israel, declares Adonai I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares Adonai. I will not be angry forever.” (Jeremiah 3:12)
A rabbi recites the prayers of Elul, singing traditional Jewish melodies.
Judgment and Mercy in Elul and the Days of Awe
Elul leads up to the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), a time of intensely focusing on repentance and forgiveness. The Days of Awe begin with Erev Rosh Hashanah on September 24 and end with the close of Yom Kippur on the night of October 4 (1–10 Tishrei).
As such, it is traditionally considered to be a time of introspection, taking stock of one’s life, evaluating one’s actions, and contemplating what one has accomplished during the previous year both materially and spiritually.
The very word Elul (which is an ancient Akkadian word meaning harvest) is similar to the Aramaic root verb meaning search.
Elul is followed by the month of Tishrei, which commences with Rosh Hashanah, a period of reconciliation.
According to rabbinic tradition, Moses returned to Mount Sinai during the month of Elul, remaining there for 40 days following the incident of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32; 34:27–28).
This would have been the time between the new moon or Rosh Chodesh of Elul and the holy day of Yom Kippur, which is the 10th of Tishrei, a period of 40 days in which he prayed to God to forgive the Hebrew people for the sin of the Golden Calf.
According to the book of rabbinic teachings, the Talmud (Bava Bathra 121a), his returning with a second set of tablets is considered as evidence of God’s mercy.
The Golden Calf, a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence
Lithograph Company (Exodus 32:1–8, 30–35).
Elul: Wisdom and Understanding, Mercy and Forgiveness
Because Hebrew letters are also numbers, a mystical belief or tradition has arisen in Judaism regarding deciphering the meaning of words by evaluating their numeric value.
The letters that make up the word Elul have a number value of 67, so it is associated with another Hebrew word that shares the same numeric value: the word binah (בינה), which is Hebrew for wisdom or understanding.
From this, it is supposed that the month of Elul is the time given to us by God to grow in wisdom, a time for reflecting on where one stands within the overall framework of God’s mercy and justice.
While the preceding month, the Hebrew month of Av, with its many catastrophes, may suggest a moving away from God, Elul becomes the time to grow in binah (wisdom) and to begin to make things right with Him—the time for teshuvah or repentance.
It is also possible to read 67 as 6+7, resulting in the number 13.
For this reason, Elul is also associated with The Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy that are based on God’s words to Moses when He passed by him on Mount Sinai:
“Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.’” (Exodus 34:6–7)
Praying selichot prayers at the Western
(Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.
The Exodus passage above reveals God's divine mercy toward the Israelites who sinned, and so it is read as part of the Selichot (forgiveness) prayers that are recited daily during this 40-day period of Elul plus the Ten Days of Awe.
These days are a time of spiritual cleansing culminating with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Thus, Elul is also referred to as the month of mercy and forgiveness (Hodesh haRahamin vehaSelichot).
It is the time to renew one’s efforts in prayer, Torah study and charity and to ask forgiveness from others that you may have harmed.
It is a Jewish tradition that God cannot forgive us for sins committed against another person until we first go to the person we have wronged and obtain forgiveness.
Seeking and extending forgiveness is an important aspect of the month
of Elul and the Ten Days of Awe (High Holy Days or Yamim Noraim).
When we combine this tradition with Yeshua’s emphasis on forgiveness, we see in this process an opportunity for real reconciliation:
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Matthew 6:14)
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." (Mark 11:25)
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37)
As Believers, the miracle of forgiveness should begin in our hearts long before the offender begs us for forgiveness. Nevertheless, may we also be quick to recognize when we have hurt or offended another and be swift to apologize and ask for forgiveness.
This season of Elul is the perfect time for us to take stock and actively seek forgiveness.
A 12th century, Venice mosaic of Noah sending out
The Number 40 in the Bible
The start of the month of Elul begins a 40-day period in which every individual and the community as a whole takes time for introspection.
The number 40 is mentioned 146 times in the Bible and most often refers to a period of testing or trial.
Here are a few examples:
- Yeshua (Jesus) fasted for 40 days in the Judean wilderness following His mikvah (baptism) by John.
- The Hebrews wandered for 40 years in the wilderness (Numbers 14:33–34).
- Moses tended sheep for 40 years for his father-in-law, Jethro, before he was called to lead the Jewish nation from captivity in Egypt. He also fasted on two separate occasions on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights while receiving the law from God (Exodus 24:18; 34:1–28).
- Jonah gave the people of Nineveh a 40-day warning: “Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ (Jonah 3:4)” In this case, the 40 days was a period of warning that allowed the people of Nineveh to repent and turn from their evil ways.
- In Noah’s day, during the Flood, the waters poured out for 40 days and 40 nights, judging the people of the earth.
Both Moses and Yeshua fasted for 40 days as they communed with God during times of testing. The 40 years spent by the Israelites in the wilderness was a judgment of God.
So, we see, therefore, that God uses the number 40 to represent a period of testing or of judgment, and for that reason this next 40-day period is taken very seriously.
From the second day of Elul to the 28th day, the
shofar (ram's horn) is blown after morning
services every weekday. It's distinctive, piercing
call is considered a call to repentance.
Customs and Practices During Elul
There are several traditions and customs associated with the 40 days between the first day of Elul and Yom Kippur.
They include the following:
- The Selichot prayers are recited. These prayers are based on a tradition that says that while Moses returned to Mount Sinai for 40 days after the incident with the Golden Calf, the Israelites spent this time seeking reconciliation, culminating in the revelation of The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy given to Moses.
- On most day of the month of Elul (with the exception of Shabbat and the last day of Elul), the shofar (ram’s horn) is sounded in a call to repentance. This is meant to call attention to the significance of Elul as a time for reconciliation and introspection. The great Hebrew philosopher Maimonides described it as a “wake up call” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4).
- It is a custom when greeting someone or writing a letter to include the Hebrew phrase Ketivah vachatimah tovah, which means May you be inscribed and sealed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.
- Psalm 27 is read during morning and afternoon prayers. The word lulai (לולאֵ) appears in verse 13—where David wrote, “Had I not trusted that I would see the goodness of God in the land of life...,” leading the rabbis to argue that David doubted that he would have his reward in the “land of the living.” This is used to encourage a person to repair their actions so that their sins do not cause them to lose out on the reward of the world to come.
- The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidic Judaism, began the custom of adding three chapters of the Psalms each day, the remaining 36 chapters being recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
A Jewish man recites the Psalms (Tehillim) during morning prayer at the
Western (Wailing) Wall.
Elul: I Am My Beloved’s
In Jewish tradition, the word Elul is also connected to acrostic verses of Scripture.
To arrive at this acrostic, the first letter of each word is taken separately so that it spells the Hebrew word Elul (אֱלוּל).
These verses give added meaning to the month of Elul in terms of repentance, prayer, and charity or righteous deeds.
Here are three key verses:
- Et Lebabcha V'et Lebab
“Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)
Here Your heart and the heart in Hebrew is את לבבל ואת לבב where the first letter of each word forms אלול Elul. The idea of a circumcised heart represents God’s covenant with Israel and acts as a reminder of the need for repentance and teshuvah or returning to God.
Jewish wedding bands are often inscribed with Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li
(I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine). The words of this verse are
also considered an acrostic for Elul, reflecting our very real potential to
enjoy a vibrant, intimate relationship with Adonai if we will only turn from
sin in repentance and seek Him.
- Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li
“I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine, He who pastures his flock among the lilies.” (Song of Songs 6:3)
In Hebrew this is אני לדודי ודודי לי and here, again, the initial letters form the Hebrew word אלול Elul. The Beloved is interpreted as being God and represents the close relationship and mutual love between Israel and God. This verse is suggestive, therefore, of prayer.
The Aruch HaShulhan (a rabbinic teaching of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein [1829–1908]) suggests, “Now is the time that all my thoughts should be directed towards my Beloved (God) then, my Beloved is also to me; my Beloved helps, assists, and cares for me.”
Elul is the period in which each person cleanses his relationship with his Beloved, with God.
- Ish L're'ehu U'Matanot L'Evyonim
“... sending portions to one another and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:22)
Within this Hebrew verse ימִשְׁל֤חַ מָנוֹת֙ אִ֣ישׁ לרֵעֵ֔הוְּ וּמַתָּנ֖וֹת לָֽאֶבְיוֹנִֽים׃ is the word Elul. Although this verse is specifically related to Purim, it does embody the timeless necessity for kindness and taking care of the poor and needy.
In Judaism, deeds of kindness are traditionally considered the “pillars upon which the world stands.” (Avot 1:2)
A homeless person in Israel sleeps in a cemetery on a mattress. The
month of Elul is a time to go out of our way to help the poor and needy.
Elul: the Month of Redemption
“They will continue to grow stronger, and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.” (Psalm 84:7)
During Elul, the study of Torah, combined with repentance, prayer, and righteous deeds are meant to connect the Jewish soul to God through divine service. Elul, therefore, is the month of redemption.
It isn’t just located in the here and now, however; it also points to the future, and to future redemption. There remains in the hearts of all observant Jews the hope of a future redemption to come in the form of the Messiah of Israel.
Many believe that ultimate redemption will be the result of a total commitment to the Torah and doing mitzvot (good deeds) today.
As the time draws near for the future coming of our Messiah—our Redeemer—we need to share with those whose hearts are open to the true Messiah and Redeemer of Israel, Yeshua the Mashiach (Jesus the Messiah), the only true hope of Israel.
"Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of His inheritance? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in steadfast love." (Micah 7:18)
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"For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." (Colossians 1:13–14)