Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Column: Shana Tova

First of all I want to wish everyone a Shana Tova and share a teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Each year I remember this teaching and tell it over to friends because I feel it is so important. It goes like this, and I am writing from memory.

Rabbi Nachman teaches that while Rosh Hashana is a day of judgment, the main judgment is not whether or not we were able to improve ourselves, overcoming some bad character trait, but rather whether or not we beseeched Hashem during the year to help us overcome it and become a better person. This approach recognizes both the great difficulty we face in improving ourselves – for the sages say that it is easier to learn the whole Torah than to fix even one character trait – and the power of personal prayer which Rabbi Nachman teaches us is central to our drawing near to Hashem.

So, for example, if we are prone to anger and find ourselves struggling to overcome it but failing continually, we should know that the judgment on Rosh Hashana is not on whether or not we succeeded in overcoming it, because this is extremely difficult, but rather whether we turned in simplicity and with true intention and prayed for help to be freed from that defect. Along with this practice, our faith grows as we see that HaShem hears our prayers and that very slowly, over the years, we begin to improve little by little.

This teaching of Rabbi Nachman’s, along with another and very famous one, Azamra, reveals some of the real sweetness of Rosh Hashana. Azamra speaks about how the Tzaddik looks only at our good points and thereby raises us up spiritually and builds the Mishcan, or Tabernacle (first spiritually) with our good points. This relates to and is made clearer by Rabbi Nachman when he refers, in another one of his teachings, to the writings of the Ari Hakadosh, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, who explains that at the time of the blowing of the shofar on Rosh HaShana, there is an angel who goes around and collects all the good points of all the Jewish People and brings them before Hashem – sweetening all the judgments.

This relates to yet another teaching of Rabbi Nachman on our subject. It speaks as to how, according to the Midrash, Hashem originally created the sun and the moon the same size. What happened then was that the moon approached Hashem and complained, saying that it was impossible for two rulers to reign over the same kingdom. Hashem then diminished the size of the moon as a punishment for its complaint.

While this might seem harsh, Rabbi Nachman teaches that for us it is actually a great blessing, for the sages say that Hashem regrets what he did to the moon and the He Himself repents over having done it. When does he repent? He repents at the new moon, when the moon disappears from sight and is completely diminished. Now, since Rosh Hashana always falls on the new moon (it is the only holiday that does), and this is the day of Hashem’s own repentance, so to speak, he certainly has mercy on us when we come before him and repent ourselves – sweetening all the judgments as we pass before him, one by one.

Furthermore, the Midrash concludes by telling us that Hashem gradually restores the moon by allowing the stars to shine at night and enhance its reduced size. Rabbi Nossan, Rabbi Nachman’s student and scribe, explains that the stars represent the mitzvoth and good deeds of the Jewish People which comfort the moon and restore it to its glory. It is known, as well, that the moon represents the Jewish people and that its diminishment represents the exile – may it end soon.

I guess there is not much room left to discuss current events here in Israel. I wasn’t planning to wax spiritual for so long but I suppose it’s for the best. There are times when we need fix our gaze heavenward and focus on the lofty. Rosh HaShana is definitely one of those times and so while there are crucial events occurring every day, and our enemies give us no rest, l wanted to share with you some of the ideas and teachings that make Rosh HaShana such a source of renewal and hope for me. Shana Tova to all.


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