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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana And Re-"jew"-venation

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Let’s begin with the name: Rosh Hashana. Why not call this seminal holiday, "T’Chilat Ha-Shana," the Beginning of the Year; or "Shana Chadasha," the New Year - as it’s colloquially known in English - rather than the "Head" of the Year?!

My rabbi simply, but eloquently explained: "This is a time of the year to use your head, to think. Think back about what you have done for the past 12 months; your failures, your accomplishments, the plans and promises you so confidently proposed and whether you made good on them. Then think ahead to this coming year: What will you do with that supremely-precious gift of Time, if the Almighty sees fit to "extend your lease?"

So, as Rosh Hashana fast approaches, I think about not only where I will be praying, did I get an aisle seat, where will I be eating, etc., but also the bigger picture of my life, where it has been and where it is going. My rabbi’s words still ring in my ears. So let us put our heads together and Think! for a moment about something serious and significant.

The rabbis who edited the High Holiday Machzor had an abundance of Torah portions to choose from as part of the service. They decided to include four famous stories: The birth of a child to aged parents Abraham and Sarah; the Akeida binding of Isaac; the miraculous birth of Samuel the Prophet to Chana; and the whale of a tale of Yonah’s mission to ancient Nineveh.

What connects these seemingly disparate episodes?

I suggest that each narrative, in its own way, is meant to hammer home to us the power of the human potential. In the first story, Abraham and Sarah are confronted by the reality that they are approaching the century-mark, and have not as yet together brought a child into the world. Abraham has indeed fathered Yishmael and loves him but he senses that he is yet to produce a rightful heir to his monotheistic legacy. Sarah, for her part, still retains an exquisite beauty, but is not content being a "trophy wife;" as a great prophetess, she knows innately that she must reproduce. The two of them ceaselessly petition God for a child, their prayers are finally answered and they reach full potential.

Chana, too, is nagged by her unfilled need and desire to create new life. Her husband valiantly tries to assuage her pain "Am I not better to you than 10 children?!" he pleads with her but she will have none of it. She acts with bold determination here we have a true and noble feminism at work when she breaks with protocol and comes to the Bet HaMikdash to fervently enunciate her plea. Eli, the High priest, thinks the elderly lady is either drunk or deranged, but she is neither; she is a Mrs. with a Mission, and she will not be denied. Her prayer is not only sincere, but stunning in its selflessness; she will present her child to that very same Eli, and Samuel will part from her to service the entire Jewish nation, becoming a circuit-riding prophet whose spiritual connection to God is second only to Moses.

The Akeida is the supreme test of faith: how far will one go to show allegiance to His creator? We can discuss the merits of this dramatic incident forever and ever, without coming to any solid conclusions: Was God truly prepared to take Isaac’s life? Would Abraham have gone through with the killing had the angel not stopped him? Is this event a repudiation of child-sacrifice, or a concession to it? It is precisely because those questions remain unanswered that the Akeida retains its mystery and mystique throughout the generations. But what surely IS clear, and what Abraham demonstrates for eternity, is that a human being has the ability and potential to push himself to the limit, to "go the distance" in devotion to a holy cause.

Yonah has been called a "failed prophet;" his story certainly is problematic and filled with ambiguity. Why does he run away, seeking to shirk his mission? Why does he submit to the storm circling about him, agreeing to be thrown into the ocean to a seemingly certain death? Is he a coward, afraid or unwilling to use the gifts which God has instilled in him to prod his people to penitence? Or is he actually courageous, prepared to end his own life rather than be an instrument of Israel’s demise when they – unlike Nineveh will refuse to reform and change their sinful ways?

I see a profound humanity in Jonah, who must go through a grueling Trial by Tempest until he finally learns that redemption is never impossible; that the potential for salvation is always there, if only we have the guts and the gumption to pursue it. At the bottom of the sea - in essence, a giant, God-built Mikvah - Yonah is "born again" and spit out from that underwater uterus to continue the task he was created to perform. Whether he succeeds or not is almost incidental; what matters is that he is again willing to try.

The story is told about a store owner who receives a call one day. "I’m looking for a job as a stock boy," says the caller.

"Sorry," says the owner, "I already have a stock boy."

"But I’m very good," says the caller, "honest, dependable, efficient, energetic."

"So is MY stock boy!" says the owner.

"But I’m sure I can be even better!" says the caller.

Now a little exasperated, the owner says, "Look, I told you that my stock boy is excellent; I would not think of replacing him! And hey, who is this, anyway?"

The voice at the other end of the phone replies: "This is your stock boy. I just wanted to check on how I was doing!"

Rosh Hashana is the ultimate time to think, to check our progress and check-in with the Almighty to see how we are doing. It is the perfect time to "dig deep" into our souls and come to grips with this amazing potential each of us has to accomplish great things, to dream big dreams and actually bring them into reality. Isn’t that what the Jewish People – and, right in front of our eyes, the spectacular State of Israel - has done, with an unparalleled success? Haven’t we shrugged off the negative predictions of our demise and the narrow-minded nay-sayers, and turned swamps into sprawling cities and potential into Paradise?

The Shofar is a clarion-call that reminds us of Abraham, of the Akeida, and of our ability to become a Sarah, a Samuel, or just a better person who can make a positive difference in the world around us. Don’t let the opportunity for greatness slip away as we "head" into what will hopefully be the greatest year of all.

Shana Tova to all.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss
Was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and led congregations in Chicago and Dallas prior to making Aliyah in 1992. He directs the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, helping to facilitate the spiritual absorption of new olim.
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