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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays The Essence of Rosh Hashana

The Festivals of Tishrei and the Sanctity of Israel

Abraham, a "father of many nations," could not imagine that the greatness he was to acquire through the binding of his son would remain a personal possession and not make its impact felt upon the other young men, the servants that were with him.
Rabbi Yehoshua MagnesMonday, 5 Tishrei 5768
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1. A Unique Order
2. Do You See What I See?
3. The Secret of the Young Men

4. A Simple Meal


A Unique Order
The sages address the relationship between the holidays in the month of Tishrei - the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; and the days of joy, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. The Midrash explains (Bamidbar Rabba 30:3):
" 'And you shall take for yourself on the first day [of the Sukkot festival] the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees' (Leviticus 23:40) . . . For Israel has been acquitted and has been pardoned for its misdeeds [on Yom Kippur], and these species announce the victory of Israel . . . This is what King David says to Israel: If you perform the commandment of the four species . . . you can be sure that you will defeat the nations of the world. Accordingly Moses exhorts Israel and says, 'And you shall take for yourself on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm-trees.' "
However, if we take a closer look at the content of these days, we will find something else that is unique about their order: Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment for the entire world - "On Rosh Hashanah all who walk the earth pass before Him like young sheep" (Rosh Hashanah 16); Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is unique to the Nation of Israel - "R' Akiva said: Happy are you, Israel! Before whom do you become clean? And who is it that makes you clean? Your Father in heaven . . . Just as the mikveh (ritual bath) renders clean the unclean, so does the Holy One, Blessed Be He, render clean Israel" (Yoma 85b).
On Sukkot we again find concern for the entire world. The seventy bullocks offered in the Temple during the seven days of the Festival correspond to the seventy nations. In addition, the holiday's commandments are carried out with members of the plant kingdom: myrtle, willow, palm leaves, etc.
Shemini Atzeret, on the other hand, which completes this cycle of holidays, is again unique to the Jewish people (Sukkot 55):

"To what do those seventy bullocks [that were offered during the seven days of the Festival] correspond? To the seventy nations. To what does the single bullock [of the Eighth Day] correspond? To the unique nation. This may be compared to a mortal king who said to his servants, 'Prepare for me a great banquet'; but on the last day he said to his beloved friend, 'Prepare for me a simple meal that I may derive benefit from you.' "
Tishrei's cycle of holidays, then, is unique in form: Israel with the nations, Israel alone, Israel with the nations, and again Israel alone. This unique structure has its source in the biblical narrative of the Binding of Isaac. Consequently, by examining this important episode we can learn about the order of our religious service in this month.

Do You See What I See?
After receiving the astounding divine commandment to "offer [Isaac] there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains that I will tell you," Abraham prepares himself for this severest of tests: "And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and broke the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him."
All of Abraham's actions are taken in preparation for the binding of his son except for the taking of the two young men, who appear to have no connection to the trial. This matter, though, will become clear in the course of our study.
"Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place far away. And Abraham said to his young men, Stay here with the donkey; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come back to you."
"And saw the place far away." Regarding this verse the sages say (Midrash Rabba 56): "What did he see? He saw a cloud enveloping the mountain, and said: 'It appears that that is the place where the Holy One, blessed be He, told me to sacrifice my son.' He then said to him [Isaac]: 'Isaac, my son, do you see what I see?' 'Yes,' he replied. Said he to his two servants: 'Do you see what I see?' 'No,' they answered. 'Since you do not see it, stay here with the donkey."
At the beginning of the test, God said to Abraham, "Offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains that I will tell you," but Abraham in fact becomes aware of the location of the binding through sight - "Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place far away"; here, then, he has reached a level of prophetic vision like that enjoyed by the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai - "And all of the people saw the sounds" (Exodus 20:15). Upon this backdrop, the inability of the young men to see the clouds enveloping the mountain becomes all the more pronounced.
But explanation is still called for. Why does Abraham choose to inform the youths of their inferior spiritual status at this particular time?
"I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come back to you." Abraham defines his test as "worship" (hishtachavayah). Worship spells total submission. We find this idea at the end of the episode as well when the angel says to Abraham "Now I know that you indeed fear God." Abraham is described as fearing God because fear (yirah) indicates the submission of one to another, of the fearer to the feared. Only through complete fear, i.e., total submission, could Abraham pass his test (see Responsa Mahari Weil 191).
But what are we to make of Abraham's promise to return to the young men? Is it conceivable that at the very moment he sets out to bind his son as a burnt offering he is concerned about the welfare of his young men?

The Secret of the Young Men
Let us consider the words of our beloved mentor Rabbi A.I. Kook on this matter (in his prayerbook commentary, Olat Raaya); they shed light upon the question of the young men and Abraham's behavior toward them.
"Aware of the fact that we stand confined by limitation, we will come back to you, we will enlighten you and others like you from the source of the light that emanates from sanctity and transcendent oneness. In the sacred enterprise of self-sacrifice . . . to the living God, we shall return to you and elevate you."
Here, then, the secret of the young men is unveiled. Abraham, a "father of many nations," could not imagine that the greatness he was to acquire through the binding of his son would remain a personal possession and not make its impact felt upon the young men that were with him. This was part of Abraham's mission, to bring the entire world under the wings of the Divine Presence.
Therefore, as part of his preparation for the binding of his son, he "took two of his young men with him." He wanted them too to benefit from the spiritual elevation he had undergone as a result of the binding of Isaac.
However, when they got close enough that the place where the binding was to be carried out could be seen in the distance ("He saw a cloud enveloping the mountain"), it became apparent that the young men would not be able to accompany Abraham and Isaac on their way to worship God. It became clear that there was no room for their presence during Abraham and Isaac's complete submission to the word of God. The service would be too lofty for them to take part in, even just to observe. Therefore, Abraham says to the young men: You cannot continue with us because you are too attached to the material world (they are told to "stay with the donkey," and the Hebrew word for donkey, "chamor," suggests material existence). You must wait here while we go to worship God.
Yet even as this important distinction between Israel and the nations is being made, Abraham refuses to forgo his approach to divine service. If the youths cannot accompany him and Isaac while they serve God, let them wait here with all of their materialism. After serving God, he will return and enlighten them, and elevate them too. "I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come back to you."

A Simple Meal
Abraham and Isaac had carried out God's will. They had subordinated their own will to the will of the Creator, and the divine will had been revealed - "lay not your hand upon the boy." However, the the uniqueness of the Jewish people had not yet been revealed in its entirety - "On God's Mountain, He will be seen" (22:14). Abraham will now return to his young men, and they will certainly be elevated, but it is now clear that in the future the Jewish people will journey to Jerusalem on the festivals to appear before the Lord, and that this journey will elevate the Jew to a level of prophetic inspiration.

The same is true of the order of the holidays in the month of Tishrei.

On Rosh Hashanah all creatures pass before God in judgment. Yet it is not a day of judgment alone. On Rosh Hashanah the Jewish people pray that God "reign over the entire universe." We seek the revelation of God's kingship over the entire world. The Almighty, on the other hand, asks us to "recite verses of kingship before Me in order to make Me king over you." It is as if He prefers His kingship to be revealed over Israel alone. We, however, are not satisfied with this; we request the revelation of His kingship over the entire world.

Then the nation of Israel arrives at the holy day, Yom Kippur. The essence of this day is God's revelation. The entire service on this day is built upon expressions of divine compassion that accompany the giving of the second tablets, expressions of divine compassion that began with the revelation of the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy to Moses when he ascended Mount Sinai on the first (Rosh Chodesh) of Elul. The Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy and the second tablets are exclusive to the Jewish people.

Moreover, the day's service consists of the complete submission of man to God - "Mikveh of Israel, the Lord! Just as a mikveh (ritual bath) renders clean the unclean, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, render clean Israel" (Mishnah, Yoma 8:9). A mikveh only purifies a person if he immerses himself completely so that no part of the body remains outside of it. Such service, complete submission and absolute devotion to God, is true only of the Jewish people, who are able to ascend above material existence.

Yet the Jewish people have no rest in this world. As soon as this holy day passes they return to the physical world via the festival of Sukkot, and enlighten the world with the spiritual gains of Yom Kippur. The festival's commandments are performed with types of earthly vegetation. In the Temple service, the Jewish people offer up seventy bullocks that correspond to the seventy nations of the world. All of this is carried out in order to elevate the world after the exultation of the Jewish people on Yom Kippur.

But even after the exultation of creation that comes about through the Jewish people in performing the commandments of Sukkot, there remains a distinction between Israel and the nations. The nations cannot reach the unique status of God's own chosen people. Therefore, even after Sukkot, we find a holiday that is unique to the Jewish people, Shemini Atzeret, the day on which the King says to his beloved friend, "Prepare for me a simple meal that I may derive benefit from you."

There is, then, an additional order to the holidays of this month, Tishrei, the month wherein the patriarch's of the Jewish people were born. Following the unique path they took in serving God, following the unique heritage latent in this path, we too go to encounter God on these days. Not alone, but accompanied by the entire world - to a certain point; yet, from this point onward we follow our own unique path. And from this unique encounter between the nation and its God the entire world shall benefit. At the close of these days the King's love for His people will be revealed to all, as He enjoys an intimate meal with them on Shemini Atzeret.
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Some of the translated biblical verses and Talmudic in the above article may have been taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).



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