By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
At the time of the technological revolution, during the beginning of the twentieth century, when the world suddenly began exploding with innovative inventions, the Chofetz Chaim wrote in his sefer Shem Olam that the inventions serve to strengthen our emunah. Pertaining to the camera he wrote, it serves to demonstrate that the Mishnah’s admonition of “ayin ro’eh” is not just an allegory, but is real, much the same as the telephone hammers home the fact that there is an “ozen shoma’as” that hears at all times.
If there is a technical gizmo that symbolizes our present situation this week, perhaps it is the reset button, allowing us the ability to shut the system down and begin again. We can extricate ourselves from the mire we’re in by taking advantage of this Divine gift. “Zeh hayom techilas ma’asecha.“ Rosh Hashanah is not just the commemoration of the first day of creation, but an opportunity to experience creation anew, and in the process renew our own personal circumstances.
Rav Yisroel Salanter famously questioned why Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur. It would make more sense, he said, to first cleanse ourselves through teshuvah and then be able to more properly celebrate Hashem’s dominion over the universe. It would seem that there would be greater glory for our King if His subjects, who join in His coronation, are already pure of sin and fully devoted to His will.
Perhaps the answer lies in the essence of Rosh Hashanah. This day proclaims that there is no status quo. Nothing can be counted on to continue during the coming year just because it was so during the previous year. There are no chazakos. Thus, we pour out our hearts in prayer, davening for a good new year, fully trusting that there are no chazakos in the negative areas of our lives. We seek to merit a year full of positive developments for ourselves and our families.
Just as we look forward to the New Year to break any negatives in our lives, we are fearful because we realize that we have no lease on good health, parnassah or the other blessings in our lives.
Hayom haras olam. Today is the day of creation. Not just back when the world was created 5,772 years ago, but also today and now. Hayom yaamid bamishpot kol yetzurei olamim. Today, the forces of creation are strongly present, as Hashem judges all His creatures and decides what type of year they will be having. The day of Rosh Hashanah marks a new beginning for everyone.
This new beginning can actually be a source of comfort, for it indicates that we aren’t locked in to our sorry spiritual states. Thus, the teshuvah process begins with the days of Rosh Hashanah, reminding us that we aren’t stuck in our ways. We can walk a new path, if we press the reset button. Therefore, Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur, because it is the day when we begin anew. That new beginning is what gives us the confidence to undertake teshuvah and make ourselves whole once again.
Rosh Hashanah is the gift that launches us onto the path culminating with Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur. It is this awareness that allows us to believe that we can change. Everything can change.
In the shofar’s plaintive wail, we hear echoes of the blasts that were sounded at Har Sinai, when Klal Yisroel was formed into the nation of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. The shofar then proclaimed a new beginning. The world had reached its destiny. There was only hope and promise.
The shofar was also blown at Yovel. When we blow it on Rosh Hashanah, it hints at the independence of the Yovel year, the collective song of freedom chanted by so many released slaves going home to begin life anew. The very earth also joins in the process, as land returns to its original owners in Yovel. We, too, can all start again. We can get a fresh start, a new lease on life.
Many speak about the fusion of joy and awe on Rosh Hashanah. The mandate to celebrate the Yom Tov is laced with the severity of the Day of Judgment. In light of the above, we can well understand the simcha. It is joy over the fact that as far removed from Hashem as we may feel, as dark as things might seem, we have a chance to press reset and begin anew.
Teshuvah is the way to climb back to where we belong. It is a veritable life-vest being extended in a stormy sea to save us.
The Brisker Rov once remarked that some problems have no eitzah. The only solution is to have avoided the mess in the first place. He shared a pithy story to illustrate the point. There was a baal agalah whose wagon got stuck in a ditch, and although he pushed and pulled, he was unable to get it out of the mud. He beat the horse and rocked the wagon, but to no avail.
Eventually, he left the wagon there and walked to the nearest town, frustration and bitterness accompanying him on the exhausting walk. He reached the town and searched for a veteran wagon-driver. He found one and described his situation.
The old-timer shrugged. “There is nothing to do.”
“So what’s the solution?” asked the desperate baal agalah.
“You make sure not to get into a rut like that to begin with!”
The Rov’s story is all too true in some areas.
But thankfully not all.
We slip. We make mistakes. We commit sins. We don’t do mitzvos properly.
But one of the greatest chassodim that Hakadosh Boruch Hu does for us is that he gives us a way to climb out of the rut.
He gives us Rosh Hashanah, when everything starts over. We are given the ability to make a new beginning and to start from scratch.
To be happy, even if we were sad.
To be upbeat, even if we were depressed.
To learn well, even if we didn’t last year.
To scrub ourselves clean from sin and muck, from the dirt and silliness we got involved in.
The ability to press reset on all the components that make up our lives, so that we can begin anew.
When we were children, we would look for the colon, or “two-dots,” in a Gemara. Sometimes, we found the sugya we were learning to be too difficult and complex for us to comprehend, so we looked ahead to see where a new sugya would begin. There we would get a new start and hopefully gain a proper understanding of the Gemara. Even if we had missed the opportunity to follow along and were hopelessly lost in our feeble attempts to comprehend the deliberations of the sugya, we knew that the future would be better. We would have a fresh start.
Rosh Hashanah is the two dots in the shvere sugya of life. We pick ourselves up and start again.
We are arriving at the finish line of 5771, staggering. By all accounts, it was a rough year. When we express the annual hope of “Tichleh shanah vikileloseha,” there is no shortage of difficulties to which we refer.
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16) teaches that a year that is “rosh,” meaning impoverished, at its start, will be rich at its close. Rashi explains this to mean that we recognize that the Yidden come to shul like poor people, hands outstretched, destitute and desperate, and offer tefillos which in essence are akin to a beggar pleading for a donation, tachanunim yidaber rosh.
This is the yesod of Rosh Hashanah, said Rav Yitzchok Blazer in the same of his rebbi, Rav Yisroel Salanter. To recognize that we have no guarantees, no chazakos, but also that we are facing the Source of all blessing. Like a poor man who has a meeting with the most generous donor, anything is possible.
Rav Eizik Sher expands this idea a little further. On Rosh Hashanah, everything in creation and every creature is judged individually. As the Mishnah [Rosh Hashanah 1, 2] teaches, “Vechol bo’ei olam ovrin lefanav k’vnei maron.“
There is so much being judged. In the human race itself, there is a world with billions of people. There are many nations and countries. Each of them is judged – who to hunger, who to war, who to peace…
Only one nation knows the secret. Only a minute percentage of the people lining up before G-d is aware of what it takes to be zocheh bedin. Only Am Yisroel knows the secret. We know that standing like a “rosh,” an impoverished beggar, is a means to be granted a sweet year on Rosh Hashanah.
The sense of our own frailty itself is a catalyst for our triumph. We are nothing. We have nothing. All we have is Hashem’s great mercy. Rav Nachman of Breslov points out that the roshei teivos of the words recited prior to tekias shofar, “Beshimcha yegilun kol hayom,” form the word bechiyah, meaning to cry. The posuk which outwardly refers to Klal Yisroel’s joy in Hashem’s Name contains a hint of the tears it generates. We are awed. We feel small and humbled in His presence. This itself serves to protect us, much the same as a powerful father draws his helpless, weak child close.
Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro once explained why the teshuva process begins with Rosh Hashana, rather than Yom Kippur. He said that Yom Kippur is when we do teshuva for the aveiros we’ve done, on pettiness and selfishness and so many other vices. On Rosh Hashanah, however, the teshuva is on how we think, not necessarily developing yet a new course of action, but rather beginning the teshuva process with a new attitude.
The day is meant to reshape our perspectives, and make us realize that we need a special teshuva for our previous mindset. What is the Rosh Hashana mindset?
Rav Shimshon Pincus sheds light on what the day teaches us, and his insight can virtually change the way we daven.
If someone approaches a wealthy man for a donation, the donor might be helpful, but he will assume that there are others who will help as well. But if the collector asks for money saying “I have gone to everyone in this town, and I am still very far from my goal. You are the only one who can help me,” he will likely get a more generous donation.
Another mashal from Rav Pincus. A fund-raiser might approach nine wealthy men for donations, and each will help him. The tenth donor, however, is his uncle, here, he is assured of a large donation, since it’s being given out of love.
The two prime components in achieving a request are complete dependence on the giver, and an awareness of his love.
Hakadosh Boruch Hu, said Rav Pincus, has both, only He can help, and He loves us boundlessly.
Let’s approach him that way.
Confident in His kindness. Im k’vanim. He’s our father.
Trusting in His limitless abilities. Im k’avadim. He’s our master.
And against that backdrop of hope, let’s wish each other – and all of Klal Yisroel a Shanah Tova Umesukah.