Nechemiah’s advice to a chastened nation seems strange. “Today is holy to Hashem….Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks. Send portions to those who have nothing prepared….Do not be sad. The enjoyment of Hashem is your strength!” Nechemiah’s audience, no paragons of virtue, had good reason to cry any day of the year. They had many misdeeds that they needed to acknowledge. All the more so on Rosh Hashanah, when they accepted their guilt, and understood that they were standing before G-d Who was judging them at that moment. We would think that crying would have been both cathartic and beneficial to their repentance.
Moreover, the Ari z”l measured the sensitivity of our souls by our ability to cry. He looked down upon any person who could pass through an entire Yomim Norarim period without shedding a tear. Why would Nechemiah suppress the tears of his people, and even urge them to eat celebratory meals?
The Yerushalmi turns Nechemiah’s speech into policy for all time. “Ordinarily, a person awaiting judgment sits as if in mourning. Yisrael does not do that. They dress in finery, eat and drink, secure in the knowledge that Hashem will perform the miraculous for them.” Is not Rosh Hashanah supposed to be a time of awe, in which we see ourselves submitting to the judgment of Heaven? How can we expect a miracle, when we understand how vulnerable we are because of our sins?
Toras Avos teaches that all of our teshuvah and self-improvement should take place not on Rosh Hashanah, but prior to it during the month of Elul. Teshuvah is not the theme of Rosh Hashanah. That day is reserved for the coronation of the King, of accepting His authority over every part of our being. While the word shanah means “year” in our world, it means something quite different in the Upper Worlds, in which there is no time. There, the word is related to shinui / change. The new “year” in that world means the capacity to effect newness and change in the inhabitants of our world.
Our avodah on Rosh Hashanah is to take advantage of that capacity for change. There is only one known way for that to happen on short notice – the promotion of deveikus, firm connection with, and clinging to, Hashem. By firmly accepting His Kingship we can enter into a new relationship, a new covenant with Him. Casting away the old baggage we meaningfully connect to Him.
Where there is a relationship of deveikus, there is no room for din to take its toll upon us. Din cannot coexist with deveikus. Indeed, we can celebrate in anticipation of a miraculous turnaround, at least in our relationship with Hashem.
We stand at the threshold of understanding the enigmatic nature of a year’s beginning that lasts not one day, but two. Can two be one? Apparently so, according to the sefarim hakedoshim. Halachah treats the two days of Rosh Hashanah as one long day. Standing at the core of this matter is the kernel truth that the two days are treated similarly, but are sourced in two entirely different ways of relating to Hashem. The two days allow for us to revisit both ahavah and yirah. Jointly, the two produce deveikus.
Ahavah and yirah are two all-important pillars of our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. They tug at our heartstrings in very different ways. Mentally and emotionally, they draw out different responses from us. We shift inner gears between them, as they seem to address different aspects of ourselves. Between the two days of Rosh Hashanah, the aspects of ahavah and yirah must each in a brief period of time arrive at the same place – namely, a rejuvenated, fierce sense of connection between Klal Yisrael and its Creator.
Ahavah intuitively leads to deveikus. Yirah, however important, would not seem to get to the same place. When fear and overwhelming awe enter a relationship, we tend to flee in fright, or at least draw back. We certainly do not move closer. How can yirah lead to deveikus?
Pri Ha-aretz explains. The awe arises in part from the realization of Hashem as the complete and absolute Giver, and ourselves as complete receivers. Focusing further upon this, we realize that we do not merely owe myriad blessings and favors to Hashem; we owe Him everything. Understanding our complete dependence upon Him, we can more readily giving up our sense of self to Him, and arrive at a place of complete bitul self-negation. Yielding to Him, removing the self-made barriers between ourselves and Him, allows for deveikus.
The centrality of deveikus on Rosh Hashanah manifests itself in several other ways as well. We can easily see it peeking out in the Three Books in which we are all inscribed. The tzadik merits immediate inscription in the Book of Life, while the beinoni, intermediate between the tzadik and the evildoer, navigates the Ten Days of Repentance before he is inscribed. Both must attain some level of deveikus to renew the relationship with Hashem for another year. The tzadik accomplishes this on Rosh Hashanah, and need wait no longer to be inscribed for life. The beinoni takes longer. He requires the Aseres Yemai Teshuvah to get him there, and therefore must wait till Yom Kippur to be inscribed.
The sounding of the shofar as well is shaped by the need to get to deveikus. In times of war, we sound the broken sounds of the teruah on the chatzotzros/ trumpets which function to rouse the camp in the face of impending danger. The sound is therefore associated with yirah, fear. The Torah also commands, however, to use the same chatzotzros to sound the long, continuous tekiah in joyful accompaniment of our offerings in the Beis HaMikdosh. Here it is used as an instrument of ahavah. On Rosh Hashanah, of course, we combine both tekiah and teruah, making yirah and ahavah equally important paths to the deveikus we seek. Shofar itself is linked to both. It inspires awe: “Will a shofar be sounded in a city, and the people not tremble?” It also figures in the pomp and ceremony surrounding the coronation of a king. We signify – with great ahavah and joy – our yearly coronation of the King through the tekiah.
For all its seriousness, we do not treat Rosh Hashanah with cold sobriety. Still listening to the ancient command of Nechemiah, we treat Rosh Hashanah like a Yom Tov in regard to the clothes we wear and the festive meals we consume. Deveikus cannot coexist with feelings of depression and futility. (The shedding of tears prescribed by the Ari z”l must come from a sense of longing for Hashem, not from depression and futility.) The Yom Tov conduct is an adjunct to developing the sought-after deveikus; it rides a crest of bitachon in Hashem’s chesed.
Deveikus, though, is such a tall order! How do we get there, especially when at a time that we are unusually aware of our misdeeds and shortcomings? A marvelous parable guides us. A lowly soldier stands in wait, part of the honor guard along the route that the king is expected to travel. The king’s arrival is significantly delayed. Being a hot day, the soldier uses the extra time to freshen up. He sheds his clothes, and takes a dip in the river. Unexpectedly, he hears the approach of the king’s entourage, approaching quite rapidly. This plunges him into a state of confusion and doubt. Hardly in a state to receive the king, he considers that he should perhaps hide himself. On the other hand, his job calls for him being on hand to honor the king.
He decides that he simply cannot lose the opportunity to receive the king, and stands naked and exposed at his post. While others are horrified, the king discerns that his subject’s behavior proves that he regards the honor of the king more importantly than his own shame and embarrassment. Instead of punishing him as his advisors, aghast at the bizarre sight, suggest, he bestows a medal upon the soldier for his devotion. This is our job exactly – to present ourselves before the King on Rosh Hashanah. Despite seeing ourselves as naked and exposed, we must nonetheless appear at his coronation, and look towards His compassion, hoping that our service will be lovingly accepted.
Our approach helps show why an apparent inequity is not what it seems to be. “He perceives no sin in Yaakov, and saw no perversity in Yisrael.” Hashem, of course, sees everything. If He fails to notice the faults of Jews, it can only be that He decides that He will not see! This is hardly fair. Is it not inconsistent with His justice that he should play favorites?
The continuation of the verse is sometimes invoked to provide and explanation: “Hashem his G-d is with him.” The sin of a Jew is never a full-blown act of rebellion and defiance. A proper Jew never manages to squeeze the full experience of sinning out of the act. He may capitulate to his yetzer hora in a moment of weakness, but even as he sins, his pleasure is curtailed. He never quite maximizes on the experience! While in the very process of transgression, he already feels stung by the sense of betraying HKBH, of disobeying the G-d Whom he loves. Thus he is robbed of the excitement of complete immersion in sin!
Our approach, however, offers an alternative explanation. The pasuk suggests a different truth about our behavior. Even after committing some sin, “Hashem…is with him.” A Jew rebounds from his indiscretions, and finds a way to renew his connection, reestablish his deveikus with Hashem.
This deveikus is the antidote to so much of what is wrong about us. Deveikus purifies us, brings atonement to us. Aveirah simply cannot coexist with the presence of HKBH. Its inherent deficiency is incompatible with His perfection. Those burdened by awareness of their considerable flaws will find solace in this. Deveikus is indeed possible for us on Rosh Hashanah, and in it we will find the way to surmount what we do not like and accept about ourselves.
Taken from R. Adlerstein’s forthcoming volume on Nesivos Shalom, the yearly cycle and topics in avodah.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He also serves as a faculty member at Yeshiva of Los Angeles and its high schools, and holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School.
Rabbi Adlerstein is a contributing editor of the quarterly Jewish Action, as well as its regular computer columnist. His essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Present Tense, Tradition, Shma, the Los Angeles Daily Law Journal, and a host of Jewish and general printed and electronic media. He was frequently heard on KABC’s Religion on the Line, and appears often in the printed media as a voice of traditional Judaism. He co-hosted Rabbis With Attitude, a weekly radio program. His Be’er Hagolah, the classic defense of rabbinic Judaism by Maharal of Prague, was published by Artscroll/Mesorah Publications.
Rabbi Adlerstein received his ordination from the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva in New York. He is a summa cum laude graduate of Queens College, and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. [All associations are for identification purposes only. All content and opinions offered are solely the responsibility of the author and not those of the institutions with which he is affiliated.]
 Based on Nesivos Shalom vol.2, pgs. 113-115
 Nechemiah 8:9-10
 Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 1:3
 Beitzah 30B
 Parshas Ekev
 Bamidbar 10:9
 Bamidbar 10:10
 Bamidbar 23:21