At the beginning of Elul last year, the Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim found itself in an overwhelming deficit. Three weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the rosh yeshiva and HaRav Benny Carlebach flew to America for a six-hour visit to meet with 150 close supporters. The situation was dire. The yeshiva was four months behind in paying the married men learning in the yeshiva kollel! The group of supporters launched a plan to raise $7 million for the yeshiva. A few close supporters offered to donate half the needed funds if the other half was raised before Rosh Hashanah. A three-week, $7 million challenge! It was frantic—dozens of meetings, working into the wee hours of the night. Thankfully, the goal was reached and the married kollel students received their checks before Rosh Hashanah, giving them and their families great relief.
I believe the dedication shown by the yeshiva’s supporters provides us with a core message for Rosh Hashanah. Parshas Nitzavim opens with Moshe addressing the entire nation before him. The Ohr Hachaim says the purpose of speaking to all of klal Yisrael was to unite the entire nation as one entity. This created arvus—a feeling of responsibility of each Jew for the other. The Zohar notes that the words “You are standing here today before Hashem…” alludes to the day when all klal Yisrael stands before Hashem in judgment—Rosh Hashanah. How is arvus related to Rosh Hashanah?
The Mishnah Rosh Hashanah tells us that on Rosh Hashanah everyone passes before Hashem as if in a flock of sheep—indicating that each person is judged individually. Conversely, Rabbi Yochanan tells us we are all judged by Hashem in one glance, implying that everyone is judged collectively. So are we judged independently or collectively?
Rav Chaim Friedlander explains there is no contradiction. Two areas of each individual’s actions are assessed on Rosh Hashanah: his performance as an individual based on his capabilities, plus his actions with regard to his family, community, the Jewish nation and the world. Even if one falls short individually, if his efforts are beneficial to and appreciated by his family and the community, then he will receive a good judgment.
It’s puzzling that both these concepts are derived from the same source in Tehillim, “Hayotzer yachad libam hameivin el kol ma’aseihem”—Hashem fashioned their hearts together and understands all their deeds. How can the individual assessment and the collective assessment both be learned from one source?
This coming week, Ashkenazi Jews start reciting Selichos. The central prayer in Selichos includes the 13 attributes of mercy. On Rosh Hashanah we recite Tashlich, which is based on a few pesukim from Micha that also correspond to the 13 attributes of mercy. One of the attributes is how Hashem relates to the Jewish nation as “She’eris Nachalaso.” Rav Moshe Cordevero explains that the word “she’er,” which usually means “remnant,” in this context means relative, teaching us that Hashem has a special relationship with klal Yisrael as we are all relatives and not strangers. Similarly, every Jew is considered a close relative to each other, as learned from the concept of arvus. The Jewish nation is one large, close-knit family, and the plight of each Jew affects all of us.
My good friend Rabbi Avrohom Weinrib, rav of Congregation Zichron Eliezer of Cincinnati, told me that Rabbi Shimon Shkop says different people mean different things when they say “I.” Some people are only referring to themselves. Others are referring to themselves and their family, while still others include their friends, community and nation. A person is capable of increasing the realm of his “I.” As Jews, our “I” needs to be inclusive of all of klal Yisrael because we are one. The greater a person is, the larger is his “I.”
We live in the “I” generation: iPad, iPod, iPhone, iCloud, iTunes… We need to expand our outlook to include others with ourselves. Think about quarantined individuals and families. Some are stuck alone in their houses. My wife mentioned to me that when I go shopping I should call someone stuck at home to offer to purchase things for them. My daughter and son-in-law went back to Eretz Yisrael last week and are now quarantining for two weeks. Their friends have been helping them purchase whatever they need. This exemplifies arvus.
Last year, close supporters of the Mir Yeshiva took upon themselves to ensure that the kollel families had food for Yom Tov. This year, Hashem has created an extra opportunity for us before Rosh Hashanah to expand our “I” to include so many other Jews. When we do that, we are judged not just as individuals but as representatives of the entire Jewish nation. Although each person individually is not guaranteed a favorable judgment, klal Yisrael as a nation has a guarantee to be judged favorably.
Rosh Hashana is possibly the most complex day of our year, very different than Yom Kippur, that is a much more easily defined day. Yom Kippur is about tefillah and teshuva. The focus of Yom Kippur is clearly on the spiritual more than on the physical; it is certainly more serious than festive. We are happy to get atonement, but the mood is definitively heavy and somber.
Rosh Hashana, however, is multifaceted and conflicted.
Regarding the preparation for the day, the Shulchan Aruch (581:4) instructs us to shower and take haircuts in anticipation of the celebration of Rosh Hashana. At the same time, the Rama recommends that we visit the cemetery in preparation for this day. It is a chag, while at the same time it is Yom HaDin, Judgment Day, fraught with trepidation in its anticipation.
The essential tefillah of Rosh Hashana, and of every day, is the shmone esrei. In the shmone esrei we stand tall and straight, and offer a very organized, structured, and articulate formulation of a prayer. There is a beginning, middle and conclusion. It is said with confidence and with conviction. During this time of year, however, we integrate a different form of tefillha – slichos. Rav Soloveitchik explained that slichos represents the opposite of shmone esrei. It is less structured and less formal. It is more of a desperate, inarticulate plea for forgiveness.
This dichotomy manifests itself throughout the core observance of Rosh Hashana, including the shofar and the tefilos themselves.
The sound of the shofar, in shvarim and teruah, is fragmented into pieces in order to express the anguished sigh of crying, desperately yearning for forgiveness and at another chance at life. These cries are always surrounded by the straight, long, strong and confident sound of the tekiah, that conveying the celebratory mood of the day. (Rabbi H. Schachter)
The shape of the shofar is that it must be bent. Actually, there is a debate in the Talmud about this – one view is that the horn must be straight, while Rebbe Yehuda believes that it must be bent. The Talmud explains the rationale for each of their views – Rebbe Yehudah believes that the shape of the shofar should mirror the posture of the person while davening – bent over, head leaning towards the ground. The other view, that it must be straight, agrees that the shape of the shofar reflect the posture of the penitent prayer, however, he believes that this is straight, as a person who stands upright in tefillah. In other words, Rebbe Yehudah envisions the Jew who davens on Rosh Hashana to be bent over, covered by a talis, looking down at the ground, standing before God in trepidation. The Chachamim, however, conceive of the mispalel standing tall in prayer like in shmone esrei, looking heavenward with confidence and excitement on this celebratory day.
Interestingly, there is a parallel debate about prayer in general (Yevamos 105) where the rabbis of the Talmud debate the appropriate posture for prayer in general, whether we should stand tall and look heavenwards, or if we should look down to the ground. The gemarah resolves that we should try to merge the two opposing positions, and look down with our eyes, but up to heaven in our hearts:
The resolution is that we have to find a way to merge these two completely polar opposite positions and attitudes about davening and teshuva. We must attempt to synthesize these two opposing aspect of Rosh Hashana.
Throughout our lives, and particularly on Rosh Hashana, we vacillate between these two experiences and modes of relating to God. And this is not just about Rosh Hashana, but this is the heart of religious experience, and especially religious growth, that represents, hopefully, every day of our lives. It is only if we can internalize both of these motifs in our hearts that we will be able to experience a meaningful day, today, and a growth-oriented life throughout the year:
In order to effect change in ourselves, it is necessary begin with a profound feeling of dissatisfaction in ourselves. This does not sound like fun, but if you think about it, why would anyone change themselves if they feel like they are good the way they are? That is why the Rambam defines teshuva as
הלכות תשובה – ב,ה
מִדַּרְכֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה לִהְיוֹת הַשָּׁב צוֹעֵק תָּמִיד לִפְנֵי ה’, בִּבְכִי וּבְתַחֲנוּנִים,
When doing teshuva, we should cry and plead to God
וְעוֹשֶׂה צְדָקָה כְּפִי כּוֹחוֹ, וּמִתְרַחֵק הַרְבֵּה מִן הַדָּבָר שֶׁחָטָא בּוֹ.
וּמְשַׁנֶּה שְׁמוֹ, כְּלוֹמַר שֶׁאֲנִי אַחֵר וְאֵינִי אוֹתוֹ הָאִישׁ שֶׁעָשָׂה אוֹתָן הַמַּעֲשִׂים;
And change our name, saying, I am a new person – different that the guy who did those sins
While it may be a bit extreme to do an actual name change every Rosh Hashana, the point is that true teshuva has to be motivated by a genuine feeling of dissatisfaction in our lives right now. If there is a major life change, this is major; if the teshuva is more minor, like modifying one isolated behavior or trait, like speaking less lashon hara, or coming to minyan more often, or adding in a few more minutes of learning into our days, it is the same principle, on a more limited scale. Because it is very hard to change even one habit. And in order to do that, we need to really decide that we are not happy with ourselves, as is. And that can be uncomfortable. And that is why people do not often make changes. That is the uncomfortable thing about Rosh Hashana. That is the part of us that looks down to the ground, in a somberly and nervously, in preparation for our judgments.
And lest you will say: Why does the Torah expect us to put ourselves into a depression, to become unhappy with ourselves, to desire a new name to reflect the feeling that we want to become new people? Shouldn’t we try to be happy with ourselves? Satisfied with who we are? Isn’t that healthier?
The answer is that this is actually healthy and necessary for a healthy life. We should be satisfied with what we get in life, but we should not be satisfied with what we have done with our lives. Our religion teaches that it is ok to be imperfect; our flaws should not be suppressed or ignored. On the contrary, we are all imperfect and that is why we are all here today. And we believe that mistakes can always be atoned for, and imperfections can and must always be worked on.
In fact, I believe that it is this very fact that is cause for celebration. We are fortunate to serve a compassionate, understanding God, who is forgiving, who gives second chances, and expects us to constantly improve ourselves. We hope to stand here today as people who are different than the ones who stood here last year, and next year we hope to be different than we are today.
May we constantly merit the gift of these Yamim Noraim, and take advantage the opportunity to reflect on ourselves and on our lives, and constantly Improve ourselves.
May the sound of the shofar help us break ourselves apart and enable us to become even stronger and better, like the sound of the tekiah gedola that will culminate today’s tefilos.
And may we all be blessed with a Shana Tova, full of only brachos, for ourselves, our families, our community, and all of Am Yisrael.
An Excerpt Of A Past Rosh Hashana Speech Delivered By Rabbi Schiowitz To His Congregation.
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz is the founding rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefillah. The Schiowitz family moved to Teaneck in the summer of 2003 in order to lead this fledgling community that was hosted in the Offenbacher home and that barely had a minyan on Shabbat. Under Rabbi Schiowitz’s leadership, Shaare Tefillah has grown its membership exponentially, has moved into a permanent building, and has developed as a supportive, cohesive and growth oriented community.
Rabbi Schiowitz also teaches at the Ramaz Upper School where he serves as Talmud Department Chair. As Talmud Chair he supervises the Talmud department and develops the curriculum. In addition, Rabbi Schiowitz holds the title of Rosh Beit Midrash. In that capacity, he supervises a YU-Kollel program and advances religious initiatives in the school. Rabbi Schiowitz also mentors new teachers and is participating in Avi Chai’s Jewish New Teacher training program. In addition, Rabbi Schiowitz is currently participating in the Lookstein Center Flipped Classroom Program. Video technology is integrated into his classroom and many of the videos can be accessed at the RamazTorah YouTube channel. Rabbi Schiowitz won the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education in 2009.
At Yeshiva University, Rabbi Schiowitz directs the “HSChinuch Project”. The goal of this initiative is to increase collaboration among teachers in different schools and to advance professional development in the field of High School Jewish Education. In this capacity Rabbi Schiowitz manages and develops a website for high school teachers to share educational resources. In addition to cyber-collaboration, conferences are organized to bring teachers together to learn from each other and from experts in the field.
Rabbi Schiowitz studied at Yeshivat Kerem BeYavneh and at Yeshiva University. After earning a BS in Accounting and passing the CPA test, Rabbi Schiowitz completed smicha as a participant in the Wexner Smicha Honors Program. He then earned an MS in Jewish Education from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School and studied for four years in YU’s post-smicha Kollel Elyon.
Rabbi Schiowitz is the author of Sefer Shiurei HaRav al Meseches Challah Ve’Inyanei Mitzvos Hateluyos Ba’aretz. It was published by the Mesorah Commision of the Orthodox Union in 2003. This is a volume that presents Rav Soloveitchik’s lectures on the topic of the halachot that relate to the Land of Israel. Working from class notes, these lectures were transformed into an edited and footnoted book.http://www.ou.org/oupress/item/65159
Like many people, I took my family on a little end-of-summer getaway. We loved it—change of scenery, peace and quiet; a respite before the rush of fall activities begins. This year we ended up finding a newly renovated five-bedroom home in Fleischmanns, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. It’s a tiny place known for its Jewish hotel called Oppenheimer’s. Sure enough, we felt we entered a different world up there. No hustle and bustle. Even quiet by mountain standards! Locals drove their pickup trucks and people like me drove their minivans. Nearby, we saw a retreat for Satmar chasidim with a small Satmar camp and yeshiva, plus a new shul. The air was clean, the stars were bright at night. It was just what we needed.
The Jewish calendar now puts us in the month of Elul. For many, this time of year can get overlooked because of summer plans and trips and the whirlwind of getting ready for a new school year. Often, we might only begin to think about Rosh Hashanah when Selichos begin.
It’s not surprising that some people associate Elul with a feeling of nervousness. It’s a time to focus on changing for the better…Rosh Hashanah is coming! Perhaps that’s why many people don’t like thinking about Elul—there’s so much at stake! However, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel explains that Elul should evoke a feeling of great joy, as it’s a truly auspicious time. In no other time period does Hashem openly make Himself so available to us. Elul is a gift!
Rav Wachtfogel equates Elul to spending time in a remote vacation village. We take ourselves outside our “normal” world to cocoon with the Almighty! I look back now at my time in Fleischmanns, New York, with a whole new motivational perspective.
Many pesukim allude to this 40-day period. One famous one is “ani l’dodi ve dodi li”—I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. Here, the first letters in these four words spell Elul. The Mishna Berura points out these four words all end with the letter yud, which has the numerical value of ten. The sum of these last four letters equals 40, alluding to this 40-day period.
The Bnei Yissaschar notes the minimum size of a mikveh is 40 seah of water and equates the period of Elul through Yom Kippur to a mikvah. Forty seah is equal to 960 pugin (measurement used in time of the Gemara), which is the same number of hours found in 40 days. When we emerge, we are new and purified.
The mazal (Zodiac sign) for the month of Elul is a besulah (an unmarried girl), signifying this time period is one of creating a new relationship and marriage with Hashem. The start of any relationship needs quality time and attention. As expressed in Parshas Ki Seitzei, the first year of marriage absolves a man from his army service, as he needs to be home with his new wife to develop their relationship. The month of Elul provides us with the opportunity to renew our relationship with Hashem and we need to invest time to develop this relationship.
With every step we take to get closer to Hashem, He takes a step closer to us. Everything we do pays dividends and catapults us further! In many airports you’ll see “moving floors.” Some people stand on them for the ride, not having to walk. Personally, I get a thrill to walk on them and see myself zooming by the people walking on the regular floor. Every step I take, I move at double or triple the speed! This is Elul. Every positive move we make to increase our commitment to Torah and mitzvos propels us forward spiritually for the rest of the year.
We have a gift in this 40-day period between Elul and Yom Kippur. We can accomplish so much more. Now is the time to sow simple seeds and watch them grow. With every little increase in Torah study, starting a new shiur, focusing a bit more on just one part of our davening, making a phone call to someone who needs our help—the payoff in making these efforts is huge.
A student of mine just completed learning the entire Mishna Berura; it took him five years. He studied one page a day. It took focus, persistence and perseverance. A day at a time—and he gained a life-changing accomplishment.
The most effective steps are baby steps—slow and steady wins the race. One small change can transform your Elul…and your life!