This week’s Torah portion of Nitzavim and Vayeilech are among the last portions in the Torah, and are always read in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah- the New Year. Rosh Hashanah, according to Jewish tradition, is the day of the year when man’s past actions and interactions are judged.
The idea of judgment is understandably a bit unpalatable for people. As Rabbi David Aaron, Founder of Isralight, writes in his book Inviting God In, “I find being judged to be a very uncomfortable experience-not pleasurable at all… I simply dread being judged, who enjoys feeling threatened? Who enjoys fearing punishment?” In the following pages, Rabbi Aaron proceeds to offer another way to view this experience of Divine judgment on Rosh Hashanah, a new perspective that changes the tone of the day and makes it one for positive self reflection. He writes “…It’s an opportunity to take inventory of my actions, reflect, and make changes to improve myself and my relationships. Viewed from this perspective, judgment is actually empowering. It tells me that God cares about my choices and that I make a difference in this world” (Inviting God In pg 78).
The verse in this week’s Torah portion states, “ I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life…” (Devarim 30:19). The Torah here seems to be stating that the journey of life will undoubtedly present a person with multiple paths, obstacles and challenges. Each individual is required to make choices when they encounter a fork in the road; sometimes to make the right decision and sometimes the wrong, but no matter what there is always a choice that must be made. Along with the ability to choose comes along the desire to know that our choices matter. Rabbi Aaron analogizes this desire to the behavior and actions of a young child. “Sometimes they will misbehave and continue to misbehave even after I’ve warned them that I will punish them if they do not stop. Children want to see that their actions make a difference. They want to feel the power of their choices and experience how great the consequences of their behavior can be. This is one of the ways that children test their parents to see if they really love and care about them. Judgment actually builds a child’s self-esteem… It confirms to them that they are powerful, that there are consequences to their actions and their choices matter.” (Inviting God In pg 83). This so perfectly encapsulates the idea of Judgment on Rosh Hashanah and is a very refreshing way to view the purpose of the day. We must remember and take to heart that not only does one have the freedom to choose, but also that the choices themselves are meaningful and important to God and the world.
Victor Frankl, a noted psychologist and a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, explains why the concept of free choice – and specifically our choice of how to respond to any situation we encounter — is so integral to the human experience. He explains as follows, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” In his work Man’s Search for Meaning, he continues to expound on this idea. As he writes, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”(Man’s Search for Meaning). In the hardest and most troubling of circumstances when all seems lost, that last vestige of humanity – the very freedom to choose one’s attitude — will always remain by a person’s side.
Especially as we enter the week preceding Rosh Hashanah, the following story from Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust “A Shofar in a Coffee Cauldron” epitomizes this message. It can inspire us all to understand that even in the darkest of times, man still has the nobility of free choice, and with that, the knowledge that our choices have boundless meaning.
From Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust: Wolf Fischelberg and his twelve year old son were walking among the barracks of the sector for privileged people in Bergen Belsen trying to barter some cigarettes for bread. As they were turning into another row of barracks, a stone was thrown across the barbed wire separating one sector from another. The stone flew over their heads and landed at their feet. It was clear that it was aimed at father and son.”What does it mean?” Wolf turned to his son Leo. “Nothing! Just an angry Jew hurling stones,” replied the son with a defiant note in his tone. “Angry Jews do not cast stones; it is not part of our tradition,” replied the father….” Wolf Fischelberg looked around to see if all was clear. Only then did he bend down to pick up the stone. A small gray note was wrapped around it. Wolf slipped that note into his pocket. They walked into a safe barrack were the other Polish Jews lived. In a corner a distance from the others, Wolf read the note. It was written in Hebrew by a Dutch Jew named Hayyim Borack who had Argentinean papers. After establishing his credentials, Hayyim wrote that he was fortunate to have obtained a shofar and it was in his possession. If the Hasidic Jews from the Polish transports wished to use the shofar for Rosh Hashanah services, Borack could smuggle the shofar in one of the coffee cauldrons of the morning distribution. In doing so they would lose a cauldron of coffee, for the shofar would be covered with a minimal amount of coffee grains, just enough to conceal it.
A vote was taken among the Polish Jews. Those in favor of the plan to smuggle in the Shofar held a clear majority. They all agreed to give up their morning coffee ration on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. At the time and place specified in the note, a stone once more made its way over the electrified barbed wire, this time from the Polish Jews to the Dutch. “You see, my son, Jews never throw stones in vain” said Wolf to his son as his eyes followed the stone making its way from one sector to another.
The smuggling of the shofar was a success. Nobody was caught and the shofar was not damaged…As little Miriam, Wolf’s daughter, listened to the shofar, she hoped that it would bring down the barbed-wire fences of Bergen Belsen just as the blasts of the shofar had in earlier times made the walls of Jericho come tumbling down. Then the service was over. Nothing had changed. The barbed wires remained fixed in their places. Only in the heart did something stir– knowledge and hope. Knowledge that the muffled voice of the shofar had made a dent in the Nazi wall of humiliation and slavery, and hope that someday freedom would bring down the barbed-wire fences of Bergen Belsen and of humanity. (Based on an interview by Dina Spira with Wolf Fischelberg, December 20 1976- Hasidic Tales of the Holocasut by Yaffa Eliach pg 42)
If such a hope an faith in ones fellow man can burn in the depths of hell-in the barracks of Bergen Belsen, so too, in our own lives, we must take to heart that our search for the ways to choose our attitudes and transcend our circumstances for the better.By actively choosing our attitudes we are showing ourselves and others that our choices matter and that what we do with our lives is inherently meaningful.