Todd Berman

Rosh HaShana comes – time to break down the walls

“God hides in two ways: One way, is that God hides so that it is very difficult to find him, and yet, he who knows that God is hiding from him can advance toward him and find him. The other way is that God hides from a man the fact that He is hiding and since the seeker knows so little about God, he cannot find him. It is this that is referred to in the words, “I shall hide, hide.” (Devarim 31:18) God hides the fact that He is hiding, and then those from whom He is hiding do not know Him – the Hidden One.” (Martin Buber, Ten Rungs p. 15 based on Degel Machane Efraim Likutim Tzav)

Darkness surrounds Rosh HaShana. Shadow covers the beginning of the Jewish calendar metaphorically and chronologically. Unlike other holidays, which the Jewish people celebrate under the canopy of a full moon in the middle of the month, a moonless sky envelopes Rosh HaShana. Sukkot, Passover, and Purim shine; Hannukah, we provide the light, and Yom Kippur tilts towards the waxing moon. But Rosh HoShana stands alone, quietly in shadow.

Jewish customs abound relating to the shadow. According to the sages, Chapter 87 Psalms recited on Rosh HaShana at the end of the service, depending upon tradition, reflects the hiddenness. Rendered in English, the text reads, “Blow the horn at the new moon, at the full moon for our feast-day.” (Psalms 87:4). Yet, the Hebrew allows for other interpretations. The word translated here as “full” is really “ba-kese,” which is hard to explain. Medieval commentators struggle to understand the verse. Some suggest that “ba-kese” means at the appropriate time. “Kese” can mean to “cover” or be covered. Hence, the rabbis interpreted the verse, “blow the shofar, on the month, when our holiday is concealed” (Midrash Tehillim ad loc and TB RH 8a.) The rabbinic interpretation opens the door to reading the verse referring to Rosh Hashana; hence, that chapter of Tehillim found its way into the liturgy for the day. Rosh HaShana is the hiding holiday. The understanding of Rosh HaShana as the holiday of hiddenness made its way into common parlance and other areas of the liturgy. The period often called the ten days of repentance, beginning with Rosh HaShana and ending with Yom Kippur on the tenth day of the month, is also called “bein Kesse le’asur” between the holiday called kesse (hiding) and the tenth. Such a description is even used in the selichot prayers. In some rites, piyyutim poems for selichot repeatedly refer to the period by that name, “You teach the way of repentance to the wayward child, between kesse le’asur, your testimonies call out to return, return us, God, to you and we will return.”

The darkness represents another hiding. In the portions read around the holiday and this year before and after, hiddenness takes on a deeper meaning. In the Torah reading last Shabbat, the section VaYelech, Moses tells the people in God’s words, “I will surely hide my face on that day for all the evil which they shall have worked, in that they have turned to other gods.” (Deut. 31:18). According to the verse we read on Shabbat, Moses declares that the people will stray from God’s path, and in response, God will hide the Holy face. Looking at another face-to-face shows a type of intimacy. A deep bond exists when two close friends or lovers stare into each other’s faces. Humans turn away, removing that precious bond, and in response, God removes the intimacy from the people. As if this wasn’t enough, the Torah repeats the refrain in the following weeks’ recitation. In his penultimate poetic speech, Moses exclaims, “[God] said, ‘I will hide my face from them. I will see what their end shall be; for they are a very perverse generation, children in whom there is no faithfulness.'” (Deut. 32:20)

The moon hides, the world is filled with darkness, and God hides the divine countenance from the Jewish people. No wonder Rosh HaShana is called the “Yom HaDin” or day of Judgement. More that Yom Kippur, the loneliness of being judged for our ways is felt on both cosmic and theological levels.

Rosh HaShana is the day of Divine coronation when the Jewish people declare God king. The cantor recites the word “the King” aloud during the morning prayers. The shofar blows, declaring God our king. After each set of blasts, we recite that be we children or slaves of the Master of the Universe, God should show us mercy. We beg for a glimmer of light in all the hiddenness and darkness.

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the great Baal Shem Tov, showed the world that the darkness was a matter of false perception. In one of his most quoted parables, the Besht, as he is known, taught us a well-kept secret. Recorded in the first Hassidic book to ever be printed, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, the Besht’s close student and conduit for much of his more famous teachings, recounts a story the Besht would teach before blowing the shofar. This same story, packed with the essence of Hassidic thought, is repeated in various versions throughout Hassidic literature. Each time, the story is told with slight variations; however, this version seems to be the oldest and most authentic.

The Besht taught that once their was a wealthy and powerful king. The king decided to build a maze to enter the palace. Using powerful sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors, the king made a labyrinth of solid walls, high towers, and gatehouses. He ordered his servants to distribute great treasure around the various gates and towers. Many wanted to greet the king but didn’t know the way. As each began the journey, they would come to a gate and see the treasure, food, and other luxuries. One person reached the first gate, filled his pockets and his stomach, and then returned home feeling he got what he needed. Another would get to the second or third gate. Over and over, people attempted to see the king but didn’t make the journey. The king’s son, however, desired closeness to his Father. Neither the walls, towers, or gates prevented him from journeying onwards. The treasure and food did not entice him; his ultimate desire was to be with the king. Eventually, the son persisted and reached the center of the maze. Excited to greet the king, he saw that the gates, towers, and walls were all but so much smoke and mirrors. They were an illusion. (Ben Porat Yosef, Shabbat HaGadol 1764)

So much of what prevents us from developing a closer connection to God, our king, is an illusion, the world’s vanities. The Besht wanted us to understand that just as we know the moon’s cycle and that celestial bodies are always there, so too is the face of God. To reach the Divine, he taught, one needs to realize that we only see walls where there are none. We put up the barriers and can remove them, but understand that God is always there.

On Rosh HaShana, we declare God as sovereign of the universe. But he is also God the parent. While the Divine seems so far away, our heavenly Father is always there. He waits for us to reach out to him and break down the walls, preventing our eyes from seeing the truth. When we do, we know that he was there all along.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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