“On Rosh HaShanah all the inhabitants of the world pass before Him like a flock of sheep.”
(Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:2.)
“Like walking on a small narrow road where no two can pass by at the same time.” (Rashi’s commentary)
In this mishnah, the Sages highlighted man’s uniqueness and loneliness in his encounter with God. Human beings are, above all, individuals. They meet God privately, each one having been created in a particular way with varying talents, emotions and levels of wisdom. Privacy is, after all, the privilege of the individual.
Still, this individuality is of little value if man is unable to exercise it in his connection with God and his fellow man. Only in relationships can man be an individual, for if he does not live in an encounter with the Other, he cannot be unique, since it is distinctiveness that makes man special. Like a flower that we single out from among all others, and whose beauty we individualize, so man does not become human unless his uniqueness is highlighted.
However, individuality is also an enormous challenge – a call for responsibility, from which there is no escape. It is man alone who is responsible for his deeds, and it is primarily through these that man meets the Other. Nothing has more far-reaching consequences than the human deed. One act may determine the fate of the world. It is through the application of his deeds that man reveals his thoughts and feelings. And even when the act is done in the company of his fellow men and with the cooperation of others, it still remains distinct.
According to a view in the Talmud, (Rosh HaShanah 10b.) Rosh HaShanah celebrates the birth of the first human being – the first creature destined to be an individual – while Yom Kippur reminds him of his responsibilities. Though other creatures no doubt have some degree of individuality, they do not carry responsibility for their deeds, and are therefore not distinctive.
Consequently, it is the uniqueness of the human deed that is the focal point of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The High Holidays, then, are a protest against the notion that some of our deeds are trivial. Since all of our deeds take place in the presence of God they must all be significant. Our encounter with God on the High Holidays teaches us a powerful lesson: There are no deeds of insignificance. It warns that we should never see our lives as common and irrelevant. However small a deed may seem in our eyes, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur make us aware that our entire lives, and even the most trivial deeds, should be attuned to eternity. Time is broken eternity; every moment counts because it is part of a great and infinite mystery of which not even a second can be recaptured. We do not live in our private time but in God’s time, in which we spend every second of our lives. It is therefore imperative that we instill divine eternity into all of our deeds, making the small things significant, the common unique, and the momentary eternal. (Abraham Joshua Heschel.)
We must internalize the truth that only through detail can one really live a life of profundity. Detail is, after all, the breaking down of generalities into such subtle components that they touch eternity. Man needs to live profoundly because only a contemplative life has meaning.
Every ordinary act should be turned into a kind of mitzvah, a spiritual challenge, making it a dignified encounter with God. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are reminded that our deeds must redeem God’s presence and rescue Him from oblivion. In doing the finite we must be able to perceive the infinite.
The High Holidays are a warning to live vertically and not horizontally. When we live our lives in the constant pursuit of new material objects, believing that through them we will find meaning and joy, it would behoove us to look around and see the continuous boredom in which our Western world finds itself. The excitement of new possessions leads to the trivialization of our lives after a day or two – but only if we view them horizontally. If we look at what we have in a vertical dimension, meaning in the process of constant spiritual growth, then we see these objects in the light of eternity and, consequently, in profundity.
As we enter a new year, we encounter major challenges. Let us hope we handle this well in our private life and sincerely pray that the governments of Israel and America will make the right decisions concerning Hamas, Iran and the Islamic State. One small mistake may bring a disaster.
May God grant the Jewish people and all of mankind the wisdom to make the right choices, as well as the opportunity to live in peace and with great profundity.
Tizku leshanim rabot.
Every week I receive hundreds of emails, as well as a host of important observations on my essays, via our website, Facebook, newspaper blogs, and other media outlets. It is therefore completely impossible for me to respond – for which I apologize – but please be assured that I read every comment, which I deeply appreciate and from which I learn so much. Only in exceptional cases will I respond in a subsequent essay. My office staff will try to be more prompt in posting these remarks on our website.
Thank you very much for taking the time to share your comments with me, as well as with your fellow readers. I hope you will continue to do so.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo