Jonathan Muskat

The Rosh Hashana Question: Where Are Your Wounds?

In one of his novels, the late Alan Paton has one of his characters say:  “When I shall ascend to heaven, which I certainly intend to do, I will be asked, ‘Where are your wounds?’ – Where are your wounds?

The second mishna tells us that on Rosh Hashana the entire world is passing before God like bnei maron. The mishna could have simply said that each one of us passes before God individually, one by one. The mishna could have said kol ba’ei olam ovrin l’fanekha ehad ehad, but the mishna provides figurative language.  We don’t just walk in single file; we walk like bnei maron! Oh, now I get it!  By the way, what exactly is bnei maron?

The gemara in Rosh Hashana 18a actually states that bnei maron has three definitions.  The gemara first states that here, in Babylonia, we interpret it as sheep.  Reish Lakish had a different definition.  According to him, it’s k’ma’alot bait maron – it’s like the ascent of Beit Maron.  Some say it should read Beit Horon.  Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel explained it as hayalot shel beit David – King David’s soldiers.  Three different definitions – three different images.

What is the first image?  What is the first definition?  The first image is a single sheep – one who is a member of the community, indistinguishable from the next.  There is a disregard for individuality in this image of the sheep.  We come to God as a passive, humble servant together with the rest of Your flock who are also Your humble servants.

Reish Lakish adds the element of fear of judgment that accompanies this phenomenon.  We’re not simply walking by, sheep by sheep, with our heads down, according to Reish Lakish, we’re walking up the ascent of Beit Horon.  What is the ascent of Beit Horon?  Rashi explains that the path to Beit Horon was a narrow, winding road that was carved into the mountains, allowing only for single file movement, one person traveling at a time.  If you take one step to the left or one step to right, you will fall off the path into the abyss.  Be very careful, step by step.  Bnei maron – passive, humble, indistinguishable one from the next and scary –  step by step.

But there is a final definition of bnei maron in the Gemara.  Bnei Maron refers to the army of David. Rashi explains that maron also is a term of adnut – of lordship –– the soldiers.   There’s a battle and we’re scared. But are we truly scared?  Not really.  We’re looking forward to battle.  The Torah tells us in Parshat Shoftim that if klal yisrael is about to go to battle and a soldier is scared, we send him home.  But nobody’s going home here.  There is a battle, but we’re looking forward to the battle.  We plan on fighting the battle and winning.  We’re confident as we enter into the courtroom on the Day of Judgment because we are soldiers fighting to spread God’s message throughout the world.

How do we see ourselves?  What is our definition of bnei maron?  Do we see ourselves as submissive, as scared, carefully maneuvering through life or as a passionate fighter?  Obviously, all three definitions are appropriate definitions, but perhaps at different times in our history and in different contexts, we are expected to be different types of bnei maron.  Certainly, the author of U’n’taneh tokef, which was attributed to have been written in the 12th century during the time of the Crusades, but in actuality based on records of the Cairo Geniza was likely to have been written much earlier in Eretz Yisrael, was written at a time when we were persecuted, yet we still clung to God.  We were like sheep, accepting, humble servants of God and therefore, the reference to us passing before God in this prayer is a sheep reference – k’vakarat ro’eh edro.

Additionally, certainly there was a time when we thought that Judaism was an endangered species, possibly becoming a fossil religion, a museum piece, so we had to walk carefully up the steps of Beit Horon, afraid to slip and fall into the abyss.  But now, Barukh Hashem, we are confident, we are strong, we have strong Torah institutions, we have a Jewish state of our own.  At the same time, we recognize all of the spiritual challenges from the surrounding culture.  How do we respond?  We respond with the Gemara’s ideal explanation of bnei maron according to the Gemara – k’hayalot beit David.  We fight back, we battle and we become passionate.  When we pass before God on Rosh Hashana, when we are judged, we tell God that we’re ready to fight for Him, for something that we care about in life.

What do we fight for?  What are we passionate about?  We consider those to the religious right of us crazy, those to the religious left of us lazy, but some of us don’t know where we stand, so we’re hazy.   You know what, I’d like to be known as a little crazy.  There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that following Theodor Herzl’s conversion to Zionism, friends sent him to Max Nordau for psychoanalysis.  After a few hours of talking, Nordau extended a hand to his patient, “If you’re crazy,” he said, “then I’m crazy, too.”

Are we crazy?  Are we passionate?  We’re very good at being negative – the world is bad, the Jews are bad, orthodoxy is bad, everyone’s bad.  We expect everything to be perfect and when it’s not, we complain and cynicism abounds.  On Rosh Hashana when we stand before God, let us stand like the soldiers of David.  If we don’t like the world, don’t move away from the world, move the world.  If we don’t like something, then change it.  Perhaps, then, this is our challenge as we approach Rosh Hashana.  Find something during this Yamim Noraim season that we truly care about and decide that this coming year, I’m going to do more than sit around the Shabbat table and complain.  I’m going to fight for it.

In one of his novels, the late Alan Paton has one of his characters say:  “When I shall ascend to heaven, which I certainly intend to do, I will be asked, ‘Where are your wounds?’  When I will say, ‘I haven’t any,’ I will be asked, ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for,’ and that is a question that I do not want to have to answer.”  When God asks us where our wounds are, let us tell him, “Common, I’m a ben maron, I’m one of King David’s soldiers!”

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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