“L’shana tova u’metukah” is the prayer we say when we eat
the apple dipped in honey on the first night of Rosh Hashana.
In Yiddish we bless each other with “a guten un a zisen
yor.” Both these expressions mean: a good and sweet year.
Do you know why we bless
each other with a “good and sweet year?” Is it a cliché, or does this sweetness
carry a deeper message?
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The mystics write that
as the sun sets before Rosh Hashana, the universe goes into a comatose state.
A slumber descends on all existence, everything comes to a stand-still in
cosmic silence, in apprehension of its contract being renewed.
As the sun sets before
Rosh Hashana and existence hangs in the balance – it’s a good time to review
the very nature of this existence that we are part of and whose parameters
define our lives.
Is existence a form of
revelation or a form of concealment?
This is not a mere abstract
or esoteric question; it touches on the fundamental nature of our beings.
Is the true essence of a human being – and of all existence – defined by what
is visible to the eye and tangible to the five senses, or is the essence quite
invisible, something that cannot be experienced in a revealed state?
In other words: Is what
we see really a state of revelation, or is it the other way around: What we
see is the glove, while the true hand remains hidden within?
The first verse of Genesis
– arguably the most famous ever documented – answers the riddle: “In the beginning
when G-d created heaven and earth.” The name for G-d used in this verse is
“Elokim.” The classic commentator Rashi explains why the name “Havaya” is
not used (as in a later verse, Genesis 2:4): “Initially the Divine intention
was to create existence with the element of justice, but He perceived that
the world would not endure; so He preceded it with the element of compassion,
blending it with the element of justice.”
What is the meaning of
this explanation? Since the world could not endure on justice alone, why did
G-d initially consider creating it that way; and only later did He decide
to integrate the element of compassion? And what exactly is the meaning of
justice and compassion?
Justice (Elokim) refers to the concealment of the Divine omnipresence which
was a prerequisite for existence to come into being. As
long as the Divine reality is all consuming, there is no
room for any other consciousness to emerge. Explains the
great mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), in his revolutionary
Tzimtzum doctrine, that the Divine presence (light) was
concealed in a type of cosmic “black hole,”
which allowed for the emergence of the conscious, independent
personality of existence as we know it. Like a teacher with
an infinitely greater mind than his student conceals his
brilliance in order to allow “space” for the
student to contain the ideas on his limited terms.
is a called justice (din and gevurah), which withholds, measures and limits
the transmission. By contrast, compassion (Havaya) activates the flow of energy
Now we can understand the meaning of Rashi’s words: The basis of all
existence is rooted in the element of “justice”,
which concentrates and conceals the Divine light. Without
this concealment an independent existence can never come
to be. Thus, genesis begins that the universe was created
with the name Elokim. However, G-d recognized the far-reaching
consequences of a universe whose engine is strict justice
and concealment. He therefore infused into the Tzimtzum
an element of compassion – ingrained in the concealment
is the purpose that it must bring light. When the great
teacher conceals the full intensity of his mind he does
so not as an end in itself, but as a means to convey the
idea to the student. In other words, the concealment (justice)
itself is ultimately an expression of compassion, allowing
the student to absorb the wisdom. So too, the concealment
of the Divine energy (the tzimtzum), so necessary for existence
to emerge, is not an end in itself but an act of compassion
that will allow us – an autonomous entity –
to unite with the Divine, step by step, on our terms.
Here we have the answer to our initial question as to the
nature of existence: Existence as we perceive it is actually
a state of concealment. The deeper you travel into the intimate
recesses of the human spirit the less tangible is the sensation,
the fewer are the words, the less defined is the experience.
In other words, the entire
nature of existence is turned on its head, upside down and inside out: Our
sensation of the revealed is actually a state of concealment, and that what
is concealed is the true state of revelation. The visible is an artificial
cover, and the invisible is true reality. This existence as we know it, as
we perceive and experience it merely a shell, the surface layer that shrouds
what lies behind the curtain.
And the journey – and
purpose – of our lives is not to be distracted by the outer mechanics, not
to be deluded into thinking that there is nothing more than the outer shell.
The objective of life is to weaken the hold of the concealment (justice) and
reveal the compassion and revelation within.
No person is immune to the forces of “justice” in this dark world.
Our challenge is not to be overcome by the severer moments
of life, and recognize the compassion even in the darker
moments. Knowing that compassion is imbued into the very
fabric of existence (or else the world could not have endured),
becomes an eternal source of hope, giving us the strength
to overcome any challenge.
This is one of the main
themes of Rosh Hashana, when we celebrate the birthday of the universe and
its crown-jewel, the human being:
One of the reasons for
the Shofar blowing is to sweeten the severe judgments (hamtokot ha’gevurot),
and transform them to forces of love and compassion. As the Midrash states,
“When G-d is ready to judge He sits on the chair of judgment. But when the
shofar is sounded, He rises from the chair of judgment and sits down in the
chair of compassion, and He transforms the judgment to compassion” (Midrash
Tehillim 47. Vayikra Rabba 29:3). As we say in the Rosh Hashana Musaf prayer:
“Accept the shofar blast to change the Throne of Judgment for that of the
Throne of Mercy.”
The Shofar – a ram’s horn – is also a reminder of the ram
that replaced Isaac whom Abraham bound and was prepared
to offer to G-d. Which is why the Torah reading of the second
day of Rosh Hashana is Akeidat Yitzchak—the binding
and offering of Isaac (from Genesis 22). As the Talmud explains:
“G-d said: ‘Sound before Me a shofar made of a ram’s horn
that I may remember for your sake the offering of Isaac,
the son of Abraham, and I will consider it as if you bound
yourselves before Me’” (Rosh Hashana 16a). Indeed, according
to the Midrash, the Akeidah actually took place on
Rosh Hashana (Midrash, Pesikta Rabbasi, ch. 40. Zohar III
Much has been written about the controversial episode of Abraham being ready
to offer Isaac (see G-d
Said to Abraham Kill me A Son). One of the explanations
lays in the dynamics of the “justice” and “compassion”
All the personalities in the Torah are quintessential archetypes
of Divine virtues and human traits: Abraham represents the
flow of love (chesed), and Isaac embodies the withholding
energy of justice and discipline (gevurah). Abraham’s
binding of Isaac was a Divine act in which Abraham transcended
his own natural fatherly love to introduce an even deeper
love by sweetening the severe judgments of Isaac; infusing
the concealment with compassion. And in the merit of binding
Isaac, the entire course of history was changed.
The Divine compassion is very often concealed – deeply
concealed – in our harsh world. Even with the sweetening
of the severities through “binding of Isaac,”
human history is a tragic testimony of far too many cruelties…
One can only shudder to think what life would have been
like without the “sweetening” of gevurah that
momentous Rosh Hashana morning 3783 year ago on lonely Mt. Moriah.
And ever since we
have blown shofar on Rosh Hashana to sweeten the severities and be spared
It’s awesome when
you think about it: Despite all the traumas of history – the enslavements,
the genocides, the massacres, the expulsions, the persecutions – despite
it all, the Jews every Rosh Hashana, wherever they were, blew the Shofar,
with absolute confidence that the ram’s horn, in merit of Abrahams’ ultimate
sacrifice, would lighten and sweeten the severities.
And sweetened they were. Today, 3783 years later, we live
in a distinctly sweeter world.
Yet, there are still gevurot (severities) to be overcome.
So we prepare to sound the Shofar once again (even on Shabbat,
when we don’t actually blow Shofar, Shabbat accomplishes
the same thing), knowing that as we do so G-d “rises
from the chair of judgment and sits down in the chair of
compassion, and He transforms the judgment to compassion”
All this power lies in
the modest, unassuming blessing: Have a good and sweet year!
The great Kabbalist, Reb
Levik, explains: “Good” refers to revealed kindness (chesed), and “sweet”
intimates the sweetening of the severities (gevurah).
On my own behalf and on behalf of all of us here at the Meaningful Life Center,
I want to thank you for all your warm blessings and wishes
for the New Year, as well as for your generous support and
partnership in our work.
All those that bless shall
be blessed says the Torah:
May you and your loved ones be blessed with a good and
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Question for the week: What do you
think will be our greatest challenge in the year ahead,
and what will be our greatest blessing?
a question for future weeks.