Monday, September 10, 2007

A Reflection for Rosh Hashana

משנה מסכת ראש השנה פרק א משנה ב

[ב] בארבעה פרקים העולם נידון בפסח על התבואה בעצרת על פירות האילן בראש השנה כל באי העולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון שנאמר (תהלים ל"ג) היוצר יחד לבם המבין אל כל מעשיהם ובחג נידונין על המים:

The world is judged at four periods [yearly]. On Pessach, they are judged about crops, on Shavuot about fruits of the tree. On Rosh Hashana the whole population of the earth passes in front of Him [God] like sheep as it says, He who created their hearts as one, He who knows all their deeds. On Sukkoth, they are judged about water.


פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת ראש השנה פרק א משנה ב

בני מרון, הצאן, ותרגום כבשים אמריא, כלומר שמחשבין עם בני אדם ודנין אותם לבריאות ומחלה ומות וחיים וזולת זה משאר מצבי האדם. ופשט לשון זה ברור כמו שאתה רואה, אבל סודו וענינו אין ספק שהוא קשה מאד.

Rambam comments on the Mishna as follows:

Bnei Meron – sheep. Targum translates sheep – Imraya. The Mishna is saying that men are evaluated and they are sentenced to health, illness and death, life and such other human states. The simple meaning of these words is clear as you can see, but its secret and subject are very difficult without question.

I would be interested in your thoughts what the Rambam sees as so difficult.

If I were asked, I would say that I can understand setting a time aside for repentance and reflection, but presenting it as a time when God judges us is quite difficult to my simple mind. Is God bound by time to start with? I can think of a few more issues – but I am interested in hearing what others see in this.

19 comments:

  1. This time of the year man is self reflective on his past year and on the coming year.He evaluates whether or not he was and is still on the path of the philosopher and the halachic man searching for yedias hashem and performing ratzon hashem.
    If he is on the right path then he achieves immediately "life which has no death". With this comes the elimination of illness(of the body and soul.)Physical illness is avoided because he is not involved in the selfish hedonistic lifestyle(which is immediate death) that's end lead to sickness and eventually death like an animal.Even when illness does strike the man involved in true life-it is non-existant and only another stage of ratzon hashem and not an illness which is negative(since this man is looking at the total existence vs his own selfish needs)

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  2. The secret is the old apparent contradiction between free will (i.e being judged once a year) and prior knowledge of Hashem about future events including man's ultimate choices.

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  3. David,

    Would the Rambam approve the minhag of Tashlich?
    I would appreciate to hear your thoughts.
    Thanks!

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  4. Re Tashlich, I do not think he mentions it in his writings. I personally do not do tashlich nor kapparot. In the form Tashlich is practiced nowadays I am convinced rambam would object as he would object to kapparot in any form.

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  5. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  6. "but presenting it as a time when God judges us is quite difficult to my simple mind. Is God bound by time to start with?"

    David,
    When Rosh Hashana rolls around, I grapple with these same questions, year in and year out. This year I had an opportunity to reflect on perek 2 and 3 in hilchos teshuvah in the Rembam. I think the first step to take is that God cannot change at all and therefore cannot judge at one time and not another - so there is no direct judgment from God. However, there is certainly judgment happening. So may we say that God created a system of metaphysical judgment to happen on Rosh Hashana. This metaphysical judgment would not be part of Him, it would be outside of Him.

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  7. Dan, You say "is certainly judgment happening.". I am not sure why you say that? Could it not be metaphorical? I have vcery causal understanding where our actions have consequences and the chidush of teshuvah is that somehow somree things can be stopped after a time or at least held in place - not getting worse - The first would be Kappara after a certain time passes where the consequences have played themselves out or at least no new bad things are put into play. the other is the "Tolin" part. Things are moving along and consequences are still happening but no new sequence of events is happening.

    So where do you place judgenment in a literal sense in this scenario? Obviously it is an artificial time alloted for self reflection. The difficulty is what does it mean that Yom Kippur is Toleh, or that it is Taluy until Yom Kippur? How does a specific time work? I do teshuvah a day before Yom Kippur the Itzumo shel yom stops the consequences? I am just as baffled as every year and I have so far not heard nor gotten an insight that would satisfy me.

    The Rav in his Rosh Hashana Machzor has an interesting comment. sefer Metim (as in contrast to sefer Chaim) means that the dead are re judged yearly because the consequences of their actions survived their death! So he sees similarly to me . How does he understand the set time? So far Teiku.

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  8. I always understood the phenomenon as follows:

    God instituted a time of teshuva and kappara for the Jewish people - Rosh Hashana, Kippur and the intervening ten days. Because of the normative significance of these days for our nation - i.e., the fact that we are commanded to seek a renewal of our relationship with Hashem and to purify ourselves from iniquity - we exercise our behira at the most fundamental level at this time of year. At no other point in the calendar do we reach the same plateau of self-reflection and commitment as we do during this period.

    By definition, then, these days will establish our "judgment" for the coming year, since they will essentially serve as determining factors in the direction of our choices and decisions moving forward, and therefore will directly impact the extent to which we are related to Divine Providence as individuals and as a nation.

    For this reason, the Rambam mentions that whenever the tsibbur gets together and does sincere teshuva, the resulting kappara can potentially be equivalent to Y"K. This demonstrates that the power of these days derives from how we observe them and not from some metaphysical system operating independently of us. (Otherwise, Bet Din wouldn't be able to toy with the dates of R"H and Y"K for fear of undermining the metaphysical judgment process!)

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  9. "Obviously it is an artificial time alloted for self reflection."

    David,
    I actually didn't really understand your first paragraph, so I will just comment on the second one. I too for many years thought that the aseres yimai tshuvah was an "artificial time alloted for self reflection", mostly because... well, what else could it be. God cannot judge - saying that would have too many erroeneous philisophical implications. But this year I decided that I was not going to read anything into the Rambam and simply just read honestly.
    I find it difficult to say there is not some type of judgment going on after reading perek 3 in hilchos teshuvah.
    For example, halacha 3: "Just like the avonos and zchuyos of man are weighed when he dies, so too every year the avonos and zchuyos of everyone in the world are weighed on the yom tov of Rosh Hashana.” I am taking what is said here at face value. There seems to be a “weighing” happening here that is not happening the rest of the year. I don’t think saying there is an actual weighing happening contradicts any yesodai hatorah, as long as we don’t say that God himself is doing the weighing.
    I feel like saying it is an artificial time for self reflection although logical and rational, is trying to push a meaning on to the Rambam that he is not saying.

    Rabbi Maroof,

    I like your explanation a lot, but what about hilchos tshuvah, perek 3 halacha 3 mentioned above. Also, what would be your explanation of the chasima of Yom Kippur.

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  10. Dan, I would agree with you if nt for the pirush hamishna I quote in the post.

    Rabbi Maroof, I am a little swamped today so I will read you again tonight and comment if I so feel.

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  11. Dan,

    I agree that a judgment occurs, in the sense that future consequences are set in motion as a function of our merits and demerits before God. This is what a judgment is, after all, in essence. The notion of a conscious weighing process occurring "out there" is not compatible with Jewish theology. However, the idea that our future trajectory can be determined at a particular time of the year based upon our spiritual level makes perfect sense.

    The hatima of Y"K means that it is the final moment for clarifying and embracing new behira-commitments that will henceforth determine our fate. Once the national framework of R"H and Y"K dissipates, the opportunity to accomplish this on an individual level is lost.

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  12. Rabbi Maroof,

    I like your explanation a lot - it is clear and it does make perfect sense. (I liked it so much I printed it out and taped it into my machzor).

    1) But, I am still bothered by the Rambam's language. Generally we say that the Torah Shebichsav is written in a more poetic language and the Torah Shebaalpeh is written in a more direct language. If judgment means our efforts during this time will effect us for the rest of the year, why speak about it the way the Rambam does in perek 3 - as a type of weighing - if it really is not. It seems your explanation of judgment is that it's not so much a weighing but it's more a tremendous opportunity.

    2) Why does the Rambam speak about the judgment happening passively (halacha 3: he who is FOUND to be a tsadik is SEALED for life...)

    3) Why would a judgment happening outside of us not be compatible with Jewish theology?

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  13. Dan and Rabbi Maroof,

    כשם ששוקלין עוונות אדם וזכייותיו, בשעת מיתתו--כך בכל שנה ושנה, שוקלין עוונות כל אחד ואחד מבאי העולם עם זכייותיו ביום טוב של ראש השנה: מי שנמצא צדיק, נחתם לחיים; ומי שנמצא רשע, נחתם למיתה. והבינוני, תולין לו עד יום הכיפורים: אם עשה תשובה, נחתם לחיים; ואם לאו, נחתם למיתה

    I am intrigued by the comparison of Yom Hamita and Rosh Hashana. The first is final and no more actions influence what you have done. Why is Rh similar? Can't i change things especilally according to RJM understanding that consequences are set in play based on bechirah decisions? There must be more to it.

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  14. Dan,

    When discussing metaphysical issues in the Yad, the Rambam typically speaks in metaphoric and poetic terms, not in the rigorous language of philosophical discourse.

    There is a reality to the judgment. God has established this as the beginning of our yearly cycle as a nation and, contrary to David's suggestion above, I would argue that it is far from easy to disentangle our individual existence and sense of purpose from their enmeshment in the continual pressures of life and to radically transform our priorities in the middle of the cycle.

    I would add that the Rambam explicitly states that, were the entire community to do teshuva and pray at another time of the year, it would be possible to have a "Yom Kippur" effect of nullifying the gezar din then as well.

    This shows that the problem has to do with our particular relationships with God being embedded in a national covenantal framework that can only be renewed or revised when the tsibbur as a whole is involved in the process. This renewal is mandated on Yom Kippur but can take place on other occasions as well.

    Finally, let me say that I do not think that a person who succeeds in completely transforming his life mid-year is "ignored" by providence until next Y"K. This is clearly contradicted by many narratives in Tanach. In fact, the Rav stated in one of his teshuva shiurim that radical transformations are not dependent upon Y"K for their salvific power. So yes, things can be changed, but the likelihood is slim to none - most of us partake of providence as members of the Jewish people, not as "yedaticha b'shem", truly individual providence that extends to a prophet or spiritual giant.

    So again, it seems that the kappara of Y"K is a function of:

    A) The fact that our individual relationships to Providence are mediated through the covenantal relationship of the nation AND

    B) The Torah has established this time of year as the period during which that covenantal relationship is renewed and its trajectory refined; therefore, it is a period when our connection as individuals to that relationship is "reset" based upon our exercise of free choice.

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  15. To answer your last question, a judgment happening "out there" would presumably be conducted by a metaphysical agency that would not require a "process" of weighing either!

    Simply saying "we are assessed" during this time is metaphysically accurate, since destiny is crystallizing as a function of our spiritual level and growth at this time.

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  16. Rabbi Maroof,

    First of all, thank you for your answers thus far. You have completely transformed my understanding of the aseres ymai teshuva within the span of 2 days.

    I am having trouble understanding the concept of kappara. If one has done complete teshuva i.e. fully rededicating oneself to the principles of Torah after sinning and has fully abandoned the sin - then what else is left. I know that kappara comes after this, but the process of rededication seems complete. What is kapparah adding to the equation.

    I know the first perek in hilchos teshuva is all about kappara, but without a basic understanding of the question above, the whole perek doesn't make much sense.

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  17. To understand Teshuva and Kappara, you must see that the ultimate purpose of teshuva is to "return before God" - that is, to recapture the state of mind of the oved Hashem that is undermined by sin.

    There are two stages involved in reconciliation with Hashem when it comes to mitsvot lo taaseh. The first is teshuva, removal of that which is holding us back from serving Him. In the case of violations of negative commandments, this means dislodging ourselves from an attachment to the pursuit of some forbidden satisfaction that is coming into conflict with Torah observance, whether that satisfaction be in the form of physical pleasure, egotistical gratification, of whatever.

    The second stage of reconciliation is the positive, active process of subordinating ourselves to the framework Divine Service once again. Merely disconnecting from evil (soor mera) is necessary but not sufficient; we need to be "oseh tov" as well, which means not just rejecting sin but using liberation from sin as an opportunity to reorient ourselves to our purpose as Jews.

    Without this final step, our teshuva is incomplete because we are not yet "before Hashem" to the extent we should be, and this is an after-effect of the sins themselves which are still holding us back.

    Imagine a person whose truck gets stuck in the mud. He dislodges his tires but refrains from stepping on the gas. So his "teshuva" to the process of driving is incomplete; getting stuck in the mud obstructed the process and now, even after releasing himself from the immediate impediment, he has not yet gotten himself going again.

    In spiritual terms, this last breakthrough can be accomplished by suffering physical punishment which humbles us and strengthens our attachment to the non-physical good of avodat Hashem, or through the offering of a sacrifice or the intense spiritual experience of Yom Kippur.

    This is also why Mitsvot Aseh do not have a separate "kappara" component - merely doing teshuvah and returning to proper performance of the mitsvah is, in and of itself, a reinvestment of withdrawn energies into avodat haqodesh.

    BTW, you may be interested in my article on Teshuva, I believe I posted it around the nine days.

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  18. Rabbi Maroof,

    Once again, thank you for the explanation - it makes a lot of sense. Finally, I can read the first perek of hilchos teshuva with a basic understanding of kappara and make some sense of it! It is very frustrating year after year reading the first perek and not being able to make any sense out of kappara. How were you able to come to the understanding of kappara that you did? As opposed to reading about kappara and just saying "what the heck is that about".

    Yes, I have already read your article on Teshuva, but I am going to reread it. I will surely use this new understanding of kappara in my observance of Y'K. Thanks again.

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  19. How were you able to come to the understanding of kappara that you did?

    By committing years of serious thought to the question, returning to it and refining my understanding annually, and not resting until I arrived at an intellectually satisfying answer.

    My quest was of course precipitated by my experience of the same frustration you describe!

    When I was fortunate enough to finally discover the meaning several years ago I was deeply gratified.

    Gemar Hatima Tova

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