Another year has gone by, and it’s Rosh HaShana again. While every year I sit in shul, and experience the liturgical moment of Divine judgment, “yom ha-din,” the day in which G-d opens the book of Life and initiates a process of examination of every human being, there’s an alternative story which I have been telling myself in the last few years. This story, which I’d like to share with you here, is not my story – it is an alternative perspective presented in the Gemara, in the Tractate of Rosh HaShana – it is marginally presented, I’d say, and then immediately put aside. And the state of mind of those who can live according to this “story” is extremely unique. With the risk of sounding elitist, I am going to propose it here, not as a possible perspective for the “many,” but as an alternative for the “few.” The source of this narrative is a discussion conceived by Yesha’ayahu Leibovitz on Rosh HaShana, and is re-elaborated by yours truly.
The Torah does not define the proper essence of Rosh HaShana – actually it doesn’t even call it that way. In Leviticus 23:24 the first day of the seventh month is defined as “a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation.” And then again in Numbers, the same day is defined as a moment of “holy convocation,” a “day of blowing the trumpets unto you.” In the Torah, that is, this specific day is not a moment of universal judgment, nor is it presented as a moment in which humanity stands in awe in front of a judging G-d. It is, rather, a day of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation – the sound that is required by the Biblical text is, as interpreted by the rabbinical tradition, that of the shofar. And as the Maimonides writes in his Hilchot Teshuva, the blowing of the shofar is a call, an alarm, a cause for introspection and self-examination as part of a process that is meant to lead to a more perfect and less maimed life in the service of G-d. The shofar is blown for humanity, not for G-d. And yet, in the widespread conception of Rosh HaShana, the blowing of the shofar is meant to be a way to influence the Divine decision, to change the will of G-d, and to save the destiny of humanity.
Both the sound of the trumpets and the sound of the shofar in the Torah may have been meant to wake up in those who hear them a conscious understanding of their situation, of their place in life, of their actions and their consequences on those who are around them. In this sense Rosh HaShana is a day of judgment, but not in the traditionally accepted sense, as in the sense of a moment of understanding, of introspection. Maimonides clearly stated in Ch. 3 Halacha 4 of his Hilchot Teshuva that the shofar is meant to wake up those who have sunk into a state of “slumber” in the vortex of their routine-based lives. But what is also clear from this definition is that the moment for a person’s teshuva is not specifically around Rosh HaShana, or Yom Kippur, but is actually any day of the year, any moment of a person’s life.
So why does Maimonides support the conception that Rosh HaShana is the right moment for this introspection, for this soul-cleansing process? There are, as Leibovitz explains quite simply, two different registers in the words of the Maimonides: there is the conception for the “masses” and there is the conception for the “few.” The masses need a clear framework, an annual cycle in which there are moments of encounter, loci of Divine providence, geographies of sanctity. The “few” are those who can cope with a reality where there are no loci of providential influence, no geographical foci of sanctity, and they ultimately understand that the orthopraxis of Halacha in general, and the sounding of the shofar in particular, were conceived for the benefit of man, for the fashioning of his cognitive capacities.
Now, while the Mishna in the first chapter of Rosh HaShana clearly reiterates and establishes the accepted narrative of this time of the year as a moment of judgment, in which G-d examines human being one by one like a shepherd examines his sheep, in the Gemara there are two marginal, albeit Tannaic, opinions mentioned – that of Rabbi Yossi, who argues that humanity is judged every day, and that of Rabbi Natan who states that humanity is judged every instant (Rosh HaShana 16a). Rabbi Natan is, between the two, the more extreme one, and probably the more arduous for those who cannot bring themselves to live in this state of mind of perennial examination. This state of mind is in a way very similar to that proposed in Pirkei Avot, when the reader is invited to live every day of his life as the last one, and to submit his or her actions to a careful analysis. The introspection, the cheshbon nefesh, is something one is required to perform constantly, not in a specific moment of the annual cycle. And Leibovitz takes this extremism one step further, stating that it is by means of his actions, his mistakes, his mitzvoth and his sins, the good and the bad actions, that a man judges himself. In a quasi-solipsistic cosmos, it is the human action that constitutes the judgment, and there is no external agent to judge. From my perspective, this solipsism contains a Divine part – meaning that G-d is always already there, always already part of the process – the actions are performed and judged on the spot.
Who could possibly live like this? Well, this is the alternative story I was talking about before: rather than wait for once a year to clean up, rather than looking to the shofar and its sound as a request for pity from G-d, rather than getting up at dawn to apologize for mistakes we have already made and will, with some degree of certainty, make again, rather than look through our annual records for spots and imperfections, it would be advisable to do so every instant of our lives. Because G-d is not King only once a year, he is King always, and we stand, trembling and awestruck, in front of Him every instant of our lives. But what is even more important is that we must come to understand that we are always in the presence of ourselves, and must always come to terms with our misdemeanors and positive actions, rather than put them aside as deal with them once a year.
Shana tovah umtukah to all the readers of Pagine Ebraiche International.
*Ph.D., Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University