Thursday, May 23, 2024

Rosh Hashanah: A Royal Birthday Celebration

The best mesholim (parables) begin as true stories and are eventually transposed into mesholim to live by. Rav Chizkiyohu Mishkovsky told the tragically recurring story of a young Jewish boy who was abducted and placed a monastery. His shattered parents discovered that the child had been kidnapped by the church. After begging the priests to return their son, to no avail, they took them to court. Weeks later, when the docket was finally allowed into the courtroom, the clerics’ evil response was that no one had abducted him. They claimed to have discovered a hungry, thirsty little boy, shivering from cold, abandoned by his miserable parents.

“We have no problem returning him to his parents,” they declared, “but decency requires that we ask the child first.”

Of course, the tiny victim had been “wined and dined” and brainwashed in a manner designed to win over a six-year-old. When asked by the judge, he said he would rather stay where he was.

The devastated parents were forced to hire an attorney licensed in their native Germany. He surprisingly came up with what he actually thought was a winning formula for retrieving the boy.

“This makes no sense,” the gentile attorney declared eloquently to the judge. “Children almost never want to be severed from their parents. It must be that during his long absence from home, he simply forgot about his parents and family. Let his parents have two weeks with him, under strict supervision so that they do not run away, and then let’s interview him again.”

The judge, who knew that reporters were listening and recording the proceedings, could not ignore the suggestion. However, he responded that for true decent parents, five minutes should be enough. It was so decreed and the terrified parents went home to bemoan their fate and prepare for the most important five minutes of their lives.

The local rov, the author of Nachal Eshkol, was a wise and benevolent leader. “I agree with the judge,” the rov responded to their shock when apprised of the catastrophic situation. “However, let me go in your stead. Just daven for my success.”

On the appointed day, the Nachal Eshkol arrived dressed in white, as was common for rabbonim in those days. He shone like an angel and began to hum the tune of Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur. The once-familiar melody resonated with the tortured soul of the little boy and he began to cry bitter tears. Remembering the scene in shul from his few past years, he began to tremble and shake. Seizing the moment, the sagacious rov gently inquired in front of the judge and media of the time, “Tell me, Yossele, what would you rather be, a Jew or a gentile? What do want more, this world or the next world?”

The child drew himself up to his full but miniscule height, answering in a firm voice, “Rebbe, I am a Yid.”

The Nachal Eshkol smiled and responded. “If that is the case, give me your hand and let’s go home.”

Of his own volition, in clear dulcet tones, the child announced to the hushed room, “I want to go home. There is nothing else that I could possibly wish,” and they walked off together hand in hand.

We have been reciting L’Dovid Hashem Ori for a month. The word ori, my light, is interpreted by Chazal as meaning Rosh Hashanah. Rav Mishkovsky reminds us that this light is designed to illuminate our true direction. Who are we really? To Whom do we belong? What is ultimately our true destination, Olam Hazeh or Olam Haba?

How can a spaceship travel so far? How can it reach Mars, Saturn and beyond? It is only because it has freed itself of the gravitational pull of the earth. No longer held down by that cosmic force of gravity, there is no limit to how high it can rise. We, too, cannot elevate ourselves while we are being pulled down by our earthly desires and earthy tendencies. Once we have freed ourselves of these shackles, it becomes easy to declare, “I am a Yid. I want to go home.”

To this true moshol, we must add the defining description of Rosh Hashanah given by Rav Nosson Wachtfogel zt”l in Leket Reshimos. “Two days in the palace of the king” is how he described the days of judgment ahead. They are not days of viduy, confession, and not even necessarily teshuvah. They are days of renewed self-acquaintance, days when we rediscover our royalty, days when we remind ourselves about the glories of the palace where we began and where belong. The poskim (see Rama, Orach Chaim 610) attribute two seemingly opposite connotations to the kittel of the Yomim Noraim. On the one hand, it represents the purity and majesty of the angels, and on the other, it evokes the tachrichim, the sorrowful shrouds in which the dead are buried. The Taz teaches that the practical difference between the two is for an avel, a mourner, during the year after his parent has passed away. If we refer to the first opinion, a mourner should not radiate majesty and honor. On the other hand, if we follow the second, it is quite appropriate.

We might suggest that these two are perhaps not so far apart. The angelic kittel and the beged meisim, the shrouds of the dead, both remind us that there is another more important world out there that awaits us. Of course, death seems like an end, but for the good Jew, it is merely transitional to a better higher and eternal world, which we should think of every day.

Many gedolei Yisroel, such as Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, prepared their tachrichim long before their passing, using them as reminders of both the ephemeral quality of this world, while always remembering how beautiful and replete with Torah and mitzvos every minute can be.

It is well-known that the Gaon of Vilna cried on his death-bed only because he could no longer perform mitzvos. However, while we are alive and able, there is no greater glory, joy and fulfillment than doing the will of Hashem.

Thus, Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate our creation and contemplate our potential glory, is a day to revel in being a Jew with a Father in heaven. It is a day, as each Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh Hashanah affirms, to think about Hashem, not about ourselves. Surely this is not because Hashem needs our good wishes. As the Ramchal (Derech Hashem) constantly reminds us, the Master of the Universe has no needs at all. Thinking about Hashem and spending “two days in the palace of the King” is to uplift us. It is to restore the grandeur of our creation 5781 years ago (see Sanhedrin 38b).

Rav Dovid Cohen (Birchas Yaavetz) offers us another moshol, which I update slightly for our time.

A couple who have been married for several decades aren’t getting along and enter marital counseling. Unable to help in the office, but seeing a spark of hope, the therapist suddenly asks what seems to be an irrelevant question.

“By the way, where did you get married?” he inquires.

They answer quietly and he continues the interrogation.

“Okay, after sheva brachos, did you take any trips together?”

Listening to their answers, he writes a prescription on his stationary. “You must visit your chasunah hall and the place where you took a vacation before the children came along.”

The miserable couple protest, “What for? What good will that do?”

The therapist insists that he will refund any costs, but they must follow his instructions.

The good doctor doesn’t hear anything for a while, so he places a call.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the husband responds. “We meant to thank you. All the old memories came back. We remembered what we saw in each other and it’s still there.” Rav Cohen explains that the shofar evokes the moment when Hashem blew into Adam’s nostrils, making him a breathing (and “speaking” – Targum) creature. At that time, Adam had not yet sinned and his centrality as the purpose of the universe was manifest. After the sin, he became alienated from Hashem and his greatness became clouded and nearly disappeared. So every year, on the anniversary of our creation, we attempt (zichronos) to remind Hashem of the time when we were innocent, pure and totally beloved by our Creator by blowing the shofar. Even as we ourselves realize the incredible heights to which a human being can aspire, we also demonstrate to Hashem through the shofar the love He once had for us.

We are all Hashem’s children (Hoshea 11:1). In fact, Rav Yisroel Salanter explains that Hashem loves us precisely because we are a naar, meaning someone who is always growing, changing and improving. The message of Rosh Hashanah is that even if we have wandered, if reminded we will recall who we are. Even if we become spiritually impoverished, our latent royalty is still there. When Hashem extends His hand, we will always take it and go home. In fact, Rosh Hashanah is not just home; it is a palace. The light of Rosh Hashanah shows us the way. All we need to do is remember who we are and we will be fine.

A kesivah vachasimah tovah to all.



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