“The Roman general responded, ‘You are deserving of death, for I am not the king, and thus you are guilty of insubordination to the emperor, an offense punishable by death. And if I am the king, you are just as guilty, for why didn’t you come to greet me before this?’
“As I remembered his,’ said Rav Aharon, ‘my heart started trembling with fear. If indeed I am declaring Hashem to be King, why did I wait until now to approach Hashem? Why didn’t I do teshuvah beforehand?”
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The bais medrash in Yeshivas Volozhin was packed to capacity just before Kol Nidrei as the venerable rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, got up to deliver words of hisorerus. His voice thundered the words of “somar mipachdecha besori – my voice shuddered from the dread of You, umishpotecha yoreisi – and Your judgment I feared”(Tehillim 119:120). Slowly and with feeling, Rav Chaim annunciated every word.
The tzibbur was so gripped with fear and emotion that they all let out heart-wrenching cries. The rosh yeshiva waited for the storm of tears to calm down and again he repeated the words “somar mipachdecha besori.” From wall to wall, the bais medrash was permeated with a sense of awe and quivering. Again came bursts of sobs and tears, and again the frightening words were repeated, the cries not allowing Rav Chaim to proceed further with the speech.
Finally, the shliach tzibbur said that it was time for Kol Nidrei and the drashah concluded with the same words with which it had commenced. The words reverberated in the ears of those present at that inspiring gathering and shook up their hearts for many years to come.
This level of fear gripped Yidden far and wide throughout the generations during this period of the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe. And yet, we learn that these days are ones of happiness. On Rosh Hashanah, at the beginning of Bayis Sheini, when Ezra Hasofer read the Sefer Torah for the congregation, the people realized that during the years of exile they had transgressed numerous commandments of the Torah and they wept with sorrow.
Seeing this, Ezra and Nechemiah encouraged them, saying, “Go eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions for those who have nothing prepared. For today is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad, for the enjoyment of Hashem is your strength” (Nechemiah 8:10). In fact, it is mentioned in halacha to eat fatty meats and all sorts of sweets, but not to overindulge in them (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 581). Well known is the question: If we quiver and shudder for the Yom Hadin, how can this be a day to rejoice? Can one be joyful when he knows that he is being judged by the King of kings?
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It is a beautiful sunny day. The children are enjoying their fun as they play in the park. Nearby, adults are enjoying grilling their meats with loud music blaring in the background. Not too far away are people of various ages frolicking in the pool. In the shopping district at the other end of town, mothers and daughters enjoy the time they are spending together looking to buy new items. Others sit in the cafeteria munching on pastries and licking their ice cream. Around the corner is a sports bar, where the men folk sip on beer as they are deeply engrossed in the ballgame. Of course, many are at work earning money to pay for all of this amusement. From the look of it all, it seems that this is a society upon which the light of success shines brightly.
But looks can be deceiving. In reality, a pall of darkness envelops the commonwealth. Yes, they are lucky to live in a land of democracy, where they enjoy much freedom, but beneath the surface lurks danger. They have taken freedom to extremes and thus overstepped the bounds of law and order, integrity and morality, which are so necessary in order for a society to survive.
They serve an idol called liberty and thus everything goes. Freedom of speech and expression has been expanded to include all sorts of perversions, with no restrictions on what is printed or shown on public telecasts. The internet spreads its stench far and wide, causing untold damage to the morals of this nation.
But to protest is futile, for the mere suggestion of curtailing this evil is met with fierce backlash and a barrage of indignities. Billions of dollars are spent on education, more than in any other country, yet students’ performances have plummeted to an all-time low and Americans wonder why. Violence is rampant, and the country is shocked every time there is a mass murder. “How could this happen?” people ask. But even to suggest that it is their viewing violent films that breed this bloodshed evokes anger and ridicule. There is a breakdown in ethics. The economy suffers because of corruption in the banking and real estate industries, but not much will be done to stop it, because their dollars fund the campaigns of politicians, who, in turn, ignore the best interests of the people.
Some of the most popular people in office are perverse, corrupt, and shameless. Instead of restrictions placed on these freedoms, people would like to restrict the power of policemen, those called upon to enforce the law. And then they wonder why crime is on the rise and there is cultural decay.
Since time immemorial, people have shunned authority, for it is the nature of man to want to be totally free – free to do as he pleases, to control his own destiny. The fact that throughout history, monarchs and officials have selfishly abused their power only adds to man’s distrust of government.
In man’s quest for freedom, he has removed the yoke of a higher authority from his life. Belief in a Ribono Shel Olam Who created this world is considered archaic and narrow-minded, for if there is a Creator and a Higher Authority, then man must abide by His rules. But of course that would curtail liberty. So man continues to live amidst darkness in a godless society. There is no one as blind as the one who does not want to see.
Against this backdrop of that given sunny day of fun and amusement, another scene is taking place. Yidden all over the world flock to their shuls. Inside, there are solemn gatherings that evoke awe, emotion and inspiration. It is Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. Unlike the outside world, the Yidden subjugate themselves to the Higher Authority, the Melech Malchei Hamelachim,Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
In their tefillos, they listen to Hashem’s call: “Imru lefonai malchiyos – Recite before Me pesukim that speak of My Sovereignty so that you will make me your King” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). And they lovingly comply. They beg Hashem, “Uvechein tein pachdecha – Instill Your awe upon all your works and Your dread upon all that you have created…” And they plead,“Meloch al kol ha’olam kulo bichvodecha – Reign over the entire universe in Your glory.”
Of course, the highlight of the day is when we fulfill the mitzvah of blowing of the shofar. Many reasons are given for this commandment. Rav Saadiah Gaon states that we perform this mitzvah because Rosh Hashanah is the day Hashem created the world and ruled over it. It was the custom that when a new king was coronated, his subjects would blow trumpets to announce his kingdom. This is what we do on this day, when we once again coronate our Creator as King on this day. And so says Dovid Hamelech: “With trumpets and the sound of the shofar call out before the King, Hashem” (Tehillim 98:6).
Whereas throughout the world there is darkness, within the portals of these botei knesses there is light. Whereas throughout society there is sheker, we say with pride in our tefillos of Rosh Hashanah, “Ki atoh Elokim emes – For you are our true G-d and Your word is true and endures forever.” The Torah says, “Yom teruah yihiyeh lochem – It shall be a day of shofar sounding for you” (Bamidbar 29:1). “For you” meaning for our benefit. For by coronating Hashem and submitting to the rule of Hashem, we are the ultimate winners. Our lives become filled with purpose, law and order, and the benefits are eternal. On this day, we can literally feel the escape from darkness of the society we live in to the splendor of Hashem’s light. This is what Chazal say on the words of Dovid Hamelech of “Hashem ori… Hashem is my light…” When? On Rosh Hashanah. On this day of accepting His Kingship, the light of truth shines out to squelch the darkness.
It is no wonder, then, that despite the fact that we must feel pachad on this day, it is also a day of joy. On this day of acceptance of His Malchus, we also rejoice over the din, the law and order and purpose of our lives. We have full trust in His rulership and that He is a kind and merciful Monarch, for besides being our King, He is Avinu Malkeinu, our Father ad our King, and a father wants only the best for his children. This pachad brings us closer to Hashem and is the essence of true chaim, as it is written, “And you who cling to Hashem, your G-d, you are alive today” (Devorim 4:4).
On this day of coronating Hashem as our Melech, as we blow the shofar, we can also feel a bit of the Kingdom of the future (Ohr Gedalyahu). One of the reasons for the blowing of the shofar, says Rav Saadiah Gaon, is to remind us of the shofar of Moshiach, as it says, “And it will be on that day that a great shofar will be blown, and then will come those lost in the land of Ashur and those cast away in the land of Mitzrayim” (Yeshayah 27:13).
This is why right before the tekios, we say, “All you nations join hands… He shall lead nations under us and kingdoms beneath our feet” (Tehillim 47:4), for although today the world refuses to see the light, in the days of Moshiach the nations will follow our lead in embracing Hashem. Amidst the pachad of the sound of the shofar, we can sense a bit of the joy of the future.