Winning It All On Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah makes many demands of us. In Mussaf alone – the longest of the year – we go back to creation and contemplate three distinct approaches, Malchiyos, Zichronos and Shofros. We must literally recreate ourselves and emerge as close as possible to our pristine ancestor, Adam Harishon. We do not dwell on our sins, there is no confession, and we attempt to rise high above our former selves.

Rav Nosson Wachtfogel zt”l, in Leket Reshimos, says that we simply spend two days in the palace of the king. If the visit is done properly, we are elevated above all pettiness and triviality, restoring ourselves to our original status as members of the mamleches kohanim and goy kadosh. One of the methods (see Krisos 6a) that we have been granted to achieve these lofty goals is the simanim, the signs or omens that are reminders and metaphors for the good year for which we hope and pray.

Let’s use one of these simanim to get into the proper frame of mind and soul for achieving these ideals and purposes. We eat or at least hold and contemplate something called a rosh, the head of a ram or even a fish and declare, “May we be as the head and not the tail.” What exactly is our goal in this tefillah?

Some meforshim (e.g., Ohr Yitzchok) have suggested that the source is the Mishnah (Avos 4:20) which says, “Be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.” Rav Chatzkel Levenstein zt”l (quoted in Umasok Ha’or, Rosh Hashanah, page 317) explains this to mean that one should attach oneself and emulate great people so that even if one is not exactly like them, the major thrust of their lives will affect his essence. He offers the example of Lot and Avrohom Avinu. The Torah (Bereishis 19:29) testifies that “Hashem remembered Lot and saved him.” Rashi explains that this refers to the fact that Lot knew very well that Sarah was Avrohom’s wife, yet he was silent when he heard Avrohom declare that she was his sister. Rav Chatzkel asks, “Was this silence Lot’s only merit? Surely, he was moser nefesh – he risked his life and family – to perform the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim.” Isn’t this a greater accomplishment than simply not exposing Avrohom Avinu to death at the hands of a tyrant?

Rav Chatzkel explains that being the tail of the lion rather than the head of the fox implies that the actions of a person that count the most are those that are subsumed under the influence of someone of great spiritual stature. The tail itself may be insignificant and perhaps even rather lowly, but it still carries the imprimatur of the king of beasts. Lot’s silence was under the influence of Avrohom; thus he rose to the level of being the tail of a lion. But his extraordinary hospitality was in Sedom, the city of evil, so he became a leader, but he was merely the head of foxes.

The prayer and request shenihiyeh lerosh velo lezonov is not that we should be the head ourselves, but that we should attach ourselves to someone who is the ultimate, who is himself the rosh. We should not associate with people who are lowly and degrading, with those who themselves are tails. However, if we are the tail of the lion, we ourselves become lerosh. We will not only grow and gain from the association, but we ourselves may be transformed into a lion ourselves.

Interestingly, the Alter of Kelm seems to take an almost diametrically opposed opinion. He asserts that the Torah credits Lot for his silence because that was his very own decision. However, his devotion, even at great personal expense, to hachnosas orchim was nothing more than an imitation of what he had learned in the house of Avrohom and was therefore not as powerful.

The Alter cites a proof for this analysis from a Medrash (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 25): “Lot stated, ‘What did Avrohom of blessed memory do? He made his home into a place where everyone was received properly; whoever entered was given food to eat and beverages to drink. Then Avrohom encouraged them to declare that there was but One G-d in the universe. When Lot arrived in Choron, he did exactly the same.” The Alter concludes: “Thus Lot was no more than a carbon copy of Avrohom Avinu, acting as a mere monkey.”

On the surface, we certainly seem to have encountered a machlokes between two giants of the mussar movement. However, looking more deeply, we may have discovered two sides of the same coin. If one subjugates himself to greatness, spending years and even decades absorbing and internalizing the lessons, he eventually becomes the embodiment of his master and teacher. But if he merely goes through the motions, is at best a shadow of his mentor, and does not radiate his middos and personae, then he is indeed not much more than a monkey or one-dimensional image. The two mussar gedolim are transmitting to us a process through which we can grow, change, and even be original. Yet, we must always be true to the direction, ideals and essence of their mesorah.

Lot did some very fine things for his guests, but handing over his children to extremely evil people is not a part of hachnosas orchim. At the end of the story, he becomes a pathetic figure, rather than a true heir to the legacy of Avrohom Avinu.

Our mandate for the Yomim Noraim is profound personal change, but it must reflect the teachings of the Torah, Chazal, Rabbeinu Yonah in Shaarei Teshuvah, and the teachings of the baalei mussar.

Yet, beyond all this, there is still a more profound element to our Rosh Hashanah avodah. Many seforim raise a difficult question. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, we make many requests. We ask for good health, parnassah, shidduchim for ourselves or our children, and many more things we need or think that we require. What exactly are we offering in return? Is it just more of the same as last year? If so, what has changed in our supplication?

Rav Goel Elkarif (Doresh Tov, Rosh Hashanah, page 306) relates a moving story that might give us an answer and a chance to fulfill our wishes and requests. He heard the story from the jeweler in question and recognizes the deep lesson we may derive:

A ten-year-old girl walks into an expensive jewelry store and gains the attention of the owner. Children do not usually enter his exclusive establishment, certainly not without a parent. “What can I do for you?” he asks pleasantly. Her answer surprises the owner considerably. “I would like to buy a gold chain.” The little girl scans the necklaces under the locked glass case and points to her choice. “I would like that one please.” The proprietor smiles and responds, “You have good taste, but that is not really a piece for a girl your age. For whom are you buying this?” Her heart-rending response is that her parents have both died and her older sister is caring for her and her younger brothers. She works hard to make sure that the family remains stable and does not fall apart. “We would like to buy a gift for our sister because she works so hard for us,” she asserts. “We have been saving money for a long time and we felt that we are now ready to buy her something nice. Every penny we had has gone into this bag, which is for our sister’s present.”

With that, she emptied the contents onto the counter, many pennies, some nickels, dimes, quarters and only very few dollars. The total was no more than a hundred dollars.

The kindly jeweler responded in a somewhat choked tone, “Fine. I will wrap it up properly for you. In the meantime, write a nice note for your sister.” The excited young girl left happily with her precious gift and the story seemed to be over. Just before closing, a somewhat disheveled teenage girl ran into the store out of breath, clutching a package. “I’m so sorry, Mr.,” she blurted out. “My sister came here today without asking me. I don’t understand how she walked out with this necklace without paying. She’s a good girl; she would never steal. She just wanted to make me happy.”

“She actually bought the chain,” the smiling storekeeper responded.

“What?” the girl practically shouted. “This is a real gold chain, isn’t it? How could my sister have bought it? I know that she only had a few dollars.”

Now the storeowner became quite serious. “She paid what no one has ever paid me before.”

The girl found the courage to respond. “Yes, she paid you a few dozen dollars for something worth thousands.”

The jeweler reiterated, “Let me explain. This is indeed a very expensive store. Most of our customers are quite wealthy, so none of them ever pay me with all the money that they have in the world. In fact, if they spend thousands on a piece of jewelry, they will not miss the money a bit, because they have millions more. Your sister gave me everything that she had. That touched my heart, so I gave it to her with all my heart. Now it is yours. Go home and wear it in good health.”

Rav Elkarif taught me that we, too, can be like that little girl. If we give Hashem all that we possibly can, it doesn’t have to be millions, even spiritual millions. It only has to be all that we possibly can. If we come to Hashem on Rosh Hashanah with superficial promises, meaningless commitments, and easy-to-fulfill promises, then we have given nothing at all in return for our many requests. But if, like our greatest role models, we are as courageous as a lion, giving Hashem our all, whatever we can, what is difficult and precious to us, then, like the kindly jeweler, He will certainly smile upon us. Let us remember that to receive all, we must give all.

A kesivah vachasimah tovah to everyone.