Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Walk Article


Rosh Hashanah-5771

Rabbi David Walk


            Professor Moshe Kaveh is a world renowned physicist; he is also president of Bar Ilan University in Israel and an orthodox Jew.  A couple of years ago he wrote an article for the university's splendid web site of Torah thoughts.  He began the piece by noting the work of Nils Bohr, great twentieth century physicist and pioneer of quantum physics.  Professor Kaveh pointed out one of the great paradoxes of this branch of science.  Electrons can be experimentally proven to be both particles and waves.  Most of us from the social sciences (which are neither very friendly, nor very scientific) find this confusing if not absurd.  Electrons are a natural phenomenon.  Their movement makes the electricity which powers our world, and should have a relatively straight forward explanation.  This particle versus wave seems mystical or voodoo.  However, Professor Kaveh never addressed this potential attack on his profession, but instead commented on how this reinforces many of our most cherished concepts of Rosh Hashanah.  We view many of the concepts of our New Year in a dualistic manner.  The most characteristic name for God on this Day of Judgment is Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King.  Which is it?  Is God our loving caring parent or the powerful, distant King?  Well, both, therefore we say that we stand before God as either servants or children.  Before I go any further on this twofold aspect of our relationship with God on this awesome day, I must inform you that there is a fly in the ointment.

            In 1903, the Sfat Emet (second Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Yehuda Alter, 1847-1905) wrote a totally different vision of Rosh Hashanah.  He begins by saying that the life that we beg for on Rosh Hashanah is the life force within our soul.  To explain this idea he quotes this verse from the second chapter of Genesis:  And God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and blew into his nostrils the spirit (soul) of life.  And the human became a living being (verse 7).  Sort of like Baron Frankenstein without the lightening.  The Rebbe takes this verse and concludes that this describes three aspects of life.  The first is the body formed from the earth itself, which in and of itself is lifeless.  The second is the soul, which comes from the spiritual realm and is immortal.  The third is the hardest to describe.  This aspect is what's called nefesh chaya or living being, in the verse.  This is the connection between the lifeless body and the immortal soul.  When operative it makes the body look alive.  We share this aspect with all other living things.

            The Rebbe then goes on to explain that these three aspects represent the famous Midrashic image of the three books opened on Rosh Hashanah.  The book of the evil ones who are immediately written up for execution describes the fate of the body, which really is dead.  The book of the righteous, who are inscribed for life, describes the soul which can't really die anyway.  The critical book, therefore, is the book of the beinonim or the middle ones, which describes the connection we maintain between the body (death) and the soul (life).  This book's subjects are waiting to see what their fate will be.  That's our life, trying to keep the spiritual in command over the physical, and that's our fate waiting to see how this endeavor will turn out.  No peeking, because we can't see the last page anyhow.  So, we're all in all the books, just different parts of ourselves appear in the various catalogues.  In general not that much gets decided on Rosh Hashanah, because we say that the beinonim have to wait and see.

            This also fits in with the themes of the Musaf or Additional service on Rosh Hashanah, which also has, you guessed it, three parts, Malchioyot or God's Kingship, Zichronot or God's Remembrances, and Shofrot or the redemptive display of the shofar blasts.  God's Kingship represents the power over the physical realm, like the body.  The ethereal gusts of breath which create the shofar notes symbolize the soul.  And God's remembrances of the covenants and promises made to humankind epitomize our efforts to connect our physical bodies to our spiritual selves. 

            So, which is it?  Is the essential number which best characterizes Rosh Hashanah two or three?  Is Professor Kaveh right or is the Gerer Rebbe correct?  I'll wait a moment while the votes are tabulated.  And the answer is both!  You see basically the world around us is a dichotomy between particles and waves, between physical reality and spiritual dreams.  However, the Rebbe believes that our tradition about the three books which lie opened before God on this awesome day, introduces a new idea about the relationship between these two competing schemes.  The third member of the triad (should I have said trinity?) is the all important connective piece.  It's so crucial because we live in that middle ground, where gray dominates both black and white.  It matters little whether we envision this connective entity as synapses in our brains or a ladder stretching from heaven to earth.  What's imperative is that we pay attention to the fact that we are constantly choosing one over the other, and not just sliding by.

            The Rebbe finishes his piece from 1903 by exhorting us to be cognizant of the fact that whichever life force that we choose on Rosh Hashanah has significance for our year.  That is significance, not necessarily absolute determinism.  That's why we recite and plead zachreinu l'chaim, remember us for life.  And now we know why we mention life three times in that plea.

            So, as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah 5771, we must do so with special attention to that middle ground of spirituality, where the physical battles the spiritual for control.  When the dark side wins it's usually by default, through inattention to the real choices presented to us by life.  So, have a wonderful, sweet New Year based upon a Rosh Hashanah imbued with serious decision making.                               

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