READY OR NOT
Rabbi David Walk
So, how do you get ready for the High Holidays? I guess that for many people there's a wardrobe check. The meat supplies are replenished, honey is stocked and new fruits are sought. These preparations work against each other, because the second group usually means the first stuff won't fit us in a couple of weeks. For the synagogue functionaries there are prayers to be practiced, shofar to be rehearsed and sermons (many sermons) to be crafted. It's the busy season for Jewish clergy. Of course, Rosh Hashanah arrives whether we're prepared or not (for me, usually not). But shouldn't there be a whole other list of other things to do? Shouldn't there be soul reckoning and spiritual inventory? Actually, we do have some traditional homework to do before the arrival of Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. We start reciting Psalm 27 and blowing shofar a month before the holiday, and we Ashkenazim recite the Selichot service a week or so before the Days of Awe. However there's a convention that goes back to the days of Ezra (c. 450 BCE), which is apparently the first attempt to put us in the right spiritual place for these momentous days. Ezra decreed that each year before Rosh Hashanah we should read the Tochacha (admonitions and curses) in this week's Torah reading. Let's try to analyze why.
Actually it's more complicated than that. Isn't everything? The Talmud states: Ezra enacted that we should read the Klalot (curses) in Leviticus (Parshat B'chukotai) before Shavuot, and those in Deuteronomy (Ki Tavo) before Rosh Hashanah (Megillah 31b). In reality, we read them two weeks before, but most commentaries believe that's so that we don't go into the holidays too upset, even Rosh Hashanah. Now, I might have thought that the purpose of reading these difficult passages before Rosh Hashanah is to scare me into repenting before this Day of Judgment, but why read chastisement before the joyous celebration of receiving the Torah on Shavuot? One might say that we should be warned before accepting the Torah about the ramifications of disobedience to the Law. The Talmud actually gives a totally different reason. The great scholar Abaye (d. 339) said that the practice is to finish that year's negative material (curses) before the new year begins. So, why before Shavuot? That's the new year for fruit, because our fruit harvest is determined by God that day.
I'm not sure we find that too satisfying. The Rav (Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) in a lecture delivered in 1966 on the occasion of his father's Yahrzeit made a suggestion, which, I believe puts all the issues in their proper perspective. The Rav posits that Jews have two Kedushot (sanctities). I assume this means in addition to the soul sanctity of all humans, but that's outside the Rav's topic. He derives this idea from the following verse: For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him, out of all the nations that are upon the earth (Deuteronomy 14:2). And then Rashi explains: Your essential kedusha is inherited from your Patriarchs, plus God chose you to be a treasured people. So, we have an intrinsic, inherited kedusha, and a second sanctity based upon a choice within every individual and every generation. These kedushot are expressed in covenantal experiences. The eternal covenant took place at Sinai, and the Rav believes that every generation makes its own covenant. This week's parsha deals with the covenant for the generation entering
Now we can understand many nuances in these two series of curses. First of all, we know that all covenants in the ancient world have the carrot and stick of blessings and curses, just like us. But because the admonishment in B'chukotai at the end of Leviticus corresponds to the automatic covenant of being born Jewish, those curses are in the plural. Since this week's material concerns the voluntary reenlistment of every Jew and every generation, they're in the singular. We can now understand why at the end of the Tochacha in Vayikra it says: I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham I will remember (Leviticus 26:42). While at the end of the curses here, we have: These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which he made with them in Horeb (Deuteronomy 28:62).
Before Shavuot we are admonished to protect that holiness we have received as a legacy from our sainted Patriarchs. Before Rosh Hashanah we are chastised to be true to the unique nature of the covenant that we and our generation have forged with God. The trick is to make sure that these two entities don't clash; to make sure they complement each other. Perhaps that's why the readings on Rosh Hashanah are about Sarah and Yitzchak, Avraham and Yitzchak, Hanna and Shmuel, Rachel and Ephraim. Among the many items we must think about is our fealty and integrity to the traditions that we have received from our forebears.
What the Rav has taught us is that this Shabbat when, with trepidation, we read these potential disasters lurking in the future of the Jewish nation, we think hard about our personal commitment to this sanctity. It's wonderful to feel holy because of our glorious predecessors, but it's maybe more significant to sense a kedusha based upon our own devotion. Remember what Mordechai told Esther, the future of the Jewish nation is assured and secure, but you and your household can perish if you opt out of that allegiance (Esther 4:14). Our eternity within this holy nation depends on each of us. And it's on Rosh Hashanah when we re-enlist.
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