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Rosh Hashana 5773

Having sinned, and therefore proven our divine status, Man has the right to turn to God and ask to return in teshuva, repentance.

A table of traditional Rosh Hashanah items.
Photo by: Gilabrand
Man’s origin is from dust, and his end is dust; at the risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, a withering blade of grass, a fading flower, as passing shadow, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, a fleeting dream” – From the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “We know that man is more similar to an ape than an ape is to a toad. It may be that ‘man has not only developed from the realm of animals; he was, is, and shall always remain an animal.’ But is this the whole truth of man?”

This Rosh Hashana we will spend two days beseeching God, begging not just for health and wealth, but for our very existence. Yet the question must be asked: if Man is but “a fleeting dream,” why is he worthy to stand before the Creator of Heaven and Earth, Time and Space, and address Him?

The Psalmist is bothered by this same question when he writes: “What is man [enosh] that thou art mindful of him, mortal man [ben adam] that you take note of him?” (8:4).

Nahum Sarna points out that “the two words chosen for the human race, enosh and ben adam, are intentionally chosen for their inflection of insignificance, being heavily charged with intimations of the impermanence and fleeting nature of human existence.”

The word “enosh” brings to note his frailty and “ben adam” reminds us of his lowly origins; from the dust of the earth (adama). It is with the use of these very words that the Psalmist asks his question, in bafflement and surprise.

And yet in addressing his question directly to God, we find in his question the implicit recognition that the God of Israel is accessible, takes an active interest in man, is concerned with man, is “in search of man.”

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The Psalmist in the next verse then goes on to do something strange. He answers his own question, using his very answer to only sharpen the question that he previously asked.

“You have made him a little less than divine, and have adorned him in glory and majesty.”

What makes Man “a little less than divine”?

The earliest insight as to the nature of Man is found in the Book of Genesis when we are told that Man was created in the image of God. God of course has no image, so what can this mean?

The rabbis explain that since we can never be similar to God in our appearance, we are to imitate Him in our actions. And because nothing can prevent God from doing good things, then nothing should prevent us from doing good things.

Maimonides as well stresses this idea in his Mishne Torah when he writes that a human being should “imitate God as far as he can.” The reason we imitate God is to return to our very nature; to the image the He created us in. And in by acting like God, we become even more like Him fulfilling His mandate for us.

The Mechilta stresses this point when it analyzes the position of commandments on the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. With five written on each side, we find the command “Thou shalt not kill” lies parallel the command “I am the Lord your God.” The Mechilta goes on to explain that the reason for this is a subtle reminder that one who kills man is in fact killing God.

The Sha’arei Kedusha, by Rav Haim Vital, echoes this point by commenting on a verse that is clearly talking about God, “The Lord reigns, He is robed in majesty” (Psalms 93), to ask what is it about Man that makes him so majestic?

Rav Vital wrestles with the apparent conflict between this idea, Man’s majesty and divine nature, and the empirical reality of Man’s disgusting physical needs.

The Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, writes, as if responding to our question, that the reason the Torah records that God created us in His image is to teach us that while all the other animals walk stooped, it is man alone who walks upright, thus showing that he has dominion over the animal kingdom and is set apart from them.

In what some have called a “radical theological idea,” the Maharal goes on to write that the very reason that Man can sin is that he is created in the image of God. In a radical departure from most Jewish thinkers, he writes that it is that very freedom of choice that makes us Godlike and thus puts us even higher than the angels, who have no free will and thus cannot sin and therefore can never be Godlike.

Having sinned, and therefore proven our divine status, Man has the right to turn to God and ask to return in teshuva, repentance, which is in essence a return not just to God, but a return to our real selves.

The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-highschool yeshivot and midrashot.


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