Rejoicing in the temporary

‘Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask thy father, and he will declare unto thee, thine elders, and they will tell thee.’ (Ha’azinu, Deuteronomy 32:7)

Parasha picture of old man 521 (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
Parasha picture of old man 521
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment, the day when the Jewish people, along with all humanity, are judged by God.
From that perspective, it is a day of awe and fear and trembling.
Indeed, the Bible refers to it as a “Day of Trua” (Numbers 29:1), which is the broken, staccato sound of the shofar, which the Talmud identifies either as “sighs” or “wailing sobs.”
At the same time, it is also a day of rejoicing – a day on which it is prohibited to mourn, a day on which one must celebrate with wine and meat and rejoicing of the heart. The very term shofar, or ram’s horn, means “beautiful” because the horns of the ram are its mark of beauty.
And there is another sound made by the shofar, the tekiya, an exultant sound of victory. Let us analyze these two different aspects of Rosh Hashana; the angst of the trua and the victory of the tekiya are somehow bound up with the day of the creation of the world.
We will begin with trua, which is reminiscent of the gasping cries of an infant when first brought into the world; a world in which the human being is free to do that which God would not want him to do. The price of God’s having created us with freedom of choice is that there is room for evil as well as for good in the world. There is chaos as well as order, war as well as peace, suffering as well as rejoicing, and tsunamis and earthquakes as well as the comforting rhythm of sunrise and sunset. This world seems a vale of tears, a circumscribed period in which fragile individuals are buffeted by forces beyond their control, struggling against an unfeeling and capricious nature both without and within, and eventually succumbing to illness and death.
The central prayer during our “Days of Awe,” Unetaneh tokef, offers another perspective: “Let us voice the power of this day’s sanctity which is awesome and frightening, on this day Your kingship will be exalted and Your throne shall be established with loving-kindness; upon it shall You sit in truth. It is true that You are judge and chastiser, the Knowing One and Witness, Who writes and seals, counts and numbers, remembering all forgotten things. You open the Book of Remembrances, from it everything is read out and every person’s name is signed there.... Behold here is the Day of Judgment.... No one will have merit in Your eyes in judgment...
All the people of the world will pass before you like sheep.... You will fix a limit to the life of every creature and inscribe your decree of judgment.”
This is clearly a universal prayer referring to each and every human being. It describes how everyone is limited and mortal, and how Rosh Hashana is the day on which the fate of every individual is determined: “who will live and who will die, who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by wild beast, who shall be lowered and who shall be raised.”
And since all of us are mortal and bound to sin, “no one will have merit in Your eyes in judgment,” no one will escape the ultimate destiny of death.
The real challenge is how to face this difficult aspect of life. The prayer cites the Mishna (B.T. Rosh Hashana 18a) that “everyone passes before You” kivnei maron, an ambiguous, difficult metaphor to which the Talmud provides three possible interpretations, or ways of responding to life’s existential challenge.
The first is “like sheep”: the head of one facing the tail of the other, eyes downcast, hearts frightened.
The second, suggested by Resh Lakish, is “like attempting to reach the place Beit Maron,” to which there was an ascent so narrow that a false move could plunge the hapless climber into the deep valley on either side: “The entire world is a narrow bridge,” encouraging one to move with caution and forethought, but not to be afraid.
The third perspective, offered by Rav Yehuda, is “like the soldiers of King David,” the elite, determined and courageous troops of the leader of Israel who brought us into the golden age of our history, the model for the Messianic Age: Life is a battle, but everyone can and must do their share to bring about the ultimate victory of a more perfect society and a redeemed world.
As the prayer concludes, “Repentance, prayer and compassionate righteousness will remove the bitterness, the biting sting, of the difficult decree of human mortality.”
At the very least, the limited nature of our sojourn in this fleeting life should spur us on to make the most of the time we have, appreciate the joys and maximize every opportunity to make improvements – in ourselves and in society – and to do everything in our power to link ourselves to the eternity of our nation and to the God who guarantees ultimate redemption and the victory of good over evil.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.