The Holy One, blessed be He, has many ways to create an uproar in our souls. He
can show us a moment in the life of a person who seems to live simply, and do it
with such tranquility and profundity that we are immediately
It would be completely impossible to continue our lives as
we did before. Our very being is shattered and we feel the need to start all
over again, as if we are infants who have just entered the universe.
is in that very moment that we enter the world of Rosh Hashana.
Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam there is a portrait by Rembrandt’s most celebrated
student, the master painter Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693). The painting is called
Old Woman at Prayer. It is sometimes called Prayer without End because it
portrays an old woman praying in total surrender. A lonesome ﬁgure resigned to
her simple, lonely life, yet totally content. Nothing can disturb her while she
is praying; her devotion is absolute. She prays with a profundity that is rare
in the extreme.
Only a few of us can reach that place.
God for her simple bread, ﬁsh and drink; for the clean tablecloth and the chair
on which she sits. She is grateful for the little cat that gives color to her
life, which is coming to a close. She gives thanks for being allowed to be, in
spite of all the worries and suffering she has had to endure in her life. No
resentful melancholy; no rebellion; no boredom; and above all, no mockery.
Nothing but: Lord, thanks for my share.
But there is more: She knows that
her life is of great signiﬁcance in the eyes of the Lord. Not because she has
achieved great things on this earth, but because she knows that all human life
takes place in the presence of God – and therefore must be signiﬁcant. She knows
the secret of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur: that even the trivial has ultimate
meaning and needs to be sanctiﬁed. She realizes that there are no negligible
deeds. Man should never see his life as compatible with the ordinary. Time is
broken eternity. Consequently, every moment counts, since it is part of a great
inﬁnite mystery in which not even one second can be recaptured at a later time.
The old woman’s prayer teaches her that man does not live in his own private
time, but in God’s. Every second of his life he must infuse divinity into the
mundane, bringing together the passing with the everlasting, the common with the
unique and the momentary with the eternal (A.J. Heschel).
reason, man needs to learn that only in the detail can he really live a life of
profundity. Detail is the breaking down of generalities into such subtle
components that they touch eternity.
The High Holy Days are a warning to
ensure that we live vertically and not horizontally.
When we live our
lives in the pursuit of new objects, believing that through them we will ﬁnd
meaning and joy, we need only look around us and see to what extent most people
are afﬂicted with boredom.
The excitement of new possessions often leads
to the trivialization of our lives after only a few days. This is true, however,
only if we see them in a horizontal position.
If we view them vertically,
i.e. in the process of constant spiritual growth, then we are seeing them in the
light of eternity and, consequently, in profundity. Maes’s Old Woman at Prayer
is therefore immensely rich with the little she has. She doesn’t need many
possessions to be more.
But more than that, though she lives in profound
loneliness, her awareness of God is so intense that she is in touch with all her
fellow men. It is through her distinctiveness that all people are her personal
Only in relationships can one be an individual, and it is
through this individuality that man encounters his greatest challenge: a call
for accountability from which there is no escape. It is only man who bears
ultimate responsibility, and through his deeds he meets the Other, whether it is
God or man.
Nothing has more far-reaching consequences than the human
deed. One act may decide the fate of the world. It is through carrying out his
deeds that man reveals his mind and heart. And even when the act takes place
among a multitude of people, and in cooperation with others, it remains distinct
and carries its own responsibility.
Rosh Hashana celebrates the birth of
the human being, the ﬁrst creature destined to be an individual. Among all of
God’s creations, he is the only one who carries responsibility. Rosh Hashana is
the time when we must learn to turn every human deed into a digniﬁed encounter
On this long, 48-hour day we are reminded that our lives and
deeds must redeem God’s presence and rescue Him from oblivion.
enjoined to rediscover our fellow men as unique individuals who stand together
with us before the throne of God.
When looking at Maes’s painting, one is
forced to peer into one’s own soul. We should ask ourselves whether we are
capable of living this life of simplicity and tranquility.
Can we reach
such a state of soul and mind in today’s world, where we are so completely
overtaken by the ongoing barrage of crises that we ourselves have created
because of social and other pressures? We have constructed a tower of ﬁnancial
needs and have convinced ourselves that we can no longer live without them. We
hope that by satisfying these needs, we will ﬁnd the tranquility enjoyed by the
old woman. But we fail to realize that we have become caught in a web that we
ourselves have spun, and that moves us farther away from our goal.
Jungian archetype, deep in his soul the Jew realizes that at least once a year,
on Rosh Hashana, he needs to return home and be part of his people and his
faith. He must liberate himself from all artiﬁciality and hear the storm that
accompanies the sound of the shofar, as a wake-up call signaling that life’s
tight web can be unraveled – and that real spiritual and moral liberty can be
The soul rarely knows itself. It is unaware of how to raise its
deeper secrets to the level where the mind can grasp them.
people act their faith, but do not realize that faith is a constant happening.
It cannot be stored away somewhere for the mind to find whenever it so requires.
Faith is a moment of meeting between man’s soul and God’s majesty. No ladder of
philosophical arguments can be climbed to reach this moment.
The mind is
walled and there are no ways to enter. All it has is some translucent windows,
through which it can see the landscape of the soul and catch a glimpse of what
is happening on the other side. And when man rises to reach out to God, it is
the result of divine light within, which creates this yearning.
old woman knows more than the greatest philosophers. She experiences the moment
when – to use the talmudic phrase – heaven and earth kiss. She knows how to lift
the veil off the horizon of the unknown and gain a vision of the eternity of her
life on earth, soon to end.
A thunder in her soul transforms her into a
woman in complete stillness. She knows the verse, “The Lord spoke these words to
your entire assembly on the mountain, out of the fire, cloud and thick darkness,
in a loud voice that continues forever” (Deuteronomy 5:19).
She may not
have been Jewish, but she managed to have a Rosh Hashana without end.
writer, who is an author and international lecturer, is dean of the David
Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem.