THE ROSH HASHANAH SEDER.
On Rosh Hashanah evening many people put an array of “simanim”, symbolic foods, on the table – not just apple and honey but other foods too, which are tasted one by one as their meaning is explained.
The apple and honey signify our prayer for a sweet year. There are also dates, leeks, carrots, beets, pomegranates, beans, apples, and a fish head. If you haven’t recently eaten one of these foods and require a “Shehecheyanu”, it is covered by the Shehecheyanu in the Kiddush.
Each food has its explanatory words; the pomegranate (“rimmon”), for example, expresses the hope that just as the fruit is filled with seeds, so the year will be filled with mitzvot. The beet (“selek”) suggests the hope that any unhappiness will depart (“yistalek”).
There are many customs as to the order of the foods. What we share is our yearning that the year ahead will bring us only good things.
The question is whether we deserve everything we seek. That’s what lies behind the last line of “Avinu Malkenu”, “Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, for we have no good deeds”.
An old custom was to say these words quietly and hesitantly, because we asked for so much and lacked good deeds to pay for it.
These days we sing this line loudly and confidently to assure God that this year He can rely on us because we plan to accumulate good deeds.
FEAR & THE SHOFAR.
Saadya Ga’on says there are ten uses of the shofar. One is to announce danger.
In the song from “The Sound of Music”, Julie Andrews says, “Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect…”
Yet the final words of “Adon Olam” don’t go along with the notion of fear. They say one shouldn’t feel afraid.
So who is right – Julie Andrews or the unidentified author of Adon Olam?
It all depends on what one means by fear.
It can denote being frightened. It can also indicate being awestruck.
Amos 3:6 says, “Shall the shofar be blown in the city and the people not tremble?”
Why would the shofar be sounded – to herald danger, from an enemy, from an earthquake or fire?
The inhabitants want to live a quiet life, but now danger looms. The people are frightened, for good reason.
The way to handle the fear is set out in Adon Olam. It says, “HaShem li, v’lo ira” – “The Lord is with me: I feel no fear”.
The danger does not magically dissipate, but God holds our hand and we are not alone.
That’s one type of fear. The other is awe in the presence of God. Jacob said at Bethel, “How awesome is this place (“The Place”, “HaMakom”, is one of the names of God)” (Gen. 28:17).
Fear of God is what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “amazed, wondering awe”. That is what we feel when we hear the shofar.
It is as if the shofar proclaims, “Sense the awe of the moment!”
The High Holyday prayers constantly repeat the 13 Divine attributes that derive from Exodus 34:6-7: “The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and gracious God…”
Maimonides in his “Guide to the Perplexed” goes into great detail about the Divine attributes and concludes that there is no way we can spell out the nature of the Almighty.
We know God exists, but what is God? We haven’t the language or the understanding to define Him, but we can set out His actions – not His essence but His deeds.
Says Maimonides, the list of God’s qualities is a list of merciful deeds, an expression of benevolence.
The exception seems to be that He punishes descendants for the sins of their ancestors, which is a warning to parents to give their children a good example and not try God’s patience. His own preference is to reward future generations for the piety and goodness of their ancestors.
The sages say (Talmud Rosh HaShanah 17b) that God appeared to Moses and told him, “If Israel sin, let them repeat the 13 Attributes of Mercy and I will forgive them”.
God’s mercy is always open and if we return to Him, He will return to us.
The story of the “Akedah”, the Binding of Isaac, introduces us to two – unnamed – servants of Abraham who were left at the foot of Mount Moriah when Abraham and Isaac climbed up the mountain at God’s command.
This is what we hear: “Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his ass; he took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son… Abraham said to the young men, ‘You stay here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; we will worship, and come back to you'” (Gen. 22:3,5).
Who actually were the two young men?
According to the sages, Ishmael and Eliezer. Ishmael was Abraham’s son by Hagar, and Eliezer was his favourite servant.
The fact that he took them along is no problem; Rashi explicitly informs us that a person of importance does not venture out without two attendants. The fact that it was Ishmael and Eliezer that he took is also no problem; they were the obvious choice.
The question the reader asks, however, is why in the end they were left at the foot of the mountain.
One view is that because they were close to Abraham, they might have tried to dissuade him from going any further once they discovered the real nature of his journey.
A midrashic view constructs a possible conversation that might have taken place en route.
Seeing the mountain just ahead, Abraham might have said to Isaac, “What do you see?”
Isaac’s reply, according to the Midrash, would have been, “I see a great, majestic mountain with a cloud entwined around its peak”.
The two young men might have responded, “What do we see? Some hill or other!”
Thereupon Abraham could have told them, “Then if that’s all you see, you stay here with the donkey. The donkey has no spiritual perception and neither do you!”
An Ishmael and an Eliezer, for all their virtues, lack vision and imagination and the capacity to be inspired and enthused by what they see ahead. An Isaac sees a beautiful, poetic moment.