Rosh Hashana 5768
“Happy are the people that know Teruah,
they shall walk, Oh Lord, in the light of your countenance”
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory beautifully explained the above verse by referring to a famous comment made by Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva (3:4):
“Even though the instruction to blow Shofar on Rosh HaShana is a Divine commandment with no obvious rationale offered by Scripture, there is nonetheless a clear underlying message inherent within the sounds of the Shofar – awaken sleepers from your deep sleep, and those who slumber from your dozing.”
What is the difference between sleep and slumber?
The sleeper wishes to sleep peacefully, undisturbed, until he wakes naturally from his resting, he will be frustrated and perhaps even annoyed if anyone wakens him from his sleep before he is ready to rise and shine. The one who slumbers on the other hand has no time to sleep peacefully, but every so often unintentionally and unavoidably briefly dozes because of his accumulating fatigue. He certainly doesn’t have time for a long rest and is only too happy for others to wake him prematurely from his slumber.
The blowing of the Shofar is aimed at awakening all sleepers, light and deep respectively. There are those who are fast asleep in the world of material aspirations and animal pleasures, they do not wish to be woken up, they do not want to be reminded of how they may have regressed over the past years. They are frustrated and even annoyed by the arrival of the Yamim Noraim; the sound of the Shofar irritates them, because they know deep down, that they really have to wake up, but they would prefer to roll over and simply turn a cold shoulder.
But there are also those who had no intention to slumber, they have inadvertently regressed, perhaps lost their way because of the hustle and bustle of every day life. They overtly proclaim their religious objectives and they have never lost sight of their goals, but they have slightly slipped, perhaps through accumulative spiritual fatigue. These people are delighted to hear the sound of the Shofar, they wanted to be woken up if they slumbered, and they are only too happy to hear the alarm clock ring!
This is how we should understand the verse initially quoted. Happy are those who know what the Teruah represents, who understand the urgent need to wake up, who yearn for these days of introspection and self analysis. These people are not only not annoyed at being awoken from their slumber, they are infinitely grateful at having been stirred from their sleep before missing that train called life!
As we approach another year end, we primarily thank God for the year that has passed, and then we suddenly stop and remember that yet another year has passed. It is hard to recollect as to exactly where the days, weeks, and months went, what did we achieve in essence? Did we set ourselves objectives last Rosh HaShana? Did we near realizing the goals that we set, or did we simply go back to bed immediately after dismantling the Sukkah?
As we hear the Shofar throughout the month of Ellul, we begin to stir, and then just a few days prior to Rosh HaShana, the Ashkenazim amongst us, begin to wake up early in the morning to join our Sefardi brothers in selichot. If the shofar is the initial alarm clock, then reciting selichot is perhaps the refreshing splashes of cold water on our faces, as we begin to remove the sleep from our eyes.
But it is not enough to be awake; we must be resolute in our determination to remain awake, to concentrate on our goals, to return to the objectives set, to push forward in our march towards the truth.
And in truth we needn’t simply distinguish between those who sleep and those who slumber as if they are two distinct groups of people. Each and every one of us chooses to sleep regarding some issues and only slumber regarding others. There are issues that we simply do not wish to confront. To confront would inevitably demand change, and change scares us, so we overlook, perhaps even rationalize, our attitudes towards them, not only ignoring the alarm clock, but actually taking a sleeping pill – anything to avoid the truth.
It would be self-serving and pointless to suggest that we too are not sleepers, because we are, each and every one of us. Each in their own field chooses to avoid the issues that they feel threatened by. Be it regarding halachot that require of us to refrain from doing things that we enjoy doing; be it from hashkafot that demand of us to make life changing decisions, that we do not feel that we are up to making. Yet in the meantime, when all is said and nothing done – life marches on; the years go by and we remain asleep, deep in the land of complacency.
If only we were able to look ahead during these brief moments of spiritual consciousness when we are inspired by these so very holy days; if only we were able to envisage the nightmare scenario of reaching a ripe old age only to be frustrated by the blatantly obvious truth – that we have wasted the greatest gift that we ever received – life itself!
My Teacher and mentor Rabbi Isaac Bernstein of blessed memory, once commented when speaking of Pesach Sheni, that there are few things that you cannot do twice in life; any examination failed can be retaken, if you miss one bus there will always be another one – the one thing that we cannot do twice in life is life itself. We are only eighteen once, we are only twenty five once, and so on and so forth – we have no time to sleep. When we avoid issues, when we pretend that they do not exist, we are simply taking a pain reliever with an aim at shunning the truth. But the truth never goes away, and a fault will not be fixed if we don’t consciously repair it.
So let us start anew this year, we must listen carefully to the sounds of the Shofar, and instead of pressing the metaphorical snooze button and going back to sleep, let us be sure to truly evaluate who we are and what the Almighty expects of us, so that this time next year we can be happy in the knowledge that we have used our time well, and then we can aim even higher!
Having discussed, albeit briefly, a most pertinent message of the Shofar, I would now like to move on to the subject of Shemitta:
As we enter 5768, we look towards an even greater potential – because we are about to enter a Shemitta year! There is so much that could be said in explaining the underlying messages of this wonderfully unique phenomenon, but for now we will only home-in on three specific themes, in the hope that we succeed in fulfilling this Mitzva as best we can, with these fundamental ideas in mind:
When discussing the concept of Shemitta, Abarbanel explains:
“Eretz Yisrael is uniquely charged with holiness, and enjoys the special supervision of Divine Providence. Chazal illustrated this idea by stating that Adam was created from none other than the holy and pure site of the Beit HaMikdash. When God chose Avraham Avinu, He commanded him ‘Go from your land, and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land I will show you,’ to teach us it was necessary for Avraham, as God’s servant and confidant, to move his home to that place of ultimate perfection.
Accordingly, by its very nature, that Land was chosen above all other lands. The Torah gives us absolute evidence of this: ‘A Land which the Lord your God constantly seeks; the eyes of the Lord your God are on it from the beginning of the year through the end of the year.’ All this goes to show that the Land itself – aside from the people living in it – is implicitly holy.
So we see the Almighty chose Eretz Yisrael over all other lands, just as Am Yisrael was chosen from all other peoples. The Almighty ordained that just as the whole nation recalls His act of creation by resting on the seventh day, so too the Chosen Land testifies about itself through Shemitta in the seventh year.
This parallel is referred to in the text: ‘A Sabbath of solemn rest shall it be for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord,’ implying Shemitta of the Land is similar to Israel’s holy Shabbat, and that the resting alludes to and testifies to the Sabbath of Creation.”
We can see that the Abarbanel clearly and lyrically describes the inherent holiness of Eretz Yisrael. The immediate truth of Shemitta is that the instructions regarding this special year are only relevant to Eretz Yisrael. Just like other Mitzvot dependent on the Land, Shemitta illustrates the innate holiness of our homeland – “When you come to the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath to the Lord.”
The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (3:39) explains:
“Of all the Mitzvot we have enumerated in the laws of Shemitta and Yovel, some of them are inspired by compassion for mankind and are designed to promote the well being of all mankind, as the Torah states: ‘And the needy of your people shall eat, and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat.’ Furthermore, the earth will increase its yield, and improve it’s fertility through the Shemitta.
Some of the laws are specifically inspired by compassion for slaves and the poor, i.e. the release of money and the release of slaves, whilst other instructions are designed to redress the inequalities of income and the economy. Since the land cannot be alienated from its owners, it is impossible to sell it for eternity: ‘And the land shall not be sold for eternity;’ a man’s property remains for him and his heirs.”
The Rambam clearly sees Shemitta as the great equalizer, specifically from two perspectives:
Firstly, every seven years our property becomes everyone’s property:
“And six years you shall sow your land, and you shall gather in its produce. And the seventh year you shall release it from work (Shemitta), and abandon it; and the poor among your people will eat. And the beast of the field shall eat what they leave. So shall you deal with your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Shemot, 23:10-11)
“And the Sabbath of the land shall be for you to eat; for you and your manservant and for your maidservant, and for your settler who resides with you. And for your cattle, and for the beasts that are in your land, all their produce shall be to eat.” (Vayikra, 25: 6-7)
Even though we should always be compassionate and have everyone’s general wellbeing in mind, we are specifically directed to share our wealth during this year. This educates us to be considerate, but it also cares practically for society. Let us imagine that most beautiful seventh-year reality when we can wander the Land enjoying every part of the country. We are commanded to share; to open our fields to all and we too are welcome wherever we go. What an idyllic scenario! Drastically different to the dog-eat-dog routine we see around us every day. For one year in seven we experience a dreamlike atmosphere – all for one and one for all.
Secondly, creditors simply cease to exist:
“At the end of seven years you shall make a release (Shemitta.) And this is the manner of the Shemitta; every creditor shall release what he has lent his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother because the release (Shemitta) of the Lord has been proclaimed.” (Devarim, 15:1-2)
At the beginning of the Shemitta cycle, even the failed businessman is given a chance to start anew. There will be no creditors owing so much money they cannot even come close to settling their bills. The lender has to take into account that bad debts will be written off at the end of the Shemitta year, giving everyone another chance to succeed in their personal finances. This is clearly mussar for the lender; he is not the ruler of the world and all he ‘owns’ belongs to the Almighty.
And if the lender decides to stop lending money because of the Shemitta restriction, the Torah preempts him:
“If there be among you a needy man – one of your brothers – within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not shut your hand from your needy brother. But you shall surely open your hand to him sufficiently for the need he lacks. Beware! Lest there be a base thought in your heart, saying: ‘The seventh year, the year of release (Shemitta) is coming near,’ and your eye be evil against your needy brother, and you do not give him; and he shall cry to the Lord against you, and there shall be a sin in you. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give him; because for the sake of this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work, and in all that you put your hands to.” (Devarim, 15: 7-10)
Let us not be mistaken for one moment. The seventh year is not an independent entity. It will influence the years before it and the years after. It will define the Jewish ‘free market’ in its truest sense. We will be solemnly reminded who really rules the world and forced to acknowledge those who are less fortunate. We will not be allowed to discriminate against the ‘weaker classes.’ We will need to internalize that our successes must be shared.
What an ideal! There is no room in Am Yisrael for the entrepreneur whose sole interest is himself and those closest to him. An authentic Jewish economy is one encompassing the entire people. Indeed, perhaps this is why Shemitta is only relevant when Am Yisrael is living in Eretz Yisrael. The emphasis is on the socio-economic reality in the utopia of Am Yisrael Be’Eretz Yisrael.
Let us now refer to the Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 84):
“This Mitzvah is designed to firmly fix the notion of creation ex nihilo in our minds, and strongly impress it on our thoughts, ‘For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth,’ and on the seventh day when He did not create anything, He ordered a rest for Himself. And in order to remove, uproot and eradicate from our minds the idea of the eternity of the universe proposed by those who disbelieve in Torah (and with which notion they attempt to break down all barriers), we have the obligation to spend all our time – day in day out, year in year out, on this: counting six years and then resting in the seventh year. In this way we will never lose sight of this principle underlying our counting of the days of the week as six days of work and the seventh as a day of rest. And therefore the Almighty commanded us to relinquish ownership of everything the land produces in this year, in addition to resting from work during it, so that a man should remember the earth which produces fruits every year does not produce them through its own power and strength, but a Master exists over it and over its masters, and when He so wishes He commands them to abandon the fruits…”
We first read the beautiful words of the Abarbanel who showcased the holiness of Eretz Yisrael. Then we saw the Rambam emphasize the holiness of Am Yisrael; which leaves us with our third fundamental principle – Torat Yisrael, as mentioned in the Sefer HaChinuch.
During our Shemitta year we must take the opportunity to enhance our spirituality. The year was set aside as a sabbatical, not just for the land, or for the needy, but also for everyone of us to spend more time on searching ourselves for the truth that we yearn so much for. It is a year-long Shabbat, and just as on Shabbat our objective is to religiously re-energize ourselves for the coming week, so too the aim of this special year is to give us the strength and commitment that we need for the next seven-year cycle. Just as the Shabbat strengthens our belief in God as the Creator of the universe, so too during this year we aim to create the environment that will best facilitate spiritual growth, both from a macro and a micro perspective.
And hence we end our sicha just as we began; The Shofar aims at triggering self-analysis, at arousing us from our deep sleep, and the Shemitta year enables us to extend the intensive evaluations of the month of Tishrei into a year-long exercise.
In conclusion, I would like to wish all of our newly-wed or recently engaged students a hearty mazal tov, may you all merit to build a bayit neeman beYisrael; I would also like to welcome home our huge number of alumni who made Aliya this summer – wishing you all a yishuv tov. And to all of our students, alumni, parents and friends I would like to wish you all a Ketiva VeChatima Tova, a Shana Tova Umetuka – may this year bring only good health and happiness to all of Am Yisrael. And may we merit this year to see with our own eyes the sight of the Kohen Gadol as he emerges from the Holy of Holies on Yom Hakippurim.