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Why We Bless Each Other With a “Good and Sweet Year”

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“L’shana tova u’metukah” is the prayer we say when we eat the apple dipped in honey on the first night of Rosh Hashana. In Yiddish we bless each other with “a gutten un a zisen yor.” Both these expressions mean: a good and sweet year. 

Do you know why we bless each other with a “good and sweet year?” Is it a cliché, or does this sweetness carry a deeper message?

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The mystics write that as the sun sets before Rosh Hashana, the universe goes into a comatose state. A slumber descends on all existence, everything comes to a stand-still in cosmic silence, in apprehension of its contract being renewed.

As the sun sets before Rosh Hashana and existence hangs in the balance – it’s a good time to review the very nature of this existence that we are part of and whose parameters define our lives.

Is existence a form of revelation or a form of concealment?

This is not a mere abstract or esoteric question; it touches on the fundamental nature of our beings. Is the true essence of a human being – and of all existence – defined by what is visible to the eye and tangible to the five senses, or is the essence quite invisible, something that cannot be experienced in a revealed state?

In other words: Is what we see really a state of revelation, or is it the other way around: What we see is the glove, while the true hand remains hidden within?

The first verse of Genesis – arguably the most famous ever documented – answers the riddle:

“In the beginning when G-d created heaven and earth.”

The name for G-d used in this verse is “Elokim.” The classic commentator Rashi explains why the name “Havaya” is not used (as in a later verse, Genesis 2:4):

“Initially the Divine intention was to create existence with the element of justice, but He perceived that the world would not endure; so He preceded it with the element of compassion, blending it with the element of justice.”

What is the meaning of this explanation? Since the world could not endure on justice alone, why did G-d initially consider creating it that way; and only later did He decide to integrate the element of compassion? And what exactly is the meaning of justice and compassion?

Justice (Elokim) refers to the concealment of the Divine omnipresence which was a prerequisite for existence to come into being. As long as the Divine reality is all consuming, there is no room for any other consciousness to emerge. Explains the great mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), in his revolutionary Tzimtzum doctrine, that the Divine presence (light) was concealed in a type of cosmic “black hole,”  which allowed for the emergence of the conscious, independent personality of existence as we know it. Like a teacher with an infinitely greater mind than his student conceals his brilliance in order to allow “space” for the student to contain the ideas on his limited terms.

This tzimtzum/concealment is a called justice (din and gevurah), which withholds, measures and limits the transmission. By contrast, compassion (Havaya) activates the flow of energy and light.

Now we can understand the meaning of Rashi’s words: The basis of all existence is rooted in the element of “justice”, which concentrates and conceals the Divine light. Without this concealment an independent existence can never come to be. Thus, genesis begins that the universe was created with the name Elokim. However, G-d recognized the far-reaching consequences of a universe whose engine is strict justice and concealment. He therefore infused into the Tzimtzum an element of compassion – ingrained in the concealment is the purpose that it must bring light. When the great teacher conceals the full intensity of his mind he does so not as an end in itself, but as a means to convey the idea to the student. In other words, the concealment (justice) itself is ultimately an expression of compassion, allowing the student to absorb the wisdom. So too, the concealment of the Divine energy (the tzimtzum), so necessary for existence to emerge, is not an end in itself but an act of compassion that will allow us – an autonomous entity – to unite with the Divine, step by step, on our terms.

Here we have the answer to our initial question as to the nature of existence: Existence as we perceive it is actually a state of concealment. The deeper you travel into the intimate recesses of the human spirit the less tangible is the sensation, the fewer are the words, the less defined is the experience.

In other words, the entire nature of existence is turned on its head, upside down and inside out: Our sensation of the revealed is actually a state of concealment, and that what is concealed is the true state of revelation. The visible is an artificial cover, and the invisible is true reality. This existence as we know it, as we perceive and experience it merely a shell, the surface layer that shrouds what lies behind the curtain.

And the journey – and purpose – of our lives is not to be distracted by the outer mechanics, not to be deluded into thinking that there is nothing more than the outer shell. The objective of life is to weaken the hold of the concealment (justice) and reveal the compassion and revelation within.

No person is immune to the forces of “justice” in this dark world. Our challenge is not to be overcome by the severer moments of life, and recognize the compassion even in the darker moments. Knowing that compassion is imbued into the very fabric of existence (or else the world could not have endured), becomes an eternal source of hope, giving us the strength to overcome any challenge.

This is one of the main themes of Rosh Hashana, when we celebrate the birthday of the universe and its crown-jewel, the human being:

One of the reasons for the Shofar blowing is to sweeten the severe judgments (hamtokot ha’gevurot), and transform them to forces of love and compassion. As the Midrash states:

“When G-d is ready to judge He sits on the chair of judgment. But when the shofar is sounded, He rises from the chair of judgment and sits down in the chair of compassion, and He transforms the judgment to compassion.” (Midrash Tehillim 47. Vayikra Rabba 29:3)

As we say in the Rosh Hashana Musaf prayer:

“Accept the shofar blast to change the Throne of Judgment for that of the Throne of Mercy.”

The Shofar – a ram’s horn – is also a reminder of the ram that replaced Isaac whom Abraham bound and was prepared to offer to G-d. Which is why the Torah reading of the second day of Rosh Hashana is Akeidat Yitzchak—the binding and offering of Isaac (from Genesis 22). As the Talmud explains:

“G-d said: ‘Sound before Me a shofar made of a ram’s horn that I may remember for your sake the offering of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and I will consider it as if you bound yourselves before Me.’” (Rosh Hashana 16a)

Indeed, according to the Midrash, the Akeidah actually took place on Rosh Hashana (Midrash, Pesikta Rabbasi, ch. 40. Zohar III 18a).

Much has been written about the controversial episode of Abraham being ready to offer Isaac (see G-d Said to Abraham Kill me A Son). One of the explanations lays in the dynamics of the “justice” and “compassion” within existence:

All the personalities in the Torah are quintessential archetypes of Divine virtues and human traits: Abraham represents the flow of love (chesed), and Isaac embodies the withholding energy of justice and discipline (gevurah). Abraham’s binding of Isaac was a Divine act in which Abraham transcended his own natural fatherly love to introduce an even deeper love by sweetening the severe judgments of Isaac; infusing the concealment with compassion. And in the merit of binding Isaac, the entire course of history was changed.

The Divine compassion is very often concealed – deeply concealed – in our harsh world. Even with the sweetening of the severities through “binding of Isaac,” human history is a tragic testimony of far too many cruelties… One can only shudder to think what life would have been like without the “sweetening” of gevurah that momentous Rosh Hashana morning over 3500 year ago on lonely Mt. Moriah.

Over 3500 years…

And ever since we have blown shofar on Rosh Hashana to sweeten the severities and be spared from judgment.

It’s awesome when you think about it: Despite all the traumas of history – the enslavements, the genocides, the massacres, the expulsions, the persecutions –  despite it all, the Jews every Rosh Hashana, wherever they were, blew the Shofar, with absolute confidence that the ram’s horn, in merit of Abrahams’ ultimate sacrifice, would lighten and sweeten the severities.

And sweetened they were. Today, over 3500 years later, we live in a distinctly sweeter world.

Yet, there are still gevurot (severities) to be overcome. So we prepare to sound the Shofar once again (even on Shabbat, when we don’t actually blow Shofar, Shabbat accomplishes the same thing), knowing that as we do so G-d “rises from the chair of judgment and sits down in the chair of compassion, and He transforms the judgment to compassion.”

All this power lies in the modest, unassuming blessing: Have a good and sweet year!

The great Kabbalist, Reb Levik, explains: “Good” refers to revealed kindness (chesed), and “sweet” intimates the sweetening of the severities (gevurah).

On my own behalf and on behalf of all of us here at the Meaningful Life Center, I want to thank you for all your warm blessings and wishes for the New Year, as well as for your generous support and partnership in our work.

All those that bless shall be blessed says the Torah:

May you and your loved ones be blessed with a good and sweet year!

* * *

Question for the week: What do you think will be our greatest challenge in the year ahead, and what will be our greatest blessing?

Transform your High Holiday experience starting with Elul through Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah with best-selling 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays.

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teresa

Shanah Tovah–it was in my grocery adds paper and I looked it up out of curiosity and opened your website…thank you for your wisdom and insight…may you have a Good and Sweet Year…

richard

We have many challenges. We are blessed to be living in a relatively free and prosperous culture. The decline in our culture reflected in our political leadership puts our free world at a significant risk. Can we over come our seemingly natural predisposition toward self destruction? I think not. If we can, can we do it alone? Again, I think not. We need, in my opinion, the active intervention of Hashem.

R. Koonin

Our greatest challenge:

All Jews doing H-Shems will

Our greatest blessing:

All Jews doing H-Shems will thus we will merit to the coming of Meshiah speedily in our days.

Fran

I believe our greatest challenge in the year ahead is to become more of who we were meant to be. To rise above unconsciousness and to set an example to other nations. We need to unite as one people and start with ourselves, our families, friends and communities to be compassionate, kind and loving. Our greatest gift is being Jewish and bearing this responsibility and ultimately the greatest gift will be once Mashiach comes recognizing Mashiach in all of us. We are all one!

Esther Sarah Evans

bH
As beautifully lucid as this is, the more flaberghasting the conundrum of why so many of ours would rather sacrifice their sons than observe even a couple of Shabbosim.

Mark Pulver

Our greatest challenge is the very same every year- Ahavat Yisroel. To go beyond the intellectual understanding that as Jews we are all connected so that we can achieve an active connectedness between every Jewish heart and our own. I think that is what makes a great Tzaddik- the ability to feel the joy and the pain of each one of us. That is part of what draws us to them. They live in the full actualization that we are one people. We must all do our utmost to do the same.

tuvia bolton

Our greatest challenge and blessing is putting all our energy and time into learning, internalizing and actualizing the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to bring Moshiach now! Shana tova umtuka!!

j. cabouch

The greatest challenge will be to stand in silence awe before that which we do not understand. The greatest blessing would be that if we but could, it would be understood.

mordi

This is the first time i have heard gevurah referred to in a sweet sense. Gevurah usually means justice, discipline, severity. Perhaps what i am to take away from your article is that sweetness does refer to Gevurah as justice and severity, and sweet in the greeting refers to sweetening G-ds justice severity.
If i am just paraphrasing your words, then it is only to speak to myself.I am easy on the Shana tova part. I will say the sweet part in English.

m.e.

it is very inspiring to read your words of compassion for the new year. it saddens me to read comments of anti islam thoughts. there are millions and millions of muslums thoughout the world. this forum should not one that is political, but spiritual. although i believe in freedom of speech, this is not the forum. write to the new york times. comments that are anti muslum and anti islam, should not be approved by the administrator. does this negitive point of view reflect the meaningful life center? from my perspective, having read your book and articles it does not.

Yaakov Branfman

Becoming and remaining conscious of the fact that this really is pre-Mashiach times and the potentials, because of that, are unprecedented, certainly in anything near recent history.

Rand Pellegrino

To your Question for the week: What do you think will be our greatest challenge in the year ahead, and what will be our greatest blessing?Greatest Challenge for Jews, Seeing the Truth, G-d created the Universe and gave Israel to the Jews. Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza, belongs to the Jews. If arabs want to live there peacefully, and by the laws of Israel, O.K. otherwise they have to leave. It does not matter what the U.N. or the U.S. or anyone else says, Israel is a sovereign state that lives by its own laws and is supposed… Read more »

CARLOS WARTER M.D.

Being conscious implies a basic principle of honesty, truth and simply not lying and acknolwdging sourcece of ones information
The rest is plagiaristic self deceit so very common in our world were we dont take resposabilty evn for a shot in the dark

Howard Shuster

The greatest challenge will be to convince the outside world that the real threat to peace is Fundamentalist Islam and that the threat is not just to Israel but the whole world.

Joanna Deller

The greatest challenge is not being scared to stay true to ourselves and stand up and face the rising antisemitism around the world. The greatest blessing is more conscious people so that it can permeate to the rest of the Jewish world and society at large.

Judy Lederman

Our greatest challenge is always treading the fine line between being respectful of, and at the same time, responsible for others. Reaching within each of ourselves to share the light of the Torah in a way that brings every Jew (and non Jew) enlightenment and inspiration, Kiddush Hashem and Hakoras Hatov is the ultimate riddle and the one we have to solve to win the ultimate prize–Geulah! May it come this year!

Jonathan Usher

Our greatest challenge will be our fight against the expansionism of Islam. Our greatest blessing will be the recognition and return to our basic moral values.

Elihu Gevirtz

Our greatest challenge is to remain honorable and a light among the nations, while we find a way to reach out to the muslim world asking for their partnership in creating a peaceful,diverse, and tolerant world.

Stephen Moskovitz

Wishing all a sweet Shana Tovah, a table to share some blessed meals, a banquet to share the planets abundance with the people of the world in peace. Apples and honey are a good beginning.

Norton

The greatest challenge will be doing something about Iran.
The greatest blessing would be that the Messiah comes or, barring the coming, that we perform many, many mitzvahs and bring the Messiah ever closer to coming.

Henry Rieser

My summary says it all.

As for the greatest blessing; it would obviously be a solution to my summary.

Deborah

I believe our biggest challenge this year (perhaps any year) is the daily surrender of our egos to the service of G-d. It takes time and effort to slow down enough and drop our personal ambitions to a level where we can truly notice what G-d wants from us in any given situation.
What a difference it would make if we could all see G-d in all things.