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