Ju­daism

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - SHMUEL RABINOWITZ The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

On Wed­nes­day evening we will be cel­e­brat­ing Rosh Hashana – two days ( Thurs­day and Fri­day) that mark the be­gin­ning of a new year in the Jewish cal­en­dar. The name Rosh Hashana ( lit­er­ally “Head of the Year”) comes from the Book of Ezekiel, re­fer­ring to the en­tire He­brew month of Tishrei, the first month of the year. In the To­rah, this hol­i­day is called Yom Tru’a ( Day of the Sho­far Blast) for the main com­mand­ment of the hol­i­day: blow­ing the sho­far.

What does blow­ing the sho­far sym­bol­ize? Ac­cord­ing to very an­cient tra­di­tions, it sym­bol­izes crown­ing God as King of the Uni­verse, a cer­e­mony that takes place as the new year be­gins. We hu­man be­ings crown God? Doesn’t He rule over the en­tire world with or with­out us?

Bi­b­li­cal com­men­ta­tor Rabbi Avra­ham Ibn Ezra (poet, lin­guist, philoso­pher, Spain 1089–1164) dis­tin­guishes be­tween “king” and “ruler.” A king, he ex­plains, is crowned as a re­sult of the na­tion’s free will. A ruler, how­ever, is not crowned by the na­tion, but rules over it. Based on this dis­tinc­tion, we do have the power to crown God as king. God’s sovereignt­y over the world is com­plete; but His king­ship is up to us. We crown God as King of the Uni­verse.

This “crown­ing” car­ries a deep sig­nif­i­cance which we can ex­am­ine by look­ing at a sec­tion of the To­rah that we read in the syn­a­gogue on Rosh Hashana, and another sec­tion which we read after­ward from the Book of Sa­muel. These two sec­tions tell three amazing sto­ries.

The sec­tion we read from the To­rah be­gins with the fol­low­ing verses: “And God re­mem­bered Sarah as He had said… Sarah con­ceived and bore a son unto Abra­ham in his old age… The child grew… and Abra­ham made a great feast…” (Ge­n­e­sis 21:1-8). This is the first story about our el­derly fore­fa­ther and fore­mother who had given up hope of hav­ing a child, and then God grants them a son.

These verses ex­press a burst of un­mit­i­gated joy, the kind that can be ex­pe­ri­enced only by some­one who had been in the depths of de­spair and in a mo­ment reached the peak of sheer hap­pi­ness.

The next story be­gins less op­ti­misti­cally: Sarah asks Abra­ham to ban­ish Ha­gar, the maid­ser­vant Abra­ham had mar­ried at Sarah’s re­quest sev­eral years ear­lier, and her son. Sarah was afraid that the maid­ser­vant’s son, Ish­mael, was grow­ing up and seemed like he might take her son’s place in Abra­ham’s fam­ily.

After some de­bate and a prom­ise from God that noth­ing would hap­pen to his older son, Abra­ham sends Ha­gar and Ish­mael away from his home. They reach the desert and get lost in the wide, des­o­late ex­panse. The wa­ter they had brought runs out and they are on the verge of col­lapse.

In an act of des­per­a­tion, Ha­gar places her son un­der one of the bushes and sits at a dis­tance so that she won’t see the boy dy­ing in her arms. She sits and cries over her bit­ter fate and sud­denly an an­gel of God re­veals him­self to her and en­cour­ages her with warm words: “What trou­bles you, Ha­gar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the youth… Arise, lift up the youth… for I will make a great na­tion of him” (ibid., 17, 18).

Then a mir­a­cle oc­curs. God opens Ha­gar’s eyes and she sees a well. She draws wa­ter and lets the boy drink. Again – go­ing from deep de­spair to in­cred­i­ble joy.

The third story, com­ing from the Book of Sa­muel, will not sur­prise us. It tells the story of Han­nah, a woman who lived dur­ing the era of set­tle­ment in the Land of Is­rael, and as you might have guessed has no chil­dren.

She cries and prays from the depths of her heart. God hears her sin­cere prayer and a mir­a­cle hap­pens: She gives birth to a son and calls him Sa­muel. He be­comes the Prophet Sa­muel, who crowns the Jewish na­tion’s first kings, Saul and David.

In a dra­matic piece, the sages of the Tal­mud de­scribe Han­nah’s prayer:

“Said Han­nah before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of the Uni­verse, of all the hosts and hosts that Thou hast cre­ated in Thy world, is it so hard in Thy eyes to give me one son?

“A para­ble: To what is this mat­ter like? To a king who made a feast for his ser­vants, and a poor man came and stood by the door and said to them, give me a bite, and no one took any no­tice of him, so he forced his way into the pres­ence of the king and said to him, Your Majesty, out of all the feast which thou hast made, is it so hard in thine eyes to give me one bite?” (Baby­lo­nian Tal­mud, Trac­tate Bra­chot, Page 31)

The three sto­ries have one mes­sage: Some­one lis­tens to us. God wants to of­fer us sal­va­tion.

Read­ing these sto­ries on Rosh Hashana ex­presses the dif­fer­ence be­tween a “king” and a “ruler” that Ibn Ezra noted. A king reigns as a re­sult of the na­tion’s will; a ruler rules and con­trols the na­tion. On Rosh Hashana, we crown God of our own will and by do­ing so we ex­press our com­plete faith in His good­ness and kind­ness as it is reflected in these sto­ries. This faith gives us hope; it gives us the will and the courage to greet the New Year and be­lieve it will be a good one.

Shana Tova. May it be a year of kind­ness and re­demp­tion. ■

(Il­lus­tra­tive: Lucy Ni­chol­son/Reuters)

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