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How Dare You Make Rosh Hashanah Sound Nice!

How Dare You Make Rosh Hashanah Sound Nice!

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Question:

I read with interest your response to the lady who didn’t like Rosh Hashanah. I hope she likes it more now. However, your response was disingenuous. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. Traditionally, it is not a day of rejoicing, but of accounting. Jews of past generations went to the synagogue trembling on this day.

It’s nice to add icing to the cake—if it’s a cake. In this instance, I suggest you save your icing for Sukkot and Simchat Torah.

Response:

Here are the words of the authoritative halachic compendium Tur (Orach Chaim 581), describing a Jew’s preparation for the Day of Judgment:

Normally, a person who knows he is to be judged dons black clothing, lets his beard grow unkempt and doesn’t cut his nails. He does so because he is overcome with anxiety over not knowing the outcome of his judgment. Yet before Rosh Hashanah, we don’t do so. We don white clothing, trim our hair and cut our nails. On Rosh Hashanah we eat, drink and are happy, for we know that the Almighty will perform miracles with us . . .

Yes, it is true that Rosh Hashanah is a very serious day. But is it meant to be frightening? Certainly, that kind of relationship with G‑d, with Torah and with Rosh Hashanah is not what G‑d ever meant, not what Torah ever said, and certainly not what Rosh Hashanah is supposed to be. This sort of relationship is a place to which we descended, but not where we originated. It reached its depths with the bruised and beaten Jews of Eastern Europe after the horrors of the Cossack revolt and the great disappointment of Shabbetai Zvi. Their despair was reflected in the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the preachers of their time, whose themes were weeping, worrying, self-mortification and despondency. They made even the precious, holy Shabbat a day of tears and mourning. For a prime example, read the excerpts cited by Roman Foxbrunner beginning at the bottom of the page linked here:.

If you lived in Eastern Europe in those times, yes, Rosh Hashanah was not a pleasant day. It was a day when you were hauled into court, and just imagine, there sits the King of kings of kings upon His multi-storied throne, His ice-cold eyes piercing down at you, the wretched creature who cannot even open her mouth out of panic and fright. Every crime, negligence and blunder of your life is written in a book in the most incriminating terms, and He’s clutching that book tight in His hands. You’re in trouble.

It was at this time that the Baal Shem Tov appeared and began to take an entirely different approach. Instead of cursing Jews and threatening them with hell, he emphasized their wonderful qualities, encouraged them and strengthened their hearts. He told them stories that illustrated how dear each one was to their beloved Father Above, who holds the hand of each and every one and smiles with fatherly satisfaction over their beautiful deeds. He replaced the carrot and stick with a turbo-engine. How? Simply by fanning the flames of love he believed to lie deeply entrenched within the heart of every Jew. That love, he taught, is our birthright and our power.

Today, there is scarcely a part of the Jewish world that is not influenced in some way by the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, some more profoundly than others. But perhaps not all have learned to apply those ideas to the Day of Judgment. In contemporary context, this amounts to a crisis. Add to the ignorance and misconceptions the pain of standing up, sitting down, standing up, sitting down by orders of the rabbi while everyone mumbles words of which no one knows the meaning, and you have your answer to why 80% of Jews stay away from services on the most important day of the Jewish calendar.

As a remedy, the students of the Baal Shem Tov, most particularly Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, revealed to us many of the secrets of this awesome day—a day on which the entirety of the cosmos is renewed from the ground up, as it was on the very first day of Creation. We need to see beyond the external story—that we are being judged. We need to see the inside story—that we take part in the most essential drama of the universe, the renewal of its very existence. And most crucially, we need to see that the most important element of this drama is to renew our intimate relationship with the Creator Himself.

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Luiz Viterbo September 20, 2014

I am just a student and I love every single date and I try to see what our G-d does for us and to me. I do not skip any day that I can be with my mind throught G-d. Is new bond with Him. Reply

Chaya Bracha Las vegas,nevada September 20, 2014

Rosh Hashana b'ezrat hashem to a positive shana tovah Reply

Sam Outback Australia September 20, 2014

What is the fear of the Lord? According to King Sololon, it is the beginning of Wisdom, and brings hatred for sin. Note that the hatred is for the sin, not the person. On Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we are all renewed, should we not have that holy fear? Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA September 19, 2014

The Consequence of Freewill When Interpreting Hashem's Punishments With every word of Hashem presents to us, there as are decisions to make. Those decisions which are made out of freewill are something to rejoice over because while we can't regain the instances we have missed to do good deeds, it is never to late to repent! Therefore, always rejoice at the words of Gd. If Hashem's words are judgmental, hear oh Israel that He doesn't want it to be that way, as He welcomes our repentance at any time! Reply

Jackie September 19, 2014

Oh wow, totally loved your answer. Love can create such an amazing bond. Reply

Fruma Dwlray Beach, FL September 18, 2014

"80% of Jews stay away from services on the most important day of the Jewish calendar."--- What I see is a shul absolutely jam-packed on the High Holy Days, and close to empty the rest of the year. Reply

D. cincy September 17, 2014

Rosh Hashanah Yes , be penitent about our sins , but rejoice that G-d is merciful , and He favors the children of Israel . Glory to Him , creator of the universe . Reply

Mrs. Chana Benjaminson For Chabad.org via mychabad.org September 16, 2014

To Yochanan Rosh Hashanah (the first day of the seventh month) is the head of the year, while Nissan (the month in which Passover falls, is the first of the months. See Our Other Head for why this is so. Reply

Yochanan New York September 16, 2014

Doesn't the actual new year begin in the month of Nissan which is the beginning of Aviv? Reply

danny masri Modiin, IIsrael September 12, 2012

4 out of 5 Jews stayed in exile. Interesting how consistent Jewish math "stayed".....4 out of 5 Jews stayed in Egypt.....4 out of 5 Jews stayed in Babylonia....now I hear 4 out of 5 Jew's stayed away on Rosh Hashanna.....Chasidic teaching will change this mathematical narrative very soon. I have leaped from the 80% to the 20%....I'm thinking already the Jewish math reveals 79.999... to 2000..1%
Proud to do my part Reply

aaron levy jerusalem, Israel September 15, 2011

rosh hashana reframe I was also raised in a community that behaved very somberly But I always escaped the synagogue and hit the Habad house, and they're all singin together, then do a kidush in situ, and very joyous and sociable, so I hardly ever left-isnt that what a jewish holiday is supposed to look like? Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman September 21, 2009

to Anonymous in Auburn I can relate to everything you write, including your decision not to come the next day--but ask yourself: What would the Baal Shem Tov advise?

My guess is that he would say, "Look at these people who rip themselves away from all their concerns to sit in shul on Rosh Hashana! So they can't stop talking about those concerns, but, hey--they came to shul!"

And then he would ask you to start a little warm fire in that Chabad House, to be an inspiration to others. You don't change the world by running away from it. Reply

Mark R Reston, VA September 20, 2009

But.. I'm confused.. If at some point people believed God was harsh, and then a teacher came along and tought that God was loving.. how can these things contradict? This would mean we don't actually know about God, but we come up with different and often contradictory teachings about Him? Certainly, man cannot change God by teaching one way or another. If God is reality, then it ihas to be reality which is independent of opinions or teachings.

I feel that calling God "harsh" or "loving" is essentially assigning very human qualities to God. Perhaps we do that to attempt to relate to Him, but actually He is not man, and ultimately any of these descriptions might not have any real meaning.

That said, I agree that Rosh Hashana is a great day. Reply

Anonymous Auburn September 20, 2009

I am the 80% I grew up an unaffiliated, secular Jew. I have spent the last year learning, and reading the writings of the Ball Shem Tov, the Rebbe, other amazing traditional Jewish texts, and this year I wanted to learn more. I joined Rosh HaShanah services and was disappointed. Granted, I know few of the prayers, and have much to learn. But between the prayers there was talk of law school, and jobs, and having their children graduate a prestigious school. I was severly disappointed. Here at Chabad, who have carried out the mission of the Baal Shem Tov like none other. Instead of listening to the words and teachingsof those such as the Baal Shem Tov, who influenced this day so greatly, of being engaged in discussions regarding the fact the Creator is focused on us, it seemed to be just another day to those attending. Needless to say, I did not attend the next day. Reply

Anonymous Minneapolis, MN September 16, 2009

WOW! I've never thought of Rosh Hashanah in this way. What a beautiful reframe on the holiday. I grew up with the fire and brimstone version of the holiday, with Gd's judgement and scornfull eye looking upon us imperfect creatures. But to think of it more like the article suggests, with a focus on Gd's love for us as his children--Father to child. It is quite moving. Your reframe touches the depths of my soul. Thank you. Reply

Menachem-Mendel Brooklyn, NY September 16, 2009

Rosh Hashanah So what do we do about the 80% who don't join the rest of us in shul? I find it painful tht they don't but have no idea what to do about it. Yes, one can try to influence others in a positive way, lead by example, etc. It doesn't seem to have worked in the main-thus all those empty seats. Reply

izzy ny, ny September 15, 2009

amazing article!!! well said! Reply

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