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High Holidays: Is Judgment Day Supposed To be Joyful?
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As we read this text I want you to just keep a couple things in mind. First of all, what's the point of this story? What, if anything, is Nechemiah trying to tell us by relating the details of this Rosh Hashanah observance? Is it just like a historical curiosity or are we actually supposed to understand something from it? Second, maybe as a clue to that, let's pay attention to any superfluous details in the narrative. As we read through it is there any apparently trivial stuff that gets included here for no good reason?
Okay, let's just remember the general story. Basically what happens is it's about 70 years after Nebuchadnezzar has conquered the land of Israel and exiled all of the inhabitants to Babylonia. Now a small band of people is coming back to Israel to try to rebuild life in the people's ancestral homeland. Now the people who have come, they seem to be rather ignorant and they don't even seem to be so aware of what's in the Torah. They seem to be involved a lot with intermarriage - Ezra and Nechemiah constantly are telling them to stay away from intermarriage but they're sort of doing it anyway. It just so happens that the day is Rosh Hashanah, they don't even seem to be so aware of that until Nechemiah tells them. They don't really have that much going for them in terms of infrastructure, they're just sort of this hardy band of ragtag volunteers, and it happens to be the first day of Tishrei - of Rosh Hashanah.
Here's what happens. Vayei'asfu kol ha'am k'ish echad - the people, they gather together like one person, all together; El ha'rechov - to the street; Asher lifnei sha'ar ha'mayim - that's in front of the water gate. Now you and I don't really know exactly where this is, but it seems like Nechemiah has gone out of his way to give you an exact place, and I guess this is one of those details that doesn't seem to be important - I need to know that they gathered on the street? I mean it's not like such a fancy place. And that the street just happened to be in front of the water gate? But okay, whatever, that's where they gathered.
They said to Ezra HaSofer; L'havi et sefer Toras Moshe asher tzivah Hashem et Yisrael - to go bring that Torah scroll that contains the Torah that Moses himself had commanded the people of Israel, and they want to him to read to them from this scroll. So Ezra does it; Vayavi Ezra HaKohen et haTorah lifnei ha'kahal mei'ish v'ad isha - he gathers together men and women and he brings the Torah there and he starts to read. Vayikra bo lifnei ha'rechov - again, we're told he's reading in front of this street, one more time; Asher lifnei sha'ar ha'mayim - that's in front of that gate of the water. And he's doing it from the morning - the crack of dawn, until midday, in front of all the people, they're all listening to the Torah. It seems like it's kind of new to them, because when they listen to this they're going to be crying. And they're crying, as Rashi says, because they don't feel like they're actually observing this Torah well enough. They barely even know what's written in it.
Meanwhile, where is Ezra? Vaya'amod Ezra HaSofer - Ezra the Scribe, he's standing there; Al migdal etz - on this platform made out of wood; Asher asu ladavar - that they had made specifically for this event. Again, it's just one of these details that like, do I really need to know this? If he wasn't standing on the platform it would have changed my view of everything?
Now we hear about the entourage of people that surrounded Ezra at the time. We're going to get this whole list of names; people are standing to his right, people are standing to his left, and the strange thing is we never hear about these people, they seem to be like extras in the movie. Vaya'amod etzlo Matityah - there's this guy by the name of Matityah, he's standing next to him. v'Shemah - and a guy by the name of Shemah next to him. Then there's Anayah next to him. The names are also a little strange. It seems kind of coincidental. Shemah happens to be Shin, Mem, Ayin. Seems to be related to the idea of listening. Next to him just happens to be a guy by the name of Anayah, which means answering. That seems rather coincidental, doesn't it? You've got other people on his left - these are the people on his right. On his left you have people like; Pedayah, Malkiyah, people like Chashbadanah, Zecharyah. So again, why do I even need to know about all of this.
So anyway, Ezra reads and when he's done reading he blesses G-d; Vaya'anu kol ha'am Amen Amen - and all of the people answer; yes, yes - Amen, Amen.
So let's just stop right there for a moment, and even before we read any further, let me ask you this, does this remind you of anything? Anything, say, in the Torah - the Five Books of Moses itself? Just replay the elements of this event and I think you'll see it. When else was there an entire nation as described here; Kol ha'am - gathered together; K'ish echad - as if they were one person? What are they hearing as they're gathered together? The Torah that G-d commanded Moshe. When else were people gathered together as one, listening to the Torah that G-d had commanded Moses? When else was one man set apart from all of them, standing a little bit higher than the rest of them? When else did the people answer yes, yes?
I don't know about you, but it sounds pretty reminiscent of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai itself. Even think about it; revelation - revelation is something hits you between the eyes and it's new, it was ultimately new at revelation itself and here these people they're like unaware of what's written in the Torah, it's all new to them, it's like a big revelation to them. It sounds like it's an echo of the very first revelation. There too the people were gathered - they were gathered around this mountain. There too they were all together standing as one, there too they were listening to the Torah, there too there was a man, Moses, who was perched higher than them on top of a mountain, there too the people answered yes, everything that G-d says we'll do.
By the way, it's not just the general themes, even the specific words are the same. For example, Ezra opens up the scroll and reads it; L'einei kol ha'am - in the eyes of all the people. Well that sounds like a normal, everyday phrase, but guess what, that phrase only appears one other time in the entire Tanach. The only other time it appears is back at Sinai, when on the third day G-d descended from heaven; L'einei kol ha'am - in front of the eyes of all the people; Al Har Sinai - on Mount Sinai. And it's not just that phrase. Vaya'anu kol ha'am - when the people answer Ezra's blessing of G-d by saying, Amen, Amen, so that phrase also, Vaya'anu kol ha'am - that phrase too appears only one other time in the entire Five Books of Moses. Vaya'anu kol ha'am yachdov vayomru kol asher diber Hashem na'aseh - when at Sinai they said all together, everything that G-d has said we will do. It really sounds like the Nechemiah, Ezra event is echoing the original revelation at Sinai event.
It seems even to be a message that Nechemiah is getting across to you with wordplay as well. For example, look at some of these superfluous elements. Remember the street? Big deal they're on a street, who cares? Well, where were they at Sinai? They were at a mountain, the mountain was known as Sinai, otherwise known as Chorev. Well guess how you spell street in Hebrew? Reish, Chet, Vav, Beit, same letters as Chorev just rearranged.
What about all those people who we didn't understand why they were even there on the right and left of Ezra? Listen to some of their names and you'll see how familiar they are. The first person standing to Ezra's right, Matityah - literally 'the gift given by G-d'. What was Sinai about? It was about the Torah given by G-d. Right next to him; Shemah va'Anayah - a person by the name of 'hearing' and another known as 'answering'. What happened at Sinai? The people heard the voice of G-d and they answered; Kol asher diber Hashem na'aseh - everything that G-d says we will do.
On the left of Ezra there's a fellow by the name of Pedayah, which literally means 'redeemed by G-d', which is exactly how G-d introduces Himself at Sinai; I redeemed you, I took you out of Egypt, the land of slavery. Right next to him there's a man by the name of Malkiyah - G-d is king. What was Sinai about? It was about G-d revealing Himself as king. And wouldn't you know it, right after Malkiyah we hear echoes of the next logical Sinai/Rosh Hashanah theme, not just Malchiyot but Zichronot. Oh yes, Zecharyah was one other fellow to the left of Ezra - literally, 'the remembrance of G-d'.
What about that fellow by the name of Chashbadanah? A strange name, but seemingly a contraction of two words; Chashav and Dan - to think and to judge. What is the Sinai day that Rosh Hashanah commemorates year after year? A day when G-d is king; Malkiyah, when G-d remembers; Zecharyah, and Chashbadanah - a day when G-d thinks of His creatures and figures out where they fit and judges them. Chashav and Dan. It all evokes Sinai.
Now we might stand back and ask what exactly is the message here? I mean, clearly Nechemiah seems to associate what's happening with the Sinai event with the original revelation. It does seem to support our idea that Rosh Hashanah is linked to revelation at Sinai, is a replay of that day, as it were. But is that the purpose of Nechemiah, to teach us that Rosh Hashanah is linked to Sinai? I don't know if that's the point, I think Nechemiah's point is something a little bit more nuanced than that.
You see it I think if you look a little bit more carefully at some of these parallels. Yes, it's true the Sinai revelation seems to be playing itself over again, but not exactly the same way. There's no mountain this time around is there? Instead of Chorev - the mountain, there's just this little Rechov - this street. A mountain is this big, G-d-made edifice - it's just a little, flat, manmade street. There's no G-d coming out of the sky this time around - where did G-d come out of last time around? Shamayim - the heavens itself. That's what Chorev stretched up to, the heavens - Shamayim. This time around? The Rechov - the street, just meets the water gate, not Shamayim but Sha'ar Ha'mayim - this little gate of water. It's a manmade thing not a G-d-made thing, and it's much punier than the heavens, isn't it? Everything is so much smaller in the times of Ezra and Nechemiah. The crowd is smaller, the man talking to the people, he's standing on something, but it isn't a big, imposing mountain, it's a little, wooden platform. Everything is diminished.
But that, I think, is the whole point of Nechemiah, it really didn't look like much what they were doing. That was the people's point too, that's why they were crying. They looked at themselves and they were just insignificant. Here they were at a ruined Jerusalem, sacked by Nebuchadnezzar, on a crazy, idealistic mission, to come on back and to try to rebuild this land. There was no infrastructure, no great Jewish state, it was just them and Ezra and Nechemiah. They barely knew anything. They cry because they realize how far away they are from these ideals that the Torah is talking about. What are they really keeping of the Torah's Mitzvot anyway? Half of them are intermarried. They barely even know it's Rosh Hashanah. And so they cry.
But Nechemiah addresses them and tells them to stop crying. Why? Because today is Rosh Hashanah. Kadosh hayom la'Adoneinu - this day is holy to the Master. V'al tei'atzeivu - he tells them - don't be sad; Ki chedvat Hashem hi ma'uzchem - the delight of G-d is your strength. There's a G-d out there, a Master, and His story, the story of His purposes, woven through history, that's the Master's delight. That delight is your strength. You're part of that story, part of that delight. Go home and celebrate. The Torah was just read publicly here for six hours and you listened raptly to it, you may find yourself deficient in keeping all of its dictates, but that Torah embodies G-d's vision of Tov and Ra'ah, and you want to be part of that vision. If so, you need to walk away from here with strength, with your head held up high. You're part of the delight of G-d, His story, and that is your greatest strength.
This may seem like nothing, your little, apparently insignificant, life here but as part of the Master's story it can be a piece of everything. What you're doing here on this little street, in the eyes of the Master it's a replay of Sinai itself. And your little, pitiful return to this barren wasteland, the ruins of Jerusalem, in the Master's eyes, that's part of everything too. Look back on this in the sweep of Jewish history, what were these people doing? They're building the second Temple, the second Commonwealth, it will stand for 400 years. They're playing starring roles in Jewish history.
You know, there's an interesting curiosity in the text of Nechemiah here. When they go home and they celebrate that day, the words that Nechemiah uses to describe it is a Simcha Gedolah - they celebrate it with a great rejoicing. Simcha Gedolah is a rare phrase in Tanach; one of the only other times it appears is at King Solomon's coronation - the height of kingship in the people of Israel, Solomon the builder of the First Temple. It's like Nechemiah is saying, look at the echoes of what's happening here. I know you guys don't see a physical king, there's no palace, there's no pomp and circumstance, but what you're doing is every bit as significant as Solomon's coronation. He was the builder of the First Temple, you're the builders of the Second. It's coronation day, but there's no earthly king here, there's only G-d. It's Rosh Hashanah, the day the King comes into our lives.
You don't know what the larger story is, the soundtrack, that gets reserved for the Master to play. That's what Nechemiah was telling the people. You don't get to hear the violins, but they're there. Oh if you could only hear the Master's soundtrack, the echoes of Sinai, they're here in what you're doing. The echoes of Solomon's coronation, they're here in what you're doing. What's going on today it matters, if only you could hear the Master's soundtrack.
So here we are 24 centuries and change after Nechemiah and what does Rosh Hashanah mean to us? We sit in Synagogue and we too wonder whether anything we do really matters in the scheme of things. We too worry about our sins and wonder whether we are worthy. But maybe Nechemiah's words continue to serve us well. Chedvat Hashem hi ma'uzchem - the delight of G-d, that's your strength. G-d delights in His story and is inviting you to be a part of it. Rosh Hashanah is not a day to be sad, it's not a day to get weighed down with guilt. It's a day to approach the Master with all the genuineness you can muster and say, this is my voice, I've heard Your voice. I remember the Shofar blast, it's there in my collective memory, it feels familiar to me. Here's my voice, my most genuine self, I just want to be part of this great story that You're telling. I want to be part of Your delight, can You delight in me? Can You help me find a role? I'm just a human being, I feel like nothing in front of You, but I know that through You I can be part of everything.
Hi everyone, Tamar here, thanks for watching. If you found this course meaningful, please share it, just click one of the sharing icons on the right side of this video. Thanks and Shanah Tovah from all of us here at Aleph Beta.
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