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High Holidays: Is Judgment Day Supposed To be Joyful?
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Just a few lines after that Mishna we get the Rabbis' formulation of the basic themes of the prayers on that day. The Talmud says that the prayers on that day should have three basic themes. Not lawyering, bargaining and forgiveness like we were thinking about, but three other themes. The first one they call Malchiyot, verses that describe G-d's kingship. Imru lefanai Malchiyot kedei shetamlichuni aleichem - the Sages of the Gemara say - say before Me verses of kingship so that you will crown G-d as king over you. That's one section. The next section is called Zichronot, verses that describe fond remembrances that G-d has of the people of Israel. In the words of the Gemara; Zichronot - say verses of memory; Kedei sheya'aleh zichronchem lefanai l'tovah - so that your memory should come up to Me in a good way. Finally, a third section, Shofrot, verses that reference Shofar. In the words of the Gemara; Ba'meh - how will you be remembered? You will be remembered through Shofar.
All told, it's a kind of mysterious three-fold formulation of the day. These three categories of verses end up being the center of gravity around which our prayers on Rosh Hashanah revolve, but why? What exactly would Malchiyot, Zichronot, and Shofrot, have to do with this larger idea of Yom HaDin - a day of judgment? It seems almost like when the Sages look at Yom HaDin so they respond, oh yeah, obviously, we need to say Malchiyot, Zichronot, and Shofrot, but how did they know that? What are they seeing here that we aren't seeing?
I want to suggest a theory to you, the Sages saw something that made them understand that Rosh Hashanah was a Yom HaDin - a day of judgment, and the something that they saw also convinced them that this isn't a day for bargaining, lawyering and repentance, instead it's a day for Malchiyot, Zichronot, and Shofrot. The great question therefore is what exactly was it that they saw?
What they saw, I think, was something in the Torah itself - not in Sefer Nechemiah, the Book of Nechemiah, but all the way back in the Five Books of Moses itself - what they saw was, the Torah's original description of Rosh Hashanah as it first appears. Now strangely, that description does not reference the idea of a day of judgment at all, instead the Torah characterizes Rosh Hashanah with just a couple of cryptic words. It calls it a day of Zichron Teruah - a day of remembrance of the cry of the Shofar. Technically by the way, the Torah just uses two words to describe it, Zichron Teruah, from here on in I'm just going to colloquially use the phrase Yom Zichron Teruah when I want to refer to how the Torah talks about this day.
But whatever the case is, what exactly does this mean? It just seems to be hopelessly ambiguous, a day of remembering the cry of the Shofar. But whatever it means it certainly doesn't seem to be saying it's a day of judgment. I mean if you wanted to say it was a day of judgment, just come out and say on the first day of Tishrei, that's a Yom HaDin - a day of judgment, G-d has these scales and weighs the lives of everybody. Nothing like that. Yom Zichron Teruah - a day of remembrance of the cry of the Shofar. Almost as if there was some event that we were supposed to remember involving a Shofar, but like an event that was so obvious that obviously yeah, just remember that day, that you know the cry of the Shofar - what are we even talking about? What is so obvious to the Torah here that you and I aren't getting?
So it's all very mysterious and it just seems to lead us to this big dead-end. As we trace back the roots of Rosh Hashanah to its earliest possible Biblical source we're left with this strange holiday called Zichron Teruah, and we're not even sure what that means in the first place but whatever it means doesn't seem to help us understand how the Sages came up with this idea of Yom HaDin - of judgment day, let alone this notion of saying Malchiyot, Zichronot, and Shofrot.
Okay, so if Zichron Teruah - a day of remembering the cry of the Shofar, seems to take us back to some event, we're remembering this cry of the Shofar that we once heard, what event was that? The amazing thing is that the Sages actually tell us what event it was, right exactly where you would expect them to tell us. Right before we actually read these verses of Shofrot which supposedly are going to help us remember that cry of the Shofar we all heard, they actually tell us what event we're talking about. Listen now to the words that we all say as part of our Rosh Hashanah prayers right before we actually declare the verses of Shofrot. Here's the text the Sages have us say.
Atah nigleita ba'anan kevodecha - You G-d revealed Yourself in a cloud of glory. Al am kodshecha - to Your holy nation; L'daber imam - to speak with them; Min ha'shamayim hishmatam kolecha - from the heavens You made Your voice heard. V'nigleita aleihem b'arpelei tohar - and You revealed Yourself to them in thick clouds of purity. When it happened; Gam ha'olam kulo chal mi’panecha - the whole world trembled before You; B'higalotecha Malkeinu al Har Sinai - when You, our king, revealed Yourself on Mount Sinai.
Yes, that's the event the Torah was talking about, Zichron Teruah, that's what we're supposed to be remembering here on Rosh Hashanah, it's the memory of the cry of the Shofar - the cry of the Shofar that the entire nation, that we all heard, way back at Sinai. If you read the text of revelation at Sinai you'll find there was a Shofar blast there. That cry seems to be what the remembrance of this day is about.
But now let's stop right here for a second, why, you might ask is the Torah being so cagey about it? I mean, if it's really true that on Rosh Hashanah we're supposed to remember the revelation at Sinai, so the Torah should have just said; Yom Zichron Sinai - it's a day of remembering Sinai, that would have been clear enough. For some reason the Torah is emphasizing the Shofar blast at Sinai as some key part of the experience of revelation. If you're going to remember Sinai you're going to remember that, Yom Zichron Teruah - the day of remembering the Shofar, which is strange because you and I, we would have said the main aspect of Sinai was the Torah, we got the Ten Commandments. No, Rosh Hashanah comes along and says, Yom Zichron Teruah, if you have to summarize Sinai, the way you should remember it forever, is the time when we heard a blast of a Shofar. Now why would that be? Why would the Shofar at Sinai be so important?
Well, the Sages give you a hint with the very first words of that paragraph we've been reading, Atah Nigleita. Listen to the language one more time. Atah nigleita ba'anan kevodecha - You revealed Yourself in a cloud, strange, that's an oxymoron. G-d didn't reveal Himself in a cloud, a cloud I can't see anything. Even later on in Deuteronomy when we talk about the Sinai experience, we talk about it in terms of Choshech, Anan, Arafel - it was dark, it was a thick cloud, you couldn't see a thing. How disappointing. Here's the greatest event in the history of the world, revelation, and it's obscured by clouds, you can't really see anything. It's like the biggest disappointment. So what's going on? How come it was so cloudy? How come it was so dark?
But that acutely wasn't coincidental, there was a reason for that. Later on in Deuteronomy, again talking about the Sinai experience, Moshe picks up on the fact that you couldn't see anything. Remember, he tells the people, you didn't see anything at Sinai; U'temunah einchem ro'im - there was no vision, there was no picture, nothing to see; Zulati kol - all there was, was voice. All you heard was G-d's voice. Eventually that voice coalesced into words, and you heard the Ten Commandments, but even before that you heard the; Kol shofar chazak me'od - the voice of the Shofar very loud. There weren't any physical Shofar that were blowing at Sinai, what you heard was a supernatural sound, the sound of the Shofar, without any physical Shofar. The sound of the Shofar was G-d communicating with you even before He spoke to you.
Why was voice the medium through which we encountered G-d, not sight? If you and I could choose to encounter the Almighty with any one of our senses, we probably would choose sight, it's the most direct way of perceiving something, we'd want to see G-d. But G-d says, sorry folks, that's not the way it works, you can't see Me. You see, sight is a sense by which human beings directly encounter something; when you see x you perceive x directly, fragile human beings can't have that direct an experience with the Almighty in this world, they don't last. As G-d says to Moshe later; Loh yirani odom v'chay - people don't see Me and live through that experience. But you can hear Me, you can hear My voice. When you hear something that comes from x, you don't perceive x directly, you hear an emanation from x, but hearing is still a genuine encounter. You can encounter Me through My voice, G-d says, it's the most direct encounter I can provide for you.
So the Shofar at Sinai it was G-d's way of saying, this is Me. Later on; Onochi Hashem Elokecha - I am the L-rd your G-d, those would be the first words of the Ten Commandments, this is Me. But even before the voice coalesced into words, even before that when there was just raw, untrammeled voice, the voice of the Shofar, the voice was also saying, this is Me.
There's something about voice that stirs up old memories. When you hear a song from childhood that you haven't heard in 30 years, doesn't it transport you back to those earlier moments in your life, it feels like you're back there. When an old friend you haven't seen in 30 years unexpectedly comes into your life again, and even before you see him calls out to you, the words don't even make a difference, the voice - you recognize the voice. At Sinai G-d came into our lives, this extraterrestrial being from beyond, the Creator of the universe. It was the strangest, most incredible thing imaginable, but also the most familiar thing, this was our creator, we know that voice from somewhere.
Indeed, the earliest collective memory that humanity has going all the way back into the Garden of Eden, was that voice. Vayishme'u et kol Hashem Elokim mit'halech ba'gan leru'ach hayom - Adam and Eve, the very first humans had heard the voice - the voice of G-d strolling through the garden in the afternoon. Picture the scene. If you were Adam and Eve you have just sinned, you are hiding, you are scared, and then you heard G-d from afar and it seemed like the voice was getting louder because He was coming closer and so you hid. But now go to Sinai, it seems like it's the same scene somehow. It's no longer a garden, it's a mountain, and the people were afraid and they were standing from afar, but it was a good kind of fear, it was awe in the face of the Almighty. And here they were hearing the voice once again. In the words of the verse; Kol ha'shofar holech v'chazeik - the voice was Holech, it's as if it was it strolling, as if it was walking. It was going, and it was getting louder and louder, just as it once did in Eden.
Our collective memories were awakened that day, and now every year we have Yom Zichron Teruah - a day of remembering the voice. When we hear the Shofar it takes us back, it stirs something in our collective human souls. We know that voice. It was the moment we made contact. It's the moment that changed everything for us. After that moment we could never be the same.
Okay, we have seen how the Sages seem to interpret Yom Zichron Teruah, the Biblical description of Rosh Hashanah. They seem to see it as a day of remembering the cry of the Shofar by which G-d first introduced Himself to us - the revelation event at Sinai. What I want to suggest to you now is that everything else the Rabbis of the Talmud and Mishna tell us about Rosh Hashanah, that it's a day of judgment, that we should say, Malchiyot, Zichronot, and Shofrot, all of this flows organically from that. Come with me into our next video and let's explore that now.
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