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Rosh Hashanah 5780 - A Day to Party

10/03/2019 12:52:57 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Two weeks ago we celebrated our new Torah scroll with a hachnasas Sefer Torah, aka, a Torah parade.

At the parade a person was watching me celebrate and without realizing who my wife was, she approached my wife and told her, “That man always looks happy, but this is the happiest I have ever seen him.”

Indeed, aside from some amazing life moments, like my wedding, births and b’nai mitzvah of our children, I don’t remember a day where I felt as happy and grateful to Hashem as the day of the Torah parade.

I felt such amazing joy.  The completion of the mitzvah of writing a Torah brought me great joy—but so did the parade itself.

The actual parade brought out many folks from our neighborhood where I saw the widest smiles possible.  We had 12 vehicles participating in the parade and the Mayor of our city carried our Torah right down the center of 16th street.  Drivers in cars were high fiving me and dancing with me.  Just before the Torah was brought into our building for the first time a marching band played, “Shut Up and Dance With Me.”  It was awesome.  

At one point I was on such a high and so lost in the moment that I did not even realize when I was running with the Torah high above my arms while high kicking down the middle of 16th street.  It was only after the parade when I saw that video that I realized what I had been doing.

The day after the parade a friend sent me a picture of me standing next to a Chassidic Jew who was carrying the Torah while I held up my fist high in the air in a symbol of Jewish pride.  I also didn’t remember that moment, but looking at the picture I could tell that I was kvelling about my association with the Torah.

A big part of my joy was in hearing the overwhelmingly positive feedback from people at the parade.  Several people told me that it was a day that they will never forget as long as they live.  This lifted me so much and inspired me.

The parade was definitely great fun!  

But it was more than that.  I want to go deeper and explain why it was more than just fun—it was also incredibly important and meaningful.  I want to explain why our Torah Parade encapsulates for me what Rosh Hashanah is about.

The basic question we should be asking ourselves on Rosh Hashanah is:  what is the essence of the day? 

At its core, the Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as a “yom teruah.”  The Torah says that on the first day of the seventh month, “yom teruah yehiyeh lachem, a day of teruah it shall be for you” (Bamidbar 29:1).

We often think of Rosh Hashanah as a Day of Judgment (yom hadin).  However, in the Torah, Rosh Hashanah is never called a yom hadin, a day of judgment; rather, it is called yom teruah.  Yom teruah literally means a day of shouting or a day of rejoicing.

In the Torah we are shouting for joy and rejoicing on Rosh Hashanah because we are acknowledging that Hashem is our King and we are subjects to the greatest and only true King.  We are so proud of our values; so proud of our ruler; and so proud to be under the rule of Hashem.  

On Rosh Hashanah we declare with great joy, we are not embarrassed to be subjects to the King.  We are proud to be Your servants.   

We demonstrate this message clearly through the blowing of the shofar.

Rabbenu Saadiah Gaon lists ten reasons for why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  His first reason (which the Vilna Gaon in Machzor Hagra says is the main reason) is because on Rosh Hoshanah we are crowning Hashem as our King.  Think about a party where everyone runs around with their own noisemakers.  That’s what we are doing by blasting the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  This is what the Torah literally means by using the words yom teruah.  Rosh Hashanah in its biblical roots is a New Year’s party to celebrate our King. 

That’s not only what Rosh Hashanah was in biblical times. In Talmudic times, Rosh Hashanah was also a day with a party like feel.

It used to be that every single person blow their own Shofar during services.  Says the Talmud,  “ki mesayem shlicha de-tzebura tekiah beyavneh lo shamah inish kol oneh mikol tekiah deyechidai, when the prayer leader completed the sounding of the shofar in Yavne, no one could hear his own voice due to the noise of the shofar sounded by individuals” (Rosh Hashanah, 30a).  Everyone would be blasting their own shofar at the conclusion of services! 

Not only that but there was no formal sound that was required to be blasted.  It was only when Rabbi Avahu came along in Caesarea that he instituted a formal sound of tekiah shevari teruah tekiah. As the Talmud says, “Itkin rabbi abahu be-cesearea” (Rosh Hashanah, 34a).

In its biblical and talmudic roots, Rosh Hashanah is about celebrating our Judaism.  We coronate our King.  Everyone blasts horns to our own beat.  Rosh Hashanah was the original parade.

Can you even imagine how awesome this would sound if we did it today?  What an atmosphere of joy and celebration it would create. 

Our tradition moved away from these practices because there was a backlash!  

Originally the shofar was blasted first thing in the morning, which is the ideal time in accordance with the principle of zrizin makdimin, the zealous rush to perform a mitzvah (see Torah Temimah, Bamidbar, 29:1).  So back in Temple times our ancestors were all waking up early in the morning, gathering together and blasting our shofarot.  But then one year we were having such a joyous time blasting the shofar and celebrating that our enemies thought we were actually calling upon our brethren to come to battle and attack them.   Tragically, after hearing the shofar, our enemies attacked our ancestors and slaughtered them on Rosh Hashanah.  As a result our sages decreed that we must change the nature of the blasts in order to demonstrate that we are not using the shofar to plan an attack.  So instead of blasting our shofar first thing in the morning, in order to demonstrate that the shofar was not a battle cry against our enemies it was established that we should first spend our morning in prayer with requests from heaven and only after praying all morning could we then blast the shofar.  It is for this reason that today we only blast the shofar at mussaf, so that our enemies can notice that it is a prayer and not a call to battle (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, Chapter 4; and Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 32b).

Even though we have moved the time and the nature of the shofar blasts the original meaning remains.  When we blast the shofar on Rosh Hashanah it is a reminder that we are proud to declare Hashem is our King.  This is the theme of most of our piyyutim.   Think about the piyyut, ve’kol maaminim, we are part of the faithful ones who are proud to declare that Hashem is our leader.  We are not embarrassed by our faith.  We will shout it from the rooftops and let everyone hear it.

That’s what a Torah parade is about.  It is about declaring who we are and what we believe in.

I know that some people in this room and in our city have do not agree with the idea that we need to be more public our Judaism.  Some expressed to me that by shutting down 16th street for a half hour on a Sunday afternoon we might be encouraging anti-Semites.  But, I don’t subscribe to that theory.

First, I felt that even though some traffic was diverted, there was still so much love in the air.  I was inspired by so many of our neighbors of all faiths who came out and joined our parade and even joined us for our barbecue afterwards in the shul.  I was inspired by the drivers who stopped to hold my hand and dance together with us.  I also received many notes of blessings and warm wishes from our neighbors.  One neighbor wrote to me, “I have never in my life had an experience that made me feel so close to God.”  And within a few days I personally received invitations to other neighborhood parties with music and festive food.  

But more than that.  For me, it is meaningful and especially important this year to be public about our faith. This is a year in which there has been tremendous pain for the Jewish community.  It is a year in which our synagogue traveled to Pittsburgh to pay our respects and attend funerals after our fellow brothers and sisters were murdered while praying on Shabbat morning.  It is a year in which I represented our shul and traveled to Poway to attend the funeral of Lori Kaye, z”l, who was murdered at a Yizkor service on Pesach.  For this first time in our history, Jews in America were murdered while attending services in a synagogue.  

When I danced down 16th street with the Torah I thought of Lori Kaye z’’l.  Lori’s dear friend davens in our shul on occasion and she came to my office a week after Lori’s murder and told me stories about Lori as I wrote the last column of the Torah.

Here in DC, a man within five miles of our shul, was arrested and sentenced to jail for plotting to attack synagogues.

It is a year in which anti-Semitic attacks are increasing and it is increasingly uncomfortable to express our Judaism publicly.  I personally felt uncomfortable when I was on vacation in South Carolina this summer and a stranger came up to me asked me why are so many Jews disloyal.  Multiple people have told me that they are afraid to display their mezuzah out of safety concerns.

With every ounce of blood in my body I believe that the way we must respond to these new dangerous threats is by emphasizing with greater passion and volume the pride we take in our faith.

Being quiet will not make us safer.  It will only further encourage our enemies.  

Instead, we must respond by making everyday a yom teruah.  Everywhere we go we must turn our day into a coronation of the King and celebration of our faith.

We must take the yom teruah and live it every single day.  

This year I am dedicating time to write mezuzot scrolls for people. One of the reasons I am so intent on doing this is because I am sorry to say that several people have told me that this year they have now taken down their mezuzot out of fear.  I take great inspiration in putting up meuzot with people.  Each act is of even great significance.  By putting up our mezuzot we are declaring that everyday of our lives is a yom teruah.

But if our faith is only about reacting to negativity or external insecurity, it is not enough.  It is too negative.  It is not inspiring.  It is not uplifting.

Our yom teruah must also be a call to action.

There is another celebration mentioned in our Rosh Hashanah liturgy.  

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah our Torah portion is about how Avraham and Sarah are blessed with a son, Yitzchak. 

Says the Torah, “Vayaas Avraham mishteh gadol beyom higamel et Yitzchak, and Avraham made a great party on the day Isaac was weaned” (Bereishit 21:8).

According to the Zohar that was a birthday party for Yitzchak and it actually took place on Rosh Hashanah.  

So on Rosh Hashanah we read about a party that our ancestors threw on Rosh Hashanah many years ago.

Avraham and Sarah had been dreaming of a child and their prayers were answered.  They not only celebrated with their own joy, they also created a party for the whole world to share in their celebration.  Rashi says that all of the tzaddikim of the world came to their party (21:8).

Of course they had reason to celebrate.  They had been in so much pain and now they were able to take take their struggles and turn it into a party.

When Sarah first heard that she was going to have a child, she laughed because she was afraid, ki yareah (Bereishit, 18:15).

But then Avraham and Sarah name their child, Yitzchak, saying that whoever hears this, yitzchak li, will rejoice with me (21:6, Rashi).  

The pain of Sarah and Avraham was very deep, and we must acknowledge that for too many people the pain they are experiencing in their own lives is never redeemed.  For such people it can be incredibly painful to read about the prayers of others being answered while their own prayers are unheard.  But even with that being said, for me the message of the story is that because there is so much pain in this world, when we do have cause for celebration, we must appreciate that moment and we must try to be as inclusive as possible in our joy.

The story of Yitzchak’s birthday party is a metaphor for us to stop and take pride and celebrate meaningful moments in our life.  

We often celebrate our academic and professional achievements, but how about also celebrating our spiritual achievements!

What can be more meaningful than our relationship with Hashem!  What can be more meaningful than setting a spiritual goal and accomplishing it! 

Let’s do a spiritual exercise.  Think back over the last year and consider the moments this past year that we remember and are most proud of. 

For me, the most eternal moments are those moments that reflect our deepest values. 

Rosh Hashanah is a time for a mishteh gadol and a yom teruah. It is a time to celebrate our spiritual achievements from the previous year and in reflection on that to set goals for the coming year.

Let’s make this a year of spiritual growth by setting spiritual benchmarks and then celebrating them together next year.

The core message of Rosh Hashanah is that it is a day in celebration and recognition that Gd is OUR King.  

Let us celebrate like we mean it.  Let us pour out our hearts in prayers to Hashem with pride in who we are and what we believe in.  Let us do mitzvoth this year with double the pride that we felt last year.  Let us put mezuzoth and sukkoth up for the whole world to see.

If we do celebrate our love of Hashem then the promise from Hashem is that Hashem will celebrate with us.  As Rashi says, in the future Gd will make a party for all of us and Hashem will come and partake of our seudah (21:8).  And so may it be!

Mon, February 24 2020 29 Shevat 5780