Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Rosh Hashanah and Parshat Ha'azinu

This year, as you probably know by now, Rosh Hashanah occurs the two days prior to Shabbat. Due to this phenomenon, I will not be able to post my weekly Parsha thought on Thursday or Friday, and am making a dual entry. In many ways, however, this is actually a positive thing; due to the workings of the Jewish calendar system, Parshat Ha'azinu is always in the weeks around Rosh Hashanah. As such, there are many links between the two - one of which I hope to explore in this D'var Torah.

In a much discussed passage in the Talmud, the Gemara in Eiruvin (13b) declares that, "נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא." Translated (somewhat liberally): "It would have been better for man to have not been created." The reason? The number of 'positive' commandments - those that require action in order to be performed - are outnumbered by 'negative' commandments (which require inactivity and abstinence from specific actions). Therefore, if man had not been created, he would have been able to "fulfil" over half of the Torah's laws just by doing nothing; he would still be able to "perfom" all the negative-based commandments.

However, positive commandments have something over negative commandments. Negative commandments merely require inactivity and withdrawal; for example, one who sleeps for the entire duration of Shabbat is considered as having observed Shabbat to some degree, even though s/he didn't consciously do anything in order to commemorate the day. By way of contrast, positive commandments require phyiscal (and often deliberate) actions - it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which they can be performed without explicitly knowing that they are being done.

What does all this mean for us? The result of all this is the rabbinic dictum: עשה דוחה לא תעשה - Positive commandments are given preference over negative ones. If we don't take care to do them, they will never get done. Over and over again in Judaism, we hear of the two opposing forces that are love of God and fear of God. We are taught that we supposed to both love and fear God, but it is very hard to do both in equal measure. Hopefully here we can shed some light on their relationship and learn something useful for this Rosh Hashanah.

The Ramban attempts to demistify the rule mentioned above by explaining that positive commandments stem from the trait of love for God, while negative commandments are a result of fear of G-d. The difference between love and fear is best understood by considering the relationship children experience with their parents. While a child is young, they only know how to fear their parents. Infants and little children never obey their parents out of love; they obey because they know that they must, or else! But as children grow up, they relationship with their parents change completely. They learn to love their parents, as well. BUt in order to get to that stage, children need to pass through the first stage; they must fear their parents.

So too, we must realise that while love is a very beautiful thing, it needs to have a firm base in reality. It is only when we consider the might and the astonishing, infinite power of God, that we can truly love Him. Without a proper appreciation for God, our love for Him is severely limited. It is clear that the optimal state of affairs for us is to act out of love for God.

With this in mind, we can now return to our relationship with God. It is clear that acting and relating to God with love is very important. But no less important is understanding how important it is for us to treat God with proper respect; for us to realise that His might and power are more than we can ever hope to comprehend. The Torah says at the end of Parshat Ha'azinu:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם, לְכָל-הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מֵעִיד בָּכֶם הַיּוֹם: אֲשֶׁר תְּצַוֻּם, אֶת-בְּנֵיכֶם, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת. כִּי לֹא-דָבָר רֵק הוּא, מִכֶּם--כִּי-הוּא, חַיֵּיכֶם; וּבַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ. - He said to them: 'Set your hearts upon all the words that I testify against you this day; and with which you may command your children to guard; to do all the words of this law. For it is no vain thing for you; because it is your life, and through this thing you shall prolong your days upon the land; you pass over the Jordan to there, to possess it.' (Deuteronomy 32: 46-47)

Note that the Torah describes our acceptance and observance of Torah law as the essence of our life. We have heard this kind of language before, notably last week, when it is claimed in Parshat Nitzavim, "וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ. לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ... - You choose life, that you may live; you and your seed. To love Hashem your God..." (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Here, the call to chose life is deliberately placed next to the command to love God. Clearly, love for God is very important... but how can we resolve this with the seemingly greater importance attributed to fear of God?

I think that the answer can be drawn from the puzzle posed at the beginning of the D'var Torah. The Talmud concludes that it would have been better for man to have not been created at all. But that was not all that was concluded. Chazal went on to say that seeing as God did see fit to bring mankind into existence, we now are best served by following the rules of the Torah. As such, although we most certainly do need to aspire to the heights of love for Hashem, we must first learn how to fear Him properly. Over Rosh Hashanah, a lot of our energy goes into expressing realisation of our own lowly status. We spend much of our time concentrating on building up our Yirat Shamayim, our fear of God. But we should remember that this is part of a two-step process. God does not want us to act purely out of fear. Then we would be automatons. Instead, over Rosh Hashanah, we are to draw a direct line between these two seemingly competing aspects of our relationship to God. Only by connecting them together can we then achieve the right attitude and relationship.

Adapted from an essay by Rav Elazar Hager.

Wishing you all a very happy Rosh Hashanah and a restful Shabbat.

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