A Rosh Hashana Sermon

Elul 5766

By Rabbi Dr. Zalman Kossowsky

Zurich, Switzerland

Dear Zelva landsleit & friends the world over, 

It is indeed a pleasure to stand here before you on this, my fifteenth Yamim Noraim season here in Zurich. 

 On Rosh Hashanah, in particular, we are sensitive to what we call “simanim” or signs.  This expresses itself clearly in the apples that we dip in honey as well as all the other special foodstuffs that we enjoy and on which we recite special prayers and blessings.  For me personally this year has an additional message.  The number 15 has a very special significance in the Jewish weltanschauung.  There were, in the Temples in Jerusalem, 15 steps between the open public courtyard and the inner sanctuary.  There are, in the Book of Psalms, 15 “Shir Hamaalot” psalms that today we recite every winter Shabbat afternoon.  15 is also the gematria (the numeric value) of the smallest of the names which we use for G’d, namely – yud  he

I have a sense, therefore, that this Rosh Hashanah is calling for something special from me and I have been nibbling at this question for weeks now.  I keep coming to the notion that Rosh Hashanah is, as we say in the blessing recited immediately after each of the sets of the Shofar tones:

 Hayom  harat  olam,  hayom  ya’amid ba’mishpat  kol  yetzurei olamin –today is the birthday of the world, today He will judge all the creatures of the world.

 I feel almost overwhelmed by this sense of “being judged”.  Indeed, we call this day in Hebrew -  yom  hadin  the Day of Judgment.  And it is my thoughts and feelings about being judged that I would like to share with you today.

 If I am being judged, then it is very important to know – in what areas am I being judged?  Obviously all of my life and all of my activities during the past year are being reviewed.  Obviously I am responsible for all those Mitzvot of the 613 that still apply to me here in the Diaspora today.  But that is a huge number, just under 300.  I understand that I am liable for all of them, but in truth that is just too big a number for me to come to grips with.  So my question becomes: - is there any way to distill these 300 Mitzvot into a smaller number?

 A possible answer occurred to me.  Today is the birthday of the world.  Does there exist a teaching which specifies the basic principles upon which the world was created?  Would not such a teaching help me find the elements upon which I must focus more narrowly?

 And I found such a teaching.  In fact I found two such teachings.  I also found that there are differences between the two teachings and these differences are possibly the greatest teaching of all. 

All through the summer, every Shabbat afternoon after Mincha, we learn Pirke Avot – the Ethics of our Fathers.  The first Mishna that is attributed to an individual Rabbi is the teaching of Shimon  haZadik  who declares:

 “al  shelosha  devarim  ha’olam  omed – al  haTora  v’al  haAvoda  v’al Gemilut  Chasadim

 which I would translates as  on three things the World is based (or stands) – on G’d’s Word, on our acting out (or fulfilling) that Word, and on our relationship with G’d’s other children

 Shimon haZadik lived and taught at the time that the Second Temple was built and consecrated.  Three centuries later another Teacher, also named Shimon, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel – who undoubtedly knew and understood the teachings of his namesake, formulated another great statement of this Truth, but from a different perspective.  The Editors of the Mishna so valued these two teachings that they made them into the “bookends” of the first chapter.  Shimon haZadik at the beginning and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel at the end. 

I believe that Rabban Shimon was possibly confronting the same question that challenges me, namely, yes, we know the basic principles upon which the World is created and based.  But how do we make it work for us?  How do we consolidate these hundreds of elements into something that can stand in front of us and guide as well as challenge us?

 Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s teaching is the following: -

 Al  shelosha  devarim  ha’olam  ka’yam – al  haEmet  v’al  haDin  v’al  haShalom

Which I would translate as  three things sustain the existence of the World – Truth, Justice and Peace. 

Had the Mishna ended here, I would have found this Teaching profoundly insightful.  However Rabban Shimon adds an element that does not exist in any of the other Mishnayot of the First Chapter.  Namely, he cites a Biblical verse from the Prophet Zecharia as a support.  More so, the verse that he cites only superficially supports his teaching.  On closer inspection it reveals a different message of its own that in my opinion is even more vital for us today.

 The Mishna continues: -

 . . . she’ne’emar  Emet  uMishpat  Shalom  shiftu  b’sha’a’reichem

which usually translates as -  Truth and the Justice of Peace shall you adjudicate within your gates.

 This verse and its inclusion by Rabban Shimon generates a great deal of discussion in the Talmud.  The Sages clearly understand that Rabban Shimon in his teachings identifies three separate and independent values that help the World to continue to exist, namely Truth, Justice and Peace.  The Prophet, on the other hand, admonishes us to administer two things – Truth (Emet) and the Justice of Peace (Mishpat Shalom – which in the Hebrew is in Genitive form).  The Talmud recognizes that Truth and Justice as absolute values, when imposed on a community, can often generate further conflict rather than bring peace.  The Prophet is therefore seen as proposing a modified form of Justice, namely – pesharah – compromise as THE necessary value to be adjudicated so as to bring Peace.

 I would like to interpret this verse somewhat differently.  After all these years as a community Rabbi, I am very aware that Emet – Truth can often be a brutal thing, resulting in much pain and suffering.  In many languages there is in fact an expression – the brutal Truth.  I believe that of the three values that Rabban Shimon identifies as necessary for the continued existence of the World -  gadol  haShalom – Shalom takes priority.  In my view the Prophet is not saying (Emet) and  (Mishpat  Shalom) – (Truth) and (Justice of Peace).  Rather what he is proposing that we adjudicate within our gates so as to promote the continued existence of our communities and of the World is – ( Emet  uMishpat )  of  ( Shalom ) – (Truth and Justice)  of  (Peace).  In Hebrew this would be a legitimate construction (Auslegung) of the sentence.  And in this sense what the Prophet is calling us to do is not only  Mishpat  Shalom  but also  Emet  shel  Shalom -  Truth that contributes to Peace.

 My friends, as I already indicated, the Talmud promotes the use of pesharah – compromise as a methodology which promotes both Justice and Peace.  But what is Emet  shel  Shalom -  Truth that contributes to Peace?  For this answer we have to go to the first Book of the Torah, Bereshit (Genesis) which is the recorded moral history of the Jewish People.  In the narratives of the life of Avraham Avinu, our ancestor Abraham – there are indicators of what it takes to create Emet  shel  Shalom -  Truth that contributes to Peace.

 The primary indicator is in Chapter 18, verses 12 and 13 in the narrative between Sarah, Hashem and Avraham after the Angels come to tell them that in a year Sarah will give birth.  The Hebrew term zaken is the critical point.  The Talmud in Bava Metzia 87a sums it up as follows: -

 In the School of Rabbi Yishmael it was taught, gadol  haShalom – great is Peace and even the Almighty adjusted His words . . . (so that Avraham should not blame Sarah and Sarah should not blame him, lest they come to quarrel and fight [Torah Temimah op.cit.])

 A second possible indicator can be found in the narrative when Eliezer goes to Avraham’s homeland to find a wife for Yitzchak.  The verse tells us that when the siman the sign that Eliezer specified is fulfilled, he gives the maiden jewelry and asks her for her name (Chapter 24, verses 20 through 24).  However this is not the sequence that Eliezer tells the family in verse 47.

 In our own daily reality it is not a simple matter to find such correct formulations, but for the wellbeing of our families and community it is CRITICAL that we learn how to do speak Truths that contribute to Peace.

 So to come back to my initial question – in what areas am I being judged today on this Yom Hadin – this Day of Judgement

 The answer, so I believe, lies in the Prophetic verse with which Rabban Shimon ends the last Mishna of the first chapter of Pirke Avot.

 Have I – to the extent that it lies in my power to do so - adjudicated Emet  shel  Shalom -  Truth that contributes to Peace and Mishpat Shalom  the Justice of Peace.

 My friends, what is very important to remember and what makes it even harder for us is that it is not only Judges and Rabbis that adjudicate.  Each one of us, within our own circles, continuously sits in judgment on others. And we know clearly, we are judged midah  k’neged  midah - as we do to others, so is it done to us.   

. . . Hayom  harat  olam,  hayom  ya’amid ba’mishpat  kol  yezturei olamin –today is the birthday of the world, today He will judge all the creatures of the world.

 I wish each and every one of us – first of all - that today we will be judged fit to be inscribed in the Book of Ge’phe’n – the Book of Gesund (health), Parnoseh (sustenance) and Nachas.

 But more importantly, I wish you that you so live this coming year that next Yom Hadin  may you be similarly inscribed.