While most Kol Torah articles focus on the Parsha of the week, I would like to use this opportunity, coming as it does right before we begin the annual cycle of Selichot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to mention an important and often overlooked aspect of the Yamim Noraim.
They are not called the “days of awe” for nothing. During the time that begins with Rosh Chodesh Elul, we desperately try to shift our perspectives and actions to be more deserving of mercy and forgiveness from the Almighty. But what of those who are not deserving? We know that on Rosh Hashanah all is decided about us for the year. One of the most heart-stopping and affecting pieces of the Chazzan’s repetition of Musaf on all three days (in the Ashkenazic Machzor) is the end of U’Netaneh Tokef:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the Day of the Fast of Kippur it is sealed: how many will pass, and how many will be created; who before his time, who at his time; who will live, who will die; who by water, who by fire, who by sword, who by wild animal, who by hunger, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, who by stoning...
I am sure we will all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing at the moment we heard the terrible news on September 11th, 2001. I was in Israel, sitting in yeshiva, and then headed to my rebbe’s house in Beit Shemesh. There I stared at the words of U’Netaneh Tokef for nearly an hour, trying my best to understand what had happened. Why had so many people died? Why had so many more people not died? There are countless stories of survivors, people who made it out by the bare skin of their teeth. How many more stories must there be of people who did not make it out, who would tell us if they could how very close they were to escaping, and were prevented at the last moment by some force out of their control?
My inability to comprehend the incomprehensible that day led to my exploration of the Rosh Hashana davening. I found little to comfort me in the praises that began Musaf, even less in the detailed and eloquent descriptions of God’s greatness and power that are contained in the Piyutim that follow. If God was so great and powerful, why did He allow this to happen?
I soon realized that this question was silly. People commit evil, and to blame God for the evil of humans is unfair. The Pasuk (Bereishit 1:26) makes it clear that we were created BeTzelem Elokim, with free will and both great and evil potential – how can we blame the King of Kings when others exercise the freedom provided to them?
But the question still haunted me, until I remembered the words of my father after the crash of TWA Flight 800, on Rosh Chodesh Av, 1996, an event that even today defies scientific explanation. My father simply told me, “For some reason, God decided on Rosh Hashana the year before that all of those people should be in that place at that time. Why, how, we don’t know. But we have to have faith that He had a good reason.”
While there is no dramatic revelation or impressive deduction contained in that simple response, we as Jews take as the bedrock of our Emunah that God has a plan. But that does not absolve us of the responsibility to make ourselves as worthy as possible to receive the mercy and the clemency afforded by the opportunity of Rosh Hashanah. As we stand through Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot this coming year, we hope the Shofar’s blast will herald Mashiach and the end of pain and tragedy LeOlam Va’ed.