Thoughts to Ponder 121

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Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur
The celebration of the human deed

“On Rosh Hashana all those who came to the world pass in front of Him like a flock of sheep.”
”Like walking on a small narrow road where no two can pass by at the same time…”

With this saying the sages highlighted the uniqueness of man and his loneliness in his encounter with God. Human beings are above all individuals. They meet God privately and as such each one is created in a different way with different talents, emotions and wisdom.  Privacy is after all the privilege of the individual.

Still, this individuality has little value if man is not able to employ it in his relationship with God and his fellowman. Only in relationships can man be an individual. For if he does not live in an encounter with the “Other” he cannot be unique, since it is distinctiveness which makes man special. Like a flower which we single out from all other flowers and whose beauty we individualize, so man does not become man unless his distinctiveness is highlighted and as Thomas Fuller once observed: a whole bushel of wheat is still made up of single grains.

However individuality is of utmost danger. It is a call for responsibility from which there is no escape. It is man alone who is responsible for his deeds, and it is mainly through his deeds that man meets the other. Nothing has more far reaching consequences than the human deed. One deed may decide the fate of the world. It is in the employment of his deeds that man reveals his thoughts and his heart. And even when the deed takes place in the company of his fellowmen and with the cooperation of others, as such his deed stays apart. Only and in the rarest of all cases may man be acting out of duress without any other option.

In accordance with an authoritative view in the Talmud, Rosh Hashana celebrates the birth of the first human being .i.e. the first creature destined as an individual while Yom Kippur reminds him of his responsibilities. While other creatures, no doubt, carry some modest kind of individuality, their deeds do not carry responsibility and are therefore indistinctive.

It is consequently the uniqueness of the human deed which stands at the center of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. As such the High Holidays are a protest against the notion that some of man’s deed are trivial and nothing more than common. Since all his deeds take place in the presence of God they must be significant. Man’s encounter with God on the High Holidays teaches him an overwhelming lesson: There are no deeds of insignificance. It warns that man should never see his life as compatible with the common and consequently of little importance. However small a deed may be in the eyes of man, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur make man aware that all his life and even the most trivial deed should be attuned to eternity. Time is broken eternity (A.J.Heshel) and consequently every moment counts since it is part of a great infinite mystery in which not even a second can be recaptured at a later hour. Man does not live in his private time but in God’s time. He is spending God’s time every second of all of his life and therefore has to bring divinity to all his deeds. He has to install eternity into his acts, making the passing everlasting, the common unique and the momentary eternal.

It is for this reason that man needs to learn that it is only in the detail that he can really live a life of profundity. Detail is after all the breaking down of the generalities into such subtle components that they touch on eternity.  Profundity is only found in the details while boredom is the outcome of superficiality. Man needs to live profoundly because it only the contemplated life which has meaning.

There is a need to turn every common deed into a mitzvah, making it a dignified encounter with God. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we are reminded that our deeds must redeem God’s presence and rescue Him from oblivion. In doing the finite we must be able to perceive the infinite.  

The High Holidays are a warning to ensure we live vertically and not horizontally. When we live our lives in the pursuit of new objects and believe it is through them that we find our meaning and joy, we should look around us and see the continuous boredom in which our western world finds itself. The excitement of new possessions leads to the trivialization of our lives after only a few days. But this is only true, when we see them in a horizontal position.   If we look at what we have in a vertical dimension, i.e. in the process of constant spiritual growth then we see them in the light of eternity and consequently in profundity.

The Torah teaches us that God is concerned with the “trivialities” and “common deed” of man, because they take place in His time and in His world. It is man’s task to make sure he realizes that.

May God grant the Jewish people and all of mankind the opportunity to recognize this truth. Gemar Chatima Tova,

Nathan Lopes Cardozo 

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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