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Torah Attitude: Rosh Hashanah: “Even one is a multitude”
Ezekiel says Repent and Live!” Would it not have been better if Yom Kippur came before Rosh Hashanah? Full, honest, sincere repentance is inspired in times of judgment. In the Mussaf service, there is a very moving prayer called the “Unesaneh Tokef”. Why does G’d allow so many peace-loving victims in Israel to be murdered and maimed? Only G’d knows why He lets horrible things happen. “Whoever destroys the life of one Jew, it is to be considered as destroying a whole world. And whoever sustains the life of one Jew, it is to be considered as if sustaining a whole world. The Torah teaches us that we really have nobody to rely on other than our Father in Heaven.
Repent and live
The High Holidays are a time for reflection. We search our inner soul for ways to improve our lot, both as individuals and as a community. Once again, this past year has brought great tragedy and tremendous loss of precious lives to the Jewish people. This is not what G’d would want to happen. As the Prophet Ezekiel says in the name of G'd, "I do not want that a person should die. Repent and live!” (18:32).
Better forgive then judge?
With this in mind, there is a famous question asked by Rabbi Israel Salanter: Would it not have been better if Yom Kippur came before Rosh Hashanah? Since Yom Kippur is the day when G'd forgives us for our sins, and Rosh Hashanah is the day when He judges us, imagine having a day of forgiveness before the day of judgment. There would be nothing left to judge and no reason to punish since all would have been forgiven.
Prerequisite of repentance
G'd is definitely not interested in punishing anyone. After all, the whole purpose of creation was for G’d to bestow his goodness upon everyone He created, in general, and on the Jewish people in particular. Rabbi Salanter answers his question by pointing out that if forgiveness preceded judgment, there would be no incentive to repent. Full, honest, sincere repentance is inspired in times of judgment. The Day of Judgment brings each of us to search ourselves and to carefully analyse our deeds of the past year. And repentance is a prerequisite for G’d to wipe our slates clean and forgive us. That is why the Judgment of Rosh Hashanah must precede the forgiveness of Yom Kippur.
Who will die
On the High Holidays, we acknowledge in our prayers that these are auspicious times when every individual is being judged and everyone’s future is being decided. In the Mussaf service, we say in the very moving prayer called the “Unesaneh Tokef”: “The great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them – and they will say, Behold, it is the Day of Judgment … All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock … On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will die and how many will be born; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning …”
Why does G’d let this happen?
This past year has been filled with horrific tragedies: so many bombings in Israel with so many peace-loving victims being murdered and maimed. The pain of the destruction of so many innocent lives is fresh in our hearts. We question why does G’d let this happen?
G’d’s ways are not our ways
We cannot begin to understand the ways of G'd. The prophet Isaiah says, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways – says G'd. As high as the Heavens over the earth, so are My ways higher than yours, and My thoughts higher than your thoughts” (55:8-9). The greatest prophets had difficulties understanding G'd's judgment. Our patriarch Abraham argued with G'd back and forth, at great length, in an attempt to try to save the wicked Sodom and neighbouring cities from destruction. Only when G'd explained to him that there were absolutely no righteous people worthwhile saving, besides Lot and his family, Abraham finally ceased to plead for mercy (Bereishis 18:23-33). Moses, at the Korach uprising, protested to G'd, "one man has sinned and Your anger struck at the whole congregation?" (Bamidbar 16:22). We cannot understand. The greatest could not understand. In Parsha Nitzavim, last week’s portion, we learned that the hidden things in life are for G’d only (Devarim 29:28). Only G’d knows why He lets horrible things happen.
One is a multitude
We may not be able to understand the ways of G’d; however, we do know that every individual's life is very dear and valuable to Him. When G’d sent Moses to warn the Jews at Mount Sinai, He said, "Go down and warn the people that they should not break through and rise on the mountain, and a multitude of them will fall” (Shemos 19:21). Our Sages point out that the word “will fall” in the Hebrew is in the singular. This is grammatically incorrect as it refers to the “multitude” which is plural. Rashi explains that even if one single Jew will fall, G’d considers it as though a multitude has fallen. There is a famous statement in the Talmud, “Whoever destroys the life of one Jew, it is to be considered as destroying a whole world. And whoever sustains the life of one Jew, it is to be considered as if sustaining a whole world (Sanhedrin 37a). This person may marry, have children and those children may marry and have children, and so on. So every individual has the potential to be a mini-world of numerous countless generations waiting to be born. Even in the rare case when a Beth Din executed a wicked person, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 46a) expresses the pain G'd feels at losing one of his beloved children. How much more so when a righteous person loses his life!
Who can we rely on?
Just a few days ago the world remembered the victims of 9/11. This is a stark reminder how fragile our lives really are. The strongest nation in the world could not protect itself and secure the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, and even the Pentagon, one of the best-protected buildings in the world, against the insane acts of a few terrorists. If the strongest government could not prevent these terrorists from making so much destruction, who will protect us? This summer we were shown how “powerless” we are. In one instant, 50 million people had no electricity for days. All our scientific knowledge and sophisticated technology could not help us. On the contrary, our dependency on this advanced technology in so many areas of our life was our biggest problem. The Torah teaches is that we really have nobody to rely on other than our Father in Heaven (see Sotah 49a). As King David so eloquently said, (Psalm 127:3) "If G'd will not guard the city, in vain is the watchman vigilant". May we merit a year of peace and prosperity for all under the direct protection of our Father, our King.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network