A Day of Hashem’s Supernatural Bounty

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan, Week 19, for Rosh HaShanah:

Rosh HaShanah as a Day of Hashem’s Supernatural Bounty

Like last time, the sermon we’ll see this week isn’t part of Derashot Kol Ben Levi, it’s part of an addendum from a sermon collection that happened to have two of Aruch HaShulchan’s sermons. This one, for Rosh HaShanah, is the last in this series (next time, I’ll try to summarize themes that recurred, dominated, or characterized this group of sermons, and then, before Pesach, Gd willing, we’ll see his derashot for Shabbat HaGadol).

The Non-Intuitive Element of Rosh Hashanah

Aruch HaShulchan starts by declaring Rosh HaShanah a chok, which he defines as a mitzvah whose reason is hidden from us [I say “which he defines” because there are many variations of this theme; Rashi sometimes implies that such laws don’t have a reason, whereas Prof. Twersky, z”l, used to point out that Rambam seemed to think such mitzvot weren’t intuitive].

It’s a chok because it’s not immediately clear why Hashem would need or choose one day a year to judge our deeds. Can’t Hashem keep track of how we’re doing in real time? Iyov 7;18 says exactly that, lirga’im tivchannenu, You check him [human beings] at every moment.

On the other hand, the reason is clear to Hashem, so for Hashem, it’s a mishpat. That is why Tehillim 81;5 says the day we blow shofar is a chok le-Yisrael, a chok for the Jewish people, mishpat l’Elokei Ya’akov, a mishpat for the God of Ya’akov. (Aruch HaShulchan notes that this is true of all chukkim, without explaining why Tanach would choose Rosh HaShanah as the example to contrast our experience and Hashem’s).

The Providential God Ya’akov Experienced

He sees the verse’s relating Hashem to Ya’akov in particular as a first step in figuring out the nature of the holiday. He starts with Shabbat 151a’s idea that the Jewish people have no mazal, which in the Talmudic context meant no astrological source of support. [Chazal seem to have assumed that nations had a “star,” an angel or other force, that guided their fortunes].

For those who prefer to remove the astrological context, it was a way of saying that the Jewish people are under Hashem’s direct Providence, such that we are not subject to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” (I had to look up the quote to get it right). It means the Jewish people cannot survive without Hashem’s assistance, since—in the natural order—we have no place [that’s an idea that, I worry, many Jews today have lost, the recognition that we cannot get along, even at a basic level, without Hashem’s assistance].

We refer to this daily in Tehillim 20;2, “Ya’ancha Hashem be-yom tzarah, May Hashem answer you on a day of distress, the God of Ya’akov set you securely on high,” because we are in distress every day, since there is no natural road to success or even sustenance.

Ya’akov is the one of our Patriarchs who experienced the need for Hashem’s constant protection most prominently, in his encounters with Esav, Lavan, and life. That’s why, on his way out of Israel, he says “if Elokim will be with me,” Elokim being the aspect of Hashem that provides direct, supernatural Providence [says Aruch Hashulchan; over the years, I’ve seen many interpretations of the difference between Elokim and the four-letter Name YHVH, and they’re not all consistent with each other, especially about which Name signifies nature and which the supernatural].

The dependence on Providence for Jewish livelihood explains why Hashem would choose the anniversary of Creation to decide it, since Creation was also a time of pure Providence, the laws of Nature coming into play after the Six Days. On the anniversary of a period of Providence, Hashem decides the fate of a people guided by pure Providence.

A Shofar of Joy Not Fear

Seeing it that way, the Day of Judgment is a happy one, when Hashem finds the way to insert our supernatural livelihood into a natural world. That’s also why we blow shofar, which the Torah elsewhere commands us to blow on days of happiness and appointed gatherings.

When Tehillim 81 calls it a chok, it might therefore also refer to another meaning of that word, giving someone their daily food [see, e.g., Mishlei 30;8]. It’s a chok for the Jewish people both in the sense of our not immediately understanding why Hashem needs a day and also in that it’s when Hashem apportions our chok, our daily bread.

Ignorant Children and Their Responsibility for Their Religious Failures

He’s raising this, he says, because the connection to religion has been weakened, especially in terms of trust in Hashem, recognizing that our financial success depends in large measure on Hashem’s help. Having lost that perspective, and the trust in the future it allows, people focus on finding a way to secure a livelihood for their children, with no thought of the role of religion in that [like so much that we’ve seen in these sermons, this, too, is all too true of many Jews today].

Their paying so much attention to what is fundamentally futile, according to Aruch HaShulchan, since the Jewish people only make it by virtue of Divine Providence, leads to those children being ignorant of Torah, losing their connection to Torah and the religion.

That produces the situation both Yehezkel and Yirmiyahu spoke of [not coincidentally, I think he would say, two prophets of the generation of the destruction of the Temple], where the people complain they are suffering for the sins of their fathers. Aruch HaShulchan reads it in line with this train of thought, that they are saying they were anusim, had no choice in turning out the way they did, because their forefathers didn’t raise them to a life of Torah.

Justice in the Next World, But Also in This One

Without getting into how he explains the verses in Yehezkel to fit this idea, his answer is that that doesn’t pay attention to the World to Come. There, indeed, the forefathers who did not raise their children to a life of Torah, will get their punishment. The children, though, have to cope with the lack of Providence they would want [I think it’s eye-catching that he accepts the idea that the children aren’t fully responsible for their lack of observance, yet still thinks they will bear real-world consequences for their distance from Hashem’s service].

The answer is repentance, but a particular kind, one that brings us back to an awareness of Hashem’s role in the world, that lets us realize again that we need to learn to trust Hashem, that we cannot control the future no matter how hard we try [I meet people all the time who are sure they know the path to success, who see it as totally within their power], will earn us once again the kind of Providence that has stood the Jewish people in good stead throughout history.

Tehillim 121, the Psalm of Recognizing Providence

The rest of the sermon goes through Tehillim 121, line by line, showing how it echoes exactly these messages. To take only a couple of the most striking points, he reads the opening “Esa einai el he-harim, I will lift my eyes to the mountains,” as a reference to turning to Hashem for help, having despaired of natural success.

That’s why the next verse says assistance comes from Hashem, but Aruch HaShulchan saw that recognition as already embedded in the search. When people run out of options [sometimes, sadly, only when they’ve run out of all other options] they turn to Heaven, symbolized by the high places. It’s why Hashem is referred to as Creator, because the person needs the kind of supernatural assistance only the Creator can provide.

Once on the job, Hashem protects us better than ordinary watchers, who sleep sometimes, who sometimes stop paying attention, who might guard us only from disasters. Hashem’s protection, fueled by His never slumbering let alone sleeping, means we are protected even from minor troubles, our feet slipping.

Never-flagging energy is why Hashem can be described as a shadow, sticking with us always—if we rely on Hashem and do our part, Aruch HaShulchan throws in—saving us from sun (he takes this as referring to metaphysical problems, above the world) and the moon (natural problems).

Repentance as a Path to All That We Want, Not a Religious Obligation

He leaves it there. The brevity of this drasha as compared to those we’ve seen suggests to me that he wrote it up more quickly and less fully than other sermons. Nonetheless, we’ve seen enough to know that once again and, perhaps fittingly as a last sermon for our series, Aruch HaShulchan was trying to convince his listeners that the solution to their central concerns lay in a completely different strategy than the one they were taking.

It is, to me, a poignant example of what rabbis (and other service providers) often face, where everyone agrees on the goal but the client refuses to take the necessary path to get there. In this case, Aruch HaShulchan wanted his listeners to have the financial security they so wanted, for themselves and their children. He was trying, once again, to get them to see that their best way to get what they wanted was moving closer to Hashem, focusing more on Torah study, observance of mitzvot, doing that which Hashem wanted.

Were they only to absorb that message, the shofar would be a shofar of  joy, a reminder that this Day of Judgment is a day when Hashem plans His supernatural interventions on behalf of the Jewish people throughout the year. The more we know that, he implies, the better off we’ll be.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter