Friday, September 14, 2018

Rosh HaShanah: Simplicity

Thoughts on Rosh HaShanah 2018
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The purpose of Rosh HaShanah is to return us to simplicity, to the cry of the infant, before one is caught up in the complications and complexities of life. (R. Yehuda Amital)[1]

Why do we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah? HaRambam famously suggested that the sounds of the shofar serve as our wakeup call from the spiritual slumber that has overcome us over the course of the year. They divert our attention from the “vanities of time” and redirect us towards worthy endeavors.[2] But how does the shofar do that? What lies at the core of those enigmatic cries of the ram’s horn?

R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l, the former rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, was renowned for his complexity of thought. It often appeared to his students as if nothing was simple to him. Rav Aharon meticulously dissected each and every issue, scanning all of the relevant sources and breaking them down into a variety of components and dimensions. Following his death, however, R. Lichtenstein’s son remembered the time when a student asked his father why he kissed the sefer Torah. The young man expected his rabbi to respond with a list of sources and relevant analyses, and was therefore surprised when Rav Aharon explained that he did so simply “because a Jew wants to kiss the sefer Torah.”[3]

It was a perspective of simplicity, as well, that guided the great 13th Century French rabbi, Shimshon of Chinon, in his approach to prayer. R. Shimshon’s contemporaries reported that even after growing proficient in the many mystical traditions and intentions of Judaism he continued to pray with the basic thoughts and understandings of a young child.[4]

Consider, in this context, our relationships with one another. The misunderstandings that sometimes arise between us are misleading. They cause us to singularly focus on the difficulties and complications, and to forget what lies at their foundation. When the issues are ultimately resolved, however, we often realize that our relationships are actually sustained by a simple and basic connection.

I trust that everyone has experienced a moment of profound simplicity over the course of their relationship with the Almighty. On one particular afternoon several months ago, I waited anxiously for an update regarding the health status of one of my family members. As I anticipated positive news, the difficult message that I received was deflating. I was immediately struck by a barrage of emotions – depression, abandonment and loneliness. And in that very moment I felt the layers of complex intellectual connection which I had long worked to develop with God melt away. I reached out for Him with the simple cries of a baby.

The shofar’s secret is hidden in the simplicity of its call. Our spiritual vision has become obstructed by the “vanities of time.” They have distracted us from the plain sight of truth. And it is the unassuming sounds of the shofar that chillingly remind us of the nature of our connection to God. They awaken us to its simplicity.

* Adapted from the derashah on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.
[1] “Simplicity in a Complex World,” in When God is Near: On the High Holidays (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg. 104.
[2] Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4.
[3] R. Moshe Lichtenstein, “Be-khol libi derashtikha,” in Ashrei Adam Oz Lo Vakh (Rishon LeZion, IS, 2018), pg. 93.
[4] See Shu”t Rivash (no. 157) and Shu”t MaHarshal (no. 98).