Sunday, October 18, 2020

Rosh HaShanah: Noticing


Thoughts on Rosh HaShanah 2020

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I remember the first time that I noticed someone coughing. I was praying Shaharit on a Monday morning shortly after Purim and the man sitting to my right let out a weak cough. I instinctively stopped reading and looked up at the man. Several minutes later, a man to my left cleared his throat. This time I kept my head down, but I became distracted, stumbling over the next few words that came out of my mouth.


Coronavirus has forced us to notice. Today we notice the people around us in unprecedented ways. We’ve also become more aware of the physical spaces we inhabit, paying careful attention to exactly where we walk, sit and stand. And, on a deeper lever, we’ve developed a heightened sensitivity to our personal feelings of fear and vulnerability.


Avraham Avenu is the Torah personality we focus upon most during Rosh HaShanah. We consistently invoke his memory and actions in our prayers as a source of inspiration and merit. Avraham’s life centered around two seemingly different endeavors: hesed to other people and a deep connection to God. These actions were drawn together, however, by his unique way of noticing. Avraham’s hesed began with his sight of people in need: “And he lifted up his eyes, and behold, three men stood nearby” (Bereshit 18:2).  And his discovery of God was much the same: “On the third day, Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar” (Bereshit 22:4). Avraham was the paradigmatic noticer. His sensitivity to the world and people around him was the driving force behind his remarkable life.


The Rabbis taught: “God is my light (Tehilim 27:1) – This is Rosh HaShanah.”[1] Rosh HaShanah is a day of light. It is a time of noticing. Indeed, HaRambam wrote that the very function of the shofar is to awaken us from our spiritual slumber, directing our focus to the matters of life which are truly significant.[2] Surprisingly, though, Jewish mystics designate night as the time of divine judgment (din). It would make sense, then, to associate Rosh HaShanah – “The Day of Judgment” (Yom HaDin) – with the darkness of night. The Rabbis likewise taught: “Blow a shofar at the New Moon, at the covered time for our holiday (Tehilim 81:4) – Which is the holiday on which the moon is covered? You must say that this is Rosh HaShanah.”[3] How can Rosh HaShanah be a time of “light” and noticing, while at once existing as a time darkness and concealment?


The story is told about two men who were each given the task of identifying their friends in the darkness of night. One was given a flashlight, and he easily recognized his acquaintances by shining the light at their faces. The other, however, never got a flashlight, and was therefore forced to identify those around him by carefully listening to the sounds of their voices and footsteps. Predictably, the first person performed best in the challenge, as the sight of people’s faces is far more revealing than audial clues. The second individual, however, acquired a skill that would last him long into the sun-lit hours of daytime. He had developed a sensitivity akin to that of a blind person; he could identify his contacts in any future situation – even if his vision was blocked.[4] The challenge of concealment brought forth the opportunity to notice.


I underwent a related experience several years ago. Following a severe virus, I lost my sense of taste for a period of over a year. Surprisingly, though, I discovered that I naturally developed a new skill in that midst. Without actually tasting the food or drink in my mouth, I could still identify exactly what it was. Several of my students put me to the test. They created different concoctions of water, soda, grape juice and other beverages, handing me the cups to drink while I was blindfolded. Judging the drinks solely by their texture – how they felt in my mouth, on my teeth and tongue, and down my throat – I scored a perfect score on the “taste test.” It was the “concealing” nature of my lost taste that enhanced in me the ability to notice.

Rosh HaShanah is a time of mysterious din. It pushes us into the hidden realm of the Divine. The challenge is daunting, as the fear of stumbling in the darkness is real. But the opportunity is ripe, as well. We can choose to falter or we can decide to notice. We can accept the darkness or we can discover the light.


Following in the ways of Avraham Avenu, we too must notice. Ironically, coronavirus has actually made the task easier to fulfil. So, pay attention to your surroundings. Find God’s presence in the world around you. Raise your eyes above the masks of others. Gaze into their eyes and notice them. And embrace those difficult feelings of fear and vulnerability to notice yourself.

*Adapted from the derashah on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.

[1] VaYikra Rabah 21.

[2] HaRambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4.

[3] Rosh HaShanah 8a.

[4] R. Yisshak Hutner z”l mentioned this parable in an entirely different context in Pahad Yisshak: Purim (Brooklyn, NY, 2004), Inyan 34. The essay was translated into English in Pinchas Stolper, Living Beyond Time: The Mystery and Meaning of the Jewish Festivals (Brooklyn, NY, 2003), pg. 299-302.