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Holy and fragile days of judgment and mercy

It is interesting how Rosh Hashanah is such an intense time, highlighting the fragility of life, a day immersed in contemplating existential dread — yet somehow, as the day concludes, leaving one with a feeling of optimism for the new year. It’s a uniquely Jewish paradoxical new year.

Or perhaps it’s precisely because of these prayers that process the existential threat and dread — yet conclude with the prayer and promise of G-d never again to destroy the world as it was destroyed at the time of Noah, —that leaves one with a sense of security.

While Rosh Hashanah is so personal as we pray for another year of life, and we picture the metaphorical books being opened, it’s also about the destinies of whole countries, as the prayers highlight, “and about countries it will be uttered, which to the sword and which to peace.”

This year, with the war between Russia and Ukraine so prominent in the news, it was hard not to pause and notice these words.

Rosh Hashanah’s prayers center on the reign of G-d over the world, as we experience our vulnerability and finite existence in the face of mysterious infinity, which, ultimately, we cannot fathom.

While Rosh Hashanah is indeed characterized as a day of judgment, another essence of the day is the blowing of that haunting shofar. Tradition teaches that the cries of the shofar mitigate the judgment, imbuing it with mercy.

As our harshest time, Rosh Hashanah has mercy and compassion built into it. There never really is only pure, unadulterated, by-the-book judgement. G-d and the traditions of the rabbis find ways and the reasons to soften things for us.

This is embedded within the varying broken sounds of the shofar.

The material of the instrument of the shofar alone — an animal’s horn — speaks volumes; a cry of the shofar, a lament sourced from an animal, who ventriloquizes our own cry. In a moment’s call from the wild, so much is said.

We are humans, but we are also animals, wired with instincts that at times fail us in the face of striving to live as noble humans.

We descended from Abraham and Sarah, the first to have discovered and chosen G-d, whose long painful journey of faith and choice is compressed and crystalized in this symbol — the animal’s horn. It recalls their near sacrifice of their Isaac, as symbolized in the horn’s primal wordless cry.

A mother’s weeping for her lost son (the Canaanite commander Sisera), as the tears and sounds of anguish flow, just as the broken sounds of the shofar do.

A shofar, whose stormy staccato sounds were once a symbol of shattering, as the blasts caused the walls of Jericho to fall,. The stormy staccato sounds can shatter the barriers that bind us.

A shofar, whose blare and bellow is part of the ceremony of anointing a new king in the flesh, carrying a certain regal trumpet-like ring, as we metaphorically anoint G-d.

All of these are living layers of the shofar blasts, as the sounds merge with our own heartfelt personal cries and hopes.

In the Rosh Hashanah aftermath of online postings there were some insightful reflections, that caught my eye.

A particular one was a photograph of a young pretty girl was accompanied by a text. This young girl in the photograph is today an old lady, haunted by a mistake she made as a young teacher. This year, she decided to reach out on social media with her story, to try to find her young student from long ago, so she could apologize.

This woman explains how she was an arrogant young woman at one of her first teaching posts. She thought and acted with great alacrity and had zero patience for anyone who couldn’t keep up with her fast and smart pace. The setting was the high school matriculation exams.

One of the students — a strong student, but one whose style was more slow and creative in expression — took longer at her exam, and also interpreted a literature passage creatively, as opposed to regurgitating the teacher’s expected answer. This teacher failed the student. No doubt a real blow, and a mark that had real consequences for this student’s future.

This now older woman even recalls how the student’s mother called her — the then young teacher — tearfully pleading with her and explaining to this teacher the impact her decision will have on her daughter’s future. This young teacher, in the name of professionalism and rigidly going by-the-book, was adamant in her decision. The student’s fate was sealed. She failed her literature matriculation.

As this young teacher aged, this incident grew with her. It never receded. She realized how wrong she was, especially as the exam in question was literature and not mathematics. She understood how much her ego and immaturity played a part in her decision to fail the student, and never could make peace with herself.

Years went by, and this year, the woman decided to find this student, so she could face her and apologize to her for her error. She hopes her young student went on to succeed and have a good life, despite her teacher’s choice to fail her. But regardless, she wanted to face her student from long ago, apologize to her face-to-face, eye-to-eye, and relieve herself of this burden.

Even as adults we all sometimes make mistakes. Being human and being alive, by definition, involves, at times, making mistakes. We hope that as we develop and mature in a healthy way, with more self- awareness and self-understanding, the mistakes become more infrequent than they were in our youth.

The reactions to this teacher’s plea for help in finding her student from long ago — she posted details of the time and place and a photograph of her visage at the time of the incident — were mixed. I thought the woman showed great courage by basically pounding her heart in a public style confession, vidui, so to speak, as did many of the responders, who wrote supportive remarks and lauded this woman for her courage in modeling an example of seeking forgiveness.

But there were other responders who were not so charitable and responded harshly. “The damage is done.

You may have ruined this girl’s life,” or “how selfish you are doing this simply to alleviate your guilt after possibly ruining a young girl’s life,” or “how is this going to help now — other than cleaning your own conscience,” and “reminder to teachers: life and death is in the hand of the tongue,” along with an outpouring from parents sharing negative teacher stories they felt impacted the development of their children.

Reading this very public thread triggered by a reflective Rosh Hashanah that caused this older woman to publicly seek forgiveness during these heightened 10 Days of Repentance, revealing a variety of people’s point of view about one woman’s effort to make amends and repair a wrong she has lived with from long ago, felt like a tangible expression of what we are all experiencing now.

There is a mixture of harshness of judgment and mercy all mixed up together that define these holy and fragile days, in hopes of mercy overcoming harsh judgement, as represented from the cry and wail of the shofar.

We hope this wailing of the shofar that represents mercy will color our own lives; and that we in turn will grow in our mercy, maturity and softening toward others, as the yearly blasts break down our own barriers.

To me, that’s what Yom Kippur is. It’s the augmentation of Rosh Hashanah, but in the form of mercy.

These days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, comprise a compound experience.

Yom Kippur is the second chance we get after days of contemplation to seal our repentance ordeal and journey, in compassion and forgiveness.

Prof. Nechama Leibovitz, the late, noted author, scholar of biblical commentary and teacher, summed up her father’s message to her as a little girl about these poignant and precious Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

“In my childhood, in school, we were taught that we needed to act especially nice and kind during the intervening days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“At home, though, my father taught me that while this teaching is true, we must act just as kindly in the intervening days between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.”

Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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