Sunday, September 20, 2009

The personal nature of a Rosh haShanah derashah

[First, a former colleague was featured in a recent issue of the New York Times here; it’s an interesting piece.]

[Second, this week's Haveil Havalim is here.]

I am glad to report that, Thank Gd, my first Rosh HaShanah as a non-rabbi in 14 years was a success, for the most part.

With the great help of some friends, I found a minyan which had everything I wanted: A quiet davening at a good pace, with solid baalei tefillah who clearly knew what they were saying, and with a good tokeia for shofar.

Best of all, the structure of the room was such that I had a seat along a wall off to the side and away from the action, so my oldest and I could have some element of privacy while remaining part of the tzibbur. I didn’t even mind that they made me work, doing the derashah on the second day and being the מקריא for shofar.

I did have two glitches, one more serious and one less so:

The less serious glitch was that after davening on the first morning I was asked to give a shiur that night, but it worked out all right; I recycled a shiur from a week earlier, adding some extra elements to suit the crowd. Source sheets – and a chance to review my own notes - would have been nice, but it was not to be.

The more serious glitch was a larger davening issue I’m trying to puzzle out, a greater issue of post-rabbinate bakashot. That may be my next post, if I can find a way to express it.

To return to the title of this post, though: Giving the derashah today was actually a harder experience than I had anticipated.

For me, a derashah is personal, a meaningful communication between speaker and tzibbur about more than just the way to understand a pasuk or a concept. A derashah is not a shiur; a shiur is educational, and so is a derashah, but a derashah delivered during davening – and on Yamim Noraim no less – should express the feelings of the day, and help direct the feelings of the day. It should be from the heart, and it should reach the heart.

Given that vision of a derashah, how do you write a derashah when you don’t know who will populate the minyan? How can you speak from the heart to people you’ve never met? (Yes, blogging is different, somehow.)

So writing it took me quite a while, picking a topic and rejecting it and picking another and developing it and then rejecting it, and so on. I tried on past derashos and rejected them, wanting something that represented where I stood today. Finally, I found a thought I felt could suit the group I expected in the minyan. I hope it worked for them.

Here’s what I ended up saying; long-time readers will recognize elements from here and here. Excuse me for not translating the Hebrew; I’m short on time.

According to Rav Chaim Medini, author of the encyclopedic שדי חמד, Rosh HaShanah should begin with a fruit. Not the new fruit we ate last night, and not the apple dipped in honey, but the fruit that Adam and Chavah ate in Gan Eden.

Rav Medini wrote that some communities hold a public קריאת התורה throughout the week before Rosh haShanah, reading one of the days of בראשית each day, until we arrive at Rosh haShanah on the heels of Day 6, with the story of Adam and Chavah eating the fruit in Gan Eden on our minds.

This powerful minhag reminds us of our major Rosh haShanah mission – to correct the wrong of Gan Eden by being ממליך ה', recognizing HaShem as our intimate King.

“Intimate king” sounds like an oxymoron – a king is a national figure – but this is the Torah’s vision of any king, and certainly HaShem. A מלך is a personal leader who knows and cares for each individual. As the Rambam wrote, a king is "חונן ומרחם לקטנים וגדולים, ויצא ובא בחפציהם ובטובתם, ויחוס על כבוד קטן שבקטנים... ויסבול טרחם ומשאם ותלונתם וקצפם” – A king is gracious and merciful to the small and the great, he comes and goes at their desire and for their benefit, he cares for the dignity of the smallest of the small, he bears their burdens and complaints and anger. This is a מלך, and this is the relationship HaShem wished to have with Adam and Chavah, together in the גן.

But when drawn in by the נחש, when they became jealous of HaShem’s power, Adam and Chavah challenged HaShem’s status as their king, and sought to become kings themselves.

HaShem called to them, איכה, where are you, what happened to our dream, what happened to having Me as your personal מלך? Where did it go? And Adam and Chavah heard קול אלקים מתהלך בגן לרוח היום, they heard a sound associated with HaShem moving in the garden, and according to Rav Soloveitchik what they heard was actually HaShem leaving the garden, HaShem walking away from that union. And then they were removed from the garden as well, and the union with that intimate מלך was over.

This קריאה reminds us of what could have been, the union we might have experienced, had we not eaten the fruit and separated from HaShem. We separated from HaShem, and HaShem separated from us.

But the שדי חמד records a second Rosh haShanah practice, another קריאת התורה. In this מנהג, during the days that lead up to Rosh haShanah we read pesukim associated with construction of the בית המקדש.

This minhag is powerful, too, for it reminds us that we can succeed in righting that wrong of Gan Eden, we can reunite with HaShem. We can identify a place on earth as פה אשב כי אויתיה, a place HaShem would actually desire. We can bring קרבנות, we can bring קטורת. We can declare HaShem as מלך, as Moshe and Yehoshua and Dovid and Shlomo did, and we can have the closeness of גן עדן again. ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, We created a mikdash and HaShem dwelled among us, with miracles and glory!

But even then, even in that glory in the משכן of the desert and שילה and נב וגבעון, and then in Shlomo’s בית המקדש and in Ezra’s בית המקדש, there was still a distance; we did not fully declare HaShem as our King. In our insistent independence, and due to the influence of our neighbors, we were not fully capable of being ממליך ה'; we fell into עבודה זרה and עושק, idolatry and corruption, and although נביא after נביא warned of the gap remaining between us and HaShem, we never succeeded in bridging it.

The result is that although HaShem was our מלך, it was never intimate; instead, HaShem offered intermediaries to navigate the gap:

• HaShem offered us a human מלך, whose job it would be to unite the nation in the service of HaShem. As the Rambam wrote regarding משיח, ויכוף כל ישראל לילך בה ולחזק בדקה, the king compels all of Israel to follow the Torah.

• HaShem offered us human כהנים, who would serve as שלוחי דרחמנא as well as שלוחי דידן, HaShem’s agents and our agents, bridging the gap for בני ישראל in that בית המקדש. As Rashi sees it, this was a concession to our inability to be ממליך HaShem fully.

• And HaShem gave us נביאים to convey the word of HaShem, because at Har Sinai we said לא אראה עוד ולא אמות, we cannot perceive HaShem directly, the closeness is too much.

And so, even in the heyday of the mishkan and the beit hamikdash, we still retained a distance. We were still out of Gan Eden. And as we count down the days to Rosh haShanah, per the שדי חמד’s reported minhag, we read about the בית המקדש and re-commit ourselves to bridging that gap.

We are still trying to bridge that gap, and we face the same problems our ancestors faced, in trying to draw close to HaShem:

• We were created as independent בריות, and we pride ourselves on that ego-driven independence; it’s hard to commit ourselves to HaShem’s control.

• We are allergic to intensity, to a complete, all-consuming relationship which will demand our attention, to the exclusion of so much else. It’s why some people talk in shul, it’s why some people laugh at serious moments; our peculiar hybrid of נשמה and גוף recoils from going too much one way or the other.

And so we need to work at this intense union with our מלך, through the words of the davening, through the special food and special clothing, through the קול שופר, through the dramatic קריאת התורה and הפטרה, through the strength of a ציבור. All of it is geared toward helping us bridge that gap and re-create גן עדן, recognizing HaShem as intimate מלך.

Last year, I had a stop-me-in-my-tracks moment during the Shmoneh Esreih of the first night of Rosh haShanah.

It started right at the beginning of the amidah, with the identification of HaShem as “אלקי אברהם אלקי יצחק ואלקי יעקב.”

Like almost everything else in the amidah, that line is lifted from Tanach. It quotes HaShem’s first speech to Moshe, telling him, “כה תאמר אל בני ישראל אלקי אבותיכם אלקי אברהם אלקי יצחק ואלקי יעקב שלחני אליכם, זה שמי לעולם וזה זכרי לדר דר” And so, in every generation, we daven for geulah and say, “HaShem, You are the Gd of our ancestors – and You are our Gd, too.”

I got caught up in it that night: “You are Avraham’s Gd and my Gd?” Does my faith or my service belong anywhere in the same universe as that of an Avraham? A Yitzchak? A Yaakov?! Talk about hubris!

Then I continued, “הקל הגדול הגבור והנורא” And I thought to myself: When I sin with the same mouth that is now praising HaShem in these terms, what am I thinking?!

But the kicker was when I reached the first time that we call HaShem “Melech,” “the King.” My mind leapt to the story of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s meeting with the Roman general Vespasian, before the second Beis haMikdash was destroyed. The association is so sharp! (I have since been told it actually appears in the name of Rav Aharon of Karlin; ברוך שכוונתי.)

The Romans were besieging ירושלים. The חכמים wanted to hold out or make a treaty, but the בריונים were pushing for a last-ditch fight. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai managed to get himself smuggled out of the city, and he met with Vespasian. He greeted Vespasian as one greets a king, שלום עלך מלכא, שלום עלך מלכא, and Vespasian replied, “אי מלכא אנא, עד האידנא אמאי לא אתית לגבאי, If I am a king, why haven’t you come to me until now?”

I suddenly flashed on that gemara. Here I am, calling HaShem “מלך.” But despite the regal assocations unique to Rosh HaShanah, HaShem is always מלך – why haven’t I truly come to HaShem as מלך until now? Why have I been unable to develop that intimacy?

That awareness of ה' as מלך is the closeness we seek on Rosh haShanah – the intimacy seen in the שדי חמד’s recorded minhagim, an intimacy that will transcend even that of the משכן and בית המקדש with their intermediaries, the מלך, כהן and נביא, and restore our גן עדן union with HaShem.

After we were evicted from the גן and HaShem abandoned the גן, HaShem set up כרובים at the entrance, to guard the intimacy of that space. A similar set of כרובים later inhabited the קדש הקדשים, guarding the intimacy of the בית המקדש.

Rav Soloveitchik made a beautiful point regarding those כרובים. People usually assume that the כרובים were there at the entrance to the גן to keep people out, but one of the targumim explains their role as just the opposite. The פסוק says they were there לשמור את דרך עץ החיים, to guard the path to the tree of Life – to guard the path, to keep it open. Open for דור דורשיו, a generation that will seek out HaShem. Open for anyone who wishes to re-gain that intimacy. Open for all of us on Rosh haShanah.

May we capitalize on today’s opportunity to be ממליך ה', to identify HaShem as King, and so re-create, even if only for a day, that world of גן עדן מקדם.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה.

1. The Rambam on the personal immanence of a king is in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 2:6; his note on the king compelling people to follow Torah is in Hilchot Melachim 11:1.

2. The discussion of kohanim as our agents or agents of HaShem is in Yoma 19a-b, and the interaction between R' Yochanan ben Zakkai and Vespasian is Gittin 57b.

3. Rav Soloveitchik's note on HaShem leaving the Gan was in a Tisha b'Av shiur I transcribed. I believe the year was 1981, based on clues in the shiur. Rav Soloveitchik's note regarding the keruvim keeping the path open was from a parshah shiur for Lech Lecha in 1972.


  1. if your friend is willing to relocate, they are hiring a prison rabbi in Krasnoyarsk.

    שנה טובה

  2. Mordecai,
    Congratulations! You are the recipient of a Kreativ Blogger Award. Yours is not just your everyday, garden variety of learning blog but offers a creative approach in so many ways.

    For rules and regulations for the Award, please see

    In deference to the holidays, your acceptance speech need not be posted until they are over.

    Smile please--the award is meant as a compliment.

  3. We have a teachable moment (if fleeting) to tell the story of Shofar. Its influence on prayer and its historical antecedents going back to the Temple sacrifices.

    For full explanation, go to

    Shofar Sounders WebPage

    Shofar WebPage

  4. Given that vision of a derashah, how do you write a derashah when you don’t know who will populate the minyan? How can you speak from the heart to people you’ve never met?

    Didn't you have prabas before you were hired as Rabbi, where you have to give a drasha to strangers? So this shouldn't be the first-time you experienced this.

  5. Beautiful derasha, and as a current shul rabbi I appreciate your sentiments about the personal nature of such addresses.

  6. Yes, blogging is different, somehow.)

    Blogging potentially makes it easier. A blog offers insight into people that you might not otherwise receive.

    As such it lends itself to preparing a message that is highly targeted.

  7. Lion-
    Great, I'll pass it along.

    Thanks! I am flattered... but the acceptance speech will definitely have to wait. I think Kanye is reaching for the mike... something about some renegade rebbetzin somewhere having a more Kreativ blog.

    Yes, and I had the same problem with those. Although, it's really only in the last few years that I came to see derashos this way.

    Rabbi Maroof-

    I hear. Definitely "targeted" in my case; my reduction in blog-activity has resulted in a proportional drop in readership.