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A Personal God

Rosh Hashanah (Day 1: Genesis 21; Day 2: Genesis 22 )

by Rabbi Boruch Leff

Elul. The very mention of this repentance-filled, preparatory month before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, usually evokes feelings of dread. Right in the middle of our summer vacations we are forced to face the reality that once again we will blow the shofar, eat the apples and honey, and - face the consequences of God's judgment. Elul is definitely (unless we lull ourselves to sleep and ignore it) a month that is full of anxiety, if not fear. This is why the famous acronym for E"L"U"L" is very surprising.

E"L"U"L" stands for the phrase in Shir Hashirim 6:3, "Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li" - "I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me." This is one of the most loving expressions in all of the Torah in which the Jewish People declare their beautiful and close relationship with God. If E"L"U"L" means to signify this loving relationship, it seems quite strange and inappropriate for the aspect of love between God and His nation to be highlighted during the month before the judgment of the New Year. How can Elul be identified as a month full of love when it is associated more with fear, severity, and strict justice?

And besides, why is it that God is always caring so much about our sins? Why the need to judge us all the time? (The Talmud says that we are actually judged every day and not just on the Jewish New Year - Rosh Hashana 16a.)

In addition, we actually celebrate Rosh Hashana as a holiday, even though it is the annual Day of Judgment. What exactly are we celebrating? Do defendants celebrate their day in court? Or do they dread it with nervousness?

The answer to all of these queries is a fundamental concept in our relationship with God.

Why does God judge us? It cannot be because He has a need to judge or to exact revenge. God, by definition, is perfect and the ultimate source of goodness. He has no needs. It must be that He judges us for our benefit. Why is judgment to our benefit? God, through His judgment, shows His love for us and that He cares about everything that we do. We are so important to Him that He, like a father tracking his child's progress, constantly watches us. He is concerned with our every move. We are the beings, through our free will, who shape the world and its destiny. Through His judgment, we are made aware that every little thing that we do makes a difference to Him.

This is why Elul's acronym is one that expresses love and this is why we celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment. We are happy to have God care deeply about our actions. We relish in the thought of having our lives laced with significance.

The fact that God judges us shows His personal love and concern for us. He is not indifferent to our actions. The worst type of treatment in a relationship is indifference. Marital therapists know that as long as a couple is still fighting it is possible to save the marriage. If a husband is bothered by things his wife does, or vice versa, love is still present. They still care about each other which is why they make each other angry. If they become indifferent to each other and disappointments no longer matter to them, divorce is almost inevitable because all love in the relationship is gone. So too, the fact that God personally cares about all of our actions, for good and for bad, means He loves us.

We derive these concepts from Rambam's 13 Fundamentals of Faith, as well.

In a few short paragraphs, Rambam clearly and orderly set in writing the basic awareness of the Jewish credo. These are the fundamental requirements of relating to and serving the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. Rambam writes: "The individual who does not believe each of these Principles abandons the Community of Israel, denies the Essence of the Almighty and is called a heretic and apostate." Commentary to Mishna Sanhedrin 10:1

While it is true that someone who attributes even one word of the Torah to Moshe and not to God denies the entire Torah and has no share in the Next World, the 13 Principles are unique as those tenets which one must actively accept and be aware of in order to be considered a practicing Jew. These Principles define the minimum requirement necessary for one to relate to God, Torah, and the Jewish people. (A complete listing appears in the Artscroll Siddur, pgs. 178-180.)

The 10th Principle states: "God knows the actions (including speech and thoughts) of people and does not ignore them."

The 11th Principle states: "God rewards those who fulfill the Torah's commandments and punishes those who transgress them ... God knows who serves Him and who transgresses, and applies the proper reward and punishment."

Rambam establishes these two principles as distinct and separate. At first thought, one would think that if God punishes and rewards, then He obviously is aware of all of man's actions, making the 10th Principle unnecessary to state.

In truth, God could have designed a system where reward and punishment would be built into creation. Reward could have been the automatic consequence of a fulfilling a commandment and punishment the automatic result of violating one. God could have created a systematic spiritual supercomputer in which justice would be pre-programmed as a natural outgrowth and response to all actions, for good or for evil. God would not have been personally involved or aware at all.

Even if God was omniscient, man would not need to know and be aware of this fact, and Rambam would not need to list God's omniscience as a principle that is needed to relate to God and Torah in this imaginary system that we are suggesting. Since the supercomputer of justice would be administering reward and punishment, whether or not God knew all of man's actions, the Torah would be observed nonetheless.

But Rambam does indeed list knowledge of the 10th Principle as vital. We must know that God is personally aware of our actions in order for observance of Torah to have meaning. God is not interested in a cold, dry 'assembly line worker' relationship. He doesn't only want His laws to be kept. He desires a loving, caring, unique and special covenant with us. When we sin, we don't merely bring terrible and severe consequences upon ourselves, we personally insult our Father in Heaven. And when we perform a Mitzvah, we don't only earn immeasurable, spiritual rewards, we make God smile. This is unlike a built-in reward and punishment system which would destroy any possibility of a real relationship between man and God.

This concept of God's love and desire for personal relationship is seen in the following sentence:

"So shall you say to the House of Jacob and tell to the Sons of Israel: 'You have seen what I did to Egypt and that I carried you on wings of eagles and have brought you to Me. And now if you listen well to Me and you will keep My covenant, you will be a treasure to Me from all the peoples, (although) all of the earth is Mine. You will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:3-7)

God tells us in these verses: You saw what I did to Egypt. You know why I destroyed and punished them. It was not due to my anger for their evil sins and immorality. They were deserving of punishment long before they met the Jewish nation. But I was waiting, thinking perhaps they might repent. But as soon as they began making life difficult for you, I started striking against them. This could only be because I love you. I was even willing to protect you like an eagle defends her young.(See Rashi 19:4).

During the Ten Days of Repentance, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Talmud, based on a verse in Isaiah 55:6, states that God is closer to us, ready to accept our prayer and repentance more easily. (Rosh Hashana 18a, see also Rambam, Laws of Repentance 2:6.) This is normally understood to mean that since God is in the process of judging man, He performs a special act of kindness by making Himself available before a final decision is made. This classical explanation may have truth to it, but there is great depth in this statement as well. The very process of judgment itself is the greatest act of kindness and personal relationship that God could grant to man. The fact that God judges us shows His personal love, closeness and concern for us. He is not indifferent to our actions.

This act of kindness by God explains why it is that Rosh Hashana comes before Yom Kippur. Many question: Shouldn't Yom Kippur, a day of forgiveness, come before Rosh Hashana, a day of judgment, so that we can be judged after we have received atonement for our sins?

The answer: One whole year has passed since the last season of repentance and we have become careless and callous to the reality of judgment and its consequences. We have forgotten that what we do or don't do makes a difference to our personal relationship with our caring God. Only the traumatic experience of being judged personally by God on Rosh Hashana saves us from our apathy and motivates us to return to Him. When we regain the awareness on Rosh Hashana that God is a King who cares, we then are inspired to critically examine our lives and deeds.

With these insights, instead of greeting Elul and the High Holidays with emotional dread, perhaps we can appreciate how much God loves us which forces Him to judge us.

May we all merit not only to feel God's personal love and concern in judgment, but God's beautiful blessings and rewards as the result of a positive verdict for long life, peace, and good tidings for us and for all of Israel.


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