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What does animal tithing have to do with Rosh Hashanah? Everything.
That law requires Jews to separate one tenth of the flock as an offering to the Holy Temple. But one may not simply choose at random one out of every 10 as an offering. It must follow a set procedure: The animals must pass under a rod, and the owner counts each one as it passes by. Nine plus one ― only then does he designate the tenth one to be the official tithe. This is in fulfillment of Leviticus 27:32: "All the tithe of the herd or the flock ― whatever passes under the rod, the tenth shall be holy to God."
The obvious question is: Why this requirement of counting nine plus one? Why is it not sufficient simply to select one randomly out of ten, since the end result is the same?
Perhaps the Torah wishes to teach us an important lesson: that in the eyes of God, everyone counts ― literally. It is not only the tenth lamb that is important; the nine that precede it are just as important. In fact, without the first nine, the tenth could not exist.
So it is in life. There are those stars who shine brightly: the spiritual leaders, the great scholars and teachers, those who have a deep influence on an entire generation. It is tempting for those who are not in that category to feel that they are relatively unimportant.
No, says God. Each individual is extremely important in My eternal scheme of things. Each person plays a key role in My universe. True, only a few may achieve greatness, but in My eyes all men and women are important, as long as each one strives to the utmost to be all that he or she can be.
This is where Rosh Hashana enters the scene. At Rosh Hashana time, says the Mishnah, all the inhabitants of the world "pass before God like b'nai Maron," which the Talmud says refers to sheep who are tithed individually (Talmud - Rosh Hashana 16a, 18a). That is to say, God counts each one of us individually. He listens to our prayers individually. He assesses our needs individually. He inscribes us for a year of life individually.
In brief, the Singular One of the universe looks at each one of us, His singular creature, singly.
Although this season of the Jewish year, with its themes of judgment and repentance, elicits great awe and fear and trembling, this idea of God focusing His attention on each of us individually should also create within each Jew a sense of peace and inner joy. After all, we are granted a private audience with the King of Kings. He is available to us now as at no other season of the year.
And who better than He understands us? As Psalm 33:15 says: "He who fashioned their hearts, He understands all their deeds." We pass before Him one by one, because in His eyes, no one is ordinary; everyone is special. He loves each one of us, and cares for each one of us. Everyone counts, not only the one in 10 who will be the great leader and teacher and star. Every single individual, alongside that outstanding one, is crucial to God's governing the world.
This idea is a comforting one, and also an energizer and a stimulus to personal growth. We must not denigrate ourselves, nor underrate our possibilities for spiritual development. The famous words of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter are instructive:
If I knew I could be only what I am now, and no more, I could not endure it. But if I did not strive to be like Maimonides, I could not be even what I am now.
Clouds of Illusion
The great symbol of this season is the shofar, through which we offer up our wordless hopes and prayers to the Almighty. Of the many meanings of the word "shofar," its use in the book of Job (26:13) is most instructive:
Berucho shamayim shifra ― With His wind the heavens are made clear.
That is, the clouds are moved away, and the heavens are revealed. Thus, shofar connotes the idea of making clear that which is unclear, of pushing away the "cloud cover" that obstructs our view of reality.
This is why the shofar played such a significant role at Mount Sinai. God and His Torah revealed themselves in all their glory and reality, and the people Israel were able to see His Presence without any artificial barriers. This was truly Revelation in its fullest sense: all illusions pushed aside to clearly reveal God and Torah.
Illusions and deceptions die hard. These days, they engulf us at every step. Glitz, spin, phoniness, manipulation, images, appearances, surface stimuli ― these are the bywords of contemporary life. They obstruct our view of reality, and stunt our desire to strive upward.
The shofar pushes away the clouds of illusion, revealing God's essential beauty.
The shofar is designed to awaken us from spiritual lethargy. The sound of the shofar pushes away the clouds of illusion. It allows the essential beauty and inspiration of God and His ways to reveal themselves in all their beauty and splendor ― for "shofar" is also connected with shefer, "beauty."
Because each one of us is crucial to God's plan, we dare not lose sight of the vast potential within us to improve our relationship with our Creator. He loves us, and waits patiently for us to push away the artificial barriers that obstruct our spiritual vision. Each member of the flock is significant in His eyes; if we permit it, the shofar will push away the cloud cover ― the make-believe of contemporary life ― so that we can catch a glimpse of the authenticity and the beauty that awaits us underneath.
May the powerful sound of the shofar help scatter the clouds that obstruct our vision, and awaken us to the realization that in God's eyes, everyone counts and everyone is precious ― for it is nine plus one that creates the biblical tithe.