Saturday, September 16, 2017

Readings for Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuvah September 21, 22 and 23

Readings for Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat Shuvah - September 21, 22 and 23
Rosh Hashanah Torah Readings
Pattern of the Holiday Torah Readings:
The Torah readings for Jewish holidays are off-cycle.  This means they fall outside of the weekly reading pattern that is followed for Shabbat.  In other words, the Torah readings for the holidays are also read as part of the weekly Torah portions.  The Rosh Hashanah readings taken from Bereshit (Genesis) are part of the weekly portion known as Va-yayra.  The challenge is to find the unique relationship between the Torah reading and the holiday on which it is read.  Each holiday has two readings and it is customary to take out two Torah scrolls from the Ark.  The first reading usually relates to some historic or national event that is tied to the holiday.  The reading from the second scroll usually contains the Biblical commandments for how and when the holiday is to be observed.
According to some sources, after the destruction of the Second Temple, it was difficult to ensure the exact date for the New Moon which marked the beginning of each month.  Therefore, an extra day was added on to the holidays and festivals with the exception of Yom Kippur.  For example, Pesach went from seven days as described in the Torah to eight days.  This extra day protected against the margin of error and assured the holidays would be observed on the correct days.  In the case of Rosh Hashanah this meant that the holiday went from a one-day observance to a two-day observance.  In modern day Israel, the custom has been to return to the Biblical length of observance for the holidays.  The only exception to this is Rosh Hashanah which is observed in Israel for two days.  The Reform Movement follows the allotment found in the Torah which means that Reform only observe Rosh Hashanah for one day.
Torah Readings for Thursday, September 21, 2017
First Day Rosh Hashanah (Traditional)
First Scroll
21:1-34 Bereshit (Genesis)
The reading begins with God remembering his promise to Sarah concerning the birth of her son and tells of the birth of Isaac.  One of the themes of Rosh Hashanah is God remembering mankind as is seen in the section of the Mussaf called Zichronot.  According to some commentators Isaac was either conceived or born on Rosh Hashanah.  The reading continues with the story of the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s camp.  When Hagar thinks that she and her son are dying of thirst in the wilderness she sits him under a bush waiting for their death.  God hears Ishmael’s cry and they are saved.
On Rosh Hashanah we hope that God will hear our cry of repentance and save us just as He heard Ishmael’s cry and saved him.  The reading ends with Abraham invoking the Lord’s name as he plants a tamarisk tree at Beersheba.  The tamarisk tree is a tall shade tree with deep roots that requires little water and will grow even in the sandy soil of the Negev.  At the beginning of the year we are reminded that we can stand firmly rooted in righteousness no matter how difficult that may seem if we call upon the Lord for help.
Second Scroll (Traditional)
29:1-6 Bamidbar (Numbers)
The reading describes the rituals associated with observing the holiday including the commandment to hear the blowing of the Shofar.  The Torah says the holiday is observed on the first day of the seventh month.  So how can we be celebrating the New Year in the seventh and not the first month of the year?  There are several explanations for this.  One interesting one can be found in A Guide to Jewish Prayer by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.  Among other things, he contends that Rosh Hashanah marks not the first day of creation but the sixth day of creation when man was created.  The creation of man marks the beginning of God’s kingship, which is yet another Rosh Hashanah theme.
Rosh Hashanah (Reform)
22: 1-19 Bereshit (Genesis)
See the Second Day Rosh Hashanah below since this is part of that reading.
Torah Readings for Friday, September 22, 2017
Second Day Rosh Hashanah (Traditional)
22:1-24 Bereshit (Genesis)
The portion consists of the entire 22nd chapter of Bereshit (Genesis).  The first nineteen verses, which are the total of the Reform Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah, cover the Akedah or the Binding of Isaac.  The most obvious connection of the Binding of Isaac and Rosh Hashanah is the sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac.  Rosh Hashanah is the holiday on which we are commanded to hear the blowing of the Shofar or ram’s horn.  There is tons of material on the Binding of Isaac.  There are whole graduate courses devoted to this topic.  I would recommend that you read the story in whatever Chumash you are using.  The Stone, Plaut, Hertz, Etz Hayim and others all have copious commentary which I will not attempt to paraphrase.  I also recommend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s treatment of this in his book Biblical Literacy.  It is quite readable and stimulating regardless of one’s level of knowledge.  The Akedah must be extremely important since it is repeated every day in the Shacharit or Morning Service.  The text is spare and invites interpretation.
Those who call this the Sacrifice of Isaac as opposed to the Binding of Isaac are in error.  Isaac was not sacrificed.  Some Christians tie this story to the Crucifixion.  In fact, it is the opposite of the Crucifixion and provides one of the definitive differences between the two religions.  In Judaism, God rejects the death of a child as a sacrifice.  The road to salvation is through faith in God and observing the Commandments.  In Christianity, the deity demands the death of his child as the key to man’s salvation.
The role of Isaac in all of this is quite interesting.  If you do the math, Isaac was 37.  His father was over 100.  Surely he could have resisted.  But he didn’t.  How did Abraham get Isaac on the Altar?  The text does not say.  This is one of the many unknowns that have puzzled readers down through the ages.  You might remember that further on in Bereshit, Isaac’s poor eyesight caused him, in part, to bless Jacob instead of Esau.  There is a commentary that Isaac’s poor eyesight stemmed from the Akedah; his vision was supposedly dimmed so that he would not see the knife coming down.
Here is another way to look at the Akedah, which you may or may not have heard before.  Think of it is the second act of a two-act drama.  On the first day of the holiday we read about the birth of Isaac and on the second day of the holiday we read about his brush with death.  Is it possible that Abraham obeys God on the second day because on the first day he saw that God provides blessings (the birth of Isaac) and he believed in the ultimate goodness and justice of God?  Is it possible that Abraham understood that we must accept the will of God whether it is the birth of a son or the binding of a son?  Nothing is by happenstance.  There must be a reason why these two stories are major components of the readings for the successive days of Rosh Hashanah.
Lest we forget, there is more to the traditional reading than just the Akedah.  It ends with mention of the birth of Bethuel, the father of Rebecca, the future wife of Isaac.  For many of us, Jewish holidays mean family gatherings, whether immediate or extended.  Therefore there is an element of poignancy to the final verses “It came to pass after these things, that Abraham was told:  Behold, Milcah too has borne children to Nahor, your brother (22:20).”  Since the commentaries are silent on this sentence we can only guess as to whom told Abraham about his brother’s family.  Did he hear it from a passing caravan?  Did some fellow shepherd hear of it and pass it along by word of mouth?  We shall never know.  What we do know is that the price of being a Patriarch was the loss of a family connection.  My son saved.  My brother lost.  As we know, being Jewish is not always the easy way.
Second Scroll (Traditional)
29:1-6 Bamidbar (Numbers)
Same as First Day; See above.
Rosh Hashanah Haftarot
Reading from Neviim or Prophets, the second section of the Bible, dates from the time of the Antiochus, the Syrian-Greek King.  As you may recall from your study of the story of Chanukah, Antiochus banned the public reading of the Torah.  In an attempt to maintain the custom of public study, the sages instituted a public reading from the Prophets.  Seven people were called up to read three verses in a ceremony that paralleled the Torah service.  Public reading of the Torah was reintroduced when the Syrian-Greeks were defeated.  The custom of reading from the Prophets was retained, but it followed the reading from the Torah and was done by one reader.  The reading from the Prophets may follow the theme found in the assigned Torah reading.  For example, the haftarah for the sedrah describing the death of Abraham describes the death of King David.  Or, the haftarah may follow the theme of the day.  For example, the haftarah read on the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av carries a special message of consolation designed to comfort the Jews who have gone into exile.  The haftarah for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah meets both of these requirements.
Haftarah Readings for Thursday, September 21, 2017
First Day Rosh Hashanah Haftarah
1:1-2:10 First Samuel
The reading is from First Samuel 1:1-2:10.  It tells the story of the birth of Samuel, which has much of the same miraculous quality as the birth of Isaac, the event described in the Torah portion.  Also, according to the Talmud, God remembered Hannah, Samuel’s mother, at Rosh Hashanah just as He had remembered Sarah at Rosh Hashanah.  In the story, the birth of Samuel is a product of Hannah’s sincere prayers to God.  One of the themes of Rosh Hashanah is that God will hear our sincere prayers; that He will forgive us and write us into the Book of Life for another year.
Haftarah Readings for Friday, September 22, 2017
Second Day Rosh Hashanah Haftarah
31:1-19 Jeremiah
Jeremiah is one of the Three Major Prophets and he lived in the final days of the First Temple.  The reading was chosen because it carries a message of ultimate redemption from exile, something for which we pray.  The reading “closes with one of the verses of Remembrances that is recited as part of the Mussaf Shemoneh Esrei (Eighteen Benedictions).”  Additionally the haftarah contains the famous line, “Rachel weeps for her children, she refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone.” (31:14).  According to a Midrash, Rachel is the matriarch who intercedes on our behalf with God.  And let’s face it, at this time of the year, we can use all the help we can get.
A Sample of Concepts, Customs and Ceremonies
The Hebrew word for Repentance is teshuvah, which actually means to return.  We repent by returning to Torah.  The Torah reading for Yom Kippur describes the key role of Aaron in the atonement process.  We know that Aaron was capable of some major sins.  This may be a reminder that even the greatest leader can sin.  Yet his sins do not invalidate the teachings of which he is a part.  Torah transcends us all and its teachings are of great values no matter what the shortcomings of those who teach it.
The Hebrew word cha-tah may be translated as sin.  But the word Cha-tah is not synonymous with the popular concept of sin.  Cha-tah has the same linguistic root as the Hebrew term for missing the mark in archery.  So sin may be viewed as missing the mark as in missing the bull’s eye on a target.  The target in this case is the observance of the mitzvoth.  Teshuvah enables us to overcome cha-tah by giving us another chance to hit the target.  Please note, the one thing that you do not get to change is the target.
The Motzi (blessing over the Challah) is the same.  But the Challah is different.  Traditionally it is round to remind us of the cycle of the year and often it is sweet, to remind us that we seek a sweet year.  People who usually dip their Challah in salt, dip it in honey instead.
Apples and Honey
Apples are dipped in honey and after the appropriate blessing both are eaten together.  Once again, we seek to have a sweet year from the tree of life.
Obviously, Happy New Year is a safe one.  In Hebrew we say, “Leshanah tovah tkatevu” which means, “May you be increased for a good year” as in being written into the book of life.  The Hebrew quoted is the most common form although technically it is used when greeting more than one male.  On Yom Kippur we ask that we be sealed for a good year - G’mar Simcha Tova.  On Rosh Hashanah we are written into the book.  On Yom Kippur, the decree is sealed.  The change in greetings matches the motifs of the holidays.
Holiday Names
The Jewish New Year is called Rosh Hashanah only once in the TaNaCh.  “In the five and twentieth year of our captivity, ‘in the beginning of the year’ (‘B’Rosh Hashanah’)….”  (Ezekiel 40:1).  In the Torah, the festival has three names.  It called Shabbaton or Solemn Rest (Vayikra 23:24); Zichron Teruah or A Memorial of Blowing (trumpets) (Vayikra 23:24); and Yom Teruah or A Day of Blowing (trumpets).  It would seem to have been an observance on the first day consisting of blowing horns that was intended to warn of the coming of Yom Kippur, which occurred on the tenth of the month.  Yom Kippur was the day on which the Israelites were commanded to observe a Sabbath of Sabbaths.  On this day the Israelites were to afflict their souls (interpreted to mean fasting) and “to make atonement before the Lord” (Vayikra 23:37-32).  The New Year later became known as the Day of Judgment or the Day of Remembrance in rabbinic writings.  The concepts of the New Year as a time of divine judgment and penitence became dominant in the Mishnah and the Talmud.  It is here that we find the concepts of the holiday, which have dominated Jewish customs and practices to this very day.
Rosh Hashanah
This is not just one of the names for the Jewish New Year; it is also the name of the eighth tractate of the second order of the Mishnah called Moed.  Moed is translated as “appointed times” and deals, primarily, with the commands concerning the holidays and events that occur at fixed times.  Among other things, the tractate names the four “New Years,” one of which is Rosh Hashanah.  It includes the laws about sounding the shofar, both in Jerusalem during the days of the Temple and afterwards, once the Temple had been destroyed.  Some of what is contained may be considered historic oddities given subsequent changes in the observance of the holiday.  But it is always beneficial to know the sources for observances.
How do we know if we have been forgiven for our sins?  If we have the opportunity to commit the sin again and we do not, we have been forgiven.  Why is this response the answer to the question?  According to some, genuine repentance means we have changed.  If we have changed “in our heart” the change will show in our behavior.
Shana Tovah
“It’s time to put your hand in the hand of some one you love…and recognize that we only have a very short opportunity to be the humans upon the sand and not the pebbles…It’s time to recognize that the real value of our lives is…experiencing the…seemingly insignificant things.  It’s time to recognize that things do not need to be the slickest…to be great…and appreciated.  It’s time to repent but not wallow in repentance…It’s time to take a stand for what we believe…It’s time to realize that we are as small and as very large as the pebble upon the sand no matter how we count the years.”  Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Beth Shir Sholom
Bigger Issues
Sometimes it is easy to get bogged down in what some consider the trivia of observance.  At the same time, it is easy to get caught up in the social swirl that can dominate the coming together of the Jewish community that is a hallmark of these solemn, yet joyous days.  So here are a couple of extra things to think about.
The Fate of Abel
“…The Lord turned to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and to his offering He did not turn.  This annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.  And the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you annoyed and why has your countenance fallen?  Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven.  But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door.  Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it.’  Cain spoke with his brother Abel.  And it happened when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” (Bereshit 4: 4-8).  We are all familiar with the story of Cain and Abel.  There are two Rosh Hashanah messages here - one an answer and one a question.  First let’s look at the answer.  Cain has failed to find favor in the Lord’s eyes.  But God does not turn His back on Cain.  Rather He gently counsels him.  He tells Cain, and therefore all of us, that he will be forgiven if he changes his ways i.e., “improves himself.”  He warns Cain, and therefore all of us, that sin is always close at hand, but that God has confidence in Cain, and therefore all of us, that he can master the evil inclination.  But the question has to do with the fate of Abel and the treatment of “good people.”  There are four characters in the original family.  Three of them commit major-league sins.  As far as we know, only Abel does that which is good in the sight of the Lord.  So, why does the good guy get killed and three bad guys get to live?  More to the point, why didn’t God do something to protect Abel from Cain?  After all, Cain only killed Abel because he was upset with God for not accepting his sacrifice.  Yes, this is another question without an answer.  But at least now we know the question is as old as creation itself.
The Greatness of King David
·        “The Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice and had commanded him about this matter, not to follow other gods; he did not obey what the Lord had commanded.  And the Lord said to Solomon, ‘Because you are guilty of this - you have not kept My covenant and the laws which I enjoined upon you - I will tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants…’” (First Kings 11:9-11).
·        “And Saul said unto Samuel, ‘I have sinned for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and thy words; because I feared the people and hearkened to their voice.’” (First Samuel 15:24).
·        “And David Said unto Nathan:  ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’” (Second Samuel 12:13).
The three quotations above describe the encounter of Israel’s first three Kings of Israel with God on the matter of sin.  In the first example, we see Solomon standing mute as God calls him to task and pronounces punishment upon him.  It is as if the words wash over Solomon with no effect whatsoever.  Solomon’s lack of any response is consistent with the attitude of the weary cynic who is supposed to have written Ecclesiastics.  The second example involves Saul when he has failed to obey God’s decree about the Amalekites.  Previously he denied any wrong-doing.  When confronted with the evidence, Saul admits his guilt but he blames it on the people, “the devil made me do it” defense.  The last example is from the life of King David.  It comes at the end of his confrontation with Nathan over the matter of Uriah and Bathsheba.  David does not quibble.  He does not cite extenuating circumstances.  He simply and contritely confesses his sin.  The depth of his confession and contrition can be verified in Psalm 51, which is entitled “A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had come to Bathsheba.”  It begins “Have mercy upon me, O God…blot out my transgressions...for I recognize my transgression, and am ever conscious of my sin.” (51:35).  It is this willingness to accept responsibility without equivocation and to truly beg for Divine forgiveness that sets David apart from the rest.  Some would suggest that this is really why the Moshiach will come from the House of David.  Many Jewish leaders were successful warriors.  Many of them expanded the boundaries of the Promised Land.  Many of them brought great wealth to Jerusalem.  But only David had the strength and the courage to take responsibility for his own behavior and acknowledge the error of his ways.  If our prayers for forgiveness are ever to be answered, we must first pray to have the strength of David - the strength to simply say, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Rosh Hashanah and Children
Children play an integral part in the Rosh Hashanah readings.  The Torah portions cover major events in the lives of Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael.  One of the Haftarot tells the tale of the birth of Samuel and his first days in the world.  With that in mind a Rosh Hashanah sermon delivered by Dr. Samuel Adler at Temple Emanu-El over a hundred forty years ago is worth remembering.  Dr. Adler based his sermon on the text from First Kings, Chapter 3, - the subject being the prayer of Solomon for an understanding heart with which to judge his people and to discern between good and bad.  “9. Give Thy servant therefore an understanding heart to judge Thy people that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this Thy great people?'  10. And the speech pleased the LORD, that Solomon had asked this thing.  11. And God said unto him:  'Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern justice.”  In the sermon, Adler emphasized his belief in the superior value of wisdom.  He condemned “the folly of parents who rely upon their wealth to give their children respectable passport to good society and smooth their passage through the world instead of teaching them to value wisdom which is the true source of all riches.”  A century and half later, his words still speak to Jews in general and parents in particular.
Why the Horn of the Ram?
A hundred forty years ago, Rabbi Morris Raphall delivered a Rosh Hashanah sermon based on the following lines from the Musaf Service.  “Blow the trumpet on the new moon at the appointed time on the day of our solemn feast.”  He said the text alluded to the approaching Day of Atonement.  Why, he asked, did we continue to blow a ram’s horn instead of some modern musical instrument?  The very simplicity of the ram’s horn, he said, served to recall the time of the creation of the world when everything was in a state of simplicity and various sounds which it was made to give forth were all typical of man’s condition in the world and his dependence on the Creator.  “Thus the Tiekah was a full sound that symbolized man starting out in life in the fullness of faculties.  Shevarim, on the other hand was a broken sound illustrating a condition of excitement and the agitation induced by the reflection that man was in a state of uncertainty and dependence.”  And Adler might have said that the Teruah reminds of the importance of serving God and keeping his commandments.  It was this final sentiment that was the core of his teaching for the holiday season.
First Love
According to Meir Shalev, the term love is used for the first time in the Akedah or Binding of Isaac when God says, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love (Asher ah-havtah) whom you love - Isaac - and …bring him up there as an offering.”  As Shalev points out, Abraham had feelings for Isaac.  But it was God who gave those feeling a name.  He called them “Love.”  And then He told Abraham that he was going to have to sacrifice the first person to whom the term love applied.  What does this say about Abraham?  What does this say about God?  What does this say about the concept of love, especially as it relates to Rosh Hashanah?  Does it mean that sometimes we have to give up that which we “love” if we are to draw closer to God or be more the person whom we were meant to be?  Rosh Hashanah is a time when we gather around our loved ones.  Just what does that mean?  What does it mean to love and to be loved?  If you run out of things to talk about over your holiday meal, this might give you something to chew on.
Speech - The Spoken Word
If any people knows the power of the spoken word it is the Jews.  And in case we have forgotten that reality during the year, in a multiplicity of ways Rosh Hashanah reminds of the power of the spoken word.  The act of creation that we commemorate on Rosh Hashanah begins with speech.  Before there is “light” there is the word.  “God said, ‘Let there be light.’”  In the first day’s Torah reading, before Hagar and Ishmael are banished there is the word “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says.”  In the second day’s Torah reading, the trek up Mount Moriah begins with the word - “Take your son…and offer him there as a burnt offering…”  Our very observance of the holiday is tied to the power of words.  Instead of the sacrifices commanded in the Torah we recite words - prayers - because Hosea gave us permission to do so.  "Take with you words, and turn to the Lord.  Say to Him, forgive all iniquity and receive us graciously, so we will offer the words of our lips instead of calves." (14:3)
So what do these words about words have to do with us as individuals on Rosh Hashanah?  Everybody decries the coarsening of our public dialogue where words are used to hurt instead of succor; to inflict pain rather than relieve suffering; to show how clever we are even if it means embarrassing somebody else.  Fortunately we do not have to wait for some massive program or expensive campaign to change.  This is something that each individual Jew can do something about and that is this year’s Rosh Hashanah Challenge.  It is time for each of us to avoid Lashon Hara (the Evil Tongue) both literally and figuratively.  While there is a whole corpus of Jewish law on this subject, for those of us who are novices the section on “Fair Speech” in A Code of Jewish Ethics (Volume I) by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin provides an easy to read overview on the subject that will include guidance on when not to tell the truth and when and how it is appropriate to deliver negative information.  In Nitzavim, the Torah portion that is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, Moses reminds us that “This Instruction…is not beyond your reach…The thing is very close to you in your mouth, and in your heart, to observe it.”  If this is true of the Torah, it certainly is true of doing away with Lashon Hara.  Putting an end to “the evil tongue” which includes listening to “Lashon Hara” as well as speaking it, is something that will only happen if each of us changes our behavior.  But it is a behavior that we can change.  Just think what a better place the world would be if each of us took on this challenge.  Just think how accomplished each of us would feel if when we stand before the Heavenly Judge next Rosh Hashanah we can say that we really did something that improved our lives and the lives of all those with whom we come in contact.  In the story of the Binding of Isaac Abraham lets God knows he is ready to follow His commands by responding “He-nay-nee” - Here I am.  If we really want to improve the social discourse, if we really want to remove “Lashon Hara” then we will we each begin with “He-nay-nee” and then get about the business of change.  The choice, as Moses reminds us in Nitzavim, is ours.
In keeping with the spirit of the season, let me thank all of those who have been kind enough to read this for the past year.  If I have offended anybody with what I have written, please accept my apologies.  It was the sin of omission, not the sin of commission.  If I have offended anybody in any other way, please accept my apologies.  May you and yours be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health, peace and prosperity.
Notable New Years
Closed for the Holiday
On the 2nd of Tishrei, 5529 (September 1768), Newport, Rhode Island merchant Aaron Lopez closes his business for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah.
Missouri Minyan
On the 1st of Tishrei, 5597 (September 12, 1836), a group of Jews gathered in a rented room over Max’s Grocery and Restaurant on the corner of Second and Spruce Streets.  This was the first minyan to daven in St. Louis which today is part of a metropolitan area that boasts a Jewish population in excess of 60,000 and 29 Jewish congregations.
The Rosh Hashanah Hymn Not Sung on Rosh Hashanah
On the 1st of Tishrei, 5575 (September 15, 1814), the people of Baltimore watched as the British invasion fleet sailed back down the Chesapeake Bay, having failed in its attempt to seize Fort McHenry and lay waste to Baltimore as it had just done to Washington, DC.  Among those enjoying the sight were Privates Jacob, Philip and Mendez Cohen of the First Regiment, Maryland Artillery and Solomon and Samuel Etting the father and son team that had served with the militia during the bombardment.  That bombardment had actually begun on the 13th of September.  On the 14th of September, Erev Rosh Hashanah Francis Scott King stood on the deck of a “truce ship” and saw that the American flag still waved above the fort, a sight which he immediately captured in a poem called “The Defense of Fort McHenry” which became the lyrics for the Star Spangled Banner.  This hymn originally composed on Erev Rosh Hashanah is sung at a wide variety of sporting events on an almost daily basis.  But in almost seven decades, living in places as disparate as Washington, DC, New Orleans, LA and Cedar Rapids, IA, I have never heard it sung on the Jewish New Year.
Poets Prayer
On the 1st of Tishrei, 5643 (September 14, 1882), observance of the holiday inspired the famous Jewish poet Emma Lazarus to write “Rosh Hashanah 1882” capturing her feelings about the day:
"The New Year"
Rosh Hashanah, 5643
Now while the snow-shroud round
dead earth is rolled,
And naked branches point to frozen skies, --
When orchards burn their lamps of fiery gold,
The grape glows like a jewel, and the corn
A sea of beauty and abundance lies,
Then the New Year is born.
Look where the mother of the months uplifts
In the green clearness of the unsunned West,
Her ivory horn of plenty, dropping gifts,
Cool, harvest-feeding dews,
fine-winnowed light;
Tired labor with fruition, joy and rest
Profusely to requite.
Blow, Israel, the sacred coronet! Call
Back to thy courts whatever faint heart throb
With thine ancestral blood, thy need craves all.
The red, dark year is dead, the year just born
Leads on from anguish wrought
by priest and mob,
To what undreamed-of morn?
For never yet, since on the holy height,
The Temple's marble walls of white and green
Carved like the sea-waves, fell, and the world's light
Went out in darkness, -- never was the year
Greater with potent and with promise seen,
Than this eve now and here.
Even as the Prophet promised, so your tent
Hath been enlarged unto earth's farthest rim.
To snow-capped Sierras from vast steppes ye went,
Through fire and blood and
tempest-tossing wave,
Mighty to slay and save.
High above flood and fire ye held the scroll,
Out of the depths ye published still the Word.
No bodily pang had power to swerve your soul:
Ye, in a cynic age of crumbling faiths,
Lived to bear witness to the living Lord,
Or died a thousand deaths.
In two divided streams the exiles part,
One rolling homeward to its ancient source,
One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart.
By each truth is spread, the law unfurled,
Each separate soul contains the nation's force,
And both embrace the world.
Kindle the silver candle's seven rays,
Offer the first fruits of the
clustered bowers,
The garnered spoil of bees. With prayer and praise
Rejoice that once more tried, once more we prove
How strength of supreme suffering still is ours.
For Truth and Law and Love
Roosevelt and Rosh Hashanah
Only one U.S. President has ever taken the oath of office on the Jewish New Year.  On the 1st of Tishrei, 5662 (September 14, 1901), Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States following the assassination of William McKinley.  Prior to his Presidency, Roosevelt had “history” with the Jews.  For example when he had served as New York Police Commissioner a rabid anti-Semite came to New York from Germany and Roosevelt had to provide him with police protection.  Roosevelt fulfilled his obligation by appointing an all-Jewish detail.  Jews, of whom Roosevelt spoke glowingly, served with the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill.  Roosevelt was the last Republican to receive significant Jewish support; his fierce independence and support of specific Jewish concerns made him a hero to many within this community.  Theodore Roosevelt was the first President to appoint a Jew to a presidential cabinet.  In 1906 he named Oscar S. Straus Secretary of Commerce and Labor.  Theodore Roosevelt was also the first President to contribute his own funds to a Jewish cause.  In 1919, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts while President to settle the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt donated some of his prize money to the National Jewish Welfare Board.  Not too bad for the only Rosh Hashanah President.
A Plank A Day Keeps the Jew on the Right Way
On the 1st of Tishrei, 5684 (September 11, 1923), Daf Yomi was initiated by Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin.  At the Congress of the Agudath Israel in Europe in 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin had proposed that Jews all over the world study the same page of the Talmud (Daf Yomi) simultaneously as a sign of a unifying commitment to Judaism and Jewish learning.  In this way, Jews could complete the study of the Talmud every seven and a half years with a formal celebration marking the end of the learning cycle and the beginning of the new one.  The proposal was accepted and a special calendar was created.  Jews everywhere began to study the Daf.  Rabbi Shapira participated in the first completion of the cycle in 1931.  Observant Jews then integrated the Daf Yomi program into their lives.  Tossed into a stormy sea when his ship was wrecked, the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva was given up for lost.  This is how he later described his miraculous rescue to Rabbi Gamaliel:  "A daf (plank) from the ship suddenly appeared as a salvation, and I just let the waves pass over me."  When Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the rabbi of Lublin between the two World Wars, initiated the program for Jews all over the world to study the same daf yomi (daily page of Talmud), he explained the significance of this undertaking by paraphrasing Rabbi Akiva:  "A daf is the instrument of our survival in the stormy seas of today.  If we cling to it faithfully all the waves of tribulation will but pass over us."  The entire Talmud is covered in seven years by those who keep to the prescribed daily pace.  One individual who undertook such a project and help to give it a wider range of fame was the author Herman Wouk.  The regularized study model of Daf Yomi has given rise to several other daily study programs from all variants of Judaism.
Don’t Go To The Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah
On the 1st of Tishrei, 5704 (September 30, 1943), Jews in Denmark stayed alive because they did not go to the synagogue.  Thanks to a warning from a German diplomat, George Ferdinand Duckwitz, the Jews knew that the Nazis planned to raid the synagogues on Rosh Hashanah as part of a plan to deport the country’s 7,800 Jews.  Erev Rosh Hashanah at morning services Dr. Marcus Melchior, the chief rabbi told his people what was about to happen and not to come to services for the New Year.  On the 2nd of Tishrei, the Danes bravely began the process of loading the Jews into fishing boats and carrying them to safety in neutral Sweden.  For more see:
Golda Goes To The Synagogue
On the 1st of Tishrei, 5709 (October 4, 1948), Golda Meir, the newly appointed Israeli ambassador to the Soviet Union went to the Grand Synagogue in Moscow.  At best, they expected the usual 2,000 Jews to attend Rosh Hashanah services.  Instead, she was greeted by a crowd of 50,000 who pressed in Joyous disbelief.  And this was at a time when such behavior could get you to a trip to the Gulag.  The fact that so many people were still Jewish and willing to risk so much was living proof that despite the adversity of the Holocaust and the Stalinists Am Yisroel Chai - the Jewish people live.
Torah Readings for Saturday, September 23, 2017
Shabbat Shuvah (Sabbath of the Return)
Ha’azinu (Give Ear)
32: 1-35 Devarim (Deuteronomy)
Ha’azinu is the tenth sedrah in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), which means we have one more to go before completing the book of Devarim and the entire Torah.  Ha’azinu comprises the entire 32nd chapter of Devarim.  The sedrah takes its name from the first Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading.  “Give ear (Ha’azinu) O heavens and I will speak.…”  Ha’azinu is the last sedrah to be read as part of the Shabbat cycle since the final sedrah in Devarim is read on Simchat Torah.
The Song
The last sentence in Vayeilech, the previous sedrah, reads “Moses spoke the words of this song into the ears of the entire congregation Israel, until their conclusion (31:30).”  The first 43 verses of Ha’azinu are the song previously mentioned.  Moses’ first “song” appears earlier in the Torah, in the Book of Shemot (Exodus).  It comes after the deliverance from the Egyptians and the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.  This is the same Song at the Sea that is part of the Shacharit Service.  The point is that our travels in the Wilderness begin with a song and end with a song.  The songs are quite different.  The one at the start of the journey is filled with exuberance and joy.  The one at the end, in Devarim, is solemn, filled with dark prophecy.  Thinking of Moses in human terms, the difference in the two songs may track with where he is in life when writing the two songs.  The Song in Shemot is that of man on the threshold of great adventure who has already experienced the miracles of the Lord.  The Song in Devarim is that of a weary old man who is facing death and who has been denied his life-long dream of entering the Promised Land.  There are several commentators who contend that the Song in Devarim was written after the rest of the text and was inserted at a later time.  This still leaves the question as to why the wanderings in the Wilderness begin and end with Song.  Regardless, the Song is written in poetry.  Poetry is difficult enough to understand when one knows the language.  We are trying to comprehend the meaning of a poem from a translation.  I am way out my depth when it comes to this aspect of the sedrah.  If you have not found a source, I suggest you read pages 1563 and 1564 of the Plaut Chumash for an exposition on the topic.
The Structure of the Message of the Song
(Based on the writings of Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg)
(32:1-3) The opening of the poem.
(4-6) Words of moral teaching contrasting the virtue of God to the wickedness of Israel.
(7-14) A review of God's goodness to Israel.
(15-18) Israel prospers and rebels against God.  God acts, but His goal is to create an ever more loyal and observant Israel.  Thus does the song explain the relationship, and in the mouth of Moses it becomes a statement of fundamental belief.
(19-25) God's punishment of Israel for breaking the covenant.
(26-33) After the punishment, God's mercy.
(34-43) God will save His people from their enemies.
(44-47) The song is read to the people and they are warned to take it to heart.
(48-52) God tells Moses to ascend Mt. Nebo, where he will view the land of Canaan and die after having beheld it.
As we read through the Song itself, we can see several recurring motifs that we have seen throughout Devarim or other books of the Torah.  Here are just a few of them followed by themes presented in the verses following the Song.
The Rock
Moses repeatedly refers to God as “Tzur” or Rock (See verses 4 and 37).  At Chanukah we sing of the Rock of Ages.  At the end of the hymn “May the Words” we implore “our Rock and our Redeemer.”  The third verse of the Mi Chomocho, which we chant as we rise for the Amidah begins with “Tzur yisro-ayl or Rock of Israel.”
Eternal Teaching
The Torah in general, and the Song itself, are teachings for all time.  Therefore, Moses calls on the heavens and the earth to “Give ear.”  In other words he wants witnesses for all time that will verify that he taught the Israelites and warned them of the consequences of not following the Torah.  Furthermore, according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, the Heaven and the Earth can then take the lead in punishing the Israelites for their failures.  Rain would not come from the heavens and the earth would not yield its bounty.  (See the Stone Chumash for further comment.)
Ultimate Redemption
Verse 43 reminds us that in the end God will redeem His people.  He will punish our enemies.  And when the nations of the world see this redemption they will acknowledge the glory of God and the greatness of His teachings.
Orderly Transfer of Power
Verse 44 shows Joshua, here called Hosea, at Moses’ side as he speaks his final words.  The transfer will be finalized in the next reading.
Teaching for all Time
Verse 45 requires our forefathers and therefore us as well, to pass the Torah on to the next generation.
Acceptance of the Torah in its Entirety
Verse 45 uses the term “obey all the words of this Torah.”  As we have said before, missing the mark means not to obey the Torah.  The goal is to obey the Torah.  The reality is that we fail to obey commandments and as we see at this season of the year we seek another chance to try again at hitting the mark.  In traditional Judaism, rejecting the Torah in whole or in part is what has been considered unacceptable.
Death of Moses
God prepares Moses for death.  He is allowed to look at the Promised Land, but not cross over the Jordan.  He is reminded of why he is being punished.  This time there is no response from Moses.  Instead the statement just sits there, a statement of fact for all times.  This is a far cry from the Moses who started Devarim by blaming the Israelites for his plight and pleading with God to change it.  Apparently a lot has happened in the five weeks that tradition says is the timeframe for the fifth and final book of the Torah.
Shabbat Shuvah - Sabbath of the Return
The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah or the Sabbath of the Return.  Shabbat Shuvah is part of the Ten Days of Penitence.  In Judaism, we repent by turning or returning to God and his Torah.  On Rosh Hashanah we ask to be written into the Book of Life.  On Yom Kippur, we ask to be sealed in the Book of Life.  According to some, Shabbat Shuvah gives us an opportunity to show that we are in fact turning or returning.  Therefore, we are worthy of God’s mercy, which will take us from being written to being sealed.  The special haftarah reading described below further emphasizes this motif.
Hosea 14:2-10
Joel 2:11-27
Micah 7:18-20

The Men/The Book:  This is the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah or the Sabbath of the Return.  This is the haftarah that is usually read when Vayeilech is not combined with another sedrah.  Customarily, the haftarah is supposed to come from the book of one prophet.  However, the writings of these three prophets are included in one book called Trei Asar or The Twelve.  These twelve prophets are also known as the Minor Prophets because their literary output is smaller than that of the Three Major Prophets.  According to the Talmud, the writings of the twelve prophets were gathered in one volume out of fear that otherwise they would be lost.  Hosea was the first and most prolific of the Minor Prophets.  He preached in the Northern Kingdom during the end of the eighth century B.C.E. and the first half of the seventh century B.C.E.  He died some time before the exile of the Ten Lost Tribes in 721 B.C.E.  He is best known for his marriage to the harlot, Gomer.  This marriage provided the literary motif for much of Hosea’s writings.  The Israelites were the unfaithful wife, Gomer, while God was the long-suffering “husband” who would redeem His errant spouse.  Each day, when we don the Tefillin, we are reminded of Hosea’s preachings.  When we complete the final wrapping around the middle digit and across the hand, we say, “I will betroth you to Me forever, and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy.  I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you shall know the Lord.”  (2:21-22)

Joel is the second of the Minor Prophets.  His writings consist of a mere four chapters.  Since there is no biographical information available about him, we can only speculate as to when he lived and prophesied.  Some commentators contend that he lived in the Southern Kingdom since he mentions Judah and Jerusalem but not the Northern Kingdom.  The famine he mentions would indicate he was a contemporary of Amos.  His mention of the miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem remind the reader of the words of Amos and Isaiah which would mean that he lived during the seventh century B.C.E. prior to the destruction of either of the two kingdoms.  There are commentators who believe that these writings are a product of more than one author and were produced during the early days of the Second Temple.  Those of you who are Debbie Friedman fans will recognize Joel’s most famous lines, “Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions.”  (3:1).  In other words, “youth shall have the knowledge of age, and age the enthusiasm of youth.”  As Rabbi Hertz points out, this “rejuvenation of the soul and renewal of the spirit” is the main purpose the Ten Days of Penitence.

Micah was born in Judah, but addressed his prophecies to both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.  Micah was a contemporary of Amos, Hosea and Isaiah.  The prophecies of Micah must have been well known in ancient times, since Jeremiah refers to them in his preachings.  Micah may have been the first prophet to warn the Jews that possession of Jerusalem would not save them from divine punishment.  In other words, he was the first to prophesy the possible destruction of the City of David and the Temple itself.  Unlike some of the other prophets, those in power heeded Micah’s words of warning.  King Hezekiah was moved by Micah’s preaching to pray to God for a reprieve from impending destruction.  Micah is best known for the line “It hath been told thee o man what is good and what the Lord doth require of thee:  Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”  But he also authored words that are more often credited to his famous contemporary, Isaiah.  “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”  (4:2) “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.  Neither shall they learn war anymore.”  (4:3)

The Message:  Hosea begins by calling upon the Israelites to return to the ways of God.  God will accept the penitent Israelites nurturing them in all their needs.  Joel calls for a day of fasting from which none are exempt.  As Plaut puts it, in Joel’s vision, the people will return to God, which will cause God to return to Israel.  Micah closes with an image of an ever-forgiving God who will keep faith with His people as he promised the Patriarchs He would.

Theme-Link:  The connection is with the calendar and not with the weekly portion.  The haftarah is read on the Sabbath of the Return which falls during the Yamim Nora’im or the Days of Awe.  These are the Ten Days of Penitence that start with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur.  So it is fitting that each prophet should invoke a High Holiday related motif in his preaching.  The haftarah begins with the word Shuvah or Return as in “Return (Shuvah) O Israel, to the Lord your God” (Hosea 4:2) which is a fitting beginning for a haftarah chanted on Shabbat Shuvah.  The portion from Joel begins with a High Holiday motif - “Blow the shofar in Zion, Sanctify a fast, call a Solemn Assembly…”  (Joel 2:15)  The portion from Micah includes the following, “You will cast off (Tashlich) all their sins into the depths of the sea.”  (Micah 7:19)  This reference later gave rise to the ceremony of Tashlich, or Casting-off Sins that began some time during the Middle Ages.

Copyright, September, 2017; Mitchell A. Levin