For Whom Is This Curse?

The Ketav Sofer, in his commentary on the Torah, applies this to Jews who truly love Judaism, but reject the need to actually fulfill the commandments in their entirety. The focus is on the last part of the curse, "To do them." He describes a style of Jew that is quite common.

This person believes that the ethics and values in Judaism are wonderful. He, however, believes that many of the rituals and commandments are antiquated and, bluntly, often primitive. Of what value is refraining from driving on the Sabbath? What is the point of wrapping tefillin around my arm and head?

Ah, but social justice! That is important! This Jew claims to have internalized the ethics of Judaism, and reached the point where the actual fulfillment of rituals is unnecessary. He believes that Judaism came to civilize the world, and, therefore, we must fight for that social justice. This becomes his Torah, his commandment.

The Ketav Sofer applies this curse to that person. Had "Cursed is the one who shall not fulfill the words of this Torah," been the whole phrase, it might have implied that this man has merit. After all, he is fulfilling the words of the Torah in his heart, and in his pursuit of a better world. But the verse continues, "To do them," which includes the physical fulfillment of all of the commandments of the Torah. What this person fails to comprehend is that the physical fulfillment of the commandments is necessary to create that better world.

It can be compared to a person who has a problem with being overweight. To go into the clothing store, buy clothing a few sizes too small, and start behaving like a thin person will do nothing to solve the problem. Only diet and exercise. Why? Because excess weight is not a psychological or sociological problem. It is a physical one. We humans are a magical combination of the physical and spiritual being. Man requires control of his physical self, just as he requires control of the spiritual self. We need to accept the spiritual Torah together with the physical commandments.

Thus, the second aspect of our lives to strengthen in preparation for Rosh Hashanah is our physical fulfillment of the commandments, "to do them.". Here comes the third.

The Ramban, in his commentary on the Torah, quotes the Jerusalem Talmud in interpreting this curse quite literally. "It is the Sexton," according to the Jerusalem Talmud, who was being cursed. The Ramban explains that it refers to the person responsible for placing the Torah scrolls safely in their ark. Should they be placed carelessly, they might fall. Alternately, the Ramban suggests that it refers to one who refuses to fulfill the function of Hagbaha, or the lifting and showing of the Torah scroll to the congregation.

According to these applications, the proper translation of the verse is, "Cursed is the one who will not lift up (literally) the words of this Torah…" The Ramban, however, sees this explanation as a parable for a much deeper problem.

There have been many pious Jews who may have run afoul of this curse. How so? Because they failed to broadcast and influence others with their piety. One who has the ability to strengthen the Torah amongst the Jewish people and fails to do so, no matter how personally observant he is, has not lifted up or caused to be fulfilled the words of the Torah. When one lifts the Torah scroll to show it to the congregation, one is sharing that Torah with others. That is the imperative learned out from this curse.

Those Jews who disconnect from their nonobservant, partially observant or observant in non-Orthodox ways brethren, are missing the point of their Judaism. Perhaps the greatest commandment of our time is the commandment to help reconnect Jews to their tradition and to observance.

Thus, after listening and doing, comes the third preparation for the High Holidays: reach out and share your Judaism. Every synagogue must prepare to welcome worshipers who only show up at this season. Torah is on display, it is our task to lift it up as high as we can and show it to the whole world. Blessed is the one will lift up, fulfill, and inspire all of Israel with the words of this Torah, in order that they may be fulfilled both spiritually and physically.

This is as we say the daily prayers, "Put it in our hearts to understand, to getting knowledge of, to listen, learn and teach, guard, do, and sustain all words of Your Torah with love."

Believe in God and Do the Impossible

The Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the difficult passage of the binding of Isaac. Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son, and he shows no hesitation in doing so. He takes the boy to Mount Moriah, ties him to the altar that he has fashioned, and is about to cut him with the knife when God's Angel calls out to him to stop. Abraham is told that he has passed the test, he must not harm the boy, and that many blessings are headed his way.

How could Abraham have been so willing to sacrifice his own child, for whom he had yearned all those years? Abraham didn't even argue, he just went! And why was this episode so powerful in granting merit and blessing to Abraham and his descendents?

Rabbi Solomon Sorotzkin claims that the binding of Isaac was a pre-atonement for the sin of the spies. The spies tried to prevent Israel from going where God told them, and so Abraham went to where God told him without question. A pre-atonement. What, exactly, is a pre-atonement? Perhaps it is a spiritual preparation for a future salvation. Perhaps, without Abraham's precedent, the spies would have succeeded completely. As we know, both Caleb and Joshua prevented the spies from having a unified front. Perhaps they gained the strength to do that by contemplating Abraham's binding of Isaac.

The Hasidic Rabbi, the Rabbi of Wurka, asked the opposite question. Why is Abraham's deep so special? If God spoke to him directly, and was crystal clear about what he was to do, Abraham was simply doing what anyone would do in that situation.

He answers that Abraham was probably being tempted by the Satan. Satan would point out that Isaac was Abraham's only son, and that Abraham's legacy will live through Isaac. Isaac was the sole gateway to the future of the Jewish people. If Isaac were to be killed, before he had any children of his own, there would be no Jewish people in the future! The whole legacy would be cut off!

And, so, Abraham had ample reason to protest. What's more, he was under no obligation to prevent Isaac from running away. But that's not what he did. He made sure Isaac accompanied him to Mount Moriah. He tied him up so that he could not run away. This was his great merit, that binding of Isaac. That showed Abraham's 100% commitment to do what God had told him. According to the Rabbi, Abraham basically said that the future of the Jewish people coming through Isaac was God's problem. His job was to fulfill this commandment, and God would figure out a way to carry out His promise.

In other words, Abraham taught us to believe in God, and do the impossible. Let's think about this. Abraham must have been 100% certain that it was God talking to him. He also needed to be 100% certain that he understood the message. Abraham knew that all of humanity was watching him. If he wavered, if his faith wasn't perfect and crystal-clear, his legacy would not endure. Perhaps he understood that his legacy going through Isaac was not biological, but spiritual. Perhaps he thought that, by sacrificing Isaac, he will ensure that faith in God will take root in all humanity. Maybe that's what God meant. And so Abraham was prepared to follow through, because this was bigger than him, or his son. All of mankind hung in the balance.

Not everyone comes to Abraham's level of faith, but because of his precedent, we have the potential for it. Sometimes we may waiver. Abraham was only tested with the binding of Isaac after a long life of consistent tests, some of which certain commentaries claim that he failed. The Legend of Rabbi Amnon, author of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, is a case in point. When pressured by the Bishop of his city to convert to Christianity, Rabbi Amnon had said he will think about it for three days. His answer was intended to push the Bishop away, for he obviously had no intention of ever abandoning the Jewish faith. Nonetheless, he felt tremendous guilt about having given the impression that he would actually think about it.

After the three days were up, the Rabbi told the Bishop that he regretted having even said he would think about converting. As a result, he was maimed and tortured. Shortly thereafter, The High Holidays came around. Rabbi Amnon was brought into the synagogue in his bed, and recited his original prayer. The central word in it is, "Truth." It expresses faith in God's judgment, and urges us to pursue repentance, prayer, and charity in order to be judged favorably by God.

As long as a person is alive, they have an opportunity to get it right. This is where the Satan comes into our story. He is telling us that we are not able. He is telling us that we are imprisoned by our past. He is telling us to give up the fight, we have no hope. The spies expressed the Satan's message, "We cannot go into the land."

The rabbis explain the significance of 100 sounds as being the sounds of childbirth. The woman in labor utters 99 cries of suffering, doubt, hopelessness. And, then, the child is born. The 100th sound she orders is a cry of great joy! This is a source for the especially long note, the tekiah gedola, sounded as the 100th note of the shofar.

The Satan, who wants us to give up, here's these 100 notes, and knows that we will do nothing of the kind. We will persist. Abraham persisted, Caleb and Joshua persisted, the mother in childbirth persists, and eventually that baby is born. Against the people that refuses to give up hope in God, and refuses to stop trying to do the impossible, the Satan has nothing to say.

Confusing the Satan before Rosh Hashana

According to the traditional understanding, the Satan shows up on Rosh Hashana with a list of all our misdeeds wherewith to prosecute us. He bases himself on the daily shofar blowings. When we suddenly stop, he gets confused that perhaps he missed the date of Rosh Hashana. Therefore, he does not show up the next day, which in truth is Rosh Hashana, and cannot, therefore, accuse us of anything.

It's a lovely answer, but following its logic, we are left with more questions. Most importantly, why doesn't the Satan figure this trick out already? Year after year, he falls for it. Strange, no? And why does he bother calculating by the shofar? Why not just Google the date of Rosh Hashana?

There are some other answers out there that are clearer. One is that the Satan bases himself on our reactions and fears. If we are blowing the shofar, we must be nervous. We must be going that extra mile because we've really been bad. That encourages him to accuse us even more. When we suddenly stop on the eve of Rosh Hashana, we exude confidence that we've already repented and atoned, and therefore have nothing to fear. That confidence is what confounds the Satan.

I love this answer, because it is so psychologically true and important. What is notable about Rosh Hashana is the absence of "confessional" prayers and petitions for forgiveness for a list of sins. Instead, we pray for global things, such as peace, prosperity, awareness of God and the advent of the Messiah. We remove the focus from sin and put it on to perfecting the world.

The Satan cannot prosecute us if we are allied with God in dreaming of and working towards a perfect world. We've taken the discussion to a level that the Satan cannot reach. It is similar to dealing with a parking ticket when you're a presidential candidate and you have to go to a nationally televised debate. Compared to that, parking tickets are small and unimportant. We basically "out-league" the Satan starting on the eve of Rosh Hashana.

I believe that this explanation can also explain the "confused date" explanation. The Satan deals in parking tickets. He expects that Rosh Hashana will be the mother of all parking ticket hearings, and builds his files accordingly. (He confuses it with Yom Kippur, when we deal with sin. I could even suggest that the Satan expects that Yom Kippur should precede Rosh Hashanam at least thematically.) When we stop the Shofar on Rosh Hashana eve, we are telling him that we don't deal with parking tickets any more. We're running for World-Fixer, and need to prepare for THAT debate, which the Satan can't even get in to.

That's what it means by him being confused, thinking that he missed Rosh Hashana. He's thinking that, if they stopped blowing the shofar, their sins must have been judged and acquitted already. Beyond that, he has no role.

In truth, though, we DO need to deal with the parking tickets. We do it especially on Yom Kippur. Nonetheless, before we do that we must focus on what's IMPORTANT in life and the world. We focus on the WHY of Judaism, the destiny of our nation, before we deal with the HOW, the scorecard of our personal behavior.

So let us put the clear goal of fixing the world and ourselves before us this Rosh Hashana 5770. Then, towards Yom Kippur, we'll bring this into our personal lives by improving our character and behavior accordingly.

A shana tova, a year of Life, Health, Happiness and Prosperity to you and yours!