Shabbat Shuvah 5783 – The Sacred Power of the Days of Awe

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Each day during morning minyan in the month of Elul, we hear the blast of the shofar. On Rosh Hashanah as we hear the shofar, we read in our  prayer book that the still, small voice is speaking to us. And we hear it if we  listen. The hazzan’s voice stays with me for a long time as I recall how it  was choked with emotion as the Unetaneh Tokef prayer is chanted.  

Unetaneh Tokef – the sacred power of the day. So what do we make of it?  In my old prayer book, the translation of the final verse was, “But  repentance – teshuvah, tefillah – prayer, and gemillut hasidim – acts of  loving kindness avert the severe decree.” It was later changed to “avert the  severity of the decree;” now it is translated as, “transform the harshness of  the decree.” 

And this coming week – more emotion as I listen to the Kol Nidre prayer.  Emotion not because of the translation of the prayer itself, but rather  because of all my ancestors who listened to the exact same melody and  the exact same words on the exact same night. An old Hasidic tale  teaches that on that night, all those ancestors are with me, bound together  once more.  

We are but dust? All of life is for naught? Within a few short generations we  will be forgotten and it will be as though we were never here? Not necessarily. Judaism counters the notion that our lives ultimately don’t  matter and that we are, in the end, irrelevant.  

The Talmud teaches that those who save a single person, it is as though  they have saved an entire world. What does that mean? If you do a good  deed that impacts a life in a positive way, you may influence that life in such  a way that the recipient of the good deed will live a life that is just a little bit  different. And a small difference can make all the difference in the world.  When we read about the lives of consequential people, we often learn of  seemingly inconsequential events that shaped how they viewed the world,  or enabled them to achieve great things. The impact will last far into the  future. And we can be that difference! 

The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides said, “One should see the world  as a scale with an equal balance of good and evil. When one does a good  deed, the scale is tipped to the good – and the world is closer to being  saved. When one does an evil deed the scale is tipped to the bad – and the  world is closer to being destroyed.” 

I liken all my experiences and all my interactions as being placed in the denominator of a great fraction. The good ones become the numerators.  All I really care about is how many numerators I have. It’s sort of like taking  photos on a trip. All of the photos I take are in the denominator and only  the good ones are in the numerator. I don’t really care how many are in the  denominator. I can easily delete those (as I’ve frequently done). I simply try  to maximize the number of photos, events and experiences that are in the numerator. I’m most concerned with collecting numerators in my life. The  denominators? Who cares? I try to maximize and focus on the numerators. 

The message of Judaism is that we really need to focus on the need to  create numerators! Most of us have had some pretty tough or even awful  times we’ve gone through. For some, we’re still going through them. So  maybe that’s the purpose of the Modeh ani statement when we first arise,  in which we give thanks for the gift of another day. Another day is an  opportunity to add to the numerators in our lives. 

Why should we say this short prayer? In the Art Scroll Siddur, the  introductory section on prayer expresses it this way, “Prayer is not a  shopping list of requests. Primarily, it is an introspective process, a  clarifying, refining process of discovering what one is, what one should  become, and how to achieve the transformation. Indeed, the  commandment to pray is expressed by the Torah as a service of the heart,  not of the mouth.” The new day represents that opportunity to put into  action that which will tilt the scale of Maimonides. To perform mitzvot. To  make the world better. To move Maimonides’s needle just a bit toward the good side. 

In a few weeks, we will read in Lech Lecha, Ve-Yae b’rochah – You will be a blessing. We must each look upon that phrase as a commandment rather  than a promise. Not only must we count our blessings and be grateful, but  we must be a blessing to others. Acts of gamillut hasidim – loving kindness  – have the effect of transforming darkness to light, and we must be the  candle. It is up to us to live each day such that if we knew it were to be our last, we  would still have reason to find happiness. We need to count our blessings  and be grateful for them, and we need to take it upon ourselves to resolve  each morning to create numerators – both for ourselves and for others. And  we must take p the challenge to be G-d’s partner in the unfolding history of  humankind. 

Shabbat Shalom