As Rosh Hashana davening concluded, I once again felt an ambivalence of relief that I made it through the lengthy tefillos and contentment that for once during the year, I reached down into the depths of my neshama and attempted to spiritually connect with Avinu v’Malkeinu.
Rosh Hashana has always been the most difficult day for me – and that includes Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, it’s all about my foibles, my inadequacies and my abject failures. The person I am today, as an individual, a husband, a father and above all, a Jew, is completely exposed to the Borei Olam. And to the extent that I can articulate the viduy with kavanah and sincerity, I have bitachon that I will indeed be forgiven if for no other reason than He loves me. I certainly don’t intend to trivialize my aveiros, but He’s forgiven us so many times since Adam HaRishon and for far greater aveiros than mine, there’s no reason to think now will be different. Regardless of what we’ve done or failed to do, He still loves us and protects us. Rosh Hashana, however, is an entirely separate matter.
Honestly, I dread Rosh Hashana. Part of it, of course, is the long davening. But the trepidation I feel even before we begin blowing shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul is rooted in the absence of that which embodies Yom Kippur. It’s not about kapora. It’s not even all about teshuva. Sure, we’re obligated to begin the teshuva process. But it is not about me, or at least not the person I am today. It’s about the person I can, and should, become tomorrow. Who will I be during the coming year? It is taught that after a hundred and twenty years, one of the questions we will be confronted with isn’t why we weren’t as great as Moshe Rabbeinu, but why we weren’t as great as our own selves. That sends shivers down my spine. Each year, I worry whether I will actualize the potential that Hashem knows I possess and expects of me? And each year like the year before it, I fear that I will fail. Standing before HaKodesh Borochu in the same place I was last year is terrifying. What will I say? How will I know whether He’ll accept me? Worse yet, given my track record, what exactly do I say to persuade Him that I am worth His taking another chance on me?
Rabbi Mordechai Rhine, a Rav in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, writes a weekly Torah “Parsha Message.” As Musaf concluded on the Second Day, I read his Rosh Hashana message in which he recounted a moving and inspiring story. A young boy ran away from home. Years later, having regretted his rash decision, he wanted to return home to his parents but was unsure if they would accept him so he decided to write them a letter. He wrote, “Dear Mom and Dad, I know that I must have hurt you very much when I ran away. I would like to come back but I will understand it if you don’t want me to. So here is what I ask. If you would like me to come back, please place a kerchief on the apple tree in the backyard. When I pass by on the train, I will be able to see the tree. If the kerchief is there, I will get off at the next stop and come home. If not, I will understand and just continue on my way.” Several days later, the young man boarded a train to his hometown. As the train got closer to his home, he sensed a fear beginning to overtake him. What if his parents didn’t want him back? What if the kerchief was not tied on the apple tree? As the train neared the final bend before the backyard would come into view, the young man couldn’t bear to look. He turned to his seatmate and said, “Excuse me sir, but can you do me a favor. As we turn the bend, can you look out for the big apple tree in the yard? Just glance at it and tell me if there is a kerchief hanging from its branches.” The seatmate, unable to figure out why the young man was so agitated about a kerchief, graciously agreed to look. As the train turned the corner and the tree came into view, the seatmate gave a gasp. “What is it?” the young man asked, “Is there a kerchief there or not?” Those seconds seemed like hours to the young man. Finally, the seatmate responded, “Who would have thought? The whole tree is adorned with kerchiefs.”
With tears welling up in my eyes, I finally achieved clarity on the ambivalence that had eluded me all these years. Hashem has far more emuna in me than I do in myself. I have no doubt that He will always do His part, because He loves me and knows what’s best for me and my family. And above all, He believes in me. The young man that couldn’t bear to look at the tree was, at least in his own mind, that same little boy who had run away years before. To his parents though, he was anything but. Everyday, we’re running. Running to work, running at work, running home, running at home, running to bed and running to do it all over again. Some run faster than others and some run farther. But very few of us run toward Hashem. After an entire year of running, we arrive at Rosh Hashana and can’t bear to look for the kerchief because all we see is that we’re in the same place we were last year. We can’t, or don’t, see ourselves as any different and can easily understand if He won’t either. And yet, to Him we are neither the same person nor are we in the same place as last year. He clearly sees where we were yesterday, last week, last month and last year. If we’re lucky, we might recognize our accomplishments and improvements over ten, twenty or thirty years. But for that ever so slight, even microscopic, difference He sees in us, we’re still worth the world to Him.
May we all be granted a G’mar Chasima Tova, a gut g’bentched yohr and the strength to spend Atzeres Yemai Teshuva implementing even the most modest measures that will allow us to be zoche to stand before HaKodesh Borochu in a better place next year.