The Days of Awe: An Interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Originally published in The Seven Lights, by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and Josy Eisenberg

Remember to Forget

Josy Eisenberg (J.E.): These two facets, fatherhood and Kingship, are brought together in Rosh haShana, the holiday of beginnings and the holiday of final outcomes. We said earlier that Rosh haShana is a new beginning and that the previous year is completely nullified. Yet Rosh haShana is also called Yom haDin, the day of judgment. Judgment implies memory, recollection of the past, and confrontation. The tone of the liturgy is that of remembrance. For example, there are three series of shofar blasts during the morning service. The first series is called “Kingship” and the second series, “Remembrance.” We also say, “there is no forgetting before Your throne of glory,” and, “For You remember everything that has been forgotten.”

So is Rosh haShana the day we forget the past, the day we make a clean slate, or is it the day of remembrance?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (A.S.): The Chasidim have a very beautiful interpretation of the second passage you mentioned, “God remembers what men forget.” They say that if men only recall their merits and forget their sins, God only recalls the sins. But if men only remember their sins, God only takes their merits into account.

Nevertheless, remembrance and forgetting are not really antithetical. Both are recollections and are linked in subtle ways. The first day of Rosh haShana can be seen as a day when we obliterate the previous year. It is a time of transition. The second day of haShana starts the New Year.

J.E.: Is this one of the reasons why the New Year lasts two days? Is the first day the day of forgetting and the second day the day of remembrance?

A.S.: They are two sides of the same active process. The modern term for this very old idea is sublimation. On Rosh haShana, we sublimate the previous year. In other words, you can never forget without remembering. I need to relive and review the past year, so I can elevate it until it appears to have disappeared. This process of elevation, or sublimation, cannot occur unless we first recall faded memories. Thus, forgetting implies recollection.

This does not mean that Rosh haShana is a period of guilt. In fact, we hardly even talk about our sins. We are judged, but we do not confess.

J.E.: It is true that collective confessions are reserved for Yom Kippur when we recite the Al Chet prayer, a confession (in alphabetical order) of all possible sins, and other penitential prayers. Through the mood of Rosh haShana tends not to be different from that of Yom Kippur, the two holidays differ at least on this point. There is only one prayer on Rosh haShana that mentions our sins. It begins with the words: “Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before You.”

Mostly Positive?

A.S.: That is right. But do you know that in the Hasidic liturgy of the Chabad movement this prayer is not recited on Rosh haShana? Since Rosh haShana is above all a holiday, a feast day when we are not allowed to be sad, we do not mention our sins.

J.E.: But it is the Day of Judgment!

A.S.: Correct; but in fact we are not being “judged for our sins.” I would go so far as to say we are being “judged for our merits.”

In fact, this judgment takes stock of who we are and what we have become. The purpose is not so much to make a list of all our daily shortcomings – this type of soul-searching should be done every day – but to make an overall assessment. On the Day of Judgment, we attempt to balance the assets and liabilities of the world. The year comes to a close. God makes an inventory and wonders whether He should close up shop or whether it is worthwhile to start the creative process over again and “invent” a new year.

J.E.: I like the metaphor of the world as a store, a “business” where God wonders whether it is worth continuing or not. At times, we have the feeling that this “business” is scarcely profitable and that God is continually covering the deficits so that it can stay open. In fact, the metaphor can be found in the Talmud in a slightly different form. The idea is extremely similar, and both expressions concern judgment:

Rabbi Akiva said: “The shop is open, and the dealer gives credit, and the ledger lies open, and the hand writes, and whoever whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow, but thecollectors regularly make their daily round, and exact payment from man, whether he be content or not.” (Mishna, Tractate Avot 3:19-20, Dr. Joseph H. Hertz translation).

Does this world, this store where we live on credit, deserve another moratorium?

A.S.: This is the real issue, and this is why on Rosh haShana we plead with God to go on running the world’s business and be our King. Our little self-examinations and personal soul-searching are not for Rosh haShana. We have the whole month of Elul, which comes before Rosh haShana, to devote to repentance and to return to God. Rosh haShana involves something else. Having finished the world’s annual stock taking, we are ready, through forgetting and remembrance, to start a new page of history and welcome God. This is why most of the holiday rituals, including the shofar blasts, are designed to solemnly proclaim the arrival of the King and make way for Him.

This is the meaning of Psalm 24, which is recited often on Rosh haShana: “O gates, lift up your heads! Up high you everlasting doors, so that the King of glory may come in.” (Psalms 24:7)

This is exactly what we do on Rosh haShana. We open the gates of the year, so that God may enter. To do so, everything needs to be in its place, the world must be worthy of receiving God.This is the meaning of our collective presence at the synagogue. By going there on Rosh haShana, Jews say, “Last year was more or less all right, we behaved more or less acceptably. But we want to continue, grant us one more year.” In a way, the children of Israel go to the synagogue to reiterate their pledge of allegiance to their King and, and beyond their shortcomings and expectations, to express the sole wish that God will, in turn, accept the crown from His people.

“Kingship emanates from this will to rule; in other words, the ability to¬†contract, or conceal, the Divine being for purposes of ruling over a separate being (or a being that imagines itself to be a separate being, since there is nothing besides Him). What can God rule over? Nothing exists besides Him. It is written: ‘I have not changed’, and ‘The Lord was King, the Lord is King, the Lord shall be King forever more.’ But because everything that exists is nothing besides Him, every year we must arouse His will to rule.” (Likkutei Torah, Deuteronomy 51b)

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