Elie Wiesel on Rosh Hashanah - 92Y, New York

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Elie Wiesel on Rosh Hashanah

Sep 2, 2021

On the first and second days of the month of Tishrei, the festival of Rosh Hashanah (literally, “the head of the year”) begins the Jewish New Year. Also known as the Day of Judgment, the festival is celebrated with special prayers, holiday meals (featuring foods chosen as auspicious for ushering in a year of blessing), an intensified focus on repentance, thematically-linked Torah readings—and, as a central dimension, the ceremonial blowing of the shofar. Everything that occurs over the two days is to be carried out in such a manner as to set the tone and direction for the year to come. The two-day festival also launches the Ten Days of Repentance, a devotional period especially suitable for restoring pristine relations with the Almighty--and with our fellow human beings. The ten days reach a climax on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Professor Wiesel’s lectures refer to the holiday on a number of occasions, drawing particularly on Chassidic teachings and stories. Moreover, his study of the Binding of Isaac, the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, found expression in four different 92Y lectures over the years (indeed, on more occasions than any other subject or text). Another Rosh Hashanah theme--the prospect of “beginning again, beginning anew”--appears many times in his lectures, especially in relation to the challenge of rebuilding in the aftermath of catastrophe. The brief excerpts that follow offer points of reflection for the New Year in the words and spirit of Professor Wiesel’s passion for study and observance. May these teachings engender in us a similar desire to learn, to do--and to begin again.

A Yearning for Learning, March 30, 2006
In scripture, the story [of the Binding of Isaac] ends there. Abraham proved his infinite faith to God, in God. Isaac survived his ordeal. And God gave them his grateful blessings and they all lived happily ever after.

Not so in the Midrash. There, a dramatic change occurs before the end. All of a sudden, Abraham appears in a different role. Until then, he was the obedient servant. He submitted to God’s shocking first order but now, he's questioning that order. And he is surely opposing, in the Midrash, the second order by the angel to save Isaac. He, Abraham, who did not ask God, “Why do you wish me to forget my fatherly duties and my fatherly love and kill my own son?” is now ready to disregard God’s desire to spare Isaac.

A remarkable dialogue begins between God and his loyal ally. Abraham is now setting conditions for Isaac’s survival, and he said, “Master of the universe, unless You give in, unless You promise me something, I will go ahead.” And God said, “What do you want?” And Abraham says, “Oh no, no, wait a second. I could have asked You in the beginning. You want me to kill my son? Didn’t You promise that he will be a builder of nations? I didn’t ask You that. So therefore, now, I’m saying to You, I’m going ahead unless You do something.” “What should I do?” said God. And Abraham said one thing. “I want that whenever my people, my descendants will need help, that You will help. If You don’t promise that, I will go ahead.” Abraham won.

And therefore, we read this story, the Akedah, on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. As if we were to say to God, “Look, remember Abraham. What he obtained from You, a promise that whenever we tell the story, You come to our side, to our aid.”

Zanz and Sadigur, November 13, 1986
Concentrating the way he could was an all-encompassing occupation to Rabbi Chaim of Zanz. On one occasion during Rosh Hashanah services, a huge portion of the ceiling dropped in the synagogue. The worshipers fled in panic. Rabbi Chaim alone remained inside the house of prayer, oblivious to the danger.

The Shpole Zeide, October 24, 1985
One Rosh Hashanah day, the [Shpole] Zeide received a visit of four great masters: the preacher, Reb Leib of Polna, Reb Leib Kohen of Berditchev, Reb Zusya of Hanipol, and Reb Mordechai of Nishchit. And after the meal, they remained alone. They talked of the Messiah, who was not coming, and how the plight of the Jews was worsening from year to year.

At a certain moment, the gentle Reb Zusya turned to Reb Leib of Polna, who was a famous preacher, and said, quietly, “Reb Leib, if the Messiah is late in coming, it’s your fault, rather than ours, for you do not do enough to lead our people to repentance.”

But without giving the preacher time to answer, the Zeide got up and said, “Ribono shel olam, Master of the universe, I swear to You by everything I hold sacred that You will not succeed in returning Your people to the path of righteousness by punishing them, by persecuting them, by tormenting them. And You who know everything, You know this too, and therefore I beg of You, try something else. Try to reclaim them gently, by happiness and joy.”

The Relevance of Hasidism Today, October 17, 1991
We must speak about Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, one of my favorite masters, one of the greatest. His love for his people was such that he dared to challenge the Master of the Universe on behalf of his people. And the way he did it was always during the holiest of days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Once, he stopped the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and spoke to God, saying, “Ribono shel olam, Master of the Universe, why do You do all that to Your people, to Your people? Why do You allow the people to suffer? Why do You prefer other people? You prefer Ivan.” And he said, in Yiddish, “Let Ivan blow the shofar. I won’t.” And he refused to blow shofar. Until he pleaded with God again, and said, “If You want shofar, okay, I’ll give it to You--on credit.”

Later Hasidic Masters: Rabbi Israel of Rizhin, November 6, 1969
Another time on Rosh Hashanah, [Rabbi Israel] exclaimed, “God, be our Father and we shall be thy servants. We shall be thy servants, only if you are our Father.”

The Solitude of God, November 16, 2000
We believe therefore that it is not given to us to begin. Only God can begin. All we can do is begin again. And that goes for everything. We have built on ruins. We have built new hope. And now we know one thing, that we must start all over again. And we shall.

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