Rosh Hashana Drash

Rosh Hashana 5772 – September 28-30, 2011

“From Judgment to Compassion”
By Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Ph.D
President, AJRCA

Our Sages teach that every Jewish holiday season has a special spiritual energy that we are to master. So for example, during the holiday of Shavuot, we are to enlighten our MINDS through the study of Torah, because this is the time of the revelation. During Sukkot we are to sanctify our practical DEEDS since there are so many concrete tasks in the building of the Sukkah, and the taking the Lulav and Etrog. And, during Pesach we are to purify our SPEECH through the telling of the tale of the exodus (Hagada), because it was the tale-bearing of Joseph and his brothers that created the descendant journey of the Jewish people into the land of Egypt. And what is the spiritual task that we are supposed to master during the High Holiday period beginning with the month of Elul and ending with Yom Kippur? Our sages say, it is the task of moving from a JUDGMENTAL and critical stance toward our fellow human beings and replacing this energy with the quality of COMPASSION. They apparently recognized the powerful instinctual force within every human being that is anti-life (Judging, restricting, squeezing) that we aggressively turn on to others and on to ourselves.

From the blowing of the Shofar, to the major themes of Teshuva (Repentance), Tfila (Prayer), and Tzedaka (Charity), the Rabbis set up a behavioral system that opens up the heart and promotes, self-reflection, relatedness to G-d, to our fellow human beings, and kind deeds that lead to compassion for ourselves and others. What is it that creates judgment, hardness of heart, lack of vulnerability, the need to control? Some might say it is an innate biological force called the Yetzer Hara, (Thanatos) that we were created with as a species, but it is met with an inner counter-force, the Yetzer Tov, (Eros) that gives life its purpose. Others say that it is a reactive force, created to cope with the everyday environmental stresses that we face as members of society. A major ingredient that flows through this ‘judgment’ is fear and anxiety; the fear of our own inner chaos, of being overwhelmed by inner and outer forces that can overwhelm us, so we try to set up a lifestyle that promotes order, efficiency, a focus on goals which are all important coping capacities when done in moderation and balanced by their opposites, but harmful when it becomes our natural response or habit. Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis, suggested that a primary fear in males is a fear of  inner passivity that could lead to danger, a fear of being taken over by another,  or a fear of outer authority (‘castration anxiety’) that can dominate us. (Thus we act aggressively and with judgment.) He felt that in females there may be an envy of this dominating power, and thus a desire to obtain it for oneself for safety, by identifying with those who own this power and learning to act like them.

If, indeed, it is fears that make us act in rigid, constricted ways, we must learn to become aware of these fears so that we can face them and overcome them. Hence, our tradition sets up this special time to return to the light within and without (G-d) that can transform and heal this fear with love. To be compassionate is not to act with weakness. On the contrary, it is to act with awareness, in the face of the possibility of being reactive with fear, which at bottom is weakness.

One of the rituals that helps us to become more flexible and compassionate is the custom during the Musaf service to bow down on our knees during the Aleinu prayer. We prostrate ourselves, bend our knees, go down to the floor, and place our heads on the ground before the Lord. The idea here is to learn to bend the knee, to overcome rigidity, to yield to a Higher Power, to act with trust and faith in the Higher Power, that can help us overcome our fears, and thus our need to control and judge ourselves and others. This ability to trust, which leads to letting go, and moving easily to the realm of compassion is a powerful, treasured force that can transform the world. Not only in our personal relationships, with our co-workers, with our families, with our neighbors, but also politically when nations can behave with greater trust, and realize we are all interconnected with a Yetzer Hatov as well as a Yetzer Hara.

We must reach this level on the High Holidays, so that we can transform the world and make it into a holy earth, where G-d’s spirit, found in all of us, is palpable and uplifting. Let us not wait just for leaders, to reach this level; it is incumbent upon each of us to grow in this way. Each of us can make a significant contribution to the elevation of the Earth and peace on our planet. Even our thoughts and aspirations have an impact, they create a positive energy that impacts others, but it is our deeds that are most crucial at this perilous time in our history. ‘It is not up to us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from beginning it.’ The Rizhiner Rebbe, in reply to the question, ‘When will the Messiah come,’ answered, “When we learn not to judge others, but only judge ourselves, and favorably….”  May we each bring the Messiah a little closer this year through our compassion and loving-kindness. Shana Tova!