Rosh Hashanah Drash

Rosh Hashanah 5770 September 18 – September 20, 2009

“Judgment and Compassion”
by Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD
President, Academy for Jewish Religion, CA

The Kabbalists teach that there are ten energetic qualities that permeate a human being, each of which when used properly, or in a combination, have merit. Among these energies is the quality of Gevurah- Judgment, Severity, Withholding or Carefulness. There are times when we must be cautious, set limits and say “no” in our response. Our ancestor, Isaac, epitomized this quality in this world as he was almost sacrificed by his loving father Avraham, and learned through fear and trembling that in order to survive and grow one must be capable of cautiousness and judgment for if not, after all, “one can get killed.”

Our Sages teach that during certain seasons, it is more appropriate to express certain energies and limit the expression of others. During the month of Elul through the High Holy Day season, our task is to move from the realm of Gevurah to the realm of Chesed- Kindness and Compassion; for as the Sages put it, if G-d were to be angry and judgmental toward us during this season of evaluation who would survive?

So how do we move psychologically and spiritually from the realm of Judgment to the realm of Compassion? Our Sages have set up behavioral tasks, both requirements of Jewish Law and ethical exhortations, to help us accompany this important shift within. Let us just focus on four customs that each of us can implement during the forty-day period from the first of Elul to Yom Kippur. Every morning there is a Shofar blowing after morning services that we are to listen to. This awakens us to our task, it enters our soul and calls us to accomplish our spiritual duties, to live out our dream rather than dream away our lives. This Shofar brings us back to Mt. Sinai with the knowledge that G-d awaits our return patiently and lovingly and is always there for us. It also encourages us to follow a spiritual path and let go of the material servitude that has caused us to lose our way. When we pray with a minyan who are all engaged in this task of awakening, all engaged in movement toward loving kindness, it is a powerful influence.

Second, the Sages mention three more duties to be engaged in during this season to help us accomplish our spiritual task of movement from Judgment to Compassion: Teshuva, (repentance), Tefilla (prayer), and Tzedaka (acts of charity). Teshuva forces us to take a hard look at our judgments, at our anger, face the reasons for our feelings, take responsibility for our part in the situation enabling us to feel more compassionate through our greater awareness and eventually to reach out and find reconciliation with others and G-d. Tefilla enables us to overcome anger and judgment through emotional expression. When we pour our hearts out to G-d, and release our anger, we are usually more ready to be compassionate and forgiving. Finally, Tzedaka, the act of giving itself, behaviorally moves us from anger to compassion. We train ourselves to give and we become givers. We also interact with people who need our giving and become interconnected and compassionate toward them.

May G-d give us the strength during this season to overcome our severe spiritual judgment toward ourselves, and toward others so that we can implement the psycho-spiritual task of this season to learn to be compassionate as G-d is to G-d’s children. Shana Tova!