THE JEWISH COVENANT
The story is told of a king who would go out into the countryside and visit his subjects one month out of the year. At that time, he was accessible to everyone and showered all who came to him with kindness. At the close of the month his subjects would accompany him as he returned to the palace.
The story is told of a king who would go out into the countryside and visit his subjects one month out of the year. At that time, he was accessible to everyone and showered all who came to him with kindness. At the close of the month his subjects would accompany him as he returned to the palace. The Baal Hatanya, the author of the great Chassidic text known as the Tanya, explained that this parable refers to Hashem and the nearness of His presence during the Hebrew month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. It is a time when Hashem is "near to all who call out to Him." With the advent of Rosh Hashanah, however, Hashem returns to His palace where we affirm the majesty of His kingship.
Within the month of Elul itself it is this Shabbat, the one preceding Rosh Hashanah, that has a special status. Normally, on the Shabbat before each new lunar month, a prayer is recited welcoming the new moon (known as Birkat Hachodesh), but on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah (the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei) no such prayer is recited. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, explains that this is because on this Shabbat it is Hashem Himself who blesses the new month and provides the blessings for the entire incoming year.
At the start of the Torah portion, Moses, who is soon to die, gathers the entire nation together. He has every man, woman, and child reaffirm their commitment to the covenant with G-d. It is in fact this covenant, not the one that was made at Mt. Sinai and later broken, that forms the basis for the Jewish people's eternal bond with Hashem. However, the covenant is not with G-d alone, for they also enter into a covenant of responsibility for one another. It is only when all Jews are sincerely concerned about one another's welfare, that G-d's teachings can be properly fulfilled.
This idea is not one to be relegated to history. It remains as alive today as it was some three thousand years ago. In fact, the Baal Hatanya explains that the gathering of all of Israel together mentioned at the start of this week's Torah portion, also alludes to the Jewish people's gathering together every year on Rosh Hashanah. Just as three thousand years ago we affirmed our loyalty to Hashem, so too in our day, on Rosh Hashanah we reaffirm Hashem as our King. Just as we took responsibility for one another in Moses' time, so too it is on the High Holidays in our times that we ask forgiveness from one another and heighten our concern for one another's welfare. Perhaps most importantly, as the opening verse of the Torah portion states, "You are all standing together before the Lord your G-d," all of us, the prominent and the unimportant, the talented and the less gifted all stand equally before Hashem; for we all have ultimately been given the same assignment. This assignment is of course to fulfill the will of Hashem and represent Him in this world in an appropriate manner as we serve as a light onto the nations.
Josh Hartman, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, writes from New York.
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