When I was young, preparing for New Year’s was simple: Who would provide the house? And who would provide the alcohol? But I was young, pre-religious and New Year’s was January 1. Now that I’ve been observant for half a century, preparing for Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishrei, has proved much more challenging. For most of that period I had to get ready for blowing shofar and delivering many sermons and classes. Even now, when I haven’t been asked to do either any more (but I’m still available to last-minute shoppers), it continues to be an arduous task preparing for Yom HaDin (the Day of Judgment). Baruch Hashem, I’ve never prepared for trial in an earthly court, however I still feel at a loss of sufficient groundwork for standing before the Divine Judge. Some advice for this celestial court summons is provided in this week’s Torah reading.
Those cheerful rabbis of ours have determined that before Rosh Hashanah every year we must read the Tochacha, or chastisements, from Ki Tavo, and this is the much longer of the two such portions in the Torah. This list of dismal consequences for our people when we fail to heed our commitment to God is not the preparation I had in mind, even though many find these dire warnings sufficient to induce contrition. I had this quote in mind: This day, the Lord, your God, is commanding you to fulfill these statutes and ordinances, and you will observe and fulfill them with all your heart and with all your soul. You have selected the Lord this day to be your God, and to walk in His ways and to observe His statutes, His commandments and His ordinances, and to obey Him. And the Lord has selected you this day to be His treasured people, as He spoke to you, and so that you shall observe all His commandments (Devarim 26:16-18). There are two problems in those verses that must be understood to unlock God’s message.
First of all, what do we mean by “today” in these verses. Rashi says that “today” means that “Every day one should consider the mitzvot as if they were given today.” That’s beautiful and inspiring, but the Ohr Hachaim disagrees. Rav Attar explains that the “today” in the verse refers to when the Jews initially brought their first fruits and tithes to the Temple, which is many years after the mitzvah was given. In other words, when one finally gets to fulfill a mitzvah it’s as if the mitzvah were given that day. I’d like to go one step further. Later in the parsha, Moshe tells the Jews what they have to do when they will cross the Jordan River with Yehoshua. And he again refers to that day as “today” (27:1). That could be like the Ohr Hachaim, but even later in the parsha it happens again.
Toward the end of our reading, Moshe reminds the Jews of all the signs and wonders of Egypt, and says, “God didn’t give you knowing hearts, seeing eyes and hearing ears until today (29:4).” I believe that “today” means the day on which you become aware of God’s imperatives. It could be the first time you fulfill a particular precept or when something truly significant happens or when the light bulb finally goes off in your head about mitzvot, or when you must stand before God in judgment. It’s the day when you open up to the infinite possibilities of Torah and Divine worship.
The other problem is with the word I translated above as “selected” from 26:17. In Hebrew, the word is he’emarta and comes from amar, meaning speak. It could mean “declare” or “announce.” Rav Kaplan translated it “declare allegiance,” the Malbim said it means “betrothed,” and Dr. Robert Alter renders it “solemn proclamation.” But the Chizkuni (Reb Chizkiyahu Manoach, 13th-century France) I think said it best: “exchanged everything for.” This announcement is that we Jews have given up all other gods and all other values to dedicate ourselves to God and Torah. The amazing continuation of the text is that God makes a parallel declaration about us. God (kaviyachol, as if it were possible to talk about God this way) eschews all commitments to every other nation to become our God. Our relationship with God is unique and exclusive.
This exclusivity is expressed by the word segula. We are repeating this beautiful term first used at Har Sinai (Shemot 19:5). Rav Kaplan confuses me by translating it “highest” here and “special treasure” over in Shemot. I like the Shemot rendition better. The term denotes a valued, priceless possession. Onkelos, though, gets the connotation correct when he translates it as chaviv, beloved.
So our parsha is informing us that there will be a special day when we totally commit to God. This day isn’t necessarily extraordinary because of thunder, lightning, miracles or CGI special effects. It’s extraordinary because of our relationship to the event. It’s like a wedding. The day might be totally mundane to 99.9 percent of the world, but to the bride and groom it’s magical. But that magic doesn’t happen automatically. It involves a tremendous amount of planning and preparation for everything to be perfect.
Similarly, a successful and meaningful Rosh Hashanah requires serious advance work. We use the month of Elul to prepare with shofar blowing and Selichot. Hopefully, the machzor is studied and inspirational works perused. I truly hope that Rosh Hashanah gets more prep than just getting seats along with buying new clothes and a new fruit. This Day of Judgement can be an amazing experience, as our Monarch ascends from the royal throne to become our Divine Parent. But only if we prepare.
Please God, this Rosh Hashanah will usher in your year of great success and good fortune. But remember what the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Good fortune is when preparation meets opportunity.” We beg God for that opportunity. We must provide the preparation.
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk, who has recently made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.