“The Dialectic of Joy and Fear”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

There is an inherent inconsistency with respect to the nature of the High Holidays.

On the one hand, these fateful days of Rosh Hashana, the Ten Days of Penitence and Yom Kippur are to be approached with a surfeit of fear and trepidation. The Talmud, in Rosh Hashana 32b, cites Rabbi Abahu who stated that the ministering angels said before the Al-mighty, “Master of the universe, why should Israel not chant hymns of praise [Hallel] before You on the New Year and the Day of Atonement?” To this the Al-mighty responded: “Is it possible that the King would be sitting on the throne of justice, with the books of life and death open before Him, and Israel should chant hymns of praise?”

On the other hand, there is also a major emphasis on joy during these days. The Tur (Rabbi Jacob, the son of the Rosh c.1275-c.1340), in his Code of Jewish law, Orah HaChaim 581, states:

One is allowed to bathe, cut his hair and shave for the High Holidays, as it states in the Midrash, Rabbi Simon said: Scripture (Deuteronomy 4:7) states, “For who is this great nation, that has a G-d Who is close to it, etc?” Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Joshua say, “Is there any [other] nation who knows the nature of the Divine (His customs and His laws)?” The practice of the world is that any person who is subject to judgment dresses in black, allows his beard to grow, and doesn’t cut his nails, for he does not know how judgment will be rendered. But the people of Israel are not so. They dress in white, trim their hair and cut their nails… On Rosh Hashana, we eat, drink and are happy, because we are certain that the Al-mighty will perform miracles on our behalf [and forgive us].

In his commentary on the Torah, Tiferet Shimshon, the late Rabbi Shimshon Pincus cites the explanation of the “GRYZ” (Rabbi Yitzchak Zev, “Reb Velvel,” Soloveitchik, 1886-1959, the Brisker Rav, head of the Yeshiva of Brisk in Jerusalem), who addressed the conflicting attitudes that are reflected in the nature of the High Holidays. The GRYZ cites the famed poem, Keter Malchut (The Imperial Crown), written by Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021-c.1058, Medieval Spanish Hebrew poet and philosopher). The poet, turning to G-d, says, “If You remember my sin, Where can I flee?–I will run from You–toward You!”

Says the poet, if You, G-d, open the record books and find my many sins, where can I flee? Since I do not have anywhere to run, I will run to You, G-d. And if, G-d forbid, you decide to display Your wrath, “I will protect myself from Your wrath, in Your shadow.”

On the Day of Judgment, the GRYZ explains, a person who is fearful of the judgment of the Al-mighty, has only one option. He must flee! To where? To the Al-mighty Himself, because he is confident that G-d will save him. Consequently, a person is happy and elated. However, a person who does not fear or tremble does not flee, and will not be in the embrace of the Al-mighty who saves him. If there is no fear, there can be no joy. In this manner, the fear and the joy that are combined on these holy days are not at all in conflict.

Furthermore, Rabbi Pincus suggests, the GRYZ has introduced a most profound principle. It is not fear that stimulates praying harder and results in being exonerated by the Great Judge. Some pious Jews enter Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur fully confident that they will be exonerated. Although they experience no fear, they are forgiven because of their piety. But those who approach the High Holidays in fear will merit an even more profound exoneration and a greater sense of intimacy with the Al-mighty.

Rabbi Pincus offers the following cogent parable: A child and his father walk together in the crowded city, deeply engrossed in conversation. Suddenly the child vanishes. Perhaps he’s been kidnapped, perhaps he has lost his way. The longer the absence, the greater the fear. But, suddenly, the father is informed that his child has been found. He rushes to the lad. The child, who sees his father coming toward him, runs and hugs him mightily.

Says Rabbi Pincus, the hug that comes after such a fright, is entirely different than a normal embrace. The joy of coming together after such a fearful experience results in a very special hug, one that expresses a love and kinship in a transcendent manner.

It’s true that religious and righteous people are given the blessing of life at the conclusion of the High Holidays. But those who have been distant from the Al-mighty, who recognize that they have been sinful, and especially those who have been estranged for a long time, have the opportunity to experience a unique reunion with G-d during the High Holidays. The Ba’al Teshuva, the penitent, who passionately embraces the Al-mighty Creator and cries out, “Father, Abba, Daddy” is very much like the little boy who lovingly hugs his father after they have been separated.

Let us pray that all our Jewish brothers and sisters who have been distant from G-d, whether the distances were small or large, will cry out during these High Holidays, “Master of the universe, Father, Abba, Daddy, we miss You so. Without You, we cannot survive!”

May we all embrace G-d, our Father in heaven. Then, and only then, will the purpose of creation have been fulfilled.

May you be blessed.

Shanah Tovah.

Rosh Hashana is observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 28th, 29th and 30th, 2011.

The Fast of Gedaliah, delayed because of Shabbat, will be observed on Sunday, October 2nd from dawn until nightfall.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.

Wishing you a sweet, healthy and peaceful new year.