This letter is dedicated to my dear friend and brother, Shaya (Steve) Kelter, HaLevi.
On the Second Day of Rosh Hashana, following the Torah reading, we chant a haftorah – portion from the Prophets – which is taken from the Book of Jeremiah. It conveys comforting messages regarding our future physical and spiritual return to Zion, and it opens with the following proclamation of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One:
“And I have loved you with an eternal love; therefore I have extended loving-kindness to you. I shall yet rebuild you and you shall be rebuilt, O Maiden of Israel; you will yet adorn yourself with drums and go forth in the round-dance of the joyful. You will yet plant vineyards in the mountains of Samaria; the planters will plant and redeem. For there will be a day when watchmen will call out on Mount Ephraim: ‘Arise, let us ascend to Zion, to Hashem our God.’ For thus said Hashem: Sing, O Jacob, with joy; exult on the peaks of the nations; proclaim it, praise God, and say: ‘O Hashem, save Your people, the remnant of Israel.’ Behold, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, the pregnant and the birthing together; a great congregation will return here. With weeping they will come, and through supplications I will bring them; I will guide them on streams of water, on a direct path in which they will not stumble; for I have been a father to Israel and Ephraim is My firstborn!” (Jeremiah 31: 2-8)
Towards the beginning of the above message, Hashem addresses us with the feminine term, “Maiden of Israel”; however, at the end of the message, Hashem addresses us with the masculine name, Ephraim, and proclaims, “Ephraim is My firstborn!” Ephraim is the name of a tribe; moreover, it was a name for the northern kingdom of Israel, and it is also a poetic name for all Israel. The commentator, Rabbi Yosef Kara, explains that “Ephraim” in this verse refers to the entire People of Israel, who are called the “firstborn” (Exodus 4:22). As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, this verse in Exodus is teaching us that with the spiritual birth of Israel, “the womb of humanity will be opened!”
The above words of comfort and hope from Hashem were addressed to our suffering people who had just gone into exile among the nations. The nations, however, mistakenly think that Hashem has abandoned Israel; thus, in the next passage, the Prophet Jeremiah proclaims:
“Hear the word of Hashem, O nations, relate it in distant islands, and say, ‘The One Who scattered Israel will gather him in and guard him as a shepherd does his flock.’ For Hashem will have redeemed Jacob and delivered him from a hand mightier than he. And they will come and sing joyously on the height of Zion; they will stream to Hashem’s bounty – upon grain, upon wine, upon oil, and upon young sheep and cattle; then their soul shall be like a well-watered garden, and they shall not continue to agonize anymore. Then the maiden shall rejoice in the round-dance, young men and old men together; I shall transform their mourning into joy, and I shall comfort them and gladden them after their grief.” (31:9-12)
In the very next passage, the Prophet refers to the Divine message of comfort to our mother, Rachel, who is weeping in heaven over the exile of her children:
“A voice is heard on high, wailing, and bitter weeping: Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, for they are gone. Thus said Hashem: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your accomplishment, says Hashem, and they will return from the enemy’s land. There is hope for your future, spoke Hashem, and your children will return to their border.” (Jeremiah 31:14-16)
When the survivors of some concentration camps gathered after World War II to have their first Rosh Hashana service in many years, the Klausenberger Rebbe, who was himself a survivor of the camps, addressed the group. This great and beloved sage discussed the above prophecy with his brethren, and he cited the tradition that the promise “they will return from their enemy’s land” is referring to liberation from “physical” exile, while the promise that “your children will return to their border” is referring to liberation from “spiritual” exile. (“The Klausenberger Rebbe – The War Years” by Aharon Surasky)
The Prophet then states that towards the end of the exile, “Ephraim” will experience regret over his past mistakes and failures, and he will cry out, “I was ashamed and humiliated, for I bore the disgrace of my youth” (31:18). In response to this anguished cry, the Prophet conveys the following message of Divine comfort and reassurance which serves as a conclusion to the haftorah:
“Is not Ephraim My precious child, the child of My tender care? For whenever I speak of him, I remember him more and more; therefore My innards yearn for him; I will surely have compassion upon him, spoke Hashem.” (31:19)
These tender words of womb-like yearning for one’s child are expressing the “motherly” concern of Hashem. According to Jewish tradition, the “motherly” concern of Hashem is expressed through the “Shechinah” – the Divine Presence that seeks to dwell among us; thus, Rashi, in his commentary on the above Divine message of comfort, writes: These are the words of the Shechinah. And these words of the Shechinah remind us of another related Divine promise to our people:
“Like a person whose mother comforts him, so will I comfort you, and in Jerusalem you will be comforted” (Isaiah 66:13).
May we be blessed with a good, sweet, and comforting year.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See Below)
Sweet Teachings and Comments for Rosh Hashana:
1. The following story from our Sacred Scriptures serves as a reminder of the joyous and hopeful aspect of Rosh Hashana: When the exiles from Babylonia returned to the Land of Israel and gathered in Jerusalem to observe Rosh Hashana, Ezra, the Kohen – who was also a leading sage – read the Torah before the people, while the Levites and other teachers explained it to them. This reading caused the people to realize that they had been neglecting the Torah, and they began to weep. Their leaders and teachers then said to them:
“Today is sacred to Hashem, your God; do not mourn and do not weep....Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad; the joy of Hashem is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:9, 10)
2. After the Rosh Hashana services in both the evening and the morning, we have festive meals in a sacred and joyous atmosphere with family, friends, and guests – an expression of our trust in the Divine love and forgiveness. This sacred joy is a contrast to the drunken revelry which often characterizes the celebration of the secular New Year in certain areas. The elevated way in which our people celebrate Rosh Hashana is in itself a source of comfort and hope, as it serves as a reminder of our spiritual potential.