Occasionally, the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. And so, after a month of blowing shofar in anticipation of this great day, we celebrate the first day of Rosh Hashanah in silence. For most of us, this is greatly distressing – the very character of the day and our experience of its profundity are created through the blowing of the shofar, and we must sacrifice this for what seems like a minor concern – lest a person might forget and carry the shofar in the public domain. But does this make sense? Why must the entire Jewish people give up blowing the shofar because of how one or two forgetful individuals who live in communities with no eruv will act?
I believe that there is a deep message in this silence. A central part of our character, our human essence, is to do, to act, to create. This quality is, in fact, central to the day of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is not the day the world was created, but the day that human beings were created. Created in the image of God, with a Divine mandate to follow and partner in God’s act of creation – “fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion over the fish of the seas, and the birds of the heaven, and over every living things that moves on the earth.” And on the anniversary of this day, on Rosh Hashanah, we must give an accounting for how we have lived up to this awesome responsibility – have we done all we can to partner with God, to create, to build, to make the world a better place?
But on this Shabbat, on this Rosh Hashanah, we are told to pull back. Our creative impulses must be reined in because someone could sin, someone could be hurt. We cannot allow the pursuit of the good and the right to bring about the hurt of others. We must be sensitive even to the slightest possibility of offense, no matter how remote it seems. It is specifically when we are striving for greatness and following our loftiest visions that we must be exquisitely sensitive to those around us, to the presence of others in this world.
The Talmud in Makkot tells us that Micah the prophet distilled the entire Torah to 3 principles – “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love loving-kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). The character of tzniut, humility, is the awareness that one is not the center of the universe, that God exists, the others exist, and one must comport oneself with this constant awareness. We all know that there are people who in their pursuit of abstract ethical causes are callous to the actual individuals that they work with or are serving. It is exactly when one is pursuing justice and loving kindness that one must be the most careful to walk bitzniut, to think about and attend to the needs of those around him or her.
I am a person who is always running somewhere – to give a class, to learn Torah, to go to shul. Looking back on this year, I cannot remember in any specific instance what I was running for. But what I can remember, what stands out most clearly in my mind, is the times that I stopped running and held the door for someone, or stopped to ask someone how she was doing, or stopped to help someone carry a baby in a stroller down the subway steps. Those were moments of real kedusha, of real holiness. And I also remember all those times that I did not stop, when what I was doing was to important to take out a minute to say hello, or to give a poor person some spare change, or when I bumped into someone and mumbled a quick apology as I hurried by. Looking back on those events, I can only wonder how important that thing I was running to really was, and how important it could have remained after I had been so inattentive to the needs and the presence of another human being.
This quality is the quality of tzimtzum, of contraction, the quality that preceded creation. For a world to exist, God had to pull back from absolute perfection so that space could be made for others, so that existence could be so multifaceted, so richly complex. When we create we, too, have to make sure that our creation is more than just an extension of ourselves. How much do we involve others in our plans, collaborate, listen to other perspectives and reflect upon them? How much do we truly value the unique contributions that our spouse, our friends, our colleagues can make? How much do we make room for the values of others, particularly when they differ from our own? This type of complex, rich creation can only come after the first powerful act of tzimtzum.
On Shabbat, on this first day of Rosh Hashanah, we contract ourselves, we pull back on our single-minded pursuit of the true and the good to make space for others. And on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when we blow the shofar and give expression to our yearning to create a world that is right and that is good, we know that we must go about this task bitzniut, with full sensitivity to those around us, so that the world we create will be world of richness and of beauty.