September 29, 2023
September 29, 2023

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Rosh Hashanah II

In general, when we recall the haftarot of Rosh Hashanah, we generally think back to the reading from the beginning of sefer Shmuel, i.e., the haftarah of the first day of the Yom Tov. Many are familiar with the poignant story of Channah’s pain and her pleas to Hashem, Who responded to Channah through the miraculous birth of Shmuel HaNavi, to his once-barren mother. It is a fitting choice for this day, not simply because it parallels the stories of the other barren matriarchs who—according to tradition—were remembered on Rosh Hashanah, but also because, through Channah’s tefillot, we learn how effective prayer can be—certainly, a primary lesson for Rosh Hashanah. But there is a second haftarah, as well—and that selection for the next day is not as easily understood.

The haftarah we chant on the second day is a selection taken from the 31st perek of sefer Yirmiyahu. We have often mentioned that Yirmiyahu was burdened with delivering harsh—even blistering—criticism against the sinful Judean nation. It is no wonder that the first two haftarot read during the “Three Weeks” and the haftarah we read of Tisha B’Av itself are all nevuot of Yirmiyahu. It is, therefore, rather surprising that his words are read on Rosh Hashanah.

Surprising? Perhaps, but only if we fail to read the preceding perek, chapter 30.

In that preceding chapter, the Navi predicts a time in the future when Israel would return to her land. But the prophecy that continues into this 31st perek does not depict the ideal geulah that we read in the comforting words of Yishayahu. The reading’s opening words make it clear that the nevuah focuses upon, “Am seridei charev,” the nation that “survived the sword.” HaRav Moshe Lichtenstein explains that those who “survived the sword,” were those who would manage to endure the nightmare of galus. Yirmiyahu is describing the return of those who suffered war, oppression and starvation; of those Jews who remained after the tyranny, the subjugation and the repression.

And, no, their return to the land would not be the perfect geulah with an idyllic life. Not at all. This redemption would be marked—primarily—by … relief. It would be a time of calm and safety, a time of ease and peace, and, simply, an era of return from galus—as Yirmiyahu predicts “haloch lehargio Yisrael,” God would bring you to a place of tranquility. But even more interesting, the Navi promises that this redemption would not be caused due to the nation’s feelings of deep remorse, or by an era of massive teshuvah, or even by their pure acts of neighborly love. This geulah—remarks Rav Lichtenstein—would be brought by Hashem as a result of His unending mercies and deep compassion for the suffering of His children. Just listen to the prophet’s words (verses 7-8): “Behold, I will … gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth … the blind and the lame, the woman with child … a great company will return here… They shall come weeping, and I will lead them with prayers; I will cause them to walk … in a straight way and they will not stumble; for I am a Father to Israel, and Ephraim is My first-born.”

This is precisely the underlying message of the beautiful vision of the crying mother, Rachel, that Yirmiyahu depicts for the people. God responds to Rachel’s tears over her children’s pain because they are His children and, in effect, her tears are His. And only then—as Rabbi Lichtenstein goes on to state—the people, relieved of their suffering and recognizing God’s mercies, would now turn back to Hashem.

In this geulah “scenario” of Yirmiyahu, it is not teshuva that would bring the geulah … it is the geulah would bring teshuva! And how fitting is this message for Rosh Hashanah! God may offer forgiveness for more reasons than repentance alone. Hashem weighs the suffering and pain of His children and, after ghettos and concentration camps, He hears the crying and the wailing and sees the tears of Rachel—so He brings His children back home … even before they complete their process of teshuvah! But this season of the year is certainly a proper time to begin the process!

Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.

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