The two different haftarot that we read on the two separate days of Rosh Hashanah focus upon two different themes of the chag. The first haftarah, taken from the opening perek of Sefer Shmuel, tells the story of Chana, the barren wife of Elkana, whose prayers for a son were answered with the birth of Shmuel, destined to be the prophet judge and leader of Israel. This choice of readings, ordained by the Gemara (Megillah 31a), ties us directly to the Torah reading of day one, which tells of how Avraham and Sarah’s tefillot were answered by God with the birth of Yitzchak to the once-barren Sarah. The connection of these selections to Rosh Hashanah itself is explained by the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 10b) as being the fact that both Sarah and Chana (as well as Rachel) were “remembered” by Hashem on this day when they conceived.
But we can, perhaps, suggest that there are underlying lessons found in both stories that are most fitting for this “Yom HaDin,” Day of Judgment. One of the major themes of this day is the theme of “remembering.” Chazal called the chag “Yom HaZikaron,” taking off upon the description found in Vayikra (23: 24) “zichron tru’ah.” As a result, the Mishna insists that Musaf on this day include the section of “Zichronot” as one of the three segments in the Amida. God “remembering” our saintly matriarchs Sarah and Chana on this very day underscores the importance of the theme. But, as R. Yehuda Shaviv points out, it also teaches us that the remembering is not simply bringing to mind our errors and shortcomings. Quite the opposite. These readings remind us that Hashem “remembers” His children with mercy and will reward them and show them kindness.
The second day’s reading, the 31st chapter in Sefer Yirmiyahu, would appear to have little connection with the first day’s haftarah. It is, in its very essence, a prophecy of consolation with the promise of a triumphant return to the land, and the nation dancing in joy over the redemption and the great prosperity with which Hashem had blessed them. Indeed, we may feel that this selection is more suitable to be among the seven prophecies of consolation we have just completed reading!
And yet, the reading strikes a Rosh Hashanah theme that parallels that of the first day’s haftarah. For here too we read of a barren woman whose prayers for her children are answered as Yirmiyahu shares his vision of our matriarch Rachel crying to God over her children, lost in exile. And here too Hashem “remembers” and reassures Rachel: “V’shavu vanim l’gevulam,” “Your children shall return to their land!”
It is no wonder, therefore, that the final verse of this selection hearkens back to the Rosh Hashanah theme of repentance and remembrance. God looks at His distraught nation that is overwhelmed by her past misdeeds and is wondering if their Heavenly Father could forgive their many trespasses. He explains that Ephraim, Israel, is a favorite son, one He cannot forget or abandon and surely “zachor ezk’renu od,” “I shall remember them” and have mercy on them. It is this innate quality of God that we bring up on this Day of Judgment. We remind ourselves that He wants to forgive, He wants to accept our prayers; He wants to grant us a good year.
It is this vision that WE remember God and turn to Him for atonement, confident in His mercies, His love and His power to remember.
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.