June 13, 2024
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Yom Hazikaron—But Whose?

Rosh Hashanah

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. That might be because we are more familiar with the story of the birth of Shmuel HaNavi, as many of us learned the story while we were in elementary school or, perhaps, because it is a simple story, easy to remember, since it parallels the story of our barren matriarchs who, according to tradition, were remembered on Rosh Hashanah.

Yet, the reading for the second day, a selection from the 31st perek of Sefer Yirmiyahu, is equally memorable and, once we reveal the underlying messages of the navi, we should find it difficult to forget. At first glance it would seem to be a strange choice for the haftarah of Rosh Hashanah. When listening to the prophet’s message we would imagine that its proper place is as one of the haftarot of consolation, the series of prophetic visions that we just completed last Shabbat. The magnificent description of the tearful masses returning to Tzion from all corners of the earth, “bam iver ufise’ach, harah v’yoledet yachdav,” the promise that the blind and the lame, the pregnant and the birthing mothers will all be part of this return to Jerusalem, is a prophecy so powerful and uplifting that we would expect it to be read during those weeks of post-Churban mourning. The promise of how Hashem will guard over His flock after gathering them to their land, the depiction of the great economic success they will find there and the rejoicing that will fill the streets—would have been especially meaningful if it were read over the last two months.

But what connection does it have to Rosh Hashanah and the theme of teshuva?

I would argue that this reading has a crucial connection to the day, and one all-too-often ignored. “Teshuva,” in essence, means “return” and is usually defined as “repentance,” as we look to return to God. That word can also be understood to mean “homecoming,” a return to our roots and our land, as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, teaches. In this way, the haftarah reflects a different type of return—but a return that is part of the teshuva process. But there is another return that we do not often realize: the return of Hashem to His people!

I turn your attention to the final pesukim of the haftarah that clearly express this “return” of God. We read of the mournful Rachel Imenu crying over the exile of her children and God’s promise that her tears are not in vain for He guarantees their return to the land. It is then that Hashem says that He has heard cries of Ephraim, the people of Israel, who are filled with remorse and shame for how they have behaved. So God responds—a response so powerful that it is part of our Musaf tefillah.

“Haven yakir li Ephraim—im yeled sha’ashu’im? ….al ken hamu me’ai lo, rachem arachamenu…” “Is not Ephraim my cherished son? (Therefore) I long for him and will tender him compassion.” Israel cries to return to God but believes that Hashem has “forgotten” and abandoned them! They do not believe that they can return to Him! And God responds that He could never forget His cherished people. He always thinks of them and remembers them!

Rosh Hashanah is the Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance. But it is not only we who remember Hashem and seek to return to Him. It is also God Who remembers us and thirsts for our teshuva, for our return.

So, I ask you: Is there a better message for Rosh Hashanah? The navi who tells us that we must remember Hashem and do teshuva on this day is the very same navi who tells us that Hashem remembers us always and longs for our return.


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

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