Shabbat Shalom: Rosh Hashanah, a Day of Judgment or a Day of Compassion?
Twenty-five years ago, with the sweltering heat shimmering like a golden aura over the Santa Monica mountains, Beth and I and our assembled guests stood under a wedding canopy and said our vows.
Our wedding book included a midrash, a rabbinic interpretation on a passage from the Book of Psalms, written by Yehudah ben Naḥmani under the pen name R. Shim’on ben Laqish:
Elohim ascends amidst acclamation [the teru’ah sounds of the shofar]; Adonai, to the blasts of the shofar (Psalms 47:6). When the Holy Blessed One ascends to sit on the throne of judgement on Rosh Hashanah, he ascends for judgement. It is written, Elohim ascends amidst acclamation [the teru’ah sounds of the shofar]. And once Israel take their shofars and blow them, immediately Adonai, to the blasts of the shofar. What does the Holy Blessed One do? He rises from the throne of judgement and sits on the throne of compassion and is filled with compassion for them and transforms the quality of justice into the quality of compassion for them. When? On Rosh Hashanah, in the seventh month on the first of the month.
In the Torah, God is referred to by several names. In the verse above, the God of Israel is called Elohim, reflecting the judgmental aspects of God’s character. Adonai denotes characteristics of compassion. In acknowledging the many aspects of God’s character, we acknowledge the same complexity in ourselves. The rabbinic tradition frames an ongoing battle fought by God with the combatants Compassion and Judgment. It is a narrative rich in compassion for humanity, for our proclivities and vulnerabilities.
Looking back on it from the perspective of 25 years of marriage, Beth’s and my decision to include this midrash in our wedding book now seems naive. But perhaps we had an intuitive sense that while relationships are formed through shared experience and emotion, they are maintained, nurtured, and developed by navigating the tension that exists within each of us between a deep-rooted instinct to judge and the knowledge that we are all fallible and thus deserving of compassion.
Our wedding procession began with the majestic sound of shofar, and soon the air will again reverberate with the shofar’s sonorous call, reminding God—and each of us—of this eternal struggle.
May this New Year and the sound of the shofar move us all from the seat of judgment to the seat of compassion.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,
Rabbi Jay Strear
President & CEO
Please email Rabbi Strear at CEO@JEWISHcolorado.org with comments or questions.