Elul Reflections: What does God do on Rosh Hashanah morning?

I have spent the past few weeks practicing Rosh Hashanah Musaf, and so my interest was piqued when I read on a recent daf of masechet Avodah Zara (4b) that “a person should not daven Musaf during the first three hours of the day on Rosh Hashanah.” There is no chance that will happen in my minyan, where Rosh Hashanah Shacharit is interminable; but my husband, who will be leaving for shul at 6am, might run into trouble. And so I read on.

The Talmud explains that the reason a person should not daven Musaf early in the day is “lest his deeds be scrutinized and his prayer be rejected, since judgment is then proceeding.” In other words, since God is in judgment-mode on Rosh Hashanah morning, we don’t want to attract His attention, lest He judge us too harshly. The Talmud explains that Shacharit is less of a problem because everyone is davening shacharit in the morning, so God is not likely to pay special attention to any one person. Even if the individual has sinned grievously, he will be absolved on account of the collective merit of the community with whom he prays. This is a good reason to choose your minyan carefully, because if the ship goes down, you don’t want to be on it (unless there’s a Dag Gadol waiting to rescue you and belch you out beside a leafy Kikayon). It’s also a compelling argument for Tefillah b’tzibur: when we pray with others, we can ride on their coattails, like a lagging biker drafting behind the big guys in front. Or to invoke a more serious image: If prayer is truly uplifting, it lifts all of us up to a higher spiritual place than where we would otherwise stand alone.

This text would be a short and sweet message for Rosh Hashanah, if only it ended there. But the Talmud goes on to question whether God actually spends the first three hours of the day judging the world. After all, we have a baraita on the previous daf (3b) which tells us that “The day consists of twelve hours. In the first three, God sits and studies Torah. In the second three, God sits and judges the whole world. When he sees that the world deserves to be destroyed, he gets up off his seat of justice and sits on his seat of mercy. For the third three hours, God sits and feeds the whole world, from ram’s horns to lice eggs. During the last fourth of the day, God sits and plays with the Leviathan.” This baraita deserves Gufa-treatment in its own right, especially in light of a recent New Yorker article by Rebecca Mead about the history of playgrounds and the purpose of play. For our purposes, we note that the baraita states explicitly that God spends the first three hours of the day not judging the world, but studying Torah. (Apparently God is as compulsive as I am about daf yomi!) And so why does our source on 4b assume that God spends the morning in judgment?

The Talmud, after first trying to play around with God’s schedule a bit (ahem, no dualistic double-booking! There is just one Reshut in the heavens!), ultimately concludes that the baraita is correct – God does indeed spend the morning studying Torah, and only later does He begin judging the world. And then the Talmud offers a surprising take on the nature of these activities: “Torah has ‘truth’ written in it, as it says, ‘Buy truth, and never sell it.’And so while occupied with Torah, the Holy One, blessed be He, will not overstep the line of justice. But when sitting in judgment, which is not designated as ‘truth,’ God may overstep the line of justice.” In other words, in quite a revolutionary reading, the Talmud is suggesting that the person who is being judged has more to fear when God is studying Torah than when God is judging the world. How so?

The Talmud explains that so long as God is judging, God is likely to “overstep the line of justice,” that is, to go lifnim mishurat hadin. This phrase, which is often translated as “going beyond the letter of the law,” appears throughout rabbinic literature, usually to describe a person who goes above and beyond the call of duty. For instance, in Bava Metzia (24b) we are told that Shmuel would return a lost object even if it did not have any identifying signs. Technically a person has to return a lost object only if it has such Simanim. Rav was surprised, but Shmuel explained that he was acting lifnim mishurat hadin. In one other instance that I can think of, we are told of God going lifnim mishurat hadin. This is in the Sifrei to Dvarim, in a commentary on the verse, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Rabbi Haggai comments: “God says: Not just have I given two paths, but I have gone lifnim mishurat hadin and said to you: Choose life!” In other words, God not only gives us a multiple-choice test, but He tells us the right answer! Certainly this is above and beyond the call of divine duty.

And so this source suggests that an inherent characteristic of justice is the ability to transcend what is just, and to go above and beyond what the law requires of us. But this is not true of Torah, which is described as Emet, truth. With Torah, we cannot go beyond the letter of the law, because Torah is the law. When studying Torah, we can’t smooth things over. Talmud Torah demands our strict attention to the finer points and nuances of the text. The goal is to figure out the truth of the text—what the text is trying to tell us—and not to offer a compassionate or forgiving interpretation when reading a harsh prophetic rebuke or a story that instills fear and trembling. When dealing with human beings, as we know from a famous midrash in Breishit Rabbah, God may opt to cast Truth to the ground. But not when studying Torah.

This text speaks to me as I work on my own Cheshbon HaNefesh during this month of Elul. All too often, I hold myself and others to the standards of strict justice, unable to overstep its line. I do not allow myself to go to bed until I have answered all the emails in my inbox, writing long and detailed responses to anyone who has written me in search of advice or emotional support; only to find myself resenting those people who do not, in turn, respond to me in a timely and thorough fashion. Likewise, I always make sure that all my work is finished before I leave the office, only to grow frustrated with my colleague when she leaves early for a weekend trip. I force myself to hold to a specific pace when swimming, only to get annoyed when one of the floating old ladies breaks my stride. Instead of viewing myself as just another member of this endearingly fallible human race, I become embittered and self-righteous, holding my stiff neck high as I summarily clear my inbox, lock the office door, and cut through the water.

In the catalogue of my own faults, I think not just of how I judge others, but also of how I study Torah. When I am learning or working—activities which constitute about 90% of a typical day—I find it very hard to break away from the text in front of me to attend to humanity. If the phone rings while I’m learning, my first instinct is often to be annoyed, rather than to be grateful that I have friends who want to spend time speaking with me. I can think of many other examples, but I’m too ashamed to share them here. Suffice it to say that all too often, I am in Emet mode, bent on figuring out the truth even at the expense of the living, loving human beings around me. I fail to remember that those human beings—and indeed all of humanity—would not have been created if God Himself had not once cast the angel of truth aside.

As I work on both my davening and my teshuva in preparation for the Yamim Noraim, I feel relieved that Musaf will not start until at least 11am. I would not want to be judged by a God in Emet mode, because I’m not always proud of the truth of who I have been. I hope that the new year will be filled with Torah study—with close and careful readings of the book of law that God gave us. But I hope, too, that this will be a year when we are all able to go beyond the letter of the law to be present for the people we care about, to forgive ourselves and others, and to take part in a religious community that lifts us up and brings us ever closer to the God in whose image we are created.

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