Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Ellul 5766 - September 13, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Akeidoh

by Y. Freund

Fiction for Rosh Hashonoh

"Like a bird, like a beautiful bird that got caught in the hunter's grasp for the first time. A stunning bird with shining feathers, a songbird. It was the first time that the hunter ever held a bird. He had never before caught one in his hand and felt its pulse. Nor had he ever seen a bird up close and had the opportunity to behold such beautiful wings. The bird was breathtakingly beautiful. Its plumage was comprised of the most gorgeous of colors . . . Oy! It was a rare songbird, the likes of which he had never seen.

He held the bird in his hand and marveled at its colors. He saw the wings that enabled the bird to soar heavenward — that's what he had been told. Birds could attain great heights, glide effortlessly and then soar even higher. His friends would say that they could fly like planes, speeding spaceships and hot air balloons that sailed above the clouds, though he had never before beheld such a thing.

He knew that birds could fly high. So why didn't the one in hand fly away? Maybe he caught something else by mistake. Or maybe the bird in his hand was one of those strange types of fowl that isn't capable of flight. Oy! He had worked so hard trying to trap the bird and had exerted so much energy, not to mention the great amount of thought and time that he had dedicated to catching the beautiful creature with the magnificent wings and the brilliant green body. He sighed. Birds are not capable of soaring to great heights. That he was sure of. He almost despaired completely.

However there was one important thing that the hunter did not know. He didn't realize that birds are not able to fly when they are held tightly. Oy! While he was squeezing the bird so tightly, he wanted to see it soar. But birds can't fly when they are trapped like that.

A wise man passed by the hunter, just as wise men always appear in settings of this type. He saw the forlorn trapper and the magnificent bird that he held in his hand. The sage noticed how the hunter's grasp bound the bird, immobilizing it.

Do you know what the sage told the hunter? We need to remember his words forever.

The wise man said, "Foolish man, the bird can't fly when you hold its wings so tightly. Open your hand and let go of the bird. Then you'll see to what great heights it's able to soar."


The rabbi always spoke in parables. He flavored his speeches with lots of stories in order to arouse the congregation's emotions and to help his message enter their hearts. He had many characters at his disposal: songbirds laden with feathers and sparkling wings, lords and earls, masters and servants. The rabbi had exiled monarchs, fearless horses galloping across borders, overburdened donkeys, honest store owners and moral traders, golden coins making their way across Africa only to be exchanged for sour milk, ships laden with delicacies and watchmen dozing while on duty.

Each of these figures appeared in the rabbi's sermons, trying in its own unique way to create a wide opening in the heart. The characters attempted to break down the barriers separating the neshomoh from its Maker Who has been waiting these thirty days for its return on Rosh Hashonoh.

The rabbi said, "Let's not be like that foolish hunter." The rabbi always said foolish or silly and not stupid. Stupid had a bad ring to it.

"G-d forbid that we should be like the foolish hunter who wanted to see the bird take off and fly while tightly holding its neck. It can't soar. We can't elevate ourselves at the same time that we are bound and chained to sin and material pleasures. It's impossible. Utterly impossible. The bird cannot fly. We need to open our hands and free ourselves from the aveiros that bind us.

"Oh! We are chained so tightly! We need to let ourselves free and then we will be able to fly. High. Upwards. To the highest of heights! A Jew can soar extremely high, if he only conquers his desires."

Does he understand the parable?


Rosh Hashonoh has an amazing smell to it. He always loved its smell: the smell of honey and cinnamon with a little bit of ground cloves. Honey cakes have their own unique aroma. The air is always filled with a better smell on Rosh Hashonoh than at any other time of year: a delightful mixture of orange, mango, beet leaves, sweet fish bubbling in a pot of raisins and bay leaves . . . and challah. Round, homemade challah sprinkled with sesame seeds and poppy seed. They give off such a distinct odor that it is impossible to be mistaken.

At home, the traditional Rosh Hashonoh dishes are already prepared and the refrigerator is stuffed with various types of latkes that all look identical, except that they were made with different kinds of leaves. He never understood how his wife didn't get confused. She could always tell which was the fenugreek and which were the leeks.

He enjoys seeing a full refrigerator. His wife has a knack for baking. She fills the refrigerator with delicacies. All of the symbolic foods are ready in advance for the holiday. "I finished all the cooking early this year," she says, smiling tiredly. "I just have to make the challah and the tzimmes."

In his parents' house they only had apples and honey, a fish head and a little bit of carrots. After Kiddush, however, their elderly Yerushalmi neighbor would stop by and bring them a tray full of symbolic foods. His family always savored the special taste of her food. "We used to only eat what was listed in the Tur," his father said as he dipped round challah in honey, "but saying the extra tefillos can't hurt."

And they said them. They blessed each other with a good, sweet year, good news, and the destruction of their enemies. They prayed that their merits should be as abundant as the pomegranates' many seeds and that this should be the year of the downfall of their adversaries. They prayed while their mouths were full of fish, carefully so as not to swallow the fish head's many bones. They prayed to be the head and not the tail, to be blessed with many children and to destroy their enemies, adversaries and ridiculers.

The symbolic dishes were so delicious that they almost didn't have any appetite for the main course after they finished plates laden with beet-leaf patties and blessings on fish heads. But these were merely symbolic. Mere symbols that graced their table on Rosh Hashonoh.

Did he understand the symbolism?

The rabbi says that the words we say have special powers. "If a Jew says something it's like doing a lot," the rabbi told him. "That's why we say all of these prayers and connect them to something tangible like carrots, dates or fenugreek. But these things are only symbols, the most important thing is to make the brochos and to concentrate on what we are saying. Rosh Hashonoh has spiritual power."

He loves the leek patties even more than patties made of fried beet-leaves. Their flavor is so subtle. And with the addition of just a little bit of beets and a lot of challah, the meal becomes gourmet.

The Rosh Hashonoh meal, the first meal of the new year, is replete with everything: excitement over the new beginning, may we immediately be written and sealed for a good year, greeting cards under the challah cover, machzorim scattered everywhere on the bookshelf and the aroma of honey cake and fish.

Is he chained to the holiday table?


One of the most famous chazzanim leads the davening in their shul. "He's one of the best," he bragged to his friend before Rosh Hashonoh, "and he has his own tradition. A lot of yeshivos beg for him to come to them, but he always remains with us."

His voice was full of pride. Their chazzan really is something special. He has a beautiful voice and a definitive tradition. He doesn't drag out the prayers, but still puts a lot of emotion into them. The chazzan succeeds in bringing the congregation to tears at the appropriate points in the davening and, most importantly, he loves listening to the chazzan's rendition of the prayers.

Not everyone understands him. You can cry at any point in the davening; one prayer can be just as moving as any other. Only the old Yiddish machzorim note where a person is supposed to shed tears. Prayer is so individual, so special, that you can't make generalizations about it. What does it mean to say that the chazzan doesn't trigger one's emotions unnecessarily?

It's not worth fighting about. There are certain accepted practices when it comes to davening, like the wonderful melody for "HaMelech" and the standard version of Kedushoh. He really isn't pleased with the verses recited before shofar blowing. The person who blows the shofar in their shul really knows how to blow, forcefully and smoothly. But he isn't familiar with the correct nusach of the pesukim preceding the tekiyos. He makes them sound like Tehillim. Since when does that melody fit those verses?

Tradition is important. If the shofar-blower doesn't know the right melody, he could learn from a tape. The verses preceding the tekiyos have their own melody. The Tehillim melody is not just plain inappropriate, it's wrong.

The rabbi said that the purpose of the melodies for the prayers is to awaken the heart and facilitate concentration. Melodies inspire intense concentration in prayer. Rosh Hashonoh, the day that everyone crowns the King and prays that Hashem's dominion over the world should become apparent, is a time that we try our utmost to increase our concentration in prayer. The melodies facilitate this, but they are only a tool, nothing more. We had better not become obsessed with their musical beauty; let's make sure that we don't become stuck.

Try convincing a Jew that he's wrong. The rabbi has led the prayers in their synagogue for more than twenty years and he still isn't familiar with the congregation's High Holiday traditions. What does he know about melodies? He's not at all musically inclined. That's obvious. When he's called up to the Torah, he recites the blessings with a lot of emotion, but without any melody whatsoever. There is such a well-known melody, but the rabbi doesn't sing it.

That's why it isn't at all surprising that he doesn't comprehend the importance of the musical tradition. You can't chant the Rosh Hashonoh prayers to the same melodies that you use when praying at the Kosel for the speedy recovery of Chizkiyohu Yosef Meir ben Devorah Liba. Tradition is crucial . . .

Is he imprisoned by tradition?


When they recite Tashlich, the crowd darkens the yeshiva's windows due to its great numbers. An amazing number of people stand by the giant windows and recited the verse about G-d casting sins into the depths of the ocean.

Tashlich is a beautiful ceremony. The prayers elevate you and they are filled with so much color. You're supposed to go to a river containing fish after Mincha in order to say it, as it reminds you that people are compared to fish suddenly caught in a net. We are caught in the trap of death and punishment.

But it is impossible to see anything from the yeshiva's windows — not water and certainly not fish. Tradition has it that on a clear day with exceptionally high visibility, it's possible to see the ocean from the windows on the right- hand side of the dormitory. Not that you could see the blue ocean spread out before you like a sparkling dress, but you could discern a blue stripe on the horizon.

Good Jews have been climbing up to the yeshiva for years. They block the windows while reciting Tashlich, though they never saw the ocean from there. The tall buildings that were constructed over the years block the horizon and on Rosh Hashonoh after Mincha, the visibility isn't particularly exceptional.

The rabbi said that it was only customary to recite Tashlich next to water, but we don't live in a small village with a river flowing under a bridge. It's fine to say Tashlich next to the water pumps, next to the hot water tank on top of the roof — or even next to the sink. The river with the fish is only symbolic. A symbol to help people remember that they are caught in the clasps of death and punishment. Seeing the fish caught in the nets should make people think.

But he doesn't agree completely. It's different when you see the fish, the nets and the fishhooks with the bait at the bottom. There are fancy fishhooks today with sharp ends. A river with flowing water is a marvelous place to say Tashlich.

From the windows you can't see anything besides houses, so why do people climb all the way up there? Why don't they shake out the hems of their garments?

The reason we shake out the hems of our clothes is purely symbolic, the rabbi says. The Mateh Ephraim says so explicitly. It's a symbolic reminder that people should be careful from now on so that their clothes should stay clean from sin.

Go try to explain to the rabbi what the river or the ocean or the open lake does for a person. It inspires you. You're surrounded by open space and you see the fish and the water. There's a beautiful view. It's pastoral. Everything is blue. You can really focus on what you're saying in such surroundings. Throw all the sins into the depths of the ocean.

If you don't see it, it's just not the same. The ocean does something to a person. Didn't they have a reason when they said that Tashlich should be recited next to a river? Even repentance is compared to the open sea. It's a fact that repentance is compared to the sea and not to the high windows above the yeshiva's dormitory. Why doesn't the rabbi get it?

He felt chained. Something indefinable imprisoned him, trapped him. He feels restless. Rosh Hashonoh is full of symbols and the preparations for Yom Kippur are laden with metaphors.

The rabbi spoke about a bird trapped in the foolish hunter's hands. The hunter immobilizes its wings and doesn't allow it to soar higher and higher. He also feels enchained. Someone has tied him tightly, refusing to allow him to grow. He thinks about the aromas and the colors, about the melodies and the customs and about the fish and the honey cake. But the rabbi said that these are only symbols. Mere symbols.

Does he understand what all the metaphors mean?


You could slice the silence before the tekiyos in the synagogue with a knife. You wouldn't need a sharp blade, either. Any old knife would be able to slice the holy stillness, even a dull one. Was it like this at Har Sinai when G-d gave His people the Torah?

The entire congregation is in their seat. Not everyone is wrapped in white, as each person follows his own tradition. A tallis covers each man's head as he prepares himself to fulfill the obligations of the day.

Soon the sound of the shofar will be heard and the accursed Satan will again become confused as he does each year. Hashem will leave the Throne of Judgment and ascend the Throne of Mercy. He will be pleased with the tekiyos and will inscribe them for a good, sweet year.

The rabbi said that the tekiyos are the most important part of the service. At that time Hashem inscribes each and every individual. Oy! We're all familiar with the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvoh which says that the purpose of the Rosh Hashonoh tekiyos is a hint: They remind overly preoccupied people to wake up, review their deeds, repent and remember their Creator. In this way, people can forsake their futile ways and improve their deeds.

He knew that repentance while performing a mitzvah is the most desirable form of repentance, and repentance during the tekiyos is the most preferred of all as it is at that time that Hashem evaluates each person, ascertains their present level of righteousness and signs their verdict.

The ba'al tokei'a hadn't yet blown the shofar. He prayed, trying valiantly to expel the accusers, destroy Satan and be faithful to the congregation on whose behalf he pleaded. Soon the tekiyos would leave the ram's horn and ascend to the Heavenly Throne.

He knew that the ba'al tokei'a switched shofars this year. The rabbi preferred that he use a certain shofar as he was afraid that switching shofars could make things more difficult. That's what an experienced ba'al tokei'a told him once. But he trusted that their ba'al tokei'a would succeed in blowing the shofar without any mistakes or repetitions.

He was proud of their ba'al tokei'a. Their shofar- blower was professional and experienced and famous citywide. People came from neighboring synagogues in order to hear their ba'al tokei'a. It was just a shame that he never learned the customary way to recite the verses preceding the tekiyos.

Is he tightly caught up in materialism?

The congregation got ready for the tekiyos, each member in his own way. No sound could be heard, just tangible silence. He loved this holy stillness.

What will he think about during the tekiyos? He has to repent and review his deeds. He wallowed in the physicality of the world and immersed himself in rivers of sin for an entire year — and now the time has come for him to be held accountable. Hashem doesn't forget anything and He will issue the decree.

This is the right time to repent and to make vows for the future. He remembered that he should vow to do one thing that he would be able to really carry through for an entire year, one commitment that would elevate him a little bit above the ground.

But what should you undertake at this time? the rabbi would ask. This isn't the time to stop and think about it. You have to come to shofar-blowing prepared, with a pre- planned commitment. You have to think carefully about that one genuine commitment that you could undertake.

He couldn't remember what commitment he had made at the previous year's shofar-blowing. A year is too long to remember something and his memory wasn't great. He felt badly about it. He took comfort in the fact that the year had passed and he found himself once again in shul waiting along with the rest of the congregation for the first thirty shofar blasts.

Tekiyoh. The rabbi read quietly and the congregation listened attentively. Everyone stood in the sanctuary and listened. Some of the men were completely hidden in their talleisim; others closed their eyes in concentration. Some of them covered their eyes with their machzorim, while others watched the ba'al tokei'a with their eyes wide open.

A fly wouldn't dare to disturb the atmosphere in the synagogue at that moment. Only the increasingly loud sound of the shofar could be heard as it became progressively stronger. Their shofar-blower blew smoothly, perfectly. He didn't make a single mistake.

A thought flashed through his mind like lightning: Now is the time to repent. Disconcerting. This moment will never return. Hashem wants us to repent so much, especially during the tekiyos.

Now is the time to repent! It's not like it says in the old Yiddish machzorim, "It is appropriate to cry here." It's not like that. Now we have to do teshuvoh! For real! Sincerely. We need to open the hand that chokes the bird and loosen our grasp. We need to let the bird fly heavenward. We need to let it soar above the clouds.

A Jew is like a bird stuck and immobilized by materialism. The wings that are able to soar so high are bound with the thick ropes of sin, materialism and ever so much symbolism. The symbols are beautiful in and of themselves, but they never exist in a vacuum. Never. They have a lot of meaning. Now we have to let go and find that meaning. Only then can a Jew reach great heights and summits that he never even knew existed.


Important people stood next to him, prepared for the awesomeness of the day. None of them cares to think about his own personal needs at such a moment.

"Why do we blow the shofar? Because Hashem commanded us to."

That's what we need to think about now in addition to crowning the King in this world. None of them cares to plead for a good year as sweet as honey or dates. They only want to think of Hashem, His dominion in this world and His glory. Think about the shofar that transforms harsh edicts into sweet ones, slices through all of the barriers and reminds Hashem how Avrohom Ovinu bound his son on top of Har Hamorioh and overcame his desire to be merciful in order to fulfill G-d's command wholeheartedly.

He is surrounded by Jews who are bound and enchained by their connection to the ever-speeding force of time, its hardships and its difficulties. Each of them tries his utmost to conquer the very same personal desires that completely preoccupy him at any other time and offer him no rest. But now, during the tekiyos, you have to subjugate your own personal desires, imprison them and make a path to the Master of the Universe Who commanded us to sound the shofar.

The synagogue is full of altars: Jews have surrendered to the pressures of earning a livelihood, others to illness and suffering, pain and bereavement. There are people who became acquainted with pain in the last year and have buckled under its terrible weight. Each person and his own particular burden.

On Rosh Hashonoh life has different meaning, and if you want to understand what it is, look back at the preceding year, at its pain and the occurrences within it.

He studied the congregation. They were deeper in concentration than usual. What were they thinking about now? What are they pondering so deeply?

He knows that they are conquering their own personal desires at this time. If not, they at least want to. He knows they are thinking about repentance now and about the shofar.

True. You can think about the open blue sea and about the yeshiva's windows; you can daydream about the fish bubbling in their sweet sauce and about the round challos and the New Year's cards. You can think about the chazzan, the traditional way of doing things, the melodies and the birds flying.

It's possible to concentrate on the symbols and to be imprisoned by chains of materialism. Or it is also possible to succeed in opening the hand that is clutching these things ever so tightly. You can relax your grasp and climb a little bit above the physical and the material.

Then you can untie all of the ropes and loosen the knots, such that you can conquer your personal desires just as Avrohom Ovinu did on Har Hamorioh when he overcame his desire to be merciful.

Then you'll soar like the winged bird trapped in the hunter's hand, if only he would let it go. If only the hunter would release his hold, he would see the great heights to which the bird would ascend.


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