Saturday, October 8, 2016

Introductions to Rosh Hashana Prayers

לאל עורך דין‎  * The God who Renders Judgment ‎

“Abraham came forward and said, Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” ‎thereby introducing into his descendants’ consciousness the idea that God judges the entire world – a ‎central theme in the liturgical poetry (piyutim) of the High Holidays.‎
The piyutim that describe God as arranging trials, examining hearts and knowing thoughts are an ‎invitation to guided imagination, an opportunity to see ourselves in a vulnerable situation, without ‎truly being at risk. Imagine yourself entering a court. Are you standing alone, facing the Judge, ‎Accuser, Knowing One and Witness? (translation, and capitalization: R. Jonathan Sacks). One ‎rabbinic and liturgical line of thought indeed leaves the individual alone, as it says in Pirkei Avot 4:22: “He ‎is the Judge, He is the Witness, He is the Litigant, and He is destined to judge…. before Whom there is ‎no respect of persons, no taking of bribes...”

But there is another school of thought, that imagines a legal system fully staffed by attorneys for both ‎the prosecution and the defense. The Hebrew word for these positions are of Greek origin because ‎prior to the Hellenistic period the people of Israel were unfamiliar with the practice of law as a ‎profession. When they did encounter it, the Rabbis were concerned about the ability of a skilled ‎orator to slant a trial and distort justice. The Talmud says this explicitly: “If a person appears before a ‎judge has a good defense attorney he will be saved; and if not he will not (TB Shabbat 32a), and ‎therefore they did not allow attorneys to represent clients in the earthly courts they administered.

However, the heavenly court was different in their eyes, precisely because of the ability of a skilled ‎orator to achieve a good outcome for his client, “For there is not one good man on earth who does ‎well and does not sin”(Ecclesiastes 7:20). In the Bible, prophets defended the people before God, ‎beginning with Moses after the sin of the golden calf and the incident of the spies. In response to his ‎efforts God declares, “I will forgive them in accordance with your words” (Numbers 14:20). When ‎the age of prophecy ended, there was no choice but to transfer the role to someone else. As Rabbi ‎Prof. Richard Hidary summarizes the Rabbi’s opinion, “God would prefer to be persuaded towards ‎mercy by a good lawyer even at the expense of justice.”‎

But before we begin to imagine angels flying around in black robes and powdered wigs, let us return ‎to Pirkei Avot 4:11: “Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says: One who does a single commandment acquires a ‎single defender. One who does a single sin acquires a single prosecutor. Repentance and good deeds ‎are like a shield against punishment.” The commandments we keep, and the good deeds we do ‎are the defense that stand by our side not only in the heavenly court but also – and perhaps mainly – ‎in our lives here and now.‎
Hod veHadar 5777
--more to come--

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