As is common practice in many communities, the Young Israel of Oceanside began reciting selichot this week in keeping with the custom to always recite Selichot at least four days before Rosh Hashana. In explanation of this interesting custom, the Mishna Berura cites a requirement to examine every sacrifice four days before it is offered to make sure that it has no blemishes. Further, the Mishna Berura explains that on Rosh Hashana, we are the sacrifices! We do not give something else to God in our place, but instead present ourselves to be judged, each of us on our own merit.
In Parshat Pinchas, when the Torah lists all of the burnt offerings that are brought during the various holidays, the Torah states “v’hikravtem olah” – and you should bring an olah. However, when it comes to the holiday of Rosh Hashana, the Torah states va’asitem olah – you should make an olah. This change in language teaches us that on Rosh Hashana, our task is not to bring any other emissary, but rather to make ourselves into an olah – we must commit our own selves on Rosh Hashana in service of God. And so like any sacrifice, we must prepare for this day by beginning four days before, examining ourselves and ensuring that we have no spiritual blemishes. The four days of selichot leading up to Rosh Hashana are a crucial period of preparation, and one that will directly impact our Rosh Hashana experience. Because as with any sacrifice, the care we take in preparation impacts the sacrifice that is offered and the way in which it is received.
The second mishna in Masechet Rosh Hashana tells us that on Rosh Hashana, the entire world passes by God like “bnei maron.” The Gemara provides three possible definitions for this unusual phrase. The Gemara first states that we may interpret these words to mean that we pass before God like “sheep.” Reish Lakish has a different definition, and explains that we are passing by God in ascent, as we would ascend Beit Maron or Beit Choron. Finally, Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel explains that “bnei maron” is referring to us as soldiers in King David’s army.
Each of these three definitions conveys a different image of how we approach God on Rosh Hashana. What is the first image? The first image is a single sheep – one that is a member of the community, indistinguishable from the next, as there is a disregard for individuality in this image of the sheep. According to the first definition, we come to God on Rosh Hashana as a passive, humble servant together with the rest of His flock who are also His humble servants.
Reish Lakish adds the element of fear of judgment that accompanies this phenomenon. We’re not simply walking by, sheep by sheep, with our heads down, according to Reish Lakish. We’re walking up the ascent of Beit Choron. Rashi explains that the path to Beit Choron was a narrow, winding road that was carved into the mountains, allowing only for single file movement, one person traveling at a time. If you take one step to the left or one step to the right, you will fall off the path into the abyss. So too, we approach God as individuals on Rosh Hashana. Each of us treads carefully, cautiously, measuring our steps, aware of the seriousness of this trek.
There is, yet, a final definition of bnei maron and that is the army of David. Rashi explains that maron also is a term of adnut – of lordship. According to this definition, we are fighting a battle, but we are looking forward to the battle. We are not afraid, but rather we are determined. We know we will fight but we are confident that we will prevail. So too, as we enter into God’s courtroom on the Day of Judgment, we are confident. We are King David’s soldiers fighting to spread Godliness throughout the world, and we know that we will prevail.
As we spend these days leading up to Rosh Hashana, we must prepare. We must ask ourselves, which definition of bnei maron will we be this Yom Tov? How are we prepared to relate to God? Let us use this preparation period of selichot as an opportunity to ready ourselves for this task, and prepare to do all three. Let us present ourselves to God humbly and cautiously, aware of how precarious our very existence is. But then, let us ascend. And may each of us also approach the Yamim Noraim with the confidence of a passionate fighter, proud and honored to serve another year in the army of God.