On Being Understood
What is the real purpose of Rosh Hashana? What are we supposed to feel? In what ways is it meant to transform us?
The Torah is surprisingly sparse when it comes to describing this holiday. We’re told in two places that there is a holiday on the first day of the seventh month of Tishrei. It’s called “Yom Shabbaton Zikaron Tru’ah,” a Day of Rest, Remembrance, and Shofar Blasts. And that’s about it.
There’s no mention of the name Rosh Hashana, no mention of this being the Jewish New Year, and certainly no mention of judgment, repentance, forgiveness, the Book of Life – none of the major themes we see throughout the liturgy and that we’ve come to associate with Rosh Hashana.
So where did all that come from? The first hint of the Rosh Hashana we know is from the Mishna, the earliest codification of our oral tradition, which tells us that there are four occasions on which we are judged: On Passover we are judged regarding the grain, on Shavuot we are judged for the fruits, on Sukkot we are judged for the water, and on Rosh Hashana all creatures pass before the divine like “Bnei Maron”, a term that does not have an obvious translation.
So the question I want to explore tonight is: What is this “Bnei Marom”? This term seems pretty key to understanding what kind of judgment we experience on Rosh Hashana, and why we’re actually here tonight.
To understand this term “Bnei Maron,” let’s turn to the Talmud, a compilation of commentaries on the Mishna. The Talmud offers three possible translations for “Bnei Maron”:
The first is that it refers to “Kivnei Imarna,” which is Aramaic for a flock of sheep. This image may sound familiar to some of us since it makes its way into the High Holiday liturgy, that G!d is like a shepherd inspecting their sheep one-by-one.
The second explanation is that Bnei Maron refers to “Ke’Maalot Beit Maron,” that we pass by G!d on Rosh Hashana on a steep ascent, as was the climb to a place called Beit Maron.
The third explanation is that we pass before G!d like “Chayalot,” like soldiers, since Bnei Maron sounds similar to the Greek word “numeron”, which means a military legian or troop.
So the oldest canonical text on Rosh Hashana tells us that we pass in front of G!d as individual sheep, mountain climbers, or soldiers. Still feels a little removed from Rosh Hashana as we know it.
The Mishna seems to admit this too, because when it introduces the concept of Bnei Maron, it shares a seemingly unrelated verse from Tehilim/Psalms to explain it to us:
הַיּוֹצֵר יַחַד לִבָּם
The one who fashions their hearts together
הַמֵּבִין אֶל כָּל מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם
The one who understands all their actions
While at first I wondered what this has to do with Rosh Hashana and judgment. But when I looked at it closer, it totally changed my conception of Rosh Hashana, especially that last clause: הַמֵּבִין אֶל כָּל מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם – HaMeveen et Kol Ma’asehem – the one who understands all their actions.
To be honest, I’ve always struggled with the concept of G!d as an old man in the sky, sitting on his throne, wagging his finger at me, recording all my actions in a big book, and issuing a verdict once a year on whether I live or die.
But what if this verse – the supposed source for everything we know about Rosh Hashana – offers us a different vision of what it means for G!d to be a judge. Not as the ultimate Assessor, but as the ultimate Understander – HaMeveen et Kol Ma’asehem.
What if there were someone who witnessed everything you do, and used that knowledge to truly understand you in all your complexity? Everyone in your life only sees one piece of you – the professional you, the relationship you, the social you. But no one actually has a full picture of you.
Close your eyes for a minute and imagine what it would feel like to be truly seen and understood – for your magnificence, your flaws, your intentions, your aspirations. For all the ways in which those pieces fit together.
Think back to all the ways over the past year when you felt like an outsider, like you didn’t fit into the flock of sheep, “Kivnei Imarna,”? Maybe you chose a path that was different than others, or you didn’t achieve that Hollywood version of the perfect job, the perfect family, the perfect life? Think about the people you were compared to this year, or maybe you compared yourself to.
What would it feel like to be truly understood for who you are as an individual, not relative to anyone else? Take a deep breath and feel that.
HaMeveen et Kol Ma’aseihem – the Divine understands your uniqueness.
Think back to the mountains you climbed this year, the steep ascents, “Ke’Maalot Beit Maron.” Think about all the things you put effort into, the things you pour heart into. Blood. Sweat. Tears. Some of your efforts bore fruit, some did not — and it is hard to be seen by others for those things that do not. Especially the things you wanted really badly, and you just. couldn’t. make it. to the top. of the mountain.
What would it feel like to be truly understood for how hard you’ve worked this year, in all the ways you strove and aspired, even when you fell short? Take a deep breath and feel that.
HaMeveen et Kol Ma’aseihem – the Divine understands your determination.
Think back to the battles you’ve fought this year, “Ke’Chayalot Numeron”. The times when you put on a happy face while a battle raged inside you, all the demons you were fighting – but from the outside you looked fine. You kept it together at work, with friends – but that stress you carried all year, it’s taken its toll on you. Maybe you worried that if people really knew what was going on inside you, they’d judge you, maybe even reject you.
What would it feel like to be truly understood for your inner struggles, to be loved and accepted for the ways you feel broken? Take a deep breath and feel that.
HaMeveen et Kol Ma’aseihem – the Divine understands your inner warrior.
Rather than being judged, how does it feel to be truly understood, in a way that only someone who has the 360-degree view of your life could understand you? There is no one else who has that full picture – and frankly, we don’t even have it of ourselves.
As you look back on the past year, ask yourself: Are you passing in front of the Divine this year as an individual sheep, as a mountain climber, as a soldier? How have you felt misunderstood this year, and how do you yearn to be understood? How would you behave differently if you felt safe enough to bring all the different parts of yourself to every interaction, if you felt like you would be fully understood in all your complexity?
Or put yourself in the perspective of the Understander. If they saw you in all your complexity, in all your fullness – what would they see? And how might inhabiting the perspective of the Understander yourself influence how you interact with others and your actions in the world?
Honor those parts of yourself that feel like an outsider, like a failure, exhausted from the battles you have to fight every day. All those pieces of you – they are all a part of you. As we are told in the first part of that verse from Psalms the Divine is הַיּוֹצֵר יַחַד לִבָּם – HaYotzer Yachad Libam, the one who fashions our hearts together. The Divine’s greatest wish for you is that you can fashion all these parts into a unified whole, because that is how the Divine sees you.
As one of the few things the Torah tells us about Rosh Hashanah, today is a Yom Shabbaton, a day of rest, an invitation to take a break from finding the flock, from climbing the mountain, and from fighting the battles. And in that rest, we have the space to move beyond that illusion of separate pieces – HaMeveen et Kol Ma’aseihem – and remember our wholeness, our unified hearts – HaYotzer Yachad Libam.
So my blessing for all of us, as we head into 5783, is that our hearts can hold all these contradictions, that we can feel not judged but truly seen and understood by the Divine, and that we can enter this year with a deep sense of our own wholeness – that every piece of us is holy and loved.