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Thoughts on the Zichronot Section of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf

Last week we focused on the first of the three sections added into the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service, the Malchuyot or Kingship verses.  That section, as we saw, focuses on God’s role as Sovereign of the universe and our hopes for the day when all people will acknowledge the authority of the Almighty and accept what our sages refer to as “Ol Malchut Shamayim,” the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Throughout our liturgy for the Jewish New Year, we speak of God as King, a governing force in our lives, hence this theme is appropriately part of the Musaf prayers and, as we saw, it was incorporated into the regular blessing of Kedushat Hayom, the fourth blessing of the Amidah, the prayers proclaiming the sanctity of the holiday.


The second of the three sections, Zichronot, is found in a separate independent blessing.  In it, we speak of God’s remembrance of His people.  This fifth of the nine blessings of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf, is seen as a transitional blessing in which we move from the emphasis on God’s role as ruler of the universe and judge of all creatures, determining who shall live and who shall die, toward the concept of God’s mercy and compassion.  God not only remembers all that we have done over the past year and throughout our lives, for better of for worse, judging our actions and determining our fate in the year ahead, but more importantly, He remembers His promises to our ancestors to show us mercy and compassion, to be there for us in coming days. Surprisingly, perhaps, the central figure who emerges in this blessing is not one of the patriarchs or kings, but the biblical figure, Noah, the “righteous man” who survived the biblical flood and became the ancestor of all humankind.  Noah, the Bible describes as “a righteous man, blameless in his age, who walks with God.”  In spite of these impressive credentials, not all of the rabbis see Noah in such a favorable light.  The expression “tamim hayah b’dorotav,” blameless in his age, can be taken positively or negatively,  Some say that, compared to the wicked people of his time, Noah was a righteous person.  Had he lived in some other times, maybe not so much.  Others take a more positive view and say that if Noah could maintain his righteousness in such an age, all the moreso were he not alone in his righteousness.  Many contemporary commentators fault him for not doing more to save the rest of the world,  The Hasidim call him a “tzaddik b’parvah” a righteous man in a fur coat.  He saved himself and his family, kept them warm, so to speak, but did not reach out to others.  He is contrasted with Abraham who was righteous man who lit a fire to warm not only himself but all with whom he came in contact.  Abraham reached out to all people.  Noah’s supporters argue that during the hundred years that the Bible claims he spent building that ark and gathering animals, he preached to deaf ears and the wicked folks of that time would not listen to his words of chastisement or change their ways.  He did what he could, but was unsuccessful in moving them.  We are free to interpret the text either way, but in Zichronot, we recall not Noah’s flaws, but how God remembered Noah and those in the ark with compassion and afterwards established His covenant with them, a covenant which He continues to uphold for all generations following.


The Zichronot bracha follows the same basic structure as Malchuyot.  We have an introductory passage on the theme, followed by ten biblical verses, again three from the Torah, three from Psalms, and three from the prophets, with a closing tenth verse once again from the Torah, but in this case, not stated immediately after the first nine, but included in the middle of the final blessing.  After the verses, we have the closing blessing,  followed by the sounding of the shofar, and the two recurring prayers of hayom harat olam and areshet s’fateinu.


The passage begins by taking us back to the time of creation.  We address the Almighty: “Atah zocher maasei olam, You remember the deeds of the world and You are mindful of Your creatures since the beginning of time.”  But God not only remembers all things, ancient history and important events,but even those things which are secret or hidden are not hidden from the Lord.  “Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation, mi-B’reishit.”  The poet emphasizes God’s all encompassing knowledge of all of His creatures and all of our actions throughout time.  He goes on to focus on this day of Rosh Hashanah which we call in the liturgy “Yom HaZikaron” the Day of Remembrance.  “This day which You, O God of Jacob, established as a ritual for the people of Israel, and as a day of judgment, marks the beginning of Your creation, a reminder ofthe very first day.”  So far, we still are clearly in the mode of judgment that we have emphasized earlier in the Unetaneh Tokef and in the Malchuyot section.  The prayer goes on to make this abundantly clear, “And this is the day of decree for all nations: war or peace, famine or abundance.  Every creature is called to account: reckoned for life or death.  Who is not remembered on this day?”  The author continues, “Everyone’s record is set before You; each individual’s actions and their consequences, all that people do, all that humans think and plan, and all that each of us intends.”  We are judged as nations and as individuals by an omniscient power who never forgets what we have done.


In the next paragraph, however, we begin to see a shift in perspective from God to Humankind.  “Blessed is the person who does not forget You, the one who draws strength from You; for those who seek You will never stumble, and those who trust in You will never be shamed.  Surely, the record of every deed is before You; You probe everyone’s acts.”  Now here is where Noah comes in and we now speak of “remembering” in the sense of caring for us.  “Did You not lovingly remember Noah, when You brought the flood waters, destroying all flesh because of their evil deeds?  Did You not assure him with words of salvation and compassion?  So his memory, Adonai our God, came before You and his descendants became as numerous as the dust of the earth, and his children like the sand of the sea.”


This is the same God we address in every Amidah as “Zocher chasdei avot,” the One who remembers the acts of kindness of the patriarchs.  As our sages tell us, when we pick verses for this section on Rosh Hashanah we should not focus on the negative memories, but rather emphasize the righteous deeds of our ancestors and God’s remembrance of His covenant with them, His promises to answer our prayers and provide us with His blessings.  So our first verse from the Torah in this section specifically recalls Noah, “Vayizkor Elohim et Noach, v’eit kol hachayah v’et kol ha-b’heimah asher ito bateivah, God remembered Noah and all the beasts and cattle that were with him in the ark, Vaya’aver Elohim ruach al ha-aretz vayashoku hamayim, so God caused a wind to blow across the earth and the waters subsided.”  God does not limit His remembrance and care to humankind, but remembers the beasts and cattle as well.  


The second Torah verse takes us many generations later to the time of the enslavement of the people of Israel in Egyptwhere we read in the book of Exodus, “Vayishma Elohim et na’akatam, vayizkor Elohim et brito et Avraham, et Yitzchak, v’et Ya’akov. God heard their agonized cry and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob.”  Anticipating future times of exile and persecution, at the end of the book of Leviticus, the Torah tells us, “V’zacharti et briti Ya’akov, v’af et briti Yitzchak, v’af et briti Avraham ezkor, v’ha-aretz ezkor.  Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”


The next group of verses is from the Psalms, first recalling God works of creation and then once again His covenant which is more universal as in Noah’s day and not limited to the people of Israel.  The first two verses come from Psalm 111, “Zecher asah l’nifl’otav, chanun v’rachum Adonay, God has made wondrous works to be remembered; Adonay is gracious and compassionate.”  The Psalmist continues in the next verse, “Teref natan liy’reiav, yizkor l’olam b’rito. God always remembers the covenant, providing sustenance for those in awe of the Divine.”  The third verse from Psalms comes from the rather lengthy Psalm 106, which recounts the history of the people of Israel and their faithlessness that brought about exile and oppression by their enemies and great suffering.  However, the Psalmist notes that the time came when God took note of their distress and heard their cries, “Vayizkor lahem brito, vayinachem k’rov chasadav, God remembered His covenant for them and with great love, relented.”


The third section of verses come from the prophets and is the best known part of Zichronot, perhaps due to the lovely choir setting of my favorite Jewish composer of the 19th century, Louis Lewandowski, that I, like many before me, have compressed into a solo piece.  All three verses take us back to the earliest days of our people and speak of God’s fond remembrances of us at that time, conveniently ignoring the many incidents of rebellion recounted in the book of Numbers.  We begin with a verse from Jeremiah, where God instructs the prophet, “Haloch v’karata b’oznei Yerushalayim leimor, Go proclaim into the ears of Jerusalem, koh amar Adonay, zacharti lach chesed n’urayich, ahavat k’lulotayich, I remember the affection of your youth, your love when we were betrothed, lechtech acharai bamidbar, b’eretz lo zeruah, when you followed Me in the wilderness, a barren land.”  Here betrothal refers to the events at Mount Sinai, often seen as the creation of a bond of marriage between God and Israel.  We will say more about that in the Shofarot section.  Ezekiel speaks in similar terms in the second prophetic verse, “V’zacharti Ani et briti otach bimei n’urayich, I will always remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, vahakimoti lach b’rit olam, and establish it with you as a covenant that will last forever.”  Returning finally to a later verse in Jeremiah, we conclude with this tender remembrance, “Haben yakir li Efrayim, im yeled sha’ashu-im, Is not Ephraim My dear son, My precious child,  (Ephraim was the predominant tribe in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and is used in place of the whole people here.) ki midei dabri bo zachor ezk’renu od, whom I remember fondly even when I speak against him? Al kein hamu mei-ai lo. Rachem arachamenu n’um Adonay, So my heart (literally my kishkes, my intestines) reaches out to him, and I always feel compassion for him, declares Adonay.”


After these nine verses, we conclude the section with a powerful and moving final blessing which includes the tenth verse from the Torah.  “Our God and God of our ancestors, remember us favorably, and from the highest heavens above, fulfill Your promise of compassion and deliverance.”  At this point, we remind God, as it were, of the ultimate act of devotion demonstrated by our patriarchs Abraham and Isaac, at the Akedah, the binding of Isaac to the altar, as a willing sacrifice to God. Our father Isaac represents at this stage of history the future people of Israel, too often actually sacrificed for our beliefs. “For our sake, remember Your loving relationship with us, the covenant and the promise that You made to Abraham on Mount Moriah.  Hold before You the image of our ancestor Abraham binding his son Isaac on the altar, when he overcame his compassion in order to obey your command wholeheartedly.”  This is a reference to the Kabbalistic association of Abraham with the sefirah, the divine aspect, of Chesed, lovingkindness, which needs to be balanced in the world with the sefirah of Din, judgment, for the world to endure.  We call on God to do just the opposite as the blessing continues, “Now, allow Your compassion (rachamecha) to overcome Your anger (ka’askcha) at us, and in Your great goodness, reconcile Yourself to Your people, Your city (Jerusalem), and Your land (Israel, of course).  Fulfill for us the words of Your promise contained in Your Torah transmitted by Your servant Moses from Your glorious Presence.”  The verse selected is again from the conclusion of the tochecha, the reproof, found in Leviticus, speaking of future punishment of the sins of Israel, “V’zacharti lachem b’rit rishonim, asher hotzeiti otam mei-eretz mitzraim l’einei hagoyim, lih’yot lahem Elohim, Ani Adonay, For their sake, I will remember the covenant with that first generation, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, to be their God, I am Adonay.”  And now we conclude, “You have always remembered that which has been forgotten, for there is no forgetting in Your realm (literally before Your throne).  So on this day, in Your great mercy, remember the binding of Isaac for the sake of his descendants.  Praised are You, Adonay, zocher habrit, who remembers the covenant.”


Once again, as we complete this section, the baal tokea comes forward, except on Shabbat, to sound the shofar another ten blasts.  As at the end of Malchuyot and again after Shofarot, we add the passage of Hayom Harat Olam, “Today the world stands as at birth.” I like to take it as today the world is pregnant with new possibilities for the coming year. It is a fresh beginning for us all if we choose to take advantage of it. “Today all creation is called to judgment, whether as Your children or as Your servants.  If as Your children, be compassionate with us as a parent is compassionate with children.  If as Your servants, we look to You expectantly, waiting for You to be gracious to us, and as day emerges from night bring forth a favorable judgment on our behalf, awe-inspiring and Holy One, Ayom Kadosh.”


If we have sounded the shofar, then we add the hymn Areshet s’fateinu.  Serving as cantor, I alternate between two melodies, an upbeat, snappy melody, and a more soulful, reflective tune for these three repeating choruses.  The opening words, “areshet s’fateinu” appear only once in the Bible in Psalm 21, where their meaning seems to indicate a request.  Medieval poets took this term and made it into a verb and ever since it has had a more general meaning of an expression of our lips, not necessarily a petition.  In fact, in modern Hebrew this root can mean an expression on our face as well, a non-verbal cue.  This poem then can mean that we express what is in our hearts on this holiday, as we petition the Almighty to grant us a year of life and blessing, and we believe that God will read even our unexpressed prayers as well.  “Areshet s’fateinu ye’erav l’fanecha, may the expression of our lips be pleasing to You.”  Ye’erav comes from arev which means sweet.  So our machzor translates it as, “may the words of our lips be pleasing to You, exalted God, who listens, discerns, considers, and attends to the sound of our shofar blast, l’kol t’kiyateinu.  Lovingly accept our offering of verses proclaiming Your remembrance, zichronoteinu.” Each section concludes with the appropriate theme mentioned,  malchuyoteinu, zichronoteinu, and shofroteinu in turn.  I’m fascinated by those four verbs, meivin uma’zin, mabit umakshiv, meivin which we translated as discerns, means God understands us, uma’azin, from the word ozen, ear, He listens closely beyond our words.  First He understands, but He listens closely as well.  Same thing with the sense of vision, mabit, means to look and makshiv to pay attention.  God does not merely look at us, but He pays close attention and sees into our hearts as well.


We have one more blessing to consider next time, the sixth blessing of Musaf, the shofarot section that focuses on the meaning of the shofar blasts that are such a distinctive element of the Rosh Hashanah service.  While these three sections of Musaf may seem a little overwhelming, they drive home the meaning of this day in a very powerful manner. In the first part, we accept God’s authority and in this section we recognize God’s compassionate remembrance of all His creatures as we remind God, as it were, of our faithful devotion to Him throughout the ages and call on Him to remember us for good this year.

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