The Holy One blessed be He has many ways to create an uproar in our souls. He can show us a moment in the life of a person who seems to live a simple life, with such tranquility and profundity that we are immediately transformed. It would be completely impossible to continue our lives as we did before. Our very being is shattered and we feel the need to start all over again, as if we are infants who have just entered the universe. It is in that very moment that we enter the world of Rosh Hashana.
In the famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam there is a portrait by Rembrandt’s most celebrated student, the master painter Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693). The painting is called Old Woman at Prayer. It is sometimes called Prayer without End because it portrays an old woman praying in total surrender. A lonesome figure resigned to her simple, lonely life, yet totally content. Nothing can disturb her while she is praying; her devotion is absolute. She prays with a profundity that is rare in the extreme. Only a few of us can reach that place. She thanks God for her simple bread, fish and drink; for the clean tablecloth and the chair on which she sits. She is grateful for the little cat that gives color to her life, which is coming to a close. She gives thanks for being allowed to be, in spite of all the worries and suffering she has had to endure in her life. No resentful melancholy; no rebellion; no boredom; and above all, no mockery. Nothing but: Lord, thanks for my share.
But there is more: She knows that her life is of great significance in the eyes of the Lord. Not because she has achieved great things on this earth, but because she knows that all human life takes place in the presence of God and therefore must be significant. She knows the secret of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur—that even the trivial has ultimate meaning and needs to be sanctified. She realizes that there are no negligible deeds. Man should never see his life as compatible with the ordinary. Time is broken eternity. Consequently, every moment counts, since it is part of a great infinite mystery in which not even one second can be recaptured at a later time. The old woman’s prayer teaches her that man does not live in his own private time but in God’s. Every second of his life he must infuse divinity into the mundane, bringing together the passing with the everlasting, the common with the unique and the momentary with the eternal (A.J. Heschel).
For this reason man needs to learn that only in the detail can he really live a life of profundity. Detail is the breaking down of generalities into such subtle components that they touch eternity.
The High Holidays are a warning to ensure that we live vertically and not horizontally. When we live our lives in the pursuit of new objects, believing that through them we will find meaning and joy, we need only look around us and see to what extent most people are afflicted with boredom. The excitement of new possessions often leads to the trivialization of our lives after only a few days.
This is true, however, only if we see them in a horizontal position. If we view them vertically, i.e. in the process of constant spiritual growth, then we are seeing them in the light of eternity and, consequently, in profundity. Nicolaes Maes’ Old Woman at Prayer is therefore immensely rich with the little she has. She doesn’t need many possessions to be more.
But more than that, though she lives in profound loneliness, her awareness of God is so intense that she is in touch with all her fellow men. It is through her distinctiveness that all people are her personal friends.
Only in relationships can one be an individual, and it is through this individuality that man encounters his greatest challenge: a call for accountability from which there is no escape. It is only man who bears ultimate responsibility, and through his deeds he meets the Other, whether it is God or man.
Nothing has more far-reaching consequences than the human deed. One act may decide the fate of the world. It is through carrying out his deeds that man reveals his mind and heart. And even when the act takes place among a multitude of people, and in cooperation with others, still, it remains distinct and carries its own responsibility.
Rosh Hashana celebrates the birth of the human being, the first creature destined to be an individual. Among all of God’s creations, he is the only one who carries responsibility. Rosh Hashana is the time when we must learn to turn every human deed into a dignified encounter with God. On this long, 48-hour day we are reminded that our lives and deeds must redeem God’s presence and rescue Him from oblivion. We are enjoined to rediscover our fellow men as unique individuals who stand together with us before the throne of God.
When looking at Nicolaes Maes’ painting, one is forced to peer into one’s own soul. We should ask ourselves whether we are capable of living this life of simplicity and tranquility. Can we reach such a state of soul and mind in today’s world where we are so completely overtaken by the ongoing barrage of crises that we ourselves have created because of social and other pressures? We have constructed a tower of financial needs and have convinced ourselves that we can no longer live without them. We hope that by satisfying these needs we will find the tranquility enjoyed by the old woman, but we fail to realize that we have become caught in a web that we ourselves have spun and that moves us farther away from our goal.
Like a Jungian archetype, deep in his soul the Jew realizes that at least once a year, on Rosh Hashana, he needs to return home and be part of his people and his faith. He must liberate himself from all artificiality and hear the storm that accompanies the sound of the shofar, as a wake-up call signaling that life’s tight web can be unraveled and that real spiritual and moral liberty can be achieved.
The soul rarely knows itself. It is unaware of how to raise its deeper secrets to the level where the mind can grasp them. Most religious people act their faith but do not realize that faith is a constant happening. It cannot be stored away somewhere for the mind to find whenever it so requires. Faith is a moment of meeting between man’s soul and God’s majesty. No ladder of philosophical arguments can be climbed to reach this moment. The mind is walled and there are no ways to enter. All it has is some translucent windows through which it can see the landscape of the soul and catch a glimpse of what is happening on the other side. And when man rises to reach out to God, it is the result of divine light within, which creates this yearning.
Nicolaes Maes’ old woman knows more than the greatest philosophers. She experiences the moment when—to use the Talmudic phrase—heaven and earth kiss. She knows how to lift the veil off the horizon of the unknown and gain a vision of the eternity of her life on earth, soon to end. A thunder in her soul transforms her into a woman in complete stillness. She knows the verse, “The Lord spoke these words to your entire assembly on the mountain, out of the fire, cloud, and thick darkness, in a loud voice that continues forever” (1).
She may not have been Jewish, but she managed to have a Rosh Hashanah without End.