Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Yom Kippur 5772

Yom Kippur is a time when we stand here in shul asking for forgiveness. We come, we stand face to face with G-d, and we beg him to grant us a good year, to seal us for good thing. But sometimes we feel that we do not know how to communicate with G-d, how do we convey to him out inner hearts and feelings, our true repentance. D we have to look into the Machzor, understand every nuance and thereby convey our wishes? What if we cannot? What if we do not have the time or the ability for such an examination? Do we need to study the Talmud, peruse Mishneh Torah and Hilchos teshuvah to find the formulae that MUST be used?

The above might be fantastic, for those who can it might be seen as the only way, but for many of us, that is not the case. What do we do, throw our hands up in despair and give up?

There is a famous Chasidishe story of an uneducated shepherd boy who spent his days looking after the sheep and rarely coming down into the city. One day he decided to come down and found the city deserted. Perplexed, he wandered through the town until he come to the synagogue. It was late on Yom Kippur, the sun going down, and the entire community sat there as the Rabbi prayed his Neilah Amidah. He finished it, then started again, ad then again a third time! The community was perplexed, but all were united, together, praying for forgiveness, looking to hashem to seal them for a good year. Into the shul at this time wandered the shepherd boy. He could not understand what was being said, all he could was to stare In awe at the packed synagogue, the men standing I their taleisim. He could feel the intense atmosphere, the yearning, the way the people were united. He longed to be part of it, yet he could not read a machzor, he could not understand the Hebrew, he felt cut off and alone. Then, moved by what he was experiencing, he stuck is fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle, the one he used to call out across the mountains. Horror struck, the community turned to him, unable to believe that someone would desecrate the shul in such a way, to whistle while their rabbi prayed and sought a way for them to all achieve atonement. As they would have reached out, to expel him, the Rabbi spoke “Stop! Do you not realize what this boy has done? I have stood here praying that G-d would open the gates of mercy to us, but I could feel them shut. I cried and pleaded at the gates, but still they remained shut. When that whistle went out, when that pure and open whistle went out, the gates opened. Because of this boy’s whistle, the gates of mercy were opened for the entire community.
The story illustrates a few extremely important principles. The first relates to the answer of the question above: How do I communicate with G-d? Does it have to be through a means I do nto understand? The answer to that is “No, we should always strive to communicate and join with G-d in a manner meaningful to us.” Of course we should do it in a manner that is respectful and does not disrupt others, but how we communicate with G-d is not just an academic exercise of ticking off the prayers said in the Machzor, but a personal experience that should talk to us and bring us closer to G-d.

Another message is the importance of the community. The boy did not feel inspired until he was immersed within the community, until he saw the community. A community elevates us all, provides a means for all of us to achieve atonement, even when we are not deserving. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero makes the point in the book “Tomer Devorah” that there are sins which as individuals we cannot be forgiven for. Not because G-d is unable to forgive us, but because as human beings we tend to have a stubborn streak and we tend to find ways to justify bad behavior even though we are aware it is wrong. So how do we repent such sins? We, on our own initiative, are too stubborn to do teshuvah for these sins, so how do we overcome this barrier? One way is through a community. When we pray with a community, we achieve a level of forgiveness that we cannot achieve on our own. As part of a community, G-d forgives us completely, for every sin regardless of whether we have repented it, regardless of if we are even aware if it. This is brought as another aspect of the thirteen principles of mercy by Rabbi Cordovero in Tomer Devorah, that G-d forgives even when it is not deserved. This is especially true of a person who is part of a community, who has made himself part of something larger. We can be forgiven, and in a far more complete manner than otherwise, just because we are joined with the community.

And everyone has the right to be part of the community. Everyone, regardless of their personal standing, knowledge, merits and ability is part of the community. Before Kol Nidre we make the statement “With the permission of the Heavenly court, and the permission of the earthbound court, we declare it lawful to pray with the sinners”, the incense used in the temple contained the spice Galbonim, whose fragrance was unpleasant- in order to illustrate this same understanding. Similarly, the lulav is made up of four species, including one with no fragrance or taste, one with fragrance and no taste, one with taste and no fragrance and one with fragrance and taste- these represent all people, some with good deeds, some with knowledge, some with neither- but all are part of the community. And just as all are part of the community, all can communicate with G-d.

Judaism does not encourage us to be individuals at the expense of the community. There is a saying “You cannot be frum at someone elses expense.” In other words, you do not get to say that because you want to do some mitzvah, you will do it regardless of the consequences to others. In Judaism our family, our community, the Jewish people as a whole are a single unit. Judaism does not call for us to be monks, cutting ourselves off from the world and the community in order to be holy- on the contrary, we are expected to immerse ourselves in the community, in the place we are. In Parshas Nitzavim Moshe makes the famous statement that the Torah is not in the heavens and unreachable, nor is it over the seas and distance from us, but right here, right where we are. Close to us, close to the entire community.

Certain prayers can only be said in a minyan, thus showing that for these prayers we have to have a community! A Torah scholar who refuses to teach the Talmud teaches us in masechta Sanhedrin that such a person is cursed- as he is effectively denying other members of the community access to their inheritance, the Torah. In the times of the Temple, three times a year the entire nation was expected to come to Jerusalem as a community, to congregate, to be as one. Thus when we act as one, when we are a community, we elevate ourselves, we elevate the entire nation to a new level of holiness, and thus G-d sees, acknowledges and forgives. When all of Israel is as one, when we support each other as one, G-d treats us as one and thus the burden of doing Teshuvah is shifted and made lighter, for a load carried by many is lighter than a load carried by one.

As we enter Yom Kippur, let this be our focus, to try and feel that connection, to a community, to G-d. Let us find what is meaningful to us which allows us to create that connection and thus join with a greater whole and achieve that Teshuvah Shelemah, complete repentance, that we all desire.

October 7, 2011 Posted by | Chagim, Torah | , , , , | Leave a comment