Yom Kippur (Aggadah)
For more teachings on Yom Kippur, see the archives to this blog for September 2006, September 2007, October 2008, and October 2009.
Not withstanding the heading, we will begin with a few brief thoughts about teshuvah in general, including some impressions and hiddushim from Rosh Hashanah.
God as King
The central blessing of Rosh Hashanah, both of the Amidah and of the Kiddush, closes with the phrase מלך על כל הארץ מקדש ישראל ויום הזכרון (“King of all the earth, who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance”). It occurred to me that this phrase really embraces two contradictory, even opposite poles: the universal and the particular; God’s unique covenant with Israel, and His rule and kingship over the entire cosmos. God is not merely the God of one particular people, uniquely chosen though they may be, but the Creator of Heaven and earth. More important, He rules over all humankind, indeed, over all sentient beings.
This motif dominates the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah. The expanded version of the third blessing of the Amidah (recited on Yom Kippur as well as on Rosh Hashanah), in which we declare the holiness of God, not only refers to Him as ha-melekh ha-kadosh, “the Holy King,” but presents a messianic vision in which the entire world accepts His sovereignty: “Therefore, place your fear upon all Your creatures, and Your awe upon all You created… let every created thing understand that You formed it… evil will dissipate like smoke… And You, O God, shall reign alone upon Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, Your holy city…” In similar fashion, Malkhuyot, the characteristic blessing of the day, speaks of the Almighty’s reign over the entire world.
But all this is couched in visionary terms, as an eschatological motif that will be realized in the future, possibly distant days of Messiah. For the present, Rosh Hashanah is a festival of the coronation of God, of acknowledging and declaring His kingship, but as recognized by the Jews alone. In a similar mood, Rashi, in his commentary on the first verse of Shema (Deut 6:4), contrasts the present situation with the Future to Come: “HWYH, who is now [only] our God, and not that of the nations, will in the future be ‘one’ -- i.e., recognized by all inhabitants of earth”—an idea which he confirms with prooftexts from Zechariah and Zephaniah. Again, the Talmud (b. Pesahim 50a) explains that, whereas today God’s name is not pronounced as it is written (i.e., we use a circumlocution for the sacred four-letter Name), in the World to Come it will be spoken as it is written—a hint at a future universal epiphany of knowledge of the Divine.
Perhaps one lesson to be learned from this idea is that, just as we hope to see a future world in which the nations acknowledge God as sovereign, we Jews also need to take more seriously the implications of God as universal Master of the world, not merely as a theoretical concept, but as one with practical meaning for our lives. The universal kingship of God must mean more than private mitzvah observance, however sublime and holy that my make us feel. We live at a time when the world as a whole is confronting a series of grave threats to the very continuity of human civilization: severe threats to the environment, placing the very habitability of Mother Earth in question; the danger, after more than a half century of unprecedented peace and prosperity, at least in America and Europe, of nuclear warfare; the breakdown of many social structures. Quixotic as it may sound, we must attempt to take responsibility for this world and for the survival, not only of the Jewish people, but of humankind itself.
Rosh Hashanah as a Day without Selihot
Rabbi Michael Melchior, in a Rosh Hashanah sermon at our synagogue, noted an interesting fact, one of those things that “one has always known” but never really thought about: that the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah, although it comes smack in the middle of the period of reciting Selihot, during which we repeatedly recite Vidduy (confession of sin) and are preoccupied with teshuvah and with searching out and correcting our faults, contains neither Selihot nor Vidduy, and barely mentions the motifs of sin, atonement or forgiveness. True, there are a few passage alluding to these motifs in Avinu Malkinu but even they are omitted on Rosh Hashanah in some nushaot (prayer rites)—e.g., Habad. It is only on the day after Rosh Hashanah that we resume Selihot and Vidduy, culminating in the great fast and day of turning, Yom Kippur, when the great alphabetical confession is repeated over and over again, from evening to morning and ‘till evening again.
Rosh Hashanah represents an alternative path: instead of the painstaking process of focused, “specific” teshuvah, there is another route, which ultimately goes to the same place: the direct acceptance of God’s kingdom, “bypassing” preoccupation with sin and guilt and regret. Rosh Hashanah is devoted entirely to the acceptance and proclamation of God as king: this is powerfully expressed both in the blowing of shofar, in the three special blessings of Musaf, which may be read as a kind of mini-course in Jewish theology, and the numerous piyyutim declaring God’s kingship.
Sefat Emet makes an interesting comment on this. Seeing Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of creation—according to some, specifically of the creation of man (the world itself having been created, as it were, on the 25th of Elul)—we return on Rosh Hashanah to our original state at the time of Creation. Citing the verse from Kohelet, “God made man upright, but they sought out many [roundabout] devices” (Eccles 7:29), he sees Rosh Hashanah as a day of returning to simplicity, to honesty, to a straightforward approach to life. Man intuitively knows what is good; one becomes crooked through the exigencies of life—the implication being, that doing the good comes naturally, if one but sets one mind to it.
To this I would add my own interpretation of the Hasidic concept of bittul, of self-abnegation. Many people find it exceedingly difficult to accept this idea: it seems to imply giving up one’s selfhood, one’s personality, one’s very identity. But I would see it in terms of rejecting what I would call the “modern ego”—a certain exaggerated individualism, at times almost tantamount to narcissism, which is one of the basic cultural–psychological problems in our culture. But more on that another time.
Repentance Without Teshuvah
The Mishnah in Shevu’ot (1.2; ;5; cf. Rambam, Hil. Teshuvah 1.2) speaks of the sa’ir ha-mishtaleah, the “scape goat” or atonement goat—the central element in the Seder Avodah, the atonement ritual performed in the Jerusalem Temple in ancient times—as somehow atoning for the sins of the entire people, even (in some cases—i.e., not the more serious sins) without repentance!
How is such a thing possible? The concept of teshuvah seems central to the very concept of Yom Kippur. The answer lies in the concept of the community, of the collectivity. The atonement affected by the High Priest in confessing the sins of the people over the goat, occurs on a different level—that of Klal Yisrael, the totality of Israel seen as a single, organic entity in an almost metaphysical way. Hence, the individual who is truly rooted in the community and sees him/herself as a part thereof attains forgiveness together with it, through the very fact of his belonging to it.
As I have noted in these pages in the past, the relationship between the individual and the community is a central problem of our age. We live in an age of excessive individualism; there are prominent thinkers and leaders who have declared that the entire idea of community is a fiction; that there are really only isolated individuals, who at times arbitrarily band together in nations or communities. The breakdown of community is rejected in our culture, in the notions of post-modernity and the absence of any “objective” standard of morality; in our family and sexual life, in which long-term marital commitment is often replaced by notions of individual benefit; and in our economic life, in which capitalism, with its emphasis on competition and individual “success” as the highest goal, seems to have entered a new phase in recent decades. (I began discussing this issue some months ago in the Yahrzeit essay for mother [HY XI: Behar- Behukotai], to which several readers responded with long and thoughtful letters; I hope to return to this subject in the new year).
It seems to me that the idea of atonement without personal teshuvah, whether through the new-defunct Temple ritual or through the “holiness of the day” in and of itself, is a reminder of the tremendous moral and spiritual power of the community, in the traditional Jewish understanding.
Yom Kppur and Selihot: Parallels
Classically, Yom Kippur, both as the culmination of the Ten Days of Repentance and as the most important ta’anit tzibbur (public fast day) of all, is the day of Selihot par excellence. In the old Ashkenazic synagogue, Selihot were recited at all five prayers of the Holy Day; over the course of time, for historical reasons, they gradually came to be omitted at Shaharit, Musaf and Minhah, remaining only at Ma’ariv and Ne’ilah. (See note)
What are the basic elements of the Selihot? They begin with verses of praise of God, including piyyutim that focus on the relationship between God and Knesset Yisrael and/or the smallness and sinfulness of man, and conclude with verses of mercy. But the two essential elements, are Vidduy and the Thirteen Qualities of Mercy.
At first glance, these two elements seem to express divergent concepts: Vidduy is rooted in the notion of God’s strict and the exacting judgment of us, and the concomitant consciousness of human sinfulness, of moral failure, of our inadequacy in our task of living as truly human beings—what Rav Soloveitchik once referred to as a “declaration of bankruptcy.” The Thirteen Qualities of Divine Mercy (Exod 34:6-7), by contrast, express God’s mercy, His love, His compassion, His readiness to overlook our faults and even our deliberate wrongdoings, and to accept us as a loving parent accepts his children.
But this is really a single dynamic process. Teshuvah, the process by which a human being searches out his faults, through a painful process of regret, contrition, and verbal articulation in the Vidduy, somehow arouses Divine mercies. God responds to the human acknowledgement of weakness, of imperfection, of being limited—so different from the arrogance, self-confidence, and feeling of complete autonomy which so often mark human behavior—with love and compassion. Thus, at the end of the day of Yom Kippur, we leave the synagogue with a sense of having been cleansed and purified, of renewed vitality and energy to begin our lives once more with a clean slate.
NOTE: Daniel Goldschmidt, in the complete edition of his Mahzor le-Yom Kippurim, explains two factors that led to this: First, there was a wide diversity of customs regarding exactly which Selihot were to be said—not only between Eastern European and Western Europe, but even among half-a-dozen subgroups within each of these areas. Thus, Selihot could not be printed in the Mahzorim published for general use, which instead contained the a note “here one says Selihot”; instead, each community had its own special pamphlets printed for this purpose, distributed among the worshippers. Over time, the pamphlets gradually disappeared, pushed aside by standardized mahzorim. Secondly, the development of hazanut, with its musical elaboration of the service, began to consume time that would otherwise have been used for Selihot.