For many people, it was a Rosh Hashanah that they were dreading, and for many more, its a YK that they are dreading.
Although Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur can be a challenge every year- it’s a long davening, and can sometimes feel cumbersome and difficult. However, what often makes it meaningful is the sense of community- the majesty of a beautiful Shul/Sanctuary set up to capacity and decorated all in white, the community coming together to fill that shul to capacity, the tunes and songs that we remember from year to year- there is often at least a moment or two where we tap into the special nature of these Holy Days.
And for those of us who have had the privilege to enjoy a more spirited and lively yeshiva davening for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, that experience has likely transformed our Yamim Noraim experience, likely turning it into one of the highlights of the year- with the incredible energy, song, and inspiration that defines the davening. I know that for myself, the experience of Yeshiva davening for RH/YK totally transformed my outlook on the Yamim Noraim, and the powerful nature that they contained. For the first few years after yeshiva, I tried each year to go back to visit Eretz Yisrael during the Yamim Noraim so that I could be in Yeshiva for davening. And as life continued and that was no longer possible, wherever I found myself for RH/YK I tried to find a Yeshiva nearby so that I could experience a Yeshiva davening- or if not, at least find a shul whose experience was most similar to a yeshiva davening experience.
The common denominator is that the defining aspect to our inspired RH/YK was being a part of the community, and tapping into the power of the tzibbur. As such, the notion of facing a YK without the community, without the tzibbur- either because we are davening alone this YK, or davening in much smaller groups and in an abridged tefilla, is a scary and disconcerting prospect. How can we create the sense of awe and reverence without the majestic synagogue atmosphere at we are used to? How to replicate the spiritually uplifting tefilla that we feel in shul- from the terrifying tune of ונתנה תוקף to the intense introspection of the communal על חטאs to the spirited singing of ויתנו לך כתר מלוכה and the magnificent vision of אמת מה נהדר היה כהן גדול, to the riveting קבלת עול מלכות שמים at the end of neilah- the power of the community and the tzibbur appears to be an indispensable part of our YK experience- how can one experience YK without it?
I don’t believe there is one good answer to this question- but allow me to reflect on a possible direction to take in re-framing our upcoming YK experience. I believe that this years experience may actually allow us to focus on, and strengthen, an aspect of the Yamim Noraim that is sometimes overlooked. It is specifically because of the power of the community and the tzibbur, and the important role it plays in our Yamim Noraim experience, that we often downplay another important aspect of the Yamim Noraim experience- and that is our personal relationship with G-d, and the individual judgement we experience on these days.
One of the main sources regarding the judgement that takes place on Rosh Hashana (and is sealed on Yom Kippur) is the Gemara in Rosh Hashana:
מתני׳ בארבעה פרקים העולם נידון בפסח על התבואה בעצרת על פירות האילן בר”ה כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון שנאמר (תהלים לג, טו) היוצר יחד לבם המבין אל כל מעשיהם ובחג נידונין על המים:
“MISHNA: At four times of the year the world is judged: On Passover judgment is passed concerning grain; on Shavuot concerning fruits that grow on a tree; on Rosh HaShana all creatures pass before Him like benei maron, as it is stated: “He Who fashions their hearts alike, Who considers all their deeds” (Psalms 33:15); and on the festival of Sukkot they are judged concerning water, i.e., the rainfall of the coming year.”
The Mishna here gives us some fascinating imagery regarding the judgement on Rosh Hashana- that each being passes before Hashem in judgement. But what does the Mishna mean “like bnei marom”? The Gemara gives 3 possible explanations, each one adding more meaning to this powerful imagery:
בר”ה כל באי העולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון: מאי כבני מרון הכא תרגימו כבני אמרנא ריש לקיש אמר כמעלות בית מרון (אמר) רב יהודה אמר שמואל כחיילות של בית דוד
“The mishna teaches: On Rosh HaShana all creatures pass before Him like benei maron. The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of the phrase benei maron? The Gemara answers: Here in Babylonia they interpreted it to mean: Like a flock of sheep [kivnei imarna]. Reish Lakish disagreed and said: Like the ascent of Beit Maron, which was very steep. Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said another opinion: Like the soldiers of the house of King David.”
As the gemara explains, there are 3 different ways to understand the imagery:
- Like sheep who pass before their shepherd
- Like the steps of Beit Maron
- Like the soldiers of David
Rashi there explains that the intended imagery is as follows- when a shepherd wants to count his sheep, he creates a small space for them to be able to exit the area only at a time, so that they pass by him one at a time.
And he explains a similar idea regarding the steps of Beit Maron- that Beit Maron was known area with a very narrow walkway and a cliff on each side, such that only one person could walk on the walkway at a time.
The common theme that Rashi sees being emphasized in our gemara is an important one- that on Rosh Hashana, when we pass before Hashem in judgement, we do so as individuals, one at a time.
And I believe this imagery is significant in a few ways:
Number one, we have to realize that no one else accompanies us on our journey of standing before Hashem- its just us and G-d. And I would suggest that this isn’t simply an encounter of judgement and discipline, but as with all cases of teshuva that involve relationships, it is about confronting and improving our relationship with Hashem. Its about standing before Hashem on RH and YK in a real way- as real as possible- and encountering Him directly, without anyone else around us- without our families, our loved ones, our friends, the inspiring tzibbur- ultimately no one else can take ownership over our relationship with Hashem but us. Sometimes we hide behind those around us, or rely on others to help create and cultivate that relationship that we seek with G-d- but in the end of the day, its up to us alone to take responsibility and ownership.
Number two- it also speaks to the nature of the judgement that G-d does for us on RH/YK. When G-d looks at each person, the Mishna/Gemara teaches us that He judges us each individually- I am not judged in comparison to Shimon, and Shimon is not judged in comparison to Reuvein. Rather each person goes before Hashem as he is, and G-d judges him based on himself– on who he is, and who he could be. Each and every person, we learn, is special and unique- and each person is meant to accomplish something unique that no one else in the world could accomplish. And so our annual judgement is based on our unique abilities and talents, and whether we are living up to our unique potential. Ultimately, when Hashem judges us during these days, He isn’t comparing us to my neighbor or friend down street- He is comparing us to ourselves, and what we can be.
And with this idea, I believe we can now understand the 3rd imagery of the Gemara, that Hashem judges us like soldiers of David. I once heard Rav Zev Leff explain this gemara beautifully using the same idea-that just like in an army, each person has their role and job that contributes to the greater functioning of the army, the same is true of each and every one of us. Whether I am the start fighter pilot or infantry soldier, or I am the chef in the kitchen or warehouse manager, if each person does not recognize his importance and fulfill his role properly, the entire enterprise would fall apart. While sometimes it is natural for those in less prominent positions to be jealous of, or to compare themselves to those start fighters, ultimately each and every position is important- and without it, the army couldn’t function. The same is true in our own lives as well, in the “army of Hashem”. Each of us has been given certain skills/characteristics and life circumstances that define who I am- and based on that, I have a certain role to play in this world that no else has. We need to be cognizant of our uniqueness, and recognize the tremendous responsibility that it contains. When we stand before Hashem on RH/YK, we stand before Him as a member of His army- and he judges us accordingly. Have we made sure to realize the unique contribution that we have to make to His world, and maximized our potential? G-d doesnt ask us whether were as great as the person next to us- but whether we were as great as we can be.
The encounter that we each have with G-d on RH/YK is meant to be a personal, individual, and intimate one- just us and Him. The experience on YK of being “Lifnei Hashem”, of repairing and strengthening our relationship with G-d and recalibrating our consciousness to live a life that is fully in sync with what He wants from us, is fundamentally meant to be a private one. And the Judgement he brings upon is person and individualized as well.
Of course, there is also a major aspect of RH/YK that is communal. Rav Soloveitchik in Al HaTeshuva writes in a number of places about the Kappara of the Yachid and the Kappara of the Tzibbur, and how that is reflected in our tefillot. In addition, particularly when it comes to YK, the entire avoda in the Beit Hamikdash, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding it, highlights the fundamental communal nature of YK- and our communal prayers on the Yamim Noraim reflect that as well, and have come to define our Yamim Noraim experience.
However, the accompanying result of that reality is that the personal and individual experience is often lost and forgotten about. It is much harder to really stand “before Hashem” in an authentic and genuine way when in shul with hundreds of others- there are too many distractions. It is hard for us to have a real conversation with G-d- and to assess our relationship with Him- when we are in a full congregation. It is extremely difficult to work on our personal spirituality, and how to deepen our spiritual selves, if the entire day we are swept up in the ruach and excitement of the communal singing and enthusiasm (as great as it is!). And on an existential level, it is a challenge to be able to truly look at ourselves and assess whether we are reaching our personal potential- when we are davening in room full of others with whom we compare ourselves and our accomplishments. Those aspects often get lost as we spend these days connecting to G-d through the tzibbur, the community.
But this year, we have a unique opportunity- an opportunity that was thrust upon us forcefully, but an opportunity nonetheless. We have an opportunity to focus on, and really work on, our individual relationship with G-d. Each of us will have the privilege to stand before Hashem, alone, on Yom Kippur, with no one else around. To think about our relationship with G-d directly, and how we can strengthen it. To consider how we can become more spiritual people innately, without needing others to create that spirituality for us. And to consider the true judgement that G-d is handing us on this day- our uniqueness and individuality, and how to realize the great potential locked deep within us.
Hopefully this year, we will work on a crucial aspect of the Yamim Noraim experience- and through that be able to incorporate it more fully into our “regular” experience when normal life returns.