It seem to happen to me every Rosh Hashana. I’ll be sitting at a festive meal with family and friends and I’ll be asked to share a Dvar Torah, something short, yet ispirational about the Jewish New Year.
And I always rack my brain to come up with something. More often than not I share the following story, a favorite of mine, from by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, an essay he wrote entitled “It Takes a Shtetl”.
During the course of the High Holy Day season the word “I” is hardly mentioned. The spirit of community triumphs over individuality. All of our many prayers, requests, confessions and proclamations take on one specific identification — the plural — we or us. “Remember us for life.” “Inscribe us in the book of life.” We are like sheep.”
There is hardly any individual prayer form — it is mostly collective. Why should it be that way? Aren’t the High Holy days a time of personal reflection? What about the reference to the individual?
Obviously the power of a community impacts our individual prayer. Prayers and requests that arrive en masse seem to be more powerful, more effective. The Talmud tells us that it is almost impossible to disregard the will of a collective community. Yet how does the Almighty consider the needs of the individual when they are only brought forward as part of a communal bundle?
There was a proctor who earned extra income by administering final exams in schools that needed extra manpower. He had earned a reputation as an extremely strict monitor who would not let a student exceed the allotted testing-time even by a minute. The proctor once had the occasion to administer a high school test. Amongst the students sat Chaim, a quick-witted youngster, who had a reputation for requesting extra time on exams. The test began with the perfunctory warnings, “You have exactly one hour and thirty minutes to complete this exam. If you are even one minute late I will not accept your paper.” Sure enough, at the end of the allotted time the proctor collected all the tests and Chaim was still writing.
“Please,” he pleaded. “I need only two more minutes.” True to his reputation the proctor refused, but Chaim kept on writing. Exactly ninety seconds passed. Chaim approached the desk, test in hand. All the other test papers were neatly stacked in front of a stern-faced instructor who refused to accept Chaim’s papers. Chaim was aghast. This meant he would fail the test!
Quickly he barked at the unfamiliar instructor. “You must take my paper! Do you know who I am?” The instructor shook his head as if he truly did not care. Once again Chaim repeated the question. This time, however, his voice was raised a few more decibels. “Do you know who I am? Do you know who my father is?” This time the proctor retorted angrily. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know who your father is. And to tell you the truth — I really don’t care!”
“Really?” questioned Chaim with a look of triumph on his face. “Great!” With that, Chaim grabbed the stack of test papers, shoved his own exam smack in the center of all of them and smiled proudly. “Have a nice day!”
(This TV ad tells a similar story.)
Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Kamenetzky continues, is the day of judgment. Last year is over and now it is time to hand in our papers. Of course our Proctor allows us an extra ten days until Yom Kippur. But eventually he may declare, “time is up.” When we join together in prayer, in charity, and in true repentance our papers are all put together. Of course, we are responsible for our individual actions and they will be examined. But it is surely much easier to have our deeds judged favorably when they are presented together with an entire shtetl.
So, every year I would share that Dvar Torah on Rosh Hashana and get several “yashar koachs” from people around the table.
But this year I question it. I mean it is wonderful to be part of a larger community, and yes Rosh Hashana is a universal holiday celebrating the day the world was created (or the day man and woman were first created). It is also the day the entire Jewish world celebrates the start of a New Year. But all that seems global, what about the indiduals? What about me? Are we all just anonymous exam-takers whose test papers are just stuffed into the huge stack with everyone else?
“On Rosh HaShanah all the inhabitants of the world pass before HIM (God) like a flock of sheep.” – (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:2.)
“Like walking on a small narrow road where no two can pass by at the same time.” (Rashi’s commentary)
On Rosh Hashana each and every individual is judged, for a good year, we hope. Do we dare ask the Judge of all Judges, “Do you know who I am?” Of course God knows who I am. I cannot hide in a community of others. Maybe the Dvar Torah I have been giving over all these years is misleading. I mean, yes we are all part of a larger community, but what about the individual?
The answer of course is that Rosh Hashana (and Yom Kippur too) are both universal and particular as well. The High Holidays are about all mankind (and the entire Jewish people) but they are also about each and every individual as an individual.
The opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, also relates to this idea of individuals who make up a great nation:
“You are all standing (Nitzavim) today [before G‑d, your L‑rd…].” Devarim 29:9. This Torah portion is always read before Rosh HaShanah, alluded to by the word “hayom,”[translated as “today” but which could also be interpreted as] “the day,” [i.e., the great day of judgment,] Rosh HaShanah.
But lets take a look at the opening verses in context:
“You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel. Your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, both your woodcutters and your water drawers.”
I always understood this verse in the plain sense. EVERYONE is standing here today: men, women, children, old and young, all professions, from woodcutters to water drawers – EVERYBODY!
One of the most wonderful parts of my job at WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) is that I don’t just sit in the office and write, I go out in the field and get to see – and report – firsthand how WIZO is changing lives.
First of all, WIZO’s work is vast, serving all sectors of the Israeli public. The verse, “your young children, your women, etc.” could also describe those who benefit from WIZO’s programs and services: Israel’s children, youth, women and more. I don’t know the modern equivalent for “woodcutters” and “waterdrawers”, but it seems to mean the entire range of people from all walks of lifes who work in all fields.
I have to admit, coming from a PR/jounalism background, one of the hardest things for me to adjust to at WIZO was not seeing my name (or byline) on everything I write. “Remember, Yonatan” my division’s Chairperson Tricia often tells me, “The story is not about you, it’s about WIZO!”
This week Tricia took me with her to visit one of the most challenging of WIZO’s 180+ daycare centers in Israel, in the city of Lod.
The 70 children at the center, ranging from 3 months to 3 years old, were all adorable. All of them looked healthy (well fed) and happy. But there was a lot going on behind the smiles, as the center’s director explained to us in her office after we visited the classes.
She told us about the large proportion of children who are at the center because the welfare services placed them there. We are not just talking about poor familes (of which there are many). She told us of children with parents who have drug and alcohol addictions and/or mental issues. There have been incidents of violence when the police have been called. It is accurate to say that this WIZO day care center is saving lives of the children in its care – and their families too.
So that visit was eye-opening for me. Yet I wonder where I fit in. Do I just tell their story as an outside observer, without placing myself in the mix? Am I just a nameless person handing in his exam with everyone else;s in a giant stack?
No! Just like each of the children I met at the day care in Lod has their own story, just as each young person I meet at WIZO youth villages or women i WIZO empowerment program from all sectors of the Israeli public (secular, unlta-orthodox, Druze, etc.) are all individuals, so am I.
But how do I find the right balance? Ok, I understand I should not be “front and center”, but do I have a place at all? On Rosh Hashana, when I look back on the year that was and look towards the year ahead, where do I fit in? Am I part of a larger group (the anonymous test-taker in a stack) or am I an individual?
A possible answer came to me from the most unlikely of sources, The Muppets.
Somehow this silly song from the movie, “The Great Muppet Caper” (1981) popped into my head. I had to look it up on YouTube to see if I remembered it correctly from my childhood.
The lyric that is repeated over and over again in this song is, “starring everybody – and me!”
To me, this is the essence of the Rosh Hashana “universal vs individual” balance. It is also the key to understanding the opening verse of Nitzavim and how I should approach my covering stories for WIZO in my work life.
Yes, the story (Rosh Hashana, Nitzavim, and a vast organization like WIZO) is always bigger than any one of us. The story is about all of us: the world, all of mankind, the entire Jewish people, every child, youth, woman and man in Israel.
But, we should not exclude ourselves from this story. We are not anonymous test-takers in a stack, we are individuals.
However, we must always put the greater good and others first. We should not forget about ourselves, as we too have a starring role in this picture, BUT when we place others first, then we can see where we fit in. Everyone matters – and we do too.
The Muppets said it best, when it comes to life, it is like a movie “Starring everybody (first) -and (then) me!”