In one of his essays, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik questions why the sages decided to include an “irrelevant” portion in the Torah reading on Rosh Hashana, about how, after coming back from the “Akedath Yitschak” (the trial of the sacrifice of Yitschak), Avraham was told that Milkah, the wife of his brother Nachor, had given birth and that his second wife also gave birth to several children. (Bereshith 23:20-24) What is the reason for the inclusion of this portion on Rosh Hashana?
Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that the sages included it so as to warn all Jews that even after such an overwhelming event as Akedath Yitschak, little, if anything, was learned from the event. After hearing from Avraham what had transpired, his family went back to their normal day-to-day life, as if nothing had happened. While the Akedah was, no doubt, one of the most crucial moments in man’s history, carrying enormous moral consequences for all mankind, even Avraham’s family did not really take notice.
Such could easily happen on the day after Yom Kippur. While this day often raises us to the highest level of spirituality, the “day after” may turn out to be just another day, in which nothing even reminds us that the day before was one of great moral and religious exultation.
Anywhere in the world, on the day after Yom Kippur, the synagogue service really should be a completely different experience from what people are used to. Yom Kippur should still be in the bones of all synagogue participants. Its spirit should still be felt with every prayer. It should be completely impossible for synagogue services to return to their old ways, in which prayers are said as if “nothing happened.”The truth is that no prayer in the coming year could ever be the same. Anything else makes a mockery of Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Repentance and the essential meaning of Teshuva, repentance.
That we do not try to implement a different and more spiritual synagogue service the “day after” is a major tragedy. We ought to be taking action to change this situation. Nothing is more dangerous in religious life than indifference.
Delving further, we discover a serious flaw in modern religious life. On some level, it seems that many of us do not fully believe in our prayers on the High Holidays. While crying to God hundreds of times on Yom Kippur that He is the only One, we seem to deny this fact the next day, when our prayers are, again, said out of habit. By saying that God is the only One, people express their absolute belief that God is the only real Power in this world and the Source of all life. This knowledge, after being forgotten over the last year, gets re-discovered and re-established on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It should bring about a transformation, wherein every human being should wake up. He or she should see everything in a different light for all of the next year. If such is not the case, then one’s life contradicts one’s beliefs. This is a serious matter. Even those who may not be so sure in their beliefs, but still go to synagogue because they believe that Judaism may carry the truth and that prayers may, after all, be of help, will have to realize that their prayers cannot be the same. Anything less is “the curse of religious agnosticism.”
All this reveals that in most cases, synagogue attendance is in serious trouble, and that the daily attendance of services is no longer an indication of serious religiosity. Even the observance of other religious observances, such as Shabbath and kashruth may no longer be the result of real religiosity. They may be nothing more than an expression of a traditional lifestyle, without true religiosity. While this surely has value, it is far from enough. Religious life should be devout—an upheaval. If it is not, it will ultimately disintegrate. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel. This should wake up religious thinkers and leaders and make them realize that a different form of religious education is of the greatest necessity.
At the present time, the State of Israel finds itself in one of its most critical moments. Once more the existence of the Jewish State is at stake. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in many countries, and Jews will have to wake up and understand their responsibilities.
In these difficult days, synagogue services throughout the world should undergo a serious religious transformation. It is the obligation of every Rabbi or Rabbanit to do everything in their power to make this happen. If we do not, we have gravely violated our mission. At this time in Jewish history, no Jew can go on his way without feeling that she or he has come to a crossroad. All of us have to be careful that we are not guilty of lip service. Sure, it is a very difficult task but at least we should try our utmost.
If we do this, we will be able to enter our Succah and wave the lulav with the feeling that we really have accomplished something great, and that we are indeed fulfilling the commandment to be joyful on these days. “Joy is man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection”, said Spinoza. (Ethics, 3,defs. 2,3) And he’s right!
May all of us succeed, at least a little. Chag Sameach!
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Aron (Dolf) Aronson, 1919-2019, Amsterdam.