The hour before Yom Kippur had finally arrived. It had been a month of anticipation and a painstaking 9 days of prior preparation all leading to this 26 hour moment. I scurried to check off the last minute preparations, grabbed my kitel and wrapped myself in my tallit. I was all suited up and ready. I then descended into my basement where I would spend the next 26 hours of prayer, reflection and thought alone – just me, myself and God.
In the moments during and after this most unusual Yom Kippur beseeching the Almighty for blessings and protection for my family and I, I felt a chill roll down my spine as I recited a phrase in the silent amidah that has stood out to me these past few years never truly understanding why.
In the section known as Kedushat HaShem, recited during each of the five personal declarations of Shemoneh Asreh, it states:
וְיֵעָשׂוּ כֻלָּם אֲגֻדָּה אֶחָת לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹנְךָ בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם.
“And they will bound/join together as one to carry out your (God’s) will with a full/undivided heart.”
We know this phrase well as it is recited during the silent amidah on Rosh HaShanah as well. Yet, it receives very little attention or focus. Simply a line tucked neatly away for posterity at best. This year, after years of grappling with the placement and meaning behind this line, I broke down in the solitude of my own basement as my children played peacefully in the floor above. What was different about this year? Why the emotional outpouring at this moment in the tefillah?
This is not the final time we hear of the concept of an אֲגֻדָּה as the moment we turn the page on Yom Kippur we focus on the holiday of Sukkot and the mitzvah of lulav and etrog. In the Talmud Bavli 30b there is a discussion around the requirement of an אֲגֻדָּה to wrap the four species together in order to properly fulfill the obligation. What is at the root of this question and the opinion that espouses that with it bound together one does not fulfill their mitzvah?
As some may know, the Lulav and the other species is well known to correlate to various major organs and structures in the human body. As such, it would make logical sense to need these items connected, working together for their needs and the needs of the whole unit as well. Just as the heart has its own function separate from the other organs of the body, it is inconsequential unless it is feeding the blood to the whole body. The individual and the whole are inextricably linked – the identity of the single unit disintegrates with the whole and vis versa.
I believe that is the message that the text of our tefillot is trying to imbue. Up until this moment we have been ferociously focused on ourselves as individuals and the means to our personal refinement and growth. Yet, we will never reach the apex of those lofty goals without understanding our relationship and responsibility to the whole. We cannot be truly complete, truly בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם, without being part of something bigger than ourselves.
Over the past number of weeks and months, we have seen the best and worst of humanity as we have struggled to navigate the life altering challenges of COVID-19. Our religious, educational and political leaders have put their lives on hold in order to focus on protecting our present and our future. While some have seen this moment as a way to break through boundaries and divisions in order to bridge the gaps of race, color, culture, political affiliation and religious expressions, others have found their darkest sides take over in the form of public shaming, vilification in the press/media and using social media to broadcast their personal expressions without thought of the wide ramifications it has on others and the greater whole of the Jewish people.
Prior to COVID-19, my wife and I had our third child. I have often wondered what story he and his sisters will be told in twenty years from now. Will they see the brutality masquerading as free speech, the lack of care, compassion and empathy that our communities have shown to those that they refer to as the “others,” or will they see a moment where the religious and educational leaders of our generation defied the boundaries that have divided us for centuries and the potential of personal gain in order to join together in the hopes of reminding us of the vision that the Almighty had of the Jewish people being a vision moral and ethical democracy in this world in the face of injustice, intolerance and fear that has crippled us for all of these years?
If there is any message that we hold tightly onto as we move into 5781, let it be that we are better together. An אגד ‘s strength lies in the collection of its individual strings. Let us take this moment to join together, bring light into the world with all that we do, and remember that while we may not realize it, our children and those not yet born are watching. What message do we hope they will learn from our example?