Days of Awe תשפ”ג

We stand today at the beginning of the High Holiday season. (For scheduling purposes, next week at this time we will be in Shul reciting Rosh Hashanah prayers. The following week will be Yom Kippur eve, and the next two Tuesday nights will be the holiday of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, respectively; so, Partners learning will not resume until October 25th. And the following Sunday, October 30th, is the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah annual dinner.) 

  This leaves the next four Tuesday nights without a booklet to help us prepare for the High Holidays. Hence, this booklet will attempt to capture the essence of these auspicious times and help focus us on some of their important ideas so that we may derive the most benefit from them. 

Rosh Hashanah

On Rosh Hashana, the first of Tishrei, Hashem created the world. His purpose in bringing the universe into existence was to reveal Himself to man through Creation. Therefore, the creation of Adam is considered the “day of creation,” since it was then that Adam first recognized Hashem as Creator and King of the universe. (The physical universe had actually been created a week earlier, starting on the 25th of the month of Ellul.) 

Being that Rosh Hashanah is the day on which Hashem was first acknowledged as King of the Universe, our most important job on this day is to do the same, viz, to recognize Hashem as King of the Universe and to accept upon ourselves his kingship. Rabbi Saadia Gaon (d. 942) says that this is one of the motifs in blowing the shofar: Hashem’s coronation as our King. Just as it is customary to blow trumpets when coronating a new king, so, too, we blow the shofar to coronate Hashem as our King. 

Although Hashem is the King of the Universe and controls the entire world and everything in it, in our times Hashem does so in His hidden mode. If one wishes not to see Hashem, he will not see Him. Therefore, Rosh Hashana is also the opportune time to tell our King, “We want to see You! Please, reveal Yourself once again so that the entire world will accept You as their king! After all, this was the Divine plan conceived on this very day; please bring it to fruition!” 

Rosh Hashana is also called יום הדין, the Day of Judgment. The Mishna (Rosh Hashana 1:2) tells us that on this day every person in the world passes before Hashem for judgment when his fate for the coming year is determined. Will he become wealthy or poor, healthy or sick, etc. 

This follows from the fact that the Universe and Adam were created on this day. The purpose for creation is for every creature on the planet to recognize Hashem as their King. The fulfillment of this will take place when the Mashiach comes and teaches everybody about Hashem, and, ultimately, Hashem reveals Himself once again to mankind. Every year, Hashem reviews the world’s progress and decides on what measures are needed to bring us closer to that goal. The Torah that we learn and the mitzvot that we perform reveal Hashem to the world and bring it closer to its goal. Therefore, in evaluating the coming year, Hashem is judging us based on how our actions have impacted the progress of the world towards its ultimate goal. We need to ask ourselves whether our actions brought the world closer to its goal, or have we unfortunately obscured Hashem’s presence from the world by acting as if He doesn’t exist? 

That we are being judged solely on the merit of our service to Hashem should strike fear in our hearts. Who can say that he has done a perfect job in his service to Hashem? This necessary introspection brings us to the Ten Days of Teshuva, Hashem’s gift to us to clear our slates and start fresh. 

The Ten Days of Teshuva

The Ten Days of Teshuva start with Rosh Hashanah, and end with Yom Kippur. There is a full week of days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Our Sages teach us that by doing teshuva during this time, we can erase the sins of each day of the week for the last year. 

Whence comes the idea of the Ten Days of Teshuva? 

The source of this concept is in the Talmud tractate Rosh Hashana 16b where it says:

אמר רבי כרוספדאי אמר רבי יוחנן: שלשה ספרים נפתחין בראש השנה – אחד של רשעים גמורין ואחד של צדיקים גמורין ואחד של בינוניים. צדיקים גמורין נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר לחיים; רשעים גמורין נכתבין ונחתמין לאלתר למיתה; בינוניים תלויין ועומדין מראש השנה ועד יום הכפורים: זכו נכתבין לחיים לא זכו נכתבין למיתה. 

Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan; 

On Rosh Hashanah, three books are opened: One for the completely evil people, one for completely righteous people, and one for the middling people. 

The completely righteous people are written and sealed immediately in The Book of Life. The completely evil people, are written and sealed immediately in The Book of Death. The middling people are not yet written anywhere; rather, they hang in the balance from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they are meritorious, they are written in The Book of Life, but if they are not meritorious, they are written in The Book of Death.

This is why the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are so important. Our Sages tell us that we all should consider ourselves of the “middling” people because we sometimes don’t do what is right and therefore are not completely righteous. If we are meritorious, we can secure a place in the Book of Life

How do we become meritorious? Maimonides writes (Laws of Teshuva 3):

בכל שנה ושנה שוקלין עונות כל אחד ואחד מבאי העולם עם זכיותיו ביום טוב של ראש השנה. מי שנמצא צדיק נחתם לחיים ומי שנמצא רשע נחתם למיתה והבינוני תולין אותו עד יום הכפורים אם עשה תשובה נחתם לחיים ואם לאו נחתם למיתה:

Each and every year, the sins of each and every person are weighed on the holiday of Rosh Hashana. One who is found to be a Tzadik is sealed for life, and one who is found to be evil is sealed for death. Those in between hang in the balance until Yom Kippur. If they did teshuva, they are sealed for life; but if they did not do teshuva, they are sealed for death. 

            We see from Maimonides that one becomes meritorious by doing teshuva, repenting for his sins. 

The Sages ask a question on Maimonides.

Maimonides had previously explained that a Tzadik is someone who has more good deeds than bad and that an evil person is someone who has more evil deeds than good. A middling person is someone who has the same number of each. (It’s not a one-to-one calculation. One mitzvah can be worth many sins, and vice versa.) That being the case, why is it insufficient for the in-betweener to just do another mitzvah to tip the scale in favor of the good? Why does the Rambam say only that if a person does teshuva will he be sealed in the book of life? 

The answer is that the sin of not doing teshuva during the Ten Days of Teshuva would alone be considered such a grievous sin that it would outweigh any extra mitzvot that would be done and would thus tip the scale to the side of the sins. This is because Hashem wants to forgive us for our sins during this special time, and He will pardon us very easily. All we need to do is ask. If someone doesn’t seize this golden opportunity to cleanse himself of his sins, he is saying that having sins is unobjectionable to him. That is akin to a slap in Hashem’s face (so to speak), because it is like saying, “So what if I have done something You told me not to do? I don’t care!” 

Therefore, our focus during the Ten Days of Teshuva should be to do teshuva for our sins because Hashem is very willing to forgive us for them. Upon understanding the special opportunity that Hashem gives us during these ten days to erase our sins through teshuva, let’s explain exactly how it’s done.

 There are three simple steps to the teshuva process, but they must be sincere. If a person’s heart is not in it, it won’t work. 

  1. ודוי  – Verbally, privately, admit the sin – acknowledge that we have disobeyed Hashem’s commandment and own up to it. 
  2. חרטה  – Remorse – regret having done the sin to the point where you wish you could go back in time and pull it out of existence.
  3. עזיבת החטא  – Accept upon oneself never to do it again. This follows logically from #2 because if a person would be ready to do it again at the next opportunity, or even at some future time, he obviously doesn’t really feel remorse for ever having done it.  

Our Sages teach us that when a person properly performs the process of teshuva, it is as if the act has been erased from reality. He will never again have to face that action and receive a judgment for it. Indeed, even if a person commits that very same sin later on, it does not repeal his teshuva. Since, at the time of his teshuva, when he said, “I will never do this sin again” he was sincere and would not have done it, his teshuva was sincere and honest. What happens later on will not affect it. 

            Our Sages teach us that during the Ten Days of Teshuva, a person should also be stricter on himself to do extra mitzvot even though he knows that after Yom Kippur he will not continue to do them. This may at first blush sound hypocritical to us, but our Sages use a parable to explain why such is not the case. 

            A king once wanted to understand how his subjects lived to enact laws that would make life easier for them. To accomplish this, he took a random sampling of each type of person living in his kingdom, from the great lords, the judges, the lawyers, doctors, white collar workers, blue collar workers, etc., all the way down to the lowest job in the kingdom. He sent each person selected a letter telling him that he, the King, was coming to visit them in their homes, on a certain date, to see how they live, so that he can better understand their needs.

One of the people to receive a letter from the king was an old woodchopper who lived with his wife in a tumbledown shack in the forest. After reading the letter, he ran to his wife and read her the letter. Once the message sunk in, the woodchopper exclaimed, 

“The King is coming to visit us, here, in this very shack? How can we let the king into a broken down, dilapidated shack like this? The place hasn’t been painted in years. The windows have holes in them, stuffed with rags, so that the wind doesn’t get in! The chairs that we balance ourselves on wobble, and the king will fall off and hurt himself! We have to fix this place up before the king comes!”

His wife said to him, “I don’t understand! I have been telling you that for years! And you have always told me that we can’t afford to paint and fix up the place. Now that the king is coming, all of a sudden we have the money to do the renovations?”

The woodchopper replied, “We don’t have the money! And I don’t know where it is going to come from. Maybe I will have to chop wood day and night for a while to scrape together a few extra coins. Maybe I will have to borrow some money; but all I know is that we cannot let the king into a hovel like this!”

So, his wife tried another approach. “Read the letter again. It says the king wants to see how we live. This is how we live! What, are you going to build him a throne? Put up velvet curtains? That’s not what the king wants!”

Now, this old woodchopper was no fool, and, after thinking for a moment, told his wife, “If the king wanted only to see how we live, he would not have sent a letter telling us that he is coming to visit us. He would have paid us a surprise visit to see how we live in its full glory. It is clear from his having sent us a letter telling us that he is coming that there is something else that he also wants to see. He wants to see if we consider it the greatest privilege in the world that he has chosen to come and visit us and if we have prepared according to our meager means for his visit. Of course, we can’t build him a throne worthy of him. Of course, we can’t decorate with velvet curtains. The king doesn’t expect that at all. But what he does expect to see is that we have made, according to our abilities, some modest improvements in honor of his visit.” 

It is interesting to note that in the descriptions of all judgments in scripture, it describes Hashem as coming to judge us. And, especially during the Ten Days of Teshuva, when Hashem is closest to us to forgive our sins. In honor of this special closeness that Hashem shows us during these ten days, it is very appropriate that we show Hashem, in some way, that we recognize and appreciate the golden opportunity that He is giving us. The way we do this is to be strict with ourselves to do even mitzvot that we have not been doing and may not continue to do.

We can easily understand, based on what we have explained, how if the woodchopper had done nothing to prepare for the king’s visit, how that would have been considered a terrible insult and tremendous disrespect to the king: “I told you I was coming, and you didn’t do one thing to prepare for my arrival? You obviously don’t have any respect for me!”

In the very same way, our Sages teach us that if we fail to make any improvements over the Ten Days of Teshuva, it is considered a very big insult to Hashem. 

Yom Kippur 

When the Tabernacle and, then, the Holy Temples stood, the High Priest performed a special service on Yom Kippur to gain forgiveness for the people’s sins. In the course of the service, he would articulate the sins of the Jewish people and beg for atonement for them. The entire service is described step by step in the repetition of the Yom Kippur Musaf Service. 

As it says in Leviticus (126:30), 

ל) כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק תִּטְהָרוּ

30. For on this day He shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you; from all of your sins before Hashem shall you be cleansed.

This captures the essence of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day on which Hashem will forgive all of our sins, if we just ask Him to. If we do this properly, we can come out of Yom Kippur like a newly born baby. 

To this end, the Yom Kippur prayers are replete with confessions of our sins, the first step in teshuva. As we articulate the various infractions, we should feel deep feelings of remorse and that we never want to do the sin again. 

There is another important component to Yom Kippur. The Torah tells us (Leviticus 16:29-31):

כט) וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם וְכָל  מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם

ל) כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק תִּטְהָרוּ

לא) שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם

29. This is for you an eternal decree – In the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselvesand you shall not do any work, not the native or the proselyte who dwells among you: 

30. For on this day He shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you; from all your sins before Hashem shall you be cleansed: 

31. It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves; an eternal decree:

These three verses discuss Yom Kippur. The tenth day of the seventh month, the 10th of Tishrei, is Yom Kippur. It is a day of Shabbat, a day on which we rest from any מלאכה  – constructive work. In two of the verses, the Torah instructs us to afflict ourselves on this day. 

What is the meaning of this affliction? 

Here is a perfect example where we see that the Torah was given to Moshe with the oral explanation of the commandments. 

In dictating this verse to Moshe on Sinai, Hashem told him, “Let me explain what I mean. You will notice, Moshe, that in scripture only five things are referred to as “ענוי  – affliction.“ Those five things (and Hashem listed them), are the only afflictions to which I am referring in this passage.” 

The Talmudic Sages scoured the entire written Torah to locate the five things that Hashem referred to as an affliction. (As an aside; the word ענוי  – affliction, or different forms of it, appears 80 times in Scripture and includes many different types of afflictions. Invoking the Torah’s 13 principal interpretive rules, the Sages eliminated most of those usages, distilling them down to just the five that apply to Yom Kippur.

  1. No eating or drinking 
    1. No smearing oils to soothe the body
    1. No marital relations
    1. No washing for pleasure such as a shower or bath
    1. No wearing leather shoes 

A quick look at this list reveals the obvious purpose for these prohibitions: to minimize the pleasure of the body on Yom Kippur. This, in turn, allows us to concentrate on our spiritual endeavors and reach higher spiritual heights on this Holy day. 

All seem to fit except wearing leather shoes. How does that constitute an “affliction?” Sure, a good pair of leather shoes feel good on our feet, but so does a good pair of Crocs! Why are we allowed to wear comfortable sneakers and not comfortable leather shoes?  

Our Sages teach us that a person’s soul has various levels of holiness. During our existence in this world, we have access to only the tail end, or the foot, so to speak, of our holy soul. Because that part of the soul is considered the foot of the soul, our body, which serves as its vessel, is like its shoe.

And just as shoes allow our soft feet to walk on all types of hurtful terrains and in all types of substances that would hurt or dirty our feet, the body allows our soul to “walk” in a world that would otherwise be hostile to it.  

We understand the shoe concept, by why is only leather prohibited?  

To answer this question, we must return to the first set of clothing ever created (Genesis 3:21):

(כא) וַיַּעַשׂ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם:

21. And Hashem God made for Adam and his wife garments of skin, and He clothed them:

The very first set of real clothing that hashem made for Adam and Chava were regal, respectable garments made of skin, or fur, that completely covered their bodies, in place of the fig leaf aprons that they had made for themselves. The purpose of these clothes was to cover the body and minimize its prominence and the desire for it. This would allow the dignity and holiness of the soul to shine forth and provide man with a clear understanding of who he really is. The human body is a beautiful thing, and man can easily make the mistake of thinking that he is his body and nothing more. This is why modest dress is so important in Judaism. It puts the materialistic body out of sight and out of mind. The Torah teaches us that we are a soul, and our bodies are merely the shoes that allow our soul to “walk” in this earthy world. 

This is why only shoes made from animal skin are forbidden on Yom Kippur. The leather shoe, which represents the body and was the very first material used to cover it, is reminiscent of the body’s earthiness and its need to be covered. This is what we are trying to minimize on Yom Kippur. 

There is another very important message here.

The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Alexandri would add the following prayer to his daily prayers. 

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף יז/א 

ורבי אלכסנדרי בתר דמצלי אמר הכי רבון העולמים גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ומי מעכב שאור שבעיסה ושעבוד מלכיות יהי רצון מלפניך שתצילנו מידם ונשוב לעשות חוקי רצונך בלבב שלם

Master of the universe, it is revealed and known before You that our true desire is to do Your will, but what is standing in our way? The leaven in the dough (the evil inclination within us) and the society we live in (the evil influence from outside of us). Please save us from them so we may do Your will with all our hearts.

King David said in Psalm 103:14:

(יד) כִּי הוּא יָדַע יִצְרֵנוּ זָכוּר כִּי עָפָר אֲנָחְנו:

  1. For He knows our evil inclinations, remember we are dust.

Hashem knows what we are made of and what the temptations of being human are. We have it from inside and outside. It is not that we are malicious or mal intentioned against Hashem. It is because of our earthy component, the body, and the society we live in, that we do the things that we do. “Hashem, please see me as I stand before you today, on Yom Kippur without my body pulling on me and influencing me. This is the real me. I want to do Your will.” 

This is the flow of the ten Days of Awe: We begin with coronating Hashem as our King and justifying our existence in judgment for the year to come. On Rosh Hashanah there is no mention of sin. It is focused strictly on enlisting in Hashem’s Kingdom. This is the first step. 

Then, during the Ten Days of Teshuva, we try to erase all our sins and, by being stricter on ourselves when doing the mitzvot, show Hashem that we want to do better next year. 

Then comes Yom Kippur, the ultimate day of forgiveness, with the fasting and afflictions, where we aspire to reach the highest spiritual level possible, so we are worthy of complete forgiveness. This allows us to start the new year with a clean slate, and hopefully great aspirations for a holier and more spiritual new year.

May we all be inscribed into the Book of Life, a life of health, happiness, and continued spiritual growth through Partners Detroit!

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