January 28, 2023 |

Love and Unity

Time waits for no man or woman. The sun goes down every day and rises again. It is divinely ordained that every seven days will be Shabbat since the first week of creation. All of us will grow old and eventually die. We see only the years that are allotted to us, as we say in the Rosh Hashana prayers: 'our days are like a passing shadow'. And yet, they are what we have been given; they are the days and years in which we do all the good we are capable of doing and make the legacy that will define our lives.

Rosh Hashana comes around every year, whether we are ready for it or not. The occasion of the "head of the year" asks us to make meaningful commitments about who we will be and what we will do this next year. It is an exercise in goal-setting and spiritual planning that is oh-so-much harder than planning out our next dentist visit or vacation, or even our professional goals for this year. All of those things can be pushed off if we are busy or not ready. But Rosh Hashana does not wait. It comes when it comes, ready or not.

Rosh Hashana is especially early for us this year. The kids are barely about to start school, the college students are still moving into their dorms, we have barely returned from the Hamptons (well, not us, but some people.) But here it is! By the time you read this, it will be barely 5 days away. Hurricane Earl is NOTHING compared to Rosh Hashana. (Although, if you think about it, a satellite view of the hurricane really does make it like a Rosh Hashana challa is about to swallow up the East Coast of the US.)

From a Chassidic perspective, the big question a Jew should ask themself the week (or month) before Rosh Hashana is: "How will I enter this holy day to stand before the King of Kings?" This is a BIG interview and you are making the case that you are a good employee, that you deserve a raise, that you have earned the right to be known as a human being. Human beings are the crown jewels of God's creation, highly-developed creatures with free will that know how to choose between good and evil. They are God's emissaries in the world and - when you enter Rosh Hashana - you are accounting to your CEO and making projections for next year. It is exciting, but also very daunting. And it requires preparation. You don't want to just 'wing it.'

But the answer is not to prepare your spiritual Powerpoint or come up with your elevator pitch for God. From a Chassidic (and actually non-Chassidic as well) point of view, there is only one anwer to how you can enter Rosh Hashana to stand before Hashem: NOT ALONE. You come to stand before the President of the Universe as a member of a family, a community, of the Jewish people. And even if during that interview, you have a moment when His eyes (so to speak) are turned only to you and you speak mano a deus, you are still part of the Jewish people.

This is the explanation that the Slonimer Rebbe (in Nesivos Shalom) gives of the first four words of our Torah portion: (Deut. 29:9) "Atem" - You (plural), Nitzavim - "are standing", Hayom - today, Kul'chem - "all of you". First, he he says that "today" is Rosh Hashana, the day of the renewal of our covenant with our King. Then, he says that "standing" means to stand upright, proudly, strongly and pro-actively (with takifa u'serara[1]). Finally, bracketing our proudly standing before the King on Rosh Hashana, come the words "you" (in the plural) and "all of you". In other words, when you stand up on Rosh Hashana, you must do it with others; it is all of you who stand together, not any individual.

Perhaps it would be easier to do Rosh Hashana from your living room, to tune into a virtual shofar-blowing, to watch a synagogue service on TV. Perhaps it is hard for us to get off of work, so we'll go to our office and have a little challa with honey at our desk. But that is not the way to do Rosh Hashana. To do it right, you do it with your brothers and sisters. To do it right, you show that you are a member of the most powerful lobbying organization in the world. Not AIPAC, but the Jewish people asking God to continue to believe in us.

In the increasing atomization of our lives, this is the time not to be alone. In the alienation and estrangement of large urban environments, this is the time to seek out community. In the despondency of seeking (and often not finding) goals and fulfillment, this is the time to connect to larger and higher purpose that is not achievable by any one person or any one generation.

Now, it may be hard enough for us to "get in the mood" for Rosh Hashana, but to then go to synagogue and have to put up with all those other Jews...Ah, but this is also the time to locate your love for the Jewish people. There is a famous verse in the Torah that says: "V'ahavta l'rei'acha kamocha", "and you shall love your fellow Jew as yourself." Rabbi Akiva's opinion was that this was a "fundamental principle (k'lal gadol) of the Torah. I have always thought that what was fundamental about it was the challenge of treating another person they way you would treat yourself. It is a moral aspiration that I have doubts I can ever fulfill, even though giving to others is fundamental in Judaism. However, the Slonimer Rebbe gives another interpretation that is quite beautiful: what it means to love your fellow as yourself is to join together with them. It is not YOU and THEM, but US. This is the fundamental nature of the commandment: to love your Felows Jew because you are Jews together. It is not that you always love the way, they look, act or smell, but because you stand together before God and man.

This is why it is a common practice among Chassidim to begin every prayer service with the declaration: "I am hereby ready and willing to fulfill the positive Torah commandment of 'and you shall love your fellow Jew as yourself.'" Whenever we pray together, we stand together. How can we stand together if we do not love one another? It would be so self-destructive to hate the members of your own family, your own team. Love your fellow Jews, then pray to God.

So, this is a mandate for the last 5 days before Rosh Hashana. Find a place to pray with your fellow Jews[2], locate your love for being part of the Jewish people and think about what you can say to the King (and to yourself) about what you have to offer the Jewish people this year. We need you! And you need us. Shabbat shalom!


[1] The word used is "nitzavim", "standing upright", rather than just standing ("om'dim")

[2] If you are in Manhattan, MJE has services on West side (86th), East side (62nd) and Downtown (37th) - see www.jewishexperience.org . Or try: http://www.ujafedny.org/find-a-service, which has many options by denomination.


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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