By Yochanan Gordon

“E Pluribus Unum” is a Latin phrase that appears on the dollar bill, which means out of many, one.

Yom Kippur, which is within a week away, is called by Chazal “Achas Bashanah,” which loosely translated means once a year. However, in reality, it is more profound than that. Over Rosh Hashanah, I found myself analyzing this term, and as a result I began to understand it in somewhat of a deeper light. The word “shanah” means year, of course. However, it also comes from the word “shinui,” which means change.

Time is always changing. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and so on, the march of time continues unabated. But the point is that time is constantly changing and people within time are also always changing, for better or for worse. “Achas B’Shanah” means that there is a day in the year where we can experience the Divine unity at the core of our beings within what seems to be our dichotomous nature. “Achas B’Shanah” means that every Jew, regardless of where life has brought them, has the opportunity on Yom Kippur to view themselves in the way they existed as G-d blew their soul within their nostrils. However, while this perspective is encouraging for each of us, individually, as we draw near to Yom Kippur, this is an outlook and a perspective that we are going to have to adapt in our own lives if we are going to achieve true atonement.

What follows is a kavanah that I had this year as I davened Mussaf on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It was based on an idea that I saw many years ago in the sefer Ohr HaMeir by Reb Zev Wolf of Zhitomer, a disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch, where he cites Sefer Yetzirah in saying that each letter of each word is a brick in the construction of an entire edifice that emerges upon the completion of a word.

However, each word, in reality, constructs many edifices—a two-letter word constructs two houses, a three-letter word six houses, a four-letter word eight houses, and so on. In lashon kodesh the letters in any given word could comprise multiple words, all of which are significant and not just happenstance. The letters lamed, ches, mem, which comprise the word “lechem,” meaning bread, could be used to form the words “melach,” meaning salt; “chamal,” meaning compassion; “chalam,” meaning dream; as well as “machal,” meaning a circle or forgiveness. Each of these words and their meanings are connected each time these words, in any of their permutations, are read.

Now, if I read the word “lechem” in a verse or in a prayer, simply put it is referring to bread. However, in its Divine origin there are many sub-narratives that exist beyond the surface of the manner in which that verse or prayer is presented. So, Reb Zev Wolf of Zhitomer suggested that every time one prays, they should envision each letter of each word, on its own, as it is recited, and G-d will create all the multifarious permutations that that word forms. I read the first berachah in that manner and quickly realized that I might still be there now if I continued along that path, however, I quickly pivoted to reading each word on its own, enunciating each vowel as if I was reading that word out of an aleph binah for the very first time. After a while it occurred to me that if we string a number of words together, a specific narrative or story line emerges based on the order that the words were presented. “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe leimor,” means “And G-d said to Moshe saying.” However, if you read each word individually it doesn’t mean that any longer. “Vayomer” means “and he said.” “Hashem” means “Hashem.” “El” means “to.” But as long as I’m not reading those words as a story but as individual words, it gets stripped of a defined and fixed narrative and could join to mean any of a number of things. The longer I stood there, slowly, but methodically, enunciating each syllable of each word, it occurred to me that we often perceive people and situations in the same manner that we would read, analyze, or understand a text. People often look at the idea or clues as they have been presented and define it based on the outward story that emerges without considering all the other hidden layers that exist beneath the surface.

Chazal say that there is no difference in sanctity between the words “achos lotan timna” and “Bereshis bara Elokim es Hashomayim v’es ha’aretz.” The reason for this is because every word individually represents another revelation of G-d. As such, we can never read one word and claim to understand it in its totality based on the permutation it is presented in. And if that is the case with Torah, which is comprised of words, how much more so is that true of people who are often seen and understood based on their combined experiences and the way in which they processed those experiences, rather than as a literal piece of G-d in this world. We have become too sophisticated and have lost sight of the elemental origin from where we have emerged, and it is the objective of Rosh Hashanah and its culmination in Achas B’Shanah to bring us back to that primal starting point.

We begin the holiest day of the year by declaring our permissibility to pray alongside the sinners. Now, even though they are being characterized as avaryanim it can’t mean that literally since Chazal state not to be in the company of reshaim. It must be telling us that Yom Kippur is a day wherein the boxes within which people perceive others the rest of the year, needs to be suspended on Yom Kippur, a day which is known as Achas B’Shanah. In the example I used to demonstrate how one word could comprise several words I used the letters lamed, ches, and mem that comprise the word “machal,” which means both forgiveness and circle. Because Yom Kippur is literally a day of mechilah, it’s important to understand the connection between the terms forgiveness and a circle. If someone wronged you why should they be forgiven? When someone overlooks a wrongdoing that was committed against them, in essence, they are adjusting the situation from a linear point of view to a cyclical one. Linearly, I can easily identify what was done and bear a grudge on that person for the rest of his or her life and beyond that. However, when I have the courage of granting forgiveness, I am saying that there is no beginning, middle, or conclusion to the narrative that I am studying and that whatever occurred to me was meant to happen with or without the involvement of the person that it happened through.

The Gemara relates that one Yom Kippur, Reb Yishmael Kohen Gadol went into the Holy of Holies as he had many years previously, but when he emerged he remarked to his students that the end of his life is drawing near. Wondering how he knew, he explained that every year when he entered into the inner sanctum he’d see a being there dressed in white; this year when he went in that being that he’d seen there in white was decked out in black. All the commentators ask on this Gemara: the verse explicitly says that no man was to be in the Holy of Holies at the time when the Kohen Gadol did the avodah on Yom Kippur. On the words “v’chol adam” Chazal deduce even angels who have the face of men couldn’t be in the Holy of Holies at that time. What was it that Rebbe Yishmael saw, for many years, in white and on the final year in black?

It has been explained that Rebbe Yishmael was commenting on the way in which he viewed the situation in the world at that time. His perspective on people and events had grown increasingly critical and negative and for him it was a sign that his end was drawing near. Our perspective on others and on the situations that we encounter are not a reflection of the people or the experiences that we are commenting on as much as it is a reflection of where we are holding in life. We have to learn how to drop the narrative and to realize the infinite value in every word, every moment, and certainly within every person unencumbered by the word before it or after it, the moment before it or after it and any other people. That is what Achas B’Shanah means. It means to find the point of unity within the multiplicity. If Rosh Hashanah, which means the head of the year, brings us back in time to a pregestational point within history; Yom Kippur, which is Achas B’shanah, brings us to that point of unity within the realm of multiplicity.

This was the message that I heard within the shofar with the pre-linguistic sound of the Tekia descending within a verbal world in the differentiated, staccato sound of the Shevarim and the Teruah only to return to the Tekia.

And it was that meditation which carried me into Mussaf reading every word on its own irrespective of the world before it or after it. This is a meditation that isn’t only capable of delivering a redemptive year but more so redemption to all of history. Gmar chasimah tovah.


Yochanan Gordon can be reached at Read more of Yochanan’s articles.


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