Yochanan Gordon


Previously I wrote a column titled “The Mask in My Pocket” in which I laid out the importance of entering the days of awe as part of the congregation and not resting upon our own laurels to merit a favorable judgement. I quoted a teachings from Rav Tzvi Meir Zilberberg, who said it is particularly pertinent to cover our heads with our taleisim during High Holiday prayers to strive for a certain sense of uniformity rather than highlighting our individual virtues and uniquenesses.

On the other hand there is room for distinctions among each of us that contributes to G-d’s coronation as king on Rosh Hashanah. Our reading of Parashas Nitzavim right before Rosh Hashanah isn’t arbitrary. The parashah opens with the verse: “You are standing, today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d; your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, each Jewish man; your children, your wives, and the convert within your camp, from your woodchoppers until your water carriers.” So while we seek to achieve a certain sense of sameness in our High Holiday experience, that doesn’t preclude the existence on some level of distinctions, which in itself adds to the grandeur of the coronation holiday, as Rosh Hashanah is referred to.

Chazal state, “Ein melech b’lo am.” Simply put it seems that what Chazal is telling us is that a King requires subjects. However, at the backdrop of this statement is a much more profound lesson that is part and parcel of the optimal Rosh Hashanah experience.

The word “am,” which is translated as nation or people could, with varied vowelization, comprise the word “im,” which means with. The word “im” connotes a secondary position as in the verse when Avraham was taking Isaac to the akeidah and he instructs Yishmael: “You stay here” “Im hachamor” (with the donkey) Chazal explain that the word “im” implies am hadomeh lachamor, a nation likened to a donkey. Additionally, during the exodus narrative, we often find the term “am” being employed, referring to the erev rav. Despite Moshe’s advocacy on their behalf to leave Egypt, the erev rav were a nuisance to him and the Jewish people throughout their desert sojourn. With the words “ein melech b’lo am” Chazal are imparting that a King’s sovereignty has to extend to the lowest common denominator if he is to be a true King.

The Baal HaTanya once asked his son and successor, Dov Ber, the Mitteler Rebbe, about his  intentions as he prayed during the High Holidays. Dov Ber replied: “And all of creation should be aware that you created them, and all forms should understand that you formed them …” Dov Ber then turned to his father and asked in return what he prayed with during the High Holiday prayers. He replied, “I prayed with my shtender.” What he meant was that while his son Dov Ber strove to extend G-d’s reign on all human creation, his father, the Alter Rebbe, sought to broaden G-d’s sovereignty to include all inanimate creation as well.

The two paradigms of uniformity and distinction, one connoting equality and the other hierarchy, seem mutually exclusive. How can the ideas appear simultaneously within the High Holiday experience? [The word “hayom,” today, in the opening verse of this week’s parashah is an allusion to Rosh Hashanah.]

It reminded me of a perspective on Rosh Hashanah I learned in the sefer Ateres Rosh, which is a sefer on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shabbos Shuvah that was written by the Mitteler Rebbe. It left such a deep impression upon me that it became somewhat of a tradition to go through the month of Tishrei, or at least the first couple of weeks of Tishrei, with that sefer by my side.

The question he deals with at the outset is why the holiday is referred to as Rosh Hashanah as opposed to Techilas Hashanah, which semantically would make more sense.

His answer is that Rosh Hashanah doesn’t just signal the beginning of the year or the New Year like people traditionally wish their friends, family, and acquaintances. Rosh Hashanah is in time what the head is in relation to the body. That is, every limb, organ, and sinew which develops over a nine month gestation period in utero exists in the head, which is the nerve center of the entire body.

So although on some level individuality is significant and even in a sense more beneficial to the entirety of our people, the situation that we encounter on Rosh Hashanah is one where the hierarchy is subsumed by the presence of the essence of G-dliness, which is the dominating force on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

This is alluded to in the words of the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah: “All the Jewish people are judged beskira achas, in one fell swoop. Or as the author of the Machzor puts it: “V’chol ba’ei olam yaavrun lefanecha kivnei maron.”

Anytime there are perceived distinctions among Klal Yisrael, it is a result of giluyim or revelations of G-dliness, which is preceded by a tzimtzum or contraction in the same manner that night precedes the light of day. However, the avodah that we strive to achieve during Tishrei is as the Zohar puts it, “l’ashtava b’gufa d’malka,” which denotes a level of achdus Hashem, which didn’t even exist prior to the creation of the world.

Another distinction between a life punctuated by revelatory clarity and that of Divine intimacy is the feeling that our avodas Hashem elicits. Religious devotion in and of itself is unfanciful and unceremonious. The pleasure that is often described about the sweetness of Torah and the performance of mitzvos is associated with the giluyim as opposed to etzem, which is the level we are striving to achieve in the month of Tishrei.

A chossid once lamented to the Tzemach Tzedek that he has no geshmak in learning Torah, which he attributed to his dearth of learning. The Tzemach Tzedek replied, “What should I do about the fact that I do derive pleasure in Torah.” The Tzemach Tzedek was implying that the level of learning of someone who feels nothing is oftentimes higher than those who derive pleasure from it.

The concluding levels of the ten hierarchical distinctions enumerated in the opening verse of Parashas Nitzavim are the woodchoppers and the water carriers. In addition to meaning wood the word eitzah means counsel, the Rebbe cites the Alter Rebbe in Hayom Yom of the 19th of Elul, who explains that choteiv eitzecha refers, spiritually, to one who comes to the realization that they are fully dependent on G-d, whereas shoev mayim refers to a person who rid himself of the waters of pleasure, seeking a life of service without anything separating him from G-d.

It’s been a trying and challenging year for the Jewish people the world over. The pandemic that we are sadly still enduring, which will impact the High Holiday experience, has claimed so many lives prematurely, has left many others incapacitated, and has upended life over these past six months in ways which many of us have never before experienced.

Despite the late stage in history that we find ourselves in and despite the effects of the downgrading of the generations in the continued march of history, we still, as a people, possess our fair share of rosheichem, shivteichem, zikneichem, shotreichem; many of the stature enumerated in the opening verse in our parashah. It’s safe to say that regardless of one’s standing in life and their area of profession, the events of the last six months have left us collectively with more questions than answers.

The Chasam Sofer, in a letter that I saw on a WhatsApp message, seems to have foretold the difficulties inherent in the number tav shin peh but seemingly saw a greater chance of hopefulness in the number tav shin peh aleph, which comprises the word “ashpos” as in the verse “Mekimi m’afar dal m’adhpos yarim evyon — from the dust you raise up the poor from the garbage heaps you will elevate the indigent.

We all are on the level of indigents and this pandemic has certainly left us figuratively in the garbage heaps. Let us muster the courage to turn to G-d this High Holiday season, with outstretched arms, declaring our powerlessness and lack of a path out of this and may we merit His salvation, rooted in atzmus, which precludes the possibility of ever being re-infected both literally and figuratively with the illness of exile.


  1. Beautiful and erudite essay. Yochanan we want and need more of this. Thank you and a כתיבה וחתימה טובה י


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