In nagedachtenis aan de heer Aron (Dolf) Aronson z.l, 1919-2019, Amsterdam.
In one of his essays, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik questions the reason why the sages decided to include an “irrelevant” portion in the Torah reading on Rosh Hashana, informing us that Avraham, after coming back from the “Akedat Yitschak” (the trial of the sacrifice of Yitschak), was told that Milkah, the wife of his brother Nachor, had given birth and that his second wife also gave birth to several children. (Bereshit 23:20-24) What is the reason for the inclusion of this portion on Rosh Hashana?
Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that the sages did so to warn all Jews that even after such an overwhelming event as the Akedat Yitschak, little, if anything, was learned from this event. After hearing from Avraham what had transpired, his family went back to their normal day-to-day life, as if nothing had happened. While the Akedah was, no doubt, one of the most crucial moments in man’s history, carrying enormous moral consequences for all mankind, even Avraham’s family did not really take notice.
Such a thing could easily happen on the day after Yom Kippur. While this day often raises us to the highest level of spirituality, the “day after” may turn out to be just another day, in which nothing could even remind us that the day before was one of great moral and religious exultation.
Anywhere in the world, on the day after Yom Kippur, the synagogue service needs to be a completely different experience from what people are used to. Yom Kippur should still be in the bones of all synagogue participants. Its spirit should still be felt with every prayer. It is therefore completely impossible that synagogue services turn to their old ways in which prayers are, again, said as if “nothing happened.” The truth is that no prayer in the coming year could ever be the same. Anything else makes jollity of Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Repentance and the essential meaning of Teshuva, repentance.
All of us, including myself, who do not feel that we together with the chazan try to implement a different and more spiritual synagogue service the “day after”, should understand that such a situation is a major tragedy. We ought to be taking action to change that situation. Nothing is more dangerous in religious life than indifference.
Delving further, one discovers a serious flaw in modern religious life. On some level it seems that many of us do not fully believe in their prayers on the High Holidays. While crying to God hundreds of times on Yom Kippur that He is the only One, we seem to deny this fact the next day when our prayers are, again, said out of habit. By saying that God is the only One, people express their absolute belief that God is the only real Power in this world and the Source for all life. This knowledge, after being forgotten over the last year, gets rediscovered and re-established on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It should bring a transformation, wherein ever human being should wake up. He or she should see everything in a different light for all of the next year. If that is not the case then one’s life contradicts one’s beliefs. This is a serious matter. Even those who may not be so sure in their beliefs but still go to synagogue since they believe that Judaism may carry the truth and that prayers may, after all, be of help, will have to realize that their prayers cannot be the same. Anything less is “the curse of religious agnosticism.”
All this reveals is that in most cases the synagogue attendance is in serious trouble and that the daily attendance of services is no longer an indication of serious religiosity. Even the observance of other religious observances such as Shabbat and kashrut may no longer be the result of real religiosity. They may be nothing more than an expression of a traditional life style without a real religiosity. While this surely has value, it is far from enough. Religious life has to be devout and an upheaval. If it is not, it will ultimately disintegrate. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance”, said Abraham Joshua Heschel. This should wake up religious thinkers and leaders and make them realize that a different form of religious education is of the greatest necessity.
While this essay is being written, the State of Israel finds itself in one of its most critical moments. Once more the existence of the Jewish State is at stake. Antisemitism is on the rise in many countries, and Jews will have to wake up and understand their responsibilities.
In these difficult days, synagogue services throughout the world, should undergo a serious religious transformation. It is the obligation of every Rabbi or Rabbanit to do everything in their power to make this happen. If we do not, we have gravely violated our mission. At this time in Jewish history no Jew can go about his way without undergoing the feeling that she or he has come to a crossroad. All of us have to be careful that we are not guilty of lip service. Sure, it is a very difficult task but at least we should try our utmost.
If we do, we will be able to enter our Succah and wave the lulav with the feeling that we really have accomplished something great and are indeed fulfilling the commandment to be joyful on these days. “Joy is man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection”, said Spinoza. (Ethics, 3,defs. 2,3) Right he is!
May all of us succeed, at least a little. Chag Sameach!