Not Yet in the Yom Kippur Mindset

It was two days before Rosh Hashanah, and my assignment was to write a piece for the Yom Kippur issue of Mishpacha. Having just returned from two weeks abroad, I was not yet securely enough in the Rosh Hashanah frame of mind to place myself in that of Yom Kippur.

The foci of the two poles of the teshuva process are very different. Rosh Hashanah bids us to look forward. The blowing of the Shofar brings us back to the very first moment of human existence when Hashem blew the breath of life into Adam, and all human existence stretched in front of him. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, forces us to look backwards and scrutinize our deeds of the past year under a microscope.

There is no Al Cheit on Rosh Hashanah, no confession of individual sins. Our first task is to crown Hashem as King over us. We do that by acknowledging that there is no existence apart from Him, and that true Life consists of attaching ourselves to the Source of all Life. That requires recognizing the Tzelem Elokim within us, and our role as a “speaking being” (the Targum’s translation of “and Adam became a living being”). Each of us has some unique aspect of the Creator to reveal.

Ascertaining our specific mission requires contemplation of our particular strengths. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter used to say: It is sad if a person does not know his weaknesses, but far more tragic is the failure to recognize his strengths, for those strengths are the primary tools of his Divine service.

On Yom Kippur, however, we contemplate our failures not our strengths. On Yom Kippur we wash our dirty clothes, as it were, and purify ourselves from our sins. But that process can only begin when we first notice that our clothes are dirty and requiring laundering. That only happens when we develop a higher image of ourselves on Rosh Hashanah.

(Surely, there is a lesson for all parents in the sequence. If we want our children to be able to deal with failure and accept criticism, we must first instill in them a sense of their own worth. Their basic self-conception must be a positive one, in which context their various failings are seen as unworthy diversions for one of their great merit.)

IF I’M NOT YET READY to put myself in a Yom Kippur mindset, there is one event I associate with Yom Kippur that always bears contemplation. During the Yom Kippur War, Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, the renowned Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, instructed bochurim to confine their search for the four species to the barest minimum.

Reb Chaim stressed that at a time of imminent danger to Klal Yisrael, the place of yeshiva bochurim is in the beis medrash. But beyond the protective power of Torah, Reb Chaim offered another reason for his edict. He asked the bochurim to consider the feelings of a father or mother with a son on the front lines if they saw yeshiva bochurim their son’s age peering through their magnifying glasses at lulavim and esrogim without a care in the world.

Reb Chaim’s acute sensitivity to the feelings of others is, unfortunately, a diminishing quality today. As our world grows ever larger and more self-contained, the awareness of those outside our world declines. And that trend is reinforced by our efforts to insulate ourselves and our children from the influences of an outside society whose values are often antithetical to those of the Torah.

We rightly teach our children to shut out the spiritually toxic environment around us and to wear blinders when they have to venture out of our protected neighborhoods. In addition, we teach them to be oblivious to what the outside world thinks of them and to carry themselves as proud Torah Jews – tzitzis out and their dress showing no signs of aping secular fashions.

All this is not only understandable, it is vital to the protection of our precious neshamos. At the same time, we must not lose sight of the fact that this radical separation between different sectors of the Jewish people is far from ideal. And we must find ways to convey to our children that at some fundamental level they are connected to every Jew and bear responsibilities towards their fellow Jews.

Though we must not be deterred from our mitzvah observance by the ridicule directed at us by the secular world, we must still remember that ultimately it does matter what our secular brothers think of us because we bear a responsibility for bringing them to Torah and mitzvos.

The overwhelming response of chareidi chesed organizations to the needs of the refugees from the North during the more than month of fighting with Hizbullah shows that the spirit of Klal Yisrael burns bright among many in the Torah world. They eagerly seize on those opportunities when we can put aside our differences and manifest an unadulterated ahavas Yisrael . But we kid ourselves if we think that such concern for our fellow Jews is universal in our world.

As I pointed out last week, there are many reasons to believe in the wake of the failures of Lebanon that the hearts of our secular brethren are more open today to the message of Torah. The attitude of kochi v’otzem yadi and belief in the invincibility of the IDF has been dealt a severe blow. There is a widespread recognition of the corruption and rot that follows from a self-centered pursuit of money and pleasure, and its destructive impact on every aspect of national life. And finally, Israeli Jews are searching for new sources of national will that will help us prevail against an enemy that is militarily weak but confident of the justness of its cause.

In order to bring others over to our point of view, however, we must first understand theirs. Without an effort to enter the mindset of another it is hard to convince him. Reb Chaim Shmulevitz provided a classic example of that ability to empathize with another’s situation.

May he be a model for us until that time when all Klal Yisrael is purified before Hashem on Yom Kippur.

Originally appeared in Mishpacha magazine Sep. 27.

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5 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    this reminds me of an article in the Jewih Press in the ’70’s by arnold fine. apparently the edition was supposed to come out after pesach. the article started, “ah … the taste of rye bread again”. the thing is we got our edition of the JP in time for shvi’i shel pesach.

  2. joel rich says:

    In addition, we teach them to be oblivious to what the outside world thinks of them and to carry themselves as proud Torah Jews – tzitzis out and their dress showing no signs of aping secular fashions.

    One can carry themselves as proud Torah Jews without being oblivious to what the ouside world thinks of them ( I thought that was R’ CS point in your story)

    Just as a historical question, who were the first Torah Jews to take on the black hat and suit as a “uniform”? Were they native Jewish clothes at the time or were they “aping” secular fashion? IIRC I heard that R’ Moshe Feinstein reported that in his Yeshiva in Europe the boys were encouraged to dress in the manner of those dignified in their host society(e.g. walking cane)


  3. Eliyahu says:

    Great article. It’s hard to balance separation and the need to realize that in an ideal world such separation would not be necessary, but it has to be done.

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “In addition, we teach them to be oblivious to what the outside world thinks of them and to carry themselves as proud Torah Jews – tzitzis out and their dress showing no signs of aping secular fashions”

    I agree with this(and with the article in general); in today’s atmosphere of multiculturalism, no one needs to be apologetic for standing out by not dressing like an all-American. Wearing a tallis in crowded non-Jewish cities, which was discouraged by R’ Yaakov Zt’l, may be different because it can be perceived as engaging in a religious ritual that should be done privately and modestly–there is an element of tzniyus and derech eretz in shmiras hamitzvos as well.

    While clothing, particularly in the charedie world, shield the wearer from outside society, I think that we have to be concerned that the walls that we erect do not take a life of their own. Diversity and individuality are important. If I recall correctly from the biography, Rabbi Stienberg Z’l , of Beis Yaakov of Baltimore, was initially against instituting school uniforms for this reason.

    I have read that the dress in the charedie community in Israel is more restricted than in the corresponding charedie community in America. My personal feeling is that this is an unfortunate development, and that it might be related to the complex relationship between religious and secular worlds in Israel. Practically, this means that a person considering moving to Eretz Yisrael needs to consider whether he and his family can adopt to the standards of a new geographic location. This was discussed in the Jewish Observer at length, and is recommended by Rabbonim. I personally hope that with time, the Eretz Yisrael community will move, at least in sartorial aspects, closer to the American model of tolerating more non-conformity.

  5. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Rav Yisrael Salanter’s point is an important one for the entire year. In addition, I think that although the Yom Kippur liturgy indeed emphasizes failings and seeking forgiveness, there is still some room for strengths as well.

    For example, following viddui we say “I am like a vessel filled with shame”. On the other hand, before the confession we say the piyut of “We Are Your People”, which describes the positive attributes of the Jewish people. Although it is speaking on a communal level, I think that it can also be related to the individual, so that they have the attributes to correct their weaknesses in the viddui which follows.

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