The Song That Stole Elul

Yishai Ribo’s evocation of the Avodah[1] of Yom Kippur stirs hearts and moves to tears. It has gone viral here in Israel; I’m told that the same is happening in the US. (One of the many, many beautiful things about living here is that – especially recently – people who proudly define themselves as staunchly secular have enough familiarity with the words of davening that they, too, admit to deep feelings of connection to songs like this. A raft of Israeli musicians have turned to piyutim for their material, and the street buys it.)

Those who love it claim it has stolen their attention from what other spiritual preparations they were making for the coming Days of Awe. No worries, though. The song, with a haunting melody, powerful delivery, and unforgettable message pays back the theft doubly, just as the Torah demands.[2]

The artist does take some liberties, which Briskers probably will not like. He turns the achas, achas v’achas count of the sprinkling above and below into an exercise in shamefacedly counting the transgression that we’ve committed. That allows him to contrast it with a new count of his own invention – a much, much larger count of all of the gifts, blessings, and acts of Divine intervention large and small that we also remember.

When you watch it, most likely you’ll forgive him for taking the license. It creates an enormously powerful impetus to teshuvah – one born of love, and of gratitude to Hashem[3] for all that He has given us, rather than the fear of the impending doom of punishment meted out by Heaven.

Interestingly, Mishpacha’s editor-in-chief Rabbi Moshe Grylak made the same point in his lead editorial last week (Sept. 4), citing an apparently not-so-observant taxi driver as his source. (I’m convinced that this country would be in much better shape if Knesset were replaced by a random assortment of 120 taxi drivers.) He recounts how Rav Yisrael Salanter – particularly noted for the power of his oratory – would give fiery speeches during Elul about yir’as Hashem and the fear of punishment. His close student, R. Itchele Blazer, however, spoke only about gratitude to Hashem, claiming that the needs of the times had changed. A contemporary, R Yochanan Eber, explains that calling attention to Divine punishment can push people away from Hashem, rather than closer – except in times and places that coupled fear of Divine retribution with a deep sense of longing for the pleasantness of coming close to Him.

There are no coincidences. Clearly, HKBH got a head start on Elul. Divine Providence has apparently conscripted both Mishpacha and Yishai Ribo as capable agents, showing us the way to a more meaningful season of teshuvah. May we merit using it effectively.

[Afterword on travel plans. Last thing I need in Elul is people with hurt feelings about not telling them that I’m in town. So here are my pit stops for my fall swing through the US. Sept. 13-15 New York/ Sept.16-25 Philadelphia / Sept. 26 – Oct.7 Los Angeles, except for Oct. 3-4 in Seattle / Oct.8-23 Dallas

The only public appearance that I know about at the moment is in Whippany, New Jersey, the evening of Sept. 25, as a panelist on a perennially popular law symposium put on by Chabad of SE Morris County. CLE credits available.]

  1. The Avodah is the section of the Yom Kippur prayer service that describes the solemn and intricate service when the High Priest seeks the forgiveness for the Jewish nation in the Holy of Holies, something done only once a year. Those with strong Torah background transport themselves back to the Temple, and connect with all the details, which they are familiar with through study. Others read along in translation, and connect with the end of the description: the jubilation of a people from whose shoulders the burden of (some of ) their sin has been lifted, and who now feel that they have been readmitted to the presence of their Father.
  2. Shemos 22:3
  3. For those interested in pursuing the theme further, I recommend the extraordinarily beautiful piece by Rav Kook in Ein Aya”h to Shabbos 10b (pgs. 9-10) on how gratitude, properly comprehended, can – and ultimately will – redeem the world.

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22 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    The overall topic and your NJ symposium reminded me of what Justice Gorsuch said in an interview that I heard recently that can be expanded in various ways but struck me as the primary piece of advice that one needs to keep top of mind especially during this time of the year. He suggested we each write what we would like our obituary to tell about us, file it away, and read it from time to time. A tad more pointed than what hazal suggested in “dah lifenai me attah bo litain din ve’heshbon.”

    For me the advice is clear and it tells me where to focus. I suspect it will mean different things to different people, all related how given one’s unique characteristics one can lead a more meaningful life even assuming one observes the halakhic boundaries that the Rav ztl called the floor not the ceiling. For those who have difficulty with that formulation, think of Ramban’s formulation in parshat kedoshim.

    for me, two things stand out. one is uniquely the result of my God-given talents and will remain private. The other is my mother AH’s prayer for her family: zolst vaksin a yiddeshe malkhut. For those to whom that is unclear, think of how the talmud describes Rabbeinu HaKodosh.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    ” (I’m convinced that this country would be in much better shape if Knesset were replaced by a random assortment of 120 taxi drivers.)”

    I bet many others agree. Since every cause has a party, I propose a taxi driver party.

    • micha berger says:

      In praise of the allegedly secular Israeli cab driver:

      I was in Israel for the end of December 2002, mostly visiting my grandfather a”h. It was the last time I visited him, and we knew it probably would be, so we spent money I didn’t really have to get there. And I therefore could only grab in short windows of “tourist” time, while grandpa napped. Much of that time I spent just walking the streets of the holy city and experiencing its life. Some of it was a quick cab-ride to and from.

      One such ride I hopped into a cab with a sticker on the dashboard, a metallic picture of a marijuana leaf. Had I not been rushed, I don’t think I would have sat down and buckled up before noticing. I believe that a pot habit is not conducive to safe driving — especially when the driving in question is Israeli taxi-style.

      Looking at the little Formica sign on the inside of the cab between the front and back doors, I got the driver’s name, and gave Yosef my grandfather’s address and asked for a fixed fare. He wanted to put it on the meter. I told him I’d prefer a flat rate, as I’m on a fixed budget. Yosef was surprised — an American tourist worried about a couple of shekels extra on a cab ride?

      In short, being two Jews, we got to shmoozing. I explained that I was unemployed, and was there that week because I couldn’t job hunt during the Christian holidays anyway. That I was there seeing my older grandfather, whose health was poor. Yosef — who remember is a pot-head for all I know — quotes “Do not send us away when we are elderly; when our strength fails, do not leave us.” (Al tashlicheinu le’eis ziqnah… — a well known verse to people used to traditional liturgy.) The rest of the cab ride we spent discussing this verse of Psalms, it’s meaning, the grammar, the emotions, his own wishes for such a relationship with G-d…

      Had Yosef been an American secular Jew, he’d probably still be a pot addict. But would he quote Tehillim or even recognize the verse? The love of Judaism that brought his teachers to teach him Tehillim when you and I were learning Orwell or Shakespeare, that gave him the care that goes into discussing it with a stranger, that sense of unity with other Jews that lead him not to treat me as a stranger to begin with…

      Why not put taxi drivers in the Keneset? From my experience, they know what Israel is all about!`

    • Nachum says:

      There was one, in 1992. “Al HaGalgalim.” I am not making that up.

  3. Weaver says:

    “I’m convinced that this country would be in much better shape if Knesset were replaced by a random assortment of 120 taxi drivers.”

    Or, the American version: : )

    “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard
    – William F. Buckley, Jr.

    • Indeed. But having visited both Boston and Israel, I would much prefer the Israeli taxi drivers to the Bostonian non-Brahmans

      • Bob Miller says:

        My late great-uncle Myer was a no-nonsense Boston area taxi driver. He would have been fit to govern better than most.

      • dr. bill says:

        be careful, 🙂 a randomly selected group of 120 taxi-drivers would end stipends for for all bachurim ke’heref ayin. it would also seed control to sephardim and arabs; it would be interesting.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    We’re often told that current generations are too sensitive to respond well to Mussar. Rav Yaakov Galinsky ZT”L put it across very effectively with just the right amount of good humor. A timely example, well-translated into English, that I highly recommend:

    • micha berger says:

      This shift probably happened in the early 20th century. It would explain the rise of Slabodka, with its focus on gadlus ha’adam — the greatness of man, of both the student himself and relating to the people around us in a manner consistent with their greatness.

      Similarly, R Shlomo Wolbe zt”l’s approach. He would not attack a middah, but build its opposite. Don’t try to reduce a bad temper, work on building patience. Don’t fight egotism, develop anavah. And his book on parenting, Zeri’ah uBinyan beChinukh (Planting & Building in Education: Raising a Jewish Child, tr. R Leib Keleman, Feldheim 2000). The point is to view parenting in terms of planting not pruning. When Shelomo haMelekh writes, “Spare the rod, spoil the child”, R Wolbe shows how “sheivet” means the rod of leadership, not a rod to hit someone with. (Which is why the tribes are “shevatim”.)

      My point is, Mussar is about (1) the centrality of interpersonal mitzvos, and (2) the need to work on one’s middos to be a better Jew and human being. It’s not about scolding or punishment. Each generation may need a different approach. And the movement itself realized that.

  5. M.K says:

    “The artist does take some liberties, which Briskers probably will not like.”
    Rav Aharon Soloveichik ZTL of Chicago suffered a debilitating stroke which made walking, especially climbing stairs, extremely painful.
    His family reported that when he would walk up stairs, he would grimace in pain and would count the stairs…
    “Achas. Achas V’achas. Achas U’shtayim…”
    His way of declaring that dealing with the challenges presented by his stroke, was part of his Avodas Hashem, his Divine service!

    • Steve Brizel says:

      I heard a grandson of RAS ZL so state in public

    • Nachum says:

      In my freshman year at YU I lived in the same dorm as R’ Aharon and we would daven in the same minyan. Seeing him daven- seeing him do anything, really- was an inspiration.

  6. Raymond says:

    I cannot speak for other people on this issue. All I know is that the more any religious Jew puts a spotlight on my imperfections, the more I want to run as far from the Torah life as my legs can carry me. In contrast, if a religious Jew sees the good in me, encouraging me to feel better about myself, chances are far better that I will have the desire to draw closer to a Torah way of life. This is why I avoid books on Mussar, for example, as all they do is make me feel like I am nothing. Perhaps I really am nothing, but must I be reminded of that? And honestly, through perhaps no fault of his own, even when I read books by the Chovetz Chaim, his standards for what human beings should be are so astronomically high, that it makes me feel like a complete heathen compared to him (which is probably true, but whatever), which in turn makes me want to just give up the whole enterprise. Yes, I realize that I am probably revealing myself to be on a very low spiritual level, but I am what I am, and better to take small, workable steps from one’s starting point, then to aim for spiritual heights that are too lofty for those of us human beings who are just sort of ordinary.

    • Bob Miller says:

      You can get it if you really want (Jimmy Cliff)

      • Raymond says:

        lol I am usually very picky about what kind of music I listen to, but I found myself smiling at this one. It is very upbeat, even making me feel more energetic than I usually feel. So thank you for that.

      • Bob Miller says:

        I first heard this in his 1972 reggae movie, which was in English, but in the theater it had English subtitles for non-Jamaicans!

    • Tal Benschar says:

      First of all, the key to mussar is that one has to speak to oneself. It’s not what others think of you, it is your own self-evaluation. And doing so in an honest manner — which most people don’t want to do. Honest self-awareness is the foundation.

      Second, there is always tension between the positive and negative. In Neilah, we mention two contradictory things: that man is almost an angel, and that man is a beast. And that is what we are — a being that can act angelic or beastly. And we human beings, uniquely, have a choice to decide which direction to go. Angels and beasts don’t.

      There is a famous Chassidische vort (yes, I am mixing traditions. Nu, it is not kilayim) Rebbe Simhah Bunim of Przysucha, who said:

      Everyone ought to have two pockets, each holding a slip of paper, so that he can reach for one or another slip as the occasion demands.

      On one should be written: “I am but dust and ashes.”

      And on the other: “The world was created for me.”

    • nt says:

      This post made me kind of sad, but many others probably feel the same way. This is why it is vital to have a mentor to fit the big ideas to you and your situation. And also, remember that if you are alive, it is because Hashem wants to keep you around. The very fact that you are breathing means your life is worthwhile.

      • Raymond says:

        You may have a point. Some years ago, I was in a car accident in middle lane of a freeway here in Los Angeles, in which several cars crashed so hard into my car, that it was destroyed, and yet I emerged from it without a scratch. I have also been held up at gunpoint on two separate occasions, experiences which I wish on nobody. My two brothers each died an early death. My own heart is so weak, that without the pacemaker and defibrillator installed into my chest, i would very likely not be here to type this. I have accomplished nothing in my life, and yet I am alive. Perhaps G-d has something positive in store for me.

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