Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, Vespasian and Me on Rosh HaShanah

Surprisingly, Rosh HaShanah was, thank Gd, a good one for me this year.

I always come in very nervous. Someone shook my hand after a pesichah on the first day and was surprised my hands were ice-cold. I told him I get nervous, to which he replied, “But you’re not new at this!” No, I’m not new at it… but I still get nervous. About my personal davening, about my rabbi role, about how shofar will go, about how my children will daven, about whether X will insult Y, about whether people will listen when I give my pre-shofar reminder for them to respect other people’s davening, etc.

But it went well, I’m glad to say. I was able to daven and feel kavvanah. The chazanim were excellent. I was proud to tears of the way my older two davened. The great, great majority of people were respectful of people who were davening, and stepped out if they needed to converse. Shofar was excellent. The derashot were well-received. No one, to the best of my knowledge, insulted or slugged anyone else (although I may only hear about it later today…). I cried my way through my “Dealing with Depression in others” speech, but I knew I was going to do that. If I’m not feeling the words of the derashah as I say them, it’s not a derashah.

And I had a stop-me-in-my-tracks moment during the Shmoneh Esreih of the first night:

It started right at the beginning of the amidah, with the identification of HaShem as “Gd of Avraham/Yitzchak/Yaakov.”

Like almost everything else in the amidah, that line is lifted from Tanach. It quotes HaShem’s first speech to Moshe, telling him (Shmot 3:15), “Go tell the Jews: The Gd of your fathers, Gd of Avraham, Gd of Yitzchak, Gd of Yaakov has sent me to you. This is My Name forever, this is the way to recall Me, from generation to generation.

And so, in every generation, we pray for redemption using that verse. We say, “Gd, You are the Gd of our ancestors – and You are our Gd, too.” And I got caught up in it that night: Who am I, to say, “You are Avraham’s Gd and my Gd?” Does my faith or my service belong anywhere in the same universe as that of an Avraham? A Yitzchak? A Yaakov?! Talk about hubris!

Then I continued to describe Gd, “The powerful, the great…” And I thought to myself: When I sin with the same mouth that is now praising Gd in these terms, what am I thinking?!

But the kicker was when I reached the first time that we call HaShem “HaMelech,” “the King.” My mind leapt to the story of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s meeting with the Roman general Vespasian (Gittin 57b), before the second Beit haMikdash was destroyed, and the association was so sharp that I’m surprised I never thought of it before.

The Romans were besieging Jerusalem. The sages wanted to hold out or make a treaty with the Romans, but the zealots were pushing for a last-ditch fight. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai managed to get himself smuggled out of the city, and he met with Vespasian. He greeted Vespasian as one greets a king, because of his belief that Jerusalem could only fall to a king, and Vespasian replied, “If I am a king, why haven’t you come to me until now?

To which R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai replied, “I couldn’t, because of the zealots among us.”
To which Vespasian said, “You should have destroyed the city to get rid of the zealots!”
And the gemara describes a dumbstruck R’ Yochanan, unable to respond.

I suddenly flashed into that gemara. Here I am, calling Gd “King.” But despite the regal assocations unique to Rosh HaShanah, Gd is always King – why haven’t I come to Gd as King until now?

And if I will blame my own zealots, the ego and arrogance and foolishness that keeps me away, won’t Gd have the same response for me: I should have demolished myself in order to get rid of those obstructing forces?

To which the answer is, possibly, the same one that the gemara says R’ Yochanan should have offered to Vespasian: We had hoped that You would come and get rid of the zealots.

As we say so often, השיבנו ה' אליך ונשובה, Bring us back to You, Gd, and then we will repent. I have been hoping all year that Gd would help me. But I have arrived at Rosh HaShanah without success, and so, at least today, I call Gd the King, I take that first step.

This moment made me feel good about my entire davening. I had an insight – into the davening, and into myself. I understand myself better now than I did before. I may even have a weapon for fighting my zealots.

What more could I want from Rosh HaShanah?


  1. You've hit on the same idea as R' Aharon of Karlin. Some machzorim mention that he fainted when he said "Hamelech" at the end of Nishmas Kol Chai, struck by the same thought: "if I'm a king, why haven't you come until now?"

  2. Alex-
    Wow, ברוך שכוונתי! Which machzorim? I'd be very interested in seeing it.

    Now I feel even better about Rosh HaShanah...

  3. Great post. I wish you an overflow of bracha and simcha all year long.

  4. It's in the Chabad (Kehot) machzor, with a note that it's cited in earlier machzorim (though I don't know which ones).

  5. Neil, Alex-
    Thanks, and have a great Shabbos.