Sunday, September 20, 2015

Don't Forget Step One (Derashah for Yom Kippur, 5776)

I'm not entirely sure I like this derashah enough to use it. Not for any reason I can pinpoint, except perhaps that it feels educational rather than inspirational. Thoughts?
Orthoprax Disillusionment
The following comes from a blog written by a shul rabbi a few years ago:[1]
My first rabbinic position was as an assistant rabbi…. The rabbi [asked me] to daven Mussaf for the shul on the second day of Rosh ha-Shana. I was flattered… I went home, almost running the whole way, to tell my wife the good news… I immediately began practicing. I got tapes of various chazzanim and spent hours each day memorizing the tunes. I recorded myself so that I could hear how I sounded… My wife was enlisted to listen to Mussaf, over and over again. I had a friend in Yeshiva who was something of a Chazzan, and we spent time on the phone going over each tune I intended on using. In the end, I knew the entire Mussaf by heart, no small feat.
Finally, the day came and I would like to think that I acquitted myself well… I was, however, surprised at the comments by the congregation. Everyone I met complimented the davening, but I was startled to discover that although each congregant focused on something different—a particular tune or tefilah—they, almost uniformly, included a variation on, “and we got out so early” or “it was so quick.”
At the time I didn’t know if they were being polite – perhaps they didn’t really enjoy it and that was all they could come up with. Over time, however, I learned that my congregants weren’t sugarcoating their praise or trying to come up with at least one redeeming quality from my Mussaf. Rather, the most important factor for most everyone during the Yomim Noraim, almost uniformly, was to make sure they were home by noon.

The Community we don’t seek
I think there was a flaw in the derashah I gave on Rosh HaShanah, and I don’t mean the fact that it lasted more than 10 minutes, and we didn’t make it home by noon. I believe the vision I presented from Rav Yerucham Levovitz, Rav Chaim of Volozhin and Rav Moshe Cordovero[2] was incomplete, because I left the impression that so long as we create community and bear the burdens of others with them, we have succeeded as Jews.

That sort of community is important – but it is only a partial job description, because that sort of community can easily become corrupted into what that assistant rabbi experienced:
·         A culture of observance can become a culture of rote, of what Yeshayah[3] called מצות אנשים מלומדה, trained practice rather than inspired action, just because these behaviours have been the norm forever.
·         A community in which people join together for mitzvot can become a community of peer pressure, in which people do right only because deviating would carry a social price.
·         A community which refines and hones religious practice can become a community of rules and ritual, without spiritual depth.

Certainly, Jewish communities should not exile people who currently observe by rote, who are influenced by peer pressure, and who follow rules without seeing meaning in them. But when community becomes all about doing as the herd does, then we fail the promise of unity. To my mind, Torah is a set of blueprints vouchsafed to us for the sake of shaping souls who personally connect with Gd as Step One, and who communally carry forth that Image of Gd into this world as Step Two.

Kesuvos says: Gd Before Community
I base this on a controversial passage of gemara.[4]

לעולם ידור אדם בא"י אפי' בעיר שרובה עובדי כוכבים, ואל ידור בחו"ל ואפילו בעיר שרובה ישראל, שכל הדר בארץ ישראל דומה כמי שיש לו אלוק, וכל הדר בחוצה לארץ דומה כמי שאין לו אלוק...
Always, one should live in Israel, even in a city which is mostly idolatrous, rather than live outside of Israel even in a city which is mostly Jewish, for anyone who lives in Israel is as though he has a relationship with Gd, and anyone who lives outside of Israel is as though he has no relationship with Gd…

Let’s leave aside the most controversial part, the assertion that one can have a relationship with Gd only in Israel; that’s a good topic for another time. But look at the second-most-controversial part – that I must move to a place where I can connect with Gd, even if that means living in an עיר שרובה עובדי כוכבים, an idolatrous city!

When I taught this passage in a shiur several weeks ago, one of the participants challenged me. What about all the ways in which Judaism places such a powerful emphasis on living among good influences, and avoiding bad ones!
·         The Torah presents the dangers of living in Egypt with Avraham and Sarah, among the Philistines with Yitzchak and Rivkah, and near Shechem with Dinah. Yosef tells his brothers to live in Goshen, not among the Egyptians.
·         The gemara records rabbinic decrees meant to encourage Jews to live away from bad influences,[5] to avoid joint meals and drinking,[6] and so on.
·         Rambam rules that a Jew who lives among people who are bad influences is required to move![7]
How, then, can the gemara tell me to go live among idolaters, in order to reside in a place where Gd is found?

And so I contend that before the Step Two that is Jewish Community, we need Step One: Personal relationships with Gd. This is how we avoid what that rabbi described, a world of Jews whose worship is rote.

Where do we find Gd?
As Rabbi Korobkin noted on Shabbos Shuvah, different people achieve Step One in different ways. To flesh that out:
·         Some people connect with Gd when hiking in the woods and appreciating our world;
·         Some people connect with Gd when learning Gd’s Torah;
·         Some people connect with Gd when walking where our ancestors walked, in Israel;
·         Some people connect with Gd when listening to music, or meditating and stripping away the noise buzzing around us;
·         Some people connect with Gd by channelling their own Image of Gd and putting it to work in helping other people;
·         Some people connect with Gd when engaged in activism and community leadership;
·         Some people connect with Gd when speaking directly to Gd of their experiences and dreams in davening.

Hopefully, all of us evolve and mature over the course of our lives, and find that even activities which were anti-spiritual in our youth can become meaningful and fulfilling later on. But each of us must be capable of finding something for Step One - and then using it to inform the community we construct in Step Two.
·         Then we can construct a community that remembers its connection with Gd and agrees to become responsible for each member, great and small, under the banner of ערבות, as part of the collective commitment we made to Gd when we crossed the Yarden.[8]
·         Then we can construct a community that testifies eternally to the contours of its covenant with Gd;[9] that will wear tefillin in 2015 matching tefillin unearthed from 2000 years earlier; that will live in far-flung, long-severed communities and yet read a sefer torah that remains eerily isometric; that will value their shared national connection with Gd beyond ties of geography, ethnicity and even ideology.
·         Then we can construct a community that is loyal to its relationship with Gd, and shapes its Torah observance in a way that is true to that relationship.[10]

Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is a day of both Step One and Step Two.

Yom Kippur is a grand day for Step Two: Community with Others. The Jew dare not be a pious hermit on Yom Kippur. At Kol Nidrei, we rescind communal vows, welcoming even the ex-communicated back among us. We stand before Gd together.

But first, Yom Kippur establishes Step One: Community with Gd. We do not eat, we do not bathe, we do not wear makeup, husbands and wives are apart, it’s all about focusing on Gd. We recite viduy, privately specifying our mistakes from the past year. It is a personal conversation with Gd.

On Yom Kippur we recognize the importance of community – but we assert that there is no Jewish community without Gd at the centre of each individual life, and we create the external circumstances which will make a focus on Gd simpler.

Yizkor, and beyond
Yizkor, especially, blends these two steps:
·         We invoke the memory of those who created our Jewish world. Victims of the Shoah. Valiant founders and defenders of the State of Israel. Parents and other relatives. Yizkor is a time of profound community.
·         But at the same time, people recite their Kel Malei and ask Gd to remember as we do. Bereavement could be all about personal loss, and not a religious experience – but Yizkor makes it about Gd. Yizkor is a moment of locating Gd within grief.

When we put back the Torah after Yizkor, and begin Musaf, let us retain that blend of the two steps. Let us stand as a community of human beings, daven as a community, sing as a community. But let us also retain that Yom Kippur focus on the private union with Gd, even outside the Land of Israel, to ensure that our prayers and songs are not מצות אנשים מלומדה, but are centred on the Inspiration for it all.

Derrick Coleman
One last note, which might take the level of dialogue somewhat out of the rarefied spiritual atmosphere we associate with Yom Kippur, but which I hope you will find as meaningful as I do:

It can be hard to detach ourselves from the world around us, and experience a union with Gd. We are surrounded by neighbours and friends and relatives here. We get distracted, and pausing to re-focus is challenging. And perhaps we have a history of Yom Kippur davenings which did not reach those heights, telling us cynically that this day won’t be any different.

The other day, I saw a video[11] that really resonated with me on this point. It featured an American football player, Derrick Coleman. Coleman is deaf, and in the commercial, he talked about what it took for him to reach his goal of football success. Speaking over a montage of football scenes, Coleman said this:

They told me it couldn’t be done. That I was a lost cause. Kids were afraid to play with me. I was picked on… and picked last. Coaches didn’t know how to talk to me. They gave up on me, told me I should just quit. But I’ve been deaf since I was three – so I didn’t listen.

For the record, Coleman was not drafted by any NFL team out of college. But then he signed as a free agent after the 2011 season. He became the first deaf NFL offensive player in 2012, and won Super Bowl 48 at the end of the 2013 season. As of the start of the current season, he has two more NFL touchdowns than I do.

Sometimes, all of us need to refuse to listen. Achieving community with Gd is hard – but even if we have yet to achieve it today, or ever, this Yom Kippur isn’t over. Coleman concludes by saying, “Now I’m here, with a lot of fans in the NFL cheering me on. And I can hear them all.” May we merit Coleman’s level of success in our Yom Kippur, and may HaShem hear us all.

[2] Saw this great additional material afterward: Ohel Moshe to Sefer Shemos, pp. 119-130 in the pdf -
[3] Yeshayah 29:13
[4] Kesuvos 110b
[5] Eruvin 62a re: גזירה שמא ילמוד ממעשיו
[6] Avodah Zarah 59b, for example
[7] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deios 6:1
[8] Sanhedrin 43b
[9] Rav Hai Gaon, cited in Raavad’s Tmim Deim 119
[10] See Rama Choshen Mishpat 25:1, and see Rav Kook’s Beer Eliyahu to Choshen Mishpat 25:7


  1. I realize that there have to be much better quality measures for Musaf than its length. However anyone who has experienced lengthy, unmusical, unmoving arias by not-so-great chazanim, when time stands still, might sympathize a little with the time clock folks..

  2. RAM-
    Very true. In general, I am feeling less and less comfortable with this derashah. I may well re-write it.

  3. Both iterations of this derashah are great. Trying to combine the 2 might make it too long, but the re-write removes 2 parts I really like---the young rabbi's blog and R' Korobkin's listing of how various individuals find Gd. However, this first version doesn't include Shir HaShirim / Ki Anu Amecha, the Kuzari's grapevine metaphor, and the expansion on the negative impact of peer pressure.

    In a recent sermon, my Rabbi expanded on a Yogi-ism which reflects a little on the young rabbi's blog: “We're lost, but we're making great time.” In other words, how often is our davening mostly rote and limited in meaning while we watch the clock?

    Yishar Koach

    1. Thank you, Jeff. And that Yogi-ism is perfect indeed for the topic.

      One note, just so I don't put words in R' Korobkin's mouth - his point was that people achieve spirituality in different ways, but the list that follows is mine. I'll edit to reflect that.