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One of the things I most love about the High Holidays is their focus on universality. During the rest of the year, Jewish consciousness and Jewish prayer concentrate primarily on the concerns of the Jewish People, while the season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur turns our attention to the entirety of the human race and to the world as a whole. Although it is certainly understandable that throughout most of the calendar our emphasis is on our Jewish family and our Jewish needs, for me it is a bit myopic and constricting. The High Holidays come like a breath of fresh air that helps me to expand my consciousness and reconnect my Judaism to the larger tapestry of God’s creation.
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It’s a matter of the forest and the trees, the means and the ends. Judaism is a very particular way of life, but it is particularism in the service of universalism. God created the whole world, and He brought into being the Jewish People in order to help move the world forward along the long and winding road towards perfection. This is what He proclaimed to Abraham at the very outset when he was chosen to be the first Jew: “All the nations of the world will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). It is also the meaning of the rousing preamble to the Ten Commandments that places upon us the responsibility of becoming a “nation of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19:6). Our purpose is to become priests to the nations of the world, serving their spiritual and moral needs, modeling and teaching ethical monotheism.
That’s the grand scheme of things, but first we have to get our own house in order. At this point in Jewish and human history, we are still devoting most of our Jewish energy to strengthening the Jewish People in order to become a ‘holy people’. Becoming ‘a nation of priests’ is our grand calling beckoning on the horizon. During the High Holidays we recalibrate our spiritual compasses as a people by gazing towards that horizon, and are rejuvenated and uplifted.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our liturgy is sufficed with universality. One of these changes to the prayers that remind us of the larger meaning and purpose of our lives as Jews, remains in our thrice daily prayers even on the seven intermediate days between the two High Holidays. Every day of the year, we conclude our Amidah, the Silent Prayer, with the words, “Blessed are You, God, who blesses his people Israel with peace”. But according to an ancient tradition, still found among some Ashkenazi Jews today, this is replaced during the Ten Days of Penitence from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur with, “Blessed are You, God, the maker of peace”.
All year long, we pray for the peace of the Jewish People. For these ten days however, we just pray for peace. Universal peace. All year long, we focus on ourselves, the Jewish People, the means towards the end. During these Ten Days of Penitence, we focus on the big picture, on the ultimate, universal goal.
This week’s Torah portion is Parshat Ki Tavo, near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. It is read every year during the lead up to Rosh Hashanah. It contains two words that – according to a rabbinic commentary going back thousands of years – point us towards the universal vision of the approaching High Holidays. Moses commands that after his death, the Torah is to be inscribed on twelve large stones ‘most distinctly’ (Deuteronomy 27:8). Our sages tell us that the emphasis on ‘most distinctly’ is to indicate that the Torah was to be inscribed for all to read not only in Hebrew but in all the seventy languages of the earth as well! This of course is part of that same homiletical tradition that understands that at Sinai, the Ten Commandments were promulgated in all of these seventy languages.
While the giving of the Torah wrought a profound change in the Jewish People, it didn’t immediately change the world. It wasn’t supposed to. But its proclamation in seventy languages was a profoundly meaningful signpost as to our responsibility and our goals. We are not in this merely for ourselves, but for the larger good. The Torah has something to say to the whole world, and in the long run it is our task as Jews to facilitate the dissemination of that message. Our focus on the good of the Jewish People is ultimately for the uplift of the entire world.
So as we read Parshat Ki Tavo this Shabbat in our synagogues, let us hear in its words an echo of the approaching High Holidays. And let us be reminded of where our Judaism ought to be leading us. As the liturgy proclaims, we are ultimately dedicated ‘Letaken Olam beMalchut Shaday’, ‘to repair the world under the kingship of the Almighty’. To repair the world – and not just the Jewish People!
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yohm KIPP-er, also yohm kee-PORE, Origin: Hebrew, The Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and, with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays.