If Tzitz Eliezer Were Your Rabbi, What He Might Say This Yom Kippur

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

10 Tishrei: If Tzitz Eliezer Were Your Rabbi, What He Might Say This Yom Kippur

In the later volumes of his responsa, Tzitz Eliezer (R. Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, 1916-2006) included two derashot, sermons, he gave on Yom Kippur (one before Yizkor of 5741, or 1940, the other before Kol Nidre of 5727, 1966).  We could do a great deal worse than having him serve as our rabbi this Yom Kippur, having his words echo in our ears at Kol Nidre and Yizkor.

The Special Qualities of Yom Kippur

He opens the first derasha (Tzitz Eliezer 22;32, which brims with the vibrant idealism of youth, not yet dimmed by the realities of the world), by noting Yom Kippur’s powers, of absolution, of spiritual cleansing, of letting us separate ourselves from the storm of ordinary life, freeing us of our baser desires and pleasures.  With that background, the day of repentance and confession of sin, which produces forgiveness and purification, can take us to sustainable, long-term change, what he calls a spiritual revolution for the individual and the community. 

It only happens if we open ourselves to it, which the prayers and praises of the day help us achieve.  My understanding is that he means that while some of the prayers are supplication, and that’s clearly offered in the hope that Hashem will do certain things for us, much of the liturgy is a recitation of Hashem’s great qualities, and that might be more to ready us for the spiritual growth and development we so desperately need.

Tzitz Eliezer also uses a metaphor I think we might find helpful in trying to make ourselves more aware of Hashem’s Presence in the world. He notes that everyone recognizes the existence of the life force (which he calls the soul), an unidentifiable essence that is the difference between life and death. Human beings and doctors can point to the systems that failed leading to death in some cases—heart, lung, whatever—but fundamentally, death is where the life force left the person or ceased functioning.

Hashem provides that life force for the universe; just as we cannot see our souls but know they’re there, Hashem is the universe’s life force (not only that, but that as well). We need to strive to become more aware of that, since that will help us be better Jews, better people, and better servants of Hashem.

Shabbat as a Day of Repentance

He then notes that that Yom Kippur (and ours this year) has a double dose of repentance, since Shabbat is also a day of repentance. A Midrash portrays Adam encountering Kayin (Cain) after the latter had been told by Hashem that he would have to wander the earth as a result of his having killed Hevel. One reading thinks Kayin received a reduced punishment because he repented, expressed remorse for his act. 

In the Midrash, Adam then bemoaned that he hadn’t thought of that, and then said Mizmor shir le-Yom haShabbat, a Psalm of Song for the Sabbath day. Tzitz Eliezer reads that as telling us tht Shabbat too has a special element of repentance.

The suggestion that Shabbat is about repentance fills a big hole in our experience of the day- at the end of the week, we are supposed to put away our work, but Tzitz Eliezer assumes it is a time when we’ll have the freedom to take an accounting of how well we did in our efforts to grow and improve that week.  [That opens the interesting possibility that he have been comfortable with Jews thinking about their weekday activities on Shabbat, although in the very different context of evaluating how well they did at living their best lives.]

The Nazi Threat

That soul accounting, for individuals and communities, is to help us keep sight of ideals that might get lost in the rush of life.  Those include Torah and mitzvot, of course, but also building better characters, developing good practices (even those not specifically mandated by halachah), and serving as a shofar for the world, becoming, by our goodness, a clarion call for the rest of the world to understand true service of Hashem.

Rediscovering those ideals, returning as a people to the real belief in Hashem (which means guiding our lives by the Torah, by Hashem’s view of how the world should work) was, to Tzitz Eliezer, even more urgent that year, 1940, because of the evil empire casting its shadow over the world. Just as Kol Nidrei reminds us of the Jews of the times of the Crusades and the Inquisition who had to hide their turn to Hashem on Yom Kippur (because they had yielded to pressure to convert to Christianity), he imagines millions of Jews struggling under Nazi rule, also finding places to hear Kol Nidrei and pray to Gd.

[This means that in 1940, he was aware that the Nazis posed a significant threat to the Jews of Europe, and makes reference to their shadow spreading over Israel itself. This is a reminder that the question of who knew what and when about the Holocaust is murkier than we let ourselves admit. In 1940, living in Yerushalayim, he already knows there is serious and significant danger for those Jews.]

Repentance as One Tool in the Fight

Since the Jews of Israel are like the chazzanim of world Jewry—[what an image! making the point in passing that the Jews of Israel are the leaders and the representatives of all Jews]—he exhorted his listeners to pray for Hashem’s compassion on His nation and on the world, a result that would become more likely the more successful they were at spreading faith in Gd.

This bears repeating, since I know too many Orthodox Jews (let alone non-Orthodox) who deny it: Tzitz Eliezer is confident that the spiritual status of the Jewish people as a whole will affect the course of the war and the fate of Jews and humanity generally. Along those lines, he says that those who have died, whether in the Crusades, Inquisition, or in this latest war, have died not only al Kiddush Hashem—for the sake of sanctifying Gd’s Name, a common trope in the death of martyrs, that their death serves to remind us of Gd and their dedication to Gd—but also the sanctity of all humanity. By resisting oppression and evil, we not only serve Gd well, we stand for all that is good in humanity.

Ensuring Yom Kippur Is About the Proper Goals

The derasha from 1966 (Tzitz Eliezer 20;25) makes three central points. First, he questions why the Torah placed its admonition against human beings entering the Holy of Holies near the discussion of the people’s chatat, sin offering.  He answers with a Midrash where R. Avahu wonders how the Torah could say no human should be in the Tent of Meeting, when the High Priest himself would be there.

The obvious simple answer is that the Torah means other than the High Priest, but the Midrash adds that when the priest was doing the service, he became angelic. Tzitz Eliezer cites R. Shlomo Kluger, who reads that to mean the concerns of the High Priest were purely spiritual, none of his requests focused on the physical or monetary. [It’s not a simple claim, since the Gemara says that he prayed for the people of the Sharon, that their homes not become their graves].

Tzitz Eliezer applies that to his question. The Torah places its prohibition about the Holy of Holies where it does to tell us that the way to true absolution is to concentrate on our spiritual needs, our hope and yearning that the world [here again, he goes out of his way to include all humanity,] be perfected in knowledge of Gd, and what Gd wants from them.

Don’t Give Up on Yourself

Let we be daunted by the enormity of the task, he notes that Noda Bi-Yehudah suggested that the Biblical verse that refers to Hashem absolving chata’im, commonly translated as sins, might instead refer to shortcomings (that uses the root of chata in the sense of missed the mark).  In which case, Yom Kippur is a day we can overcome not only our failures in specific sins, but even our general lacks and shortcomings.

He closes the derasha by noting that Rema rules we say Yizkor on Yom Kippur because the dead also receive further kapparah on that day. Chatam Sofer, in one of his derashot, said that in fact deceased souls are with us in shul this day, which is why the books of the living and the dead are opened [I think we usually assume the Gemara means the books of which currently living people will live or die; Chatam Sofer is giving another reading, that the deceased themselves are there with us, judged, and receive absolution along with us].

The machzor that records some of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, zt”l’s, ideas  about Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur quotes him as suggesting that the deceased are judged yearly because their impact on the world is not always complete when they pass away—efforts they made while alive, for good and bad, might not come to fruition until far down the road (for example, a grandparent transmits Torah ideas to a grandchild, who only fully understands them years later).

If so, Tzitz Eliezer says, when we stand before Hashem on Yom Kippur, we are striving to build a more Gdly world in the here and now, and for those who came before us, whose striving is over.  We can hope this year we will be even more successful in producing the kinds of spiritual revolution Tzitz Eliezer hoped for, learn to overcome ourselves, to focus our efforts on the right kinds of goals, and to see a world reshaped in the service of Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom and Gemar Hatimah Tovah to all.

About Gidon Rothstein

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