First, We Must Perfect Ourselves

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101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiThis magnificent three-week festival period — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot — may be viewed and experienced in two dimensions simultaneously: the universalist, nationalist dimension and the particularistic, individual family dimension.

Rosh Hashanah is the day on which the world was born, when the sigh-sob truah sound of the shofar cries out against the tragedies and injustices of an imperfect world, and the sharp, joyous tekiyah sound reminds us of our responsibility — and ability — to help perfect the world by conveying the moral message of ethical monotheism, a G-d who demands justice, compassion and peace.


On Yom Kippur, the Almighty declares His readiness to forgive the nation Israel of its great sins.

Sukkot is the climax of the season, taking us out of our egocentric, partisan lives and ordaining that we surround ourselves with fruits of the Land of Israel, living beneath a roof of vegetation through whose spaces we look up at the stars. Seventy bullocks were sacrificed in the Holy Temple during the Sukkot festival, symbolizing the 70 nations of the world.


Finally, Shemini Atzeret announces the onset of the rainy season: Rain is, after all, a gift from G-d to the world.

Shemini Atzeret moves into the uninhibited joy of Simchat Torah, when all Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark and become the focus of frenzied dancing not only in the synagogues, but also outside in the public domain.

However, Judaism understands only too well that one dare not focus on humanity without concentrating on individuals. One cannot be a concerned universalist without hearing the cries of one’s next-door neighbor. Yes, it is the Jewish mission to convey the message of ethical monotheism to a world. The people of the covenant must perfect the world in the Kingship of our G-d of justice, compassion and peace. But first we must perfect ourselves: not only our nation, but also our community; not only our community, but also our family; and not only our family, but also ourselves.

A disciple once approached Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement in Judaism, seeking permission to spread the ethical and moral message of the Master to Germany and Austria. The rabbi responded: “And is the City of Salant so imbued with my teachings that you can afford to leave Lithuania? And is the street on which you live so morally inspired that you can teach in another community? And is your own family so careful in their conduct that you can preach to other families? And what about you, my beloved disciple? Are you on such a high level of ethical integrity that no one could criticize you?”

And so Rosh Hashanah ushers in a 10-day period of repentance and introspection when we must be mindful of the need to perfect the world, but we must first attempt to perfect ourselves. Rosh Hashanah is the day on which the world was born, but it is also the “day of judgment,” when everyone passes before the Almighty to be evaluated and judged, when each of us must evaluate and judge ourselves from the perspective of Divine standards.

Yom Kippur may be a historic and national day of forgiveness, a day on which we invoke our Holy Temple as a “House of Prayer for all nations,” but it is first and foremost a day in which the individual stands in isolation from the world in the presence of the Divine. No food, no drink, no sexual relationship — with almost the entire day to be spent in G-d’s house. Each of us rids ourselves of all materialistic encumbrances, separates ourselves from physical needs and blandishments, enters a no-man’s land between heaven and earth, between life and death, dons the non-leather shoes worn by the mourner and, in effect, feels what it’s like to mourn for oneself asking what legacy would I leave, were I to be taken from the world today?

And then comes Sukkot. For one week leave your fancy surroundings, go back to basics. Spend seven days with your family in a simple hut.

Remember that “when familial love is strong, a couple can sleep on the edge of a sword; but when familial love has gone sour, a bed of sixty miles does not provide sufficient room” (Sanhedrin 7a). Forget the televisions and videos; bring the special guests of the Bible into your simple but significant space, commune with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Lea, Miriam, Deborah and Ruth. Introduce them to your children, and sing and speak and share together.

Remember — and communicate — that important is values not venues, content not coverings, inner emotions and not external appearances. And let the sukkah lead you to Simchat Torah, to the love and joy of Torah, which will help form the kind of individuals and families who can build communities and ultimately change the world.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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