17 September 2009
29 Elul 5769
What does it mean to stand before God as a community on the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days)?
During this period of the Jewish year, we tend to focus on personal, individual reflection and introspection, two hallmarks of the teshuva (repentance) process, which culminates dramatically on Yom Kippur evening at the Ne’ilah service. This week I spoke with our students about the concept of Heshbon HaNefesh (literally, “taking stock or an accounting of one’s soul/self/life). In advisor groups, our students practiced this process of thinking critically about specific stumbling blocks that get in the way of them becoming their best selves and even taking baby steps toward becoming the people they want to be.
However, sometimes in our focus on individual teshuva, we underemphasize the communal nature of these Days of Awe. Many of the essential prayers are written in the plural form rather than the singular [think of, for example, Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) and the Yom Kippur Vidui (Confessional) – “for the sin we have committed before you . . .”]. We often pray in the plural form, but this is particularly significant on these holidays because one of the essential ways in which we ask for forgiveness from God is by asking God to remember God’s brit (covenant) with us and our ancestors. The liturgy continually returns to this theme of brit, reminding us that we are able to stand before God despite our profound individual imperfections only by virtue of God’s relationship with us as a people.
To me, this helps explain why Judaism is often described as more than a “faith” or a “religion”, and rather as a nationality, an ethnicity, a community. Our faith is inseparable from our communal identification because, as Jews, we fundamentally stand before God in community. This does not mean that each of us does not have our own personal, individual relationship with God, and this, of course, should be an essential focus of our prayer and teshuva during this time. But, according to Jewish tradition, the day of Yom Kippur alone grants us atonement for many of the minor wrongdoings that we have committed even if we have not yet done the work of self-improvement. This means that we receive “spiritual credit” just for showing up, for identifying with our community on these days. What a powerful message, especially in our society that so greatly values individualism and the search for personal meaning and spirituality: Whom I stand with deeply affects my relationship with the One before Whom I stand.
An enthusiastic student taught me this week that this dynamic also works in the other direction. I was walking in the dining hall at lunchtime when I heard a girl’s voice: “Rabbi Baker! I had an epiphany today during Hebrew class,” she said excitedly. “We were looking at two related but different Hebrew words for community: kahal (spelled kuf, hey, lamed) and kehillah (spelled with the same three letters plus an additional yud and hey). I realized,” she continued, “that a kehillah is a kahal plus the letters yud, hey, which are the name of God. When you take a gathering of people and you add the presence of God, you get community.” Whether or not she is technically accurate about the different meanings of these two words, this student inspired me with her sensitivity to the Hebrew language, her intuitively rabbinic interpretive instincts to make meaning of letters and words, and, most importantly, her deep understanding of the concept of community. She reminded me that there is a transformative power to a group of people who are in relationship with something larger than themselves, who are oriented toward a higher purpose, who are united by something greater than their horizontal, social relationships with one another. The One before Whom I stand transforms my relationships with the ones I stand with.
This is what it means to be in a covenantal community, a kehillah kedosha (a holy community); we reach our potential as individuals through our relationships with each other and with something greater than ourselves.
As we begin this New Year, may our sense of shared purpose and meaning, our commitment to self-reflection and self-improvement, and our relationships with one another bring out the best in each of us as individuals and as members of our school community.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah u’Metukah, Have a Happy and Sweet New Year.
Rabbi Marc Baker