Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur

For the week ending 15 September 2018 / 6 Tishri 5779


by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Become a Supporter Library Library

One of my childhood memories is hearing grown men crying behind their Machzorim on Yom Kippur. I really couldn’t understand what could be causing them so much pain that they cried. In my childish mind I attributed it to the fasting — they must be suffering terribly from hunger and that is why they were crying. Of course, as I got older I began to understand a little better, and today, when I look back, I am awed by the depths of emotions that I was hearing behind the Machzorim. Grown men were standing in front of the King of kings, pouring out their deepest feelings. They were accepting responsibility for their actions throughout the year and beseeching G-d to accept their repentance.

The verse in Psalms, 51:19 reads: “A broken and crushed heart O G-d, You will not despise.” The renowned Rebbi of Kotzk famously commented on the verse that nothing is dearer to G-d than a broken heart, that nothing is as whole in the Eyes of G-d as a broken heart. It’s a beautiful saying but it requires clarification: Why is broken-heartedness considered to be a positive trait? Rabbi Yisrael Salanter points out that broken-heartedness leads to depression and sin, so why are we extolling it? More than that, he asks: Why, at this time of year, do we refer to our broken hearts as “Lev Nishbar” and not use the more usual phrase of “Lev Shavur”? Rabbi Salanter explains that, in general, the phrase “Lev Shavur” is not a positive thing because it refers to a heart that was broken externally; it was broken by the actions of someone else. A “Lev Nishbar,” on the other hand, is a heart that was broken by the person himself. If I break my own heart in order to rebuild it so that it is stronger and healthier than it was — that is something truly great!

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik related that an eminent psychiatrist once told him that if it were in his power he would abolish the passage that begins with the words “v’tein pachdecha” — give us fear — from the prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. He stated, “Fear is the main cause of all mental illness. A person who wants to guard his mental health should seek to free himself of fear, and he certainly shouldn’t pray for it.”

With his trademark modesty, Rabbi Soloveitchik replied that he was certainly not a psychiatrist, but that he met with countless people daily, and many of them were consumed with fears. Fear of losing their money. Fear of losing their status in society. Fear of illness. Very often, if a person is in pain, he is afraid to go to a doctor for fear that he will be diagnosed with some awful disease. Explained Rabbi Soloveitchik, “Man is full of small fears, but I know there is one big fear that chases away all other fears. What is this fear that a person can accept on himself in order to remove all of the other fears? To remove the fear of failure, of poverty, of not being popular, of illness — and more? This special “curing fear” is the fear of G-d. And this is why we pray: Uv’chein tein pachdecha.”

Jewish Law dictates that when one approaches the holy Western Wall, and hasn’t been there within the last thirty days, he should tear a piece of clothing just as a mourner does. It is a sign of our grieving over the fact that the Holy Temple has not yet been rebuilt. It can truly be a poignant act, but it is not enough just to stop at a piece of clothing. For many years there was a sign on the wall of one of the alleyways that opened into the Western Wall Plaza with a quote from the Book of Joel, 2:13: “Tear [open] your hearts and not your clothing.” If we stop at our clothing and it does not penetrate any deeper than that, then we have missed the point. G-d wants our hearts — broken and fragmented — because we are then offering G-d our very selves. It as if each and every one of us is coming in front of G-d and saying, “Take my heart and make it whole.” And G-d answers, “My beloved child, in My Eyes your broken heart is whole.”

A few years ago I heard the most beautiful idea from Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. She said that the secular world thinks that the goal in life is to be happy. We Jews believe that the goal in life is to be good. It is only through goodness that happiness can be achieved. That is why at this time of the year we wish each other a Shana Tova — a good year — rather than a happy year.

May we all be blessed with a good year. A year of purity. A year of connection to G-d. A year where our hearts truly belong to our Father in Heaven.

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