For the week ending 16 September 2023 / 1 Tishrei 5784

Rosh Hashanah / Yom Kippur Special Feature: Taking Responsibility for Our Lives

by Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Breitowitz
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People sometimes view Yom Kippur as a day of somber doom and gloom, full of long unintelligible praying, physical deprivations, and fears and anxieties about the future. Yet our Sages view Yom Kippur in quite a different light.

The Mishna in Masechet Ta’anit (26b) tells us that Yom Kippur was one of the two most joyous days of the Jewish year (the other being the 15th of Av, as explained there). Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness, reconciliation and opportunity for a new beginning, unencumbered by the crushing deadweight of past failure. Yom Kippur is a wondrous gift of love from the Creator, the gift of a second chance. As such, despite the lengthy prayers and the physical discomfort of no food or drink, and our backs, knees and feet being sore from long hours of standing, one should cherish every moment “like the sweetness of honey” (an expression I heard from my revered Mashgiach, Rav Dovid Kronglass, zatzal). For an all too brief 25-hour period we are with Hashem, in Whose presence there is “strength and joy” (Chronicles I 16:27).

If a blind person were given one day in which to see, what would he do? How he would rush to savor the memory of color, of pattern, to notice the green of the grass, the colors of flowers, the smiles of his children. How he would hold on to everything he could see so he could imprint it on his mind and soul and consciousness, even as the physical image fades away. This last hour of Yom Kippur, as we say the Ne’ilah prayer, is very much the same. We spend most of our lives only half-seeing. If not blind, then we are at least color-blind, missing so much of the essence. On Yom Kippur, when we really focus, we can begin to see. On this day the Shechina (Divine Presence) is particularly close and the gates of Heaven are open to our prayers. But toward the end of the day that time is ending, and we will go back to our regular life, our life of half-seeing. The prayer of Ne’ilah is shorter than the rest of the Yom Kippur prayers. There are no long “al chets”. We are pressed for time and we are pushing to get those last few requests in. We are trying and striving to hold on to the special moments when Hashem is closer to us than at any other time of the year, to remember them so we can continue to keep some of the holiness within us.

And teshuva can be earned in a moment if we do it right. The gemara in Avoda Zara (17a) relates the story of Elazar ben Dordaya, who was a notoriously degenerate person. He was so degenerate that he traveled the world looking for prostitutes. Finally, he heard of one he hadn’t been with, far away. He made the trip, but she was so disgusted that he had spent so much effort to find her that she refused to be with him. This woke him up. In an instant he realized what he had become. In despair, he turned to the mountains and hills and asked them to pray for him. They answered him that they couldn’t — they had to pray for themselves. Next, he turned to the heaven and earth and asked them the same. Again, he got the same answer. Next, he turned to the sun and moon, and again was turned down. Finally, he turned to the stars, and they, too, refused him. At last he cried out that the only one who could save him was himself. All of it was on his shoulders. With this realization he cried such a pitiful cry to Hashem that his soul left his body. At that instant a voice from Heaven sounded, “Rabbi Elazar ben Dordaya has earned a share in the World-to-Come.” He had been given rabbinic ordination posthumously. When the rabbis of the Talmud told this story they would cry with the realization that in an instant someone could ascend so high-to and acquire his share in the World-to-Come in one minute — and yet so many of us waste so much time. And so many years.

The great Reisher Rav, zatzal (Rabbi Aaron Levine, who died in the Holocaust) explains this story further. What is the meaning of Elazer ben Dordaya’s dialogue with the elements? What earned him his passage into the next world? He explains that the hills and mountains are often a reference to parents. When Elazar realized what he had become, his first impulse was to look for someone to blame. He called to his parents, as if to say, “It’s not my fault. You raised me poorly and that’s why I became what I became.” But in his heart of hearts, he knew the truth. Hearing the echo of his parents’ response in his own heightened consciousness, he understood that whatever his parents may have to answer for is between them and Hashem, but that he and all of us remain free actors responsible for the life we choose. Next, in his restless, frenetic efforts to find a scapegoat and an excuse, he turned to the heaven and earth, which are symbols of the environment. Perhaps his environment could be blamed — his friends, his society, the predominant culture to which he was exposed. He got the same answer. Next he turned to the sun and moon, which control the crops, and are symbols of economic circumstance. A person might be led to sin because of poverty, or conversely the pressures of success might be a crushing insurmountable burden. Again he received the same answer. Finally, he turned to the stars, his DNA, as it were, his predetermined characteristics. All these things he looked to blame, and each one refused. Finally, he realized it all lay in his own power. Though parents and environment and economics and inborn traits all weigh on a person, ultimately we have free choice. We are not a product of rigid determinism. This is what Elazer ben Dordaya realized, and in realizing it, he took responsibility for himself. This is what earned him his life in the World-to-Come. He approached Hashem with honestly, simplicity and directness. We certainly cannot fool Hashem, but we must be careful not to fool ourselves either!

The Maggid of Kelem used to tell a story, a famous parable, in which for one half hour the inhabitants of the city’s graveyard were brought back to life for the purpose of fixing what they had not done right in life. He described the frenzy of the dead, rushing from their graves to learn a page of gemara, or to give charity, or to try to make something right with their loved ones. And all the time they had their eyes on the clock. Twenty-five minutes left, then only fifteen, finally five, and then the clock strikes, and with a wail the dead are again gone. The Maggid of Kelem would finish by asking his audience, “And my friends, what’s so bad if we have more than a half hour? And my friends, who says we have a half hour?”

Life is precious. Opportunities are legion. Let us use the gifts that Hashem in His infinite kindness has given us and may we and all of Israel merit a good and sweet year of health, holiness and growth.

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