In a few short days (too few for those of us leading services!), Jewish people will flock to synagogues to observe Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) have a magnetic pull that draws more Jewish people to houses of worship than at any other time of year. But when we arrive there, we are confronted with what for many of us is a major stumbling block to entering the process of “teshuva” (returning) and reflection that the High Holiday offers us: the liturgy of the “Machzor” (High Holiday prayer book). While at times haunting, beautiful and inspiring, the “Machzor” is also saturated with descriptions of God as King and the judgment God as King hands out. For many of us, this understanding of God and God’s role in the world can be incredibly challenging.
The former Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, in his wonderful book “Netivot Shalom” (“Ways of Peace”), offers what I find to be a very helpful way of working with both of these concepts — God’s sovereignty and God’s judgment. The Slonimer’s teaching brings a seemingly small “halachic” (Jewish law) detail about changes to the Amidah liturgy during the High Holiday period to reveal extraordinary depth in the nature of these days.
Starting with Rosh HaShanah and continuing through Yom Kippur, there are both a number of additions — and a number of changes — to the regular Amidah liturgy. The changes largely relate to the theme of kingship so embedded in the High Holiday liturgy; while the additions relate more to the equally present theme of God’s judgment.
For example, we change the end of the third blessing, the blessing of sanctifying God’s name, from Ha-Ayl hakadosh (the holy God) to Ha-Melech hakadosh (the holy King). Towards the end of the first beracha (blessing), we don’t change the liturgy, but rather, add a request for favorable judgment: “Remember us that we may live, King who desires life. Inscribe us in the ‘Book of Life,’ for Your sake, Living God.”
The Slonimer points out that, according to Jewish law, there is a difference between not making the liturgical changes and omitting the liturgical additions: if we do not change the words of the beracha, generally the halacha is we must repeat the Amidah from the beginning (“Shulkhan Aruch, Orah Hayim” 582:1). If however, we do not add the insertions, we do not repeat the Amidah (Shulkhan Aruch, Orah Hayim 582:5)
Why the distinction? Why do we not have to repeat the Amidah in both cases? The “Mishnah Berurah,” a commentary on the first section of the “Shulchan Aruch,” the authoritative code of Jewish law, suggests that it is because of the origins of the textual alterations and emendations. The Rabbis of the Talmud instituted the changes in the blessings while the Geonim, the leaders of the Jewish community from the 7th to 11th centuries, added the insertions to the already codified text. The Geonic additions, while important, are not as significant as the text of the rabbis, according to the Mishnah Berurah. As a result, we must repeat the Amidahif we do not include the Talmudic Rabbi’s changes to berachot but not if we miss the insertions of the Geonim.
The Slonimer Rebbe takes a different approach. He believes it has to do with the essence of what these days are about. For the Slonimer, God’s kingship over all of creation is at the heart of Rosh HaShanah. This kingship is intimately connected to Rosh HaShanah as HaYom Harat Olam, the day the world was created. In that creative process, says the Slonimer, not only were all beings created, they were given an essence and purpose in the world. Rosh HaShanah is that time when we reconnect to our source, partaking of the experience of the original creation and recommitting to our place in creation.
But how does this process happen? The first step is judgment. The byproduct of reaffirming our place in the world is the need to ask, have we been fulfilling our role and purpose? Yom HaDin thus emerges from Yom Harat Olam. If we have been fulfilling our particular role, living as the unique people with a Divine essence, then we have a place in the year to come. If we have not been, well, then we are “extraneous and there is no need for us in the coming year,” says the Slonimer.
Of course who among us can say we have lived up to our unique, Divine essence? Who has been able to live throughout the year, from what Rav Kook called, “the inner-essential I” (Lights of Holiness III:140)? We have the possibility of sweetening the judgment and earning a place in the coming year by means of teshuva and receiving upon ourselves the obligation to fulfill our role and purpose from hence forth.
The teaching the Slonimer is offering us about kingship and judgment is tremendous. Kingship is not about God determining our fates and intervening in history. It is about choices we make to live up to our highest selves. It is about reenthroning that which should be most sovereign in our lives — the values and actions that help us to live as the people we are called to be. This notion of kingship challenges us to take responsibility for our lives. Judgment, then, is not an arbitrary process. It is a means of assessing how we have been living in relation to our highest or deepest selves.
For this reason, changes to the liturgy of the Amidah related to kingship take on greater significance than additions related to judgment. If we are not attuned to kingship, to that which is most sovereign in how we live our lives, we are missing the whole point.
As we sit in shul these Yamim Noraim, may we merit to be reconnected to that which should be guiding our lives so that we can truly live this coming year.