The Merit of Our Tears
Reflection Prior to Kol Nidrei 5779
No holiday reminds us that ‘We’re all in this together’ quite like Yom Kippur. Increased shul attendance, communal exercises in affliction, and the concept that the day of Yom Kippur itself can atone for our national sins; all of this highlights Yom Kippur as a day of unsurpassed unity.
As one who cares deeply about Jewish unity, I particularly enjoy the euphoric heights of Ne’ilah, our reprise of Yechezkel’s triumph on Har Carmel, whereupon our stunned and repentant ancestors proclaimed Hashem Hu haE-lokim – Hashem is The Lord!!!
Conversely, I find it deeply challenging to return to the ‘average’ weekday, average davening, average or diminished attendance. The ensuing festival of Sukkot certainly eases the jolt, but not entirely.
This calls to mind a Talmudic passage in Yoma 39a which describes a setback in Jewish history roughly twenty three hundred years ago. The text describes five miracles that commenced during the days of Moshe Rabbeinu and recurred for 1,000 years, through the tenure of Shimon HaTzadik as Kohen Gadol (circa 350 BCE). He was among the first great Jewish leaders of the post-prophetic era. Shimon HaTzadik was also the last Kohen Gadol to see the strip of wool tied to the horns of the se’ir hamishtale’ach (the Yom Kippur scapegoat) transform from scarlet to white each and every Yom Kippur. The Talmud teaches that after his death, this and four other miracles ceased to occur with regularity. Hashem had evidently taken a step back from Klal Yisrael, or vice versa.
Despite this sad state of affairs, it should be noted that things could have happened otherwise. Hashem could have initiated a dramatic halt to all overt heavenly signs. That strip of wool could have remained scarlet every year following Shimon HaTzadik’s passing. Instead, we learn that a more gradual transition occurred over the ensuing years.
Herein lies a measure of hope and a formula for our return, our true teshuva.
As Hashem gradually stepped away from us, so must our rapprochement be gradual, purposeful, and thoughtful. We can no more hope to achieve a lasting state of teshuva than we can begin Yom Kippur with the heights of Ne’ilah. “Hashem Hu HaE-lohim! Hashem Hu HaE-lohim!” may be as true now as it will be at twilight tomorrow, but for the moment, there is much work to be done to ‘get there.’
The Belzer Rebbe reportedly used to share the story of a villager who visited a great city. A fire broke out and the villager watched as one of the locals grabbed a drum and beat a steady alarm to roust his comrades to action. The villager marveled at the efficiency of the whole operation.
The villager returned home and in due time, a fire broke out in the village. He grabbed a drum and beat it vigorously. Alas, the village burned down. Distraught, he returned to the city to inquire of the residents why his technique had failed.
“Fool!” the city folk castigated him. “Beating a drum accomplishes nothing to quench a fire. It is nothing more than a call to action. Only great exertion and much water can extinguish the flames.”
Similarly, concludes the Belzer Rebbe, on Yom Kippur we beat our chests and raise a great alarm. This gesture alone accomplishes little. It is only by dint of great exertion over the next 25-hours and in the merit of the tears we shed that we can truly put out the flames. It is a gradual and painstaking process, but this is the formula we must use to turn the scarlet wool white and to ascend the heights of Ne’ilah. Only then shall we proclaim, Hashem Hu HaE-lohim!