Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Ha’azinu 5776
As we move away from the High Holy Days and return to life as usual, should we be satisfied to return to our status quo ante? Perhaps the experience of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur should not be limited to retrospection and stock-taking of the passing year. Instead, these days of introspection might equally be an opportunity for spiritual transformation. We might use them as a springboard for the year ahead, and come away from the holidays not as we were, but as a “new and improved model” of ourselves.
How can we achieve this? First and foremost, we might look to the Yom Kippur service itself for assistance. In addition, this week’s Torah reading contains a message that we can apply in the days and weeks after the holiday season, a lesson that will enable us to descend from the heights of spirituality achieved during these unique days without sliding back to where we were before.
Parashat Ha’azinu is Moshe’s parting song, and it is read each year during this period of heightened spiritual sensitivity. One particular verse, which has become an integral part of our liturgy, leads Rashi to connect the song of Ha’azinu to the service in the Beit HaMikdash:
When I proclaim God’s Name, praise God for His greatness. (D’varim 32:3)
In his comments on this verse, Rashi cites a Talmudic teaching regarding the appropriate response to the recitation of a blessing. We are all familiar with the normal response to a blessing: “Amen.” This short statement is both an affirmation of the content of the blessing itself and a testament to our shared belief in God. However, in the Beit HaMikdash, the response to a blessing was, “Blessed be His great Name (the Name of Kingship) forever and all time.” This same response is recorded in the Yom Kippur liturgy in which we recount the Kohen Gadol’s service in the Beit HaMikdash: When the Kohen Gadol uttered the ineffable Name of God, all those within earshot would fall on their knees, bow and prostrate themselves, and declare, “Blessed be His great Name (the Name of Kingship) forever and all time.” Even today, this scene is reenacted in many congregations during the Yom Kippur recitation of the Avodat Kohen Gadol, despite the fact that the ineffable Name of God is no longer spoken.
The message we might take with us from this once-a-year experience lies in its uniqueness: In the course of our daily “non-Beit HaMikdash” life, we respond to blessings that include God’s Name by saying “Amen”. At no point in our lives is the ineffable Name of God spoken, nor is it our practice to kneel or prostrate ourselves in prayer. Despite this, we are reminded of what once was, of what should be, and what will be the proper order of things when the Beit HaMikdash is rebuilt; Yom Kippur helps us keep our sights on that other reality by transporting us to a different place and time – a place and time that once was, and will one day be again. On the holiest day of the year, we re-create the Beit HaMikdash experience, and we attempt to insert ourselves into that reality and imagine ourselves among those assembled in the courtyard of the Temple, bowing in awe as the Kohen Gadol declares God’s omnipotence. If we are able to refer back to that experience whenever we hear a blessing, if we are able to make that other reality a part of our inner world, we can take the Yom Kippur experience with us through the rest of the year. Each time we answer “Amen,” we have an opportunity to hear, in our innermost ear, to envision in our mind’s eye, the response to a blessing uttered in the confines of the Beit HaMikdash: “Blessed be His great Name (the Name of Kingship) forever and all time.”
Other elements of the Yom Kippur liturgy pose a similar challenge; most notable among these is the “Aleinu” with which we conclude prayers throughout the year. Coming, as it does, at the end of every service, Aleinu “don’t get no respect;” more often than not, Aleinu is mumbled in a rush as worshippers hurry out the door of the synagogue. However, on the High Holy Days, Aleinu has a central role in the liturgy. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Aleinu is recited slowly, deliberately, with great concentration and intent, at the very heart of the service. On these Days of Awe, Aleinu takes on an entirely different character: Worshippers bow and kneel as the words of this sublime prayer – which are exactly the same all year round – help them reach new heights of spirituality. Here, then is that same challenge: Can we muster the fervent intensity of the prayers of the High Holy days throughout the year? Can we recall the High Holy Days experience of Aleinu as we repeat this prayer three times daily throughout the year? The awe of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, as our lives hang in the balance, makes all our prayers more fervent, more intense, but spiritual awareness is not something we should reserve for ten days each year. Our challenge is to draw upon the holiness of the High Holy Days all year long. Perhaps our thrice-daily repetition of Aleinu can remind us of that challenge and help us rise to meet it.
We have the capacity to infuse our lives with holiness. To do so, all we have to do is utilize the greatest gift God gave us: the human imagination. If we use it to picture holiness, we can uplift our everyday lives and achieve new levels of spirituality.
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