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Rosh Hashana 5764

By: Rav David Milston

This shiur is dedicated in loving memory of Yael Miriam Bloch z"l on her 10th yahrzeit - Yom Bet Rosh Hashanah, by her parents and sisters Naomi, Geoffrey, Shira, Merav, Michal and Noa Bloch.
Last weeks parasha began with the words: “You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d”.
The Midrash explains that when the people heard the frightening litany of ninety-eight curses in the admonition (parashat Ki Tavo), they paled with fright at what seemed to be a hopeless future. There-upon Moshe comforted them, saying that despite all the sins of the past; they were still standing before Hashem. Just as He had not discarded them before, so He would maintain them in the future.
This Midrash, also cited by Rashi, is problematic to say the least. The Rebbe of Slonim (Netivot Shalom) asks pointedly, that if the purpose of “the admonition” in parashat Ki Tavo was to make it quite clear to Am Yisrael what the repercussions of transgression will be; if the point of the “tochecha” is to deter the people from sin, then surely by reassuring the people at the beginning of our parasha, Moshe is in essence neutralizing that very deterrent? If Moshe has now reassured the people that they will not come to any harm, the admonition of Ki Tavo is essentially null and void.
The Rebbe of Slonim therefore suggests a different understanding of the midrash.
If we face our “covenant” with Hashem as individuals, it is going to be an uphill struggle from the start. The responsibilities and requirements of Torat Hashem are daunting to say the least. The likelihood of success on the individual plain is minimal. However if we come together as a people; if our approach to our covenant with Hashem is a unified approach, then we will surely succeed in our mission in life.
At the start of parashat Netzavim, the concept of “arevut” – “responsibility for one another” is introduced to Torat Hashem. From now and henceforth every Jew is obligated to help others observe the Torah, and is equally obligated to restrain them from violating it. Essentially, this is why Moshe Rabbeinu, at the very beginning of the parasha enumerated all the different strata of people who stood before him – the world view of the Jew demands that we take absolute responsibility for each others actions.
The Rebbe of Slonim explains that this was the true message of the midrash. Having heard the admonitions of parashat Ki Tavo; the people were shocked; the people were dismayed. How could they possibly succeed, and having seen the price of failure they paled at the consequences that they would almost certainly face.
The “reassurance” of Moshe was not in reality reassurance; it was in fact advice. Moshe explained to the people, that as individuals indeed they should be shocked and dismayed by the admonitions of parashat Ki Tavo, however if they choose to approach their task as a unified people, then they needn’t be worried by parashat hatochacha. If each Jew compliments his fellow Jew, if the lackings of one are strengthened by the other, then indeed as a unit, we will surely succeed in our role as Am Hashem.
“You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d” – the curses in the admonition are frightening, but if you continue to stand together as you do today, then you will surely remain before Hashem. If you approach your mission as one, as Knesset Yisrael, then you will surely succeed.
The message from the Rebbe of Slonim is crystal clear. We must look out for each other, we must help one another, where we are strong we must help others who are weak, and where we are weak we will be assisted in overcoming our challenges by the strength of our brethren.
It is not difficult to see how these words of wisdom are reflected throughout our history as Am Yisrael. When we come together we do not only survive, but we succeed. Yet when we are divided, or even disinterested in the fate of our fellow Jews, then we suffer defeat and pain.
But perhaps we could explain the above midrash by adopting the thesis of Rabbi Yosef Be’er Soloveitchik when discussing “Teshuva” – “Repentance”: (Re:’On Repentence’ – Oral discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik – Pinchas H. Peli).
“ What is the correct definition of a communal sacrifice? It does not mean a sacrifice brought by several people. This could define not a ‘communal sacrifice’ but a ‘jointly-owned’ sacrifice. The Ramban states that if, for example, money was collected from all the Jews in the world, and an offering was made from this money, it would still not be considered a ‘communal sacrifice’ but a ‘jointly-owned sacrifice’…
A communal sacrifice actually only has one owner – the entire community of Israel, which according to the law is not the sum total or arithmetic aggregate of such and so many individuals, but a single, composite entity in its own right.
Knesset Yisrael – the community of Israel, constitutes an indivisible and separate legal body, in the same way as any individual is a single, legal personality…
Having established this fundamental principle we have to define the nature of acquittal afforded by Yom HaKippurim. Is it personal acquittal bestowed upon each and every person who comes before Hashem? Or is the nature of acquittal afforded by the Day of Atonement not intended for the individual as such but rather directed to the totality of Knesset Yisrael as a collective ‘self’. Through our identity with Knesset Yisrael, into which we have been integrated and smelted together into one body, are we able to benefit from the acquittal granted it?
The answer can be found in the tefillot of Yom Kippur, in the blessing of the sanctity of the Day:
‘Blessed is the Lord, Who pardons and forgives our transgressions and the transgressions of His people, the House of Israel, Who removes our guilt year by year, King over all the earth, Who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Atonement.’
>From this beracha we may very well infer that on Yom Hakippurim there are two types of acquittal. One is individual expiation, bestowed upon each and every Jew. Secondly, Knesset Yisrael, in its entirety and as a separate mystical kind of self, as an independent entity in its own right, is also purified in the presence of the Almighty on that Day.
The dual phraseology, referring to ‘our transgressions’ and then to the ‘transgressions of His people, the House of Israel’ is therefore understandable. However, this dualism is not carried through the rest of the blessing where it says: ‘Who removes our guilt’ – Why does it not also say ‘and the guilt of His people, the House of Israel’?
Ramban (Vayikra 5:19) explains that the word ‘ashma’ – ‘guilt’ is used only when a transgression is so grave that it results in the annihilation of the sinner. ‘Ashma’ – ‘guilt’ and ‘shemama’ – ‘desolation’ are derived from the same linguistic root. For a sin of ‘ashma’ the only punishment is annihilation and death. An individual person is capable of committing a sin of ‘ashma’ which will bring in its wake desolation; but Knesset Yisrael cannot do so.
Knesset Yisrael can sin, transgress or commit crimes, but it cannot reach the point of engendering ‘ashma’. Therefore, in regard to transgression, the bracha speaks of double expiation: for the individual and for Knesset Yisrael. However, in connection with ‘ashma’ only ‘our guilt’ is mentioned – for as individuals we are capable of descent to the pit of destruction and death, but not when taken as Knesset Yisrael, which is why the bracha does not mention their collective sin.”
>From these words of Rav Soloveitchik we can understand the midrash as quoted at the beginning of parashat Netzavim in the following way:
Rav Soloveitchik refers to the concept of Knesset Yisrael. Knesset Yisrael is an entity in its own right that can never ultimately be annihilated and destroyed. Individuals can and have suffered but the people of Israel as an entity remains, and will always be.
We can therefore understand the words of Moshe Rabbeinu to be a comforting explanation to Am Yisrael. Indeed each and every individual has what to be worried about. Having heard the curses in the admonition of parashat Ki-Tavo, each and every individual member of Am Yisrael should be shaking with fear. Moshe is in no way interested in neutralizing the effect of this deterrent. However, he comforts Am Yisrael by ensuring each and every one of us, that even though bad things may well happen to us as individuals, there will never be any question regarding the fate of Knesset Yisrael as a whole. “You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d” – whatever may happen to us as individual people – Am Yisrael as an entity in its own right will always exist, and will always stand before Hashem.
As we enter the New year –5764, to my mind, the two messages of The Rebbe of Slonim and Rav Soloveitchik are of utmost importance.
On the one hand, our future depends entirely upon us. As the famous derasha beautifully explains the words of the haggaddah: “Shelo echad bilvad amad aleinu lechaloteinu” – “It is only when we are not as one that we are in danger of destruction”. As long as we act as one people, unite, strengthening one another, as long as we can concentrate on each other’s positive attributes, and on our own negative attributes, as long as the Jews in the Diaspora truly care for the Jews of Israel, and the Jews of Israel truly care for the Jews of the world, as long as we compliment each other, and face the world and Hashem as one then we know that we can and will succeed.
This must be our objective in the coming year, to reunite as a people, to reconcile, to show tolerance and understanding for one another. We must once and for all understand, internalize that we are all one people, we may not always agree with each other, and that in itself is not unhealthy, but we must respect one another, and aspire to reach the true midda of ahavat Yisrael.
On the other hand we enter our new year after a year of terrorism, so many loved ones will not be together this Rosh Hashana, and just sometimes, when we see no real solution, we edge towards the cliff of despair. Yet at that very moment when we look at the past few years, at the difficulties that we will undoubtedly face as a people in the coming year, the words of Moshe Rabbeinu, (as we understood them by adapting the ideas of Rav Solovetchik) come ringing through: Do not despair Knesset Yisrael, our enemies will come and they will go, but Knesset Yisrael will be forever - “You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d”. As Knesset Yisrael we will always stand before Hashem.
It is with this assurance, and with much apprehension and excitement in anticipation of our New year that I wish all of our students, alumni, parents, and teachers a happy and healthy new year. May this be the year where we realize the goal of a united Israel, may this be the year of peace and redemption, of health and happiness.
Ketiva VeChatima Tova
Rav Milston


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