Friday, May 17, 2024

A Good Year Together

With Rosh Hashanah in the air and so many speeches heard and articles read, a person says to himself, “I think I’m basically a good person and want to be judged favorably for the coming year, but where do I start? I’ve heard all about Elul and teshuvah, but now what? What do I do? Where do I begin and how do I go about it?”

My grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin zt”l, learned in the famed yeshiva of Kelm for seven years. He once told me that during Elul, a sign stating, “Ein Melech belo am – There is no King without a people,” was affixed to the wall. It came up in conversation and I never asked him what the sign meant or signified.

I took it for granted that the message referred to the need of the Jewish people to affirm Hashem’s Kingship on Rosh Hashanah. As Chazal say (Rosh Hashanah 34b), we recite the pesukim of Malchiyos in Shemoneh Esrei “kedei shetamlichuni aleichem,” in order to accept Hashem’s dominion over us.

On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar and declare, “Hayom haras olam. Today is the birthday of the world. Today is the anniversary of Hashem’s meluchah.” The avodah of Rosh Hashanah is to declare Hashem our Melech on the day His Kingship is celebrated and reaffirmed.

Later, I found that the Alter of Kelm writes (Chochmah Umussar 2:152) that the avodah of shetamlichuni aleichem necessitates that the king’s subjects be united and work together, for the king’s rule is weakened if they are divided.

The premise of Elul and Tishrei is that we must be united, not divided. We must be respectful of others and accepting of people who are different than us, with different minhagim and a different mesorah that can also be traced back to Har Sinai.

This is signified by the sign that hung for the month of Elul in that cauldron of mussar and growth known as Kelm.

However, we still need to understand something. We often talk about achdus. What does it mean? What does it entail? And why is it a prerequisite for the moths of Elul and Tishrei?

Achdus means that we respect and care for each other despite our differences. It means that we are all heirs to a glorious tradition, and each one of us contributes an important part of a brilliant and multi-faceted mosaic. Achdus means that we recognize that there were twelve shevotim, each distinct, with its own mission and shlichus. Together, the twelve different shevotim formed Am Yisroel.

Soldiers focused on victory, on the ultimate glory of the kingdom, aren’t challenged by different roles and different ranks. They are members of a united team, an agudah achas.

Great men see beyond their own honor. They are perceptive enough to remain focused on kevod Shomayim. They don’t see themselves as central, but are happy to fade into the background and allow His glory to shine.

Rav Nochum Zev of Kelm, the Alter of Kelm’s son and sagacious leader of the Kelmer yeshiva, was invited to address a large gathering. The previous speakers were introduced and stepped to the podium to address the crowd. When his turn came, he ascended the podium, apologized that he was unable to speak, and returned to his seat. He later explained to his daughter that although he had prepared a droshah, he noted that the rov who addressed the gathering before him spoke poorly. The Kelmer gadol feared that his own speech would reflect negatively on the previous speaker. Rather than cause embarrassment to another Jew, he sat down.

No doubt, the message he prepared was laden with depth and inspiration. He certainly spent much time and effort in its preparation and believed that it held important lessons for the people in the crowd, or he wouldn’t have arrived to deliver it. Yet, the giant of Kelmer mussar sacrificed his droshah for the kavod of another Jew, because he was part of an agudah achas, sensitive to the feelings of that other rov. If it would involve causing someone embarrassment, then it wasn’t worth delivering.

It wasn’t about him, but about Him.

So where do we start our task of doing teshuvah? There is so much to cover, but what is it that underlies our failures? What is the one thing that we can do to improve our lives, make us better people, make us feel better about ourselves, and hopefully allow us to find favor in the eyes of Hashem?

The Vilna Gaon writes in Even Sheleimah (1:1,3) that at the root of all sin is bad middos, and the task of a person is to break those middos and seek to improve his character. Someone who wants to repent and do teshuvah for sins he committed should begin by rectifying his middos. The key to change involves examining middos and perfecting character traits.

At the root of the teshuvah process is becoming a better person. At the root of becoming a better person is perfecting your character. It’s not just so that you will get along better with other people. It is so that you will be able to join b’achdus and be part of something great.

One of the most integral elements of teshuvah is seeing ourselves as part of the group; as a member of Am Yisroel, and appreciating what that means. Teshuvah involves us not seeing ourselves as superior to others, or more important or better than they are, but appreciating the goodness in everyone.

Humility is the underlying ingredient of self-improvement, getting along with people, influencing people and living b’achdus. Someone who is conceited cannot lower himself in order to blend in with the rest of the pack. He is always looking to stand out or go it alone.

People who are consumed with themselves don’t give to others, don’t bend for others, and don’t compromise for others. It’s all about them. People driven by superficiality are selfish and consumed by self-gratification. They don’t bring Hashem into their lives. Life becomes a long expedition of pleasure-seeking and power-grabbing, without thought of communal responsibility or a serious examination of life.

Achdus is imperative for malchus to happen.

The cleansing process of Elul and the yemei hadin, the honesty and self-awareness brought about by the awesomeness of these days, coupled with proper reflection, brings us to a level where we can do our part in being mamlich Hashem.

Rav Yisroel Salanter advised that to be zocheh in the din of Rosh Hashanah, it is vital for a person to be part of the klal. His advice is usually understood to mean that if we wish to be granted life, health and happiness, we have to make ourselves needed. If we live for others, then the more that people need us, and the more goodness and happiness we bring into the world, the more reason Hashem has to keep us here. The merit of performing important functions for Am Yisroel helps us when we are judged for the coming year.

But there is another way to understand his admonition. In order to be a person who is involved with the klal, you have to have sterling middos, appreciate other people get along and working with others b’achdus. Someone who is caught up with himself, lacking depth and humility, cannot be involved with the klal. A klal mentch, a person who assumes responsibility to help others because he is interested in helping people, is a person who refines his middos and character.

These days, referred to as the Yomim Noraim, Days of Awe, demand seriousness. Somehow, everything in our world is becoming cloaked with casualness. Serious times are preceded by a kumzitz, because we can’t seem to handle the weighty nature of Selichos. Dancing and singing are easier than honest self-reflection.

To lessen the severity of the judgment, we would do better to recognize that some times demand contemplative thought. We need to take a break once in a while and think about our position in life. We must ponder what we have achieved so far and what our ambition is. Life is perplexing and demands thought and depth. Seriousness brings us to accept the rule of Hashem. Recognizing our place in the world leads us to care about other people and seek to improve their lives by utilizing our talents. Introspection leads to achdus and to becoming an integral part of a klal. That is what Rav Yisroel Salanter was referring to.

When we are alone, we are vulnerable and isolated. Uniting with others allows us to benefit from their support. We then have people with whom to celebrate and lighten sadness. If you live only for yourself and by yourself, then your life is as small as you are. You never allow the strengths you have been blessed with to develop and flourish as they would have had you been involved with others. You wallow and decline because Hashem endowed us with strengths in order to use them for communal benefit and for causes of Torah.

Just like the shevotim, we each have our own distinct missions to carry out. We are interconnected with others, and to the degree that we touch others’ lives and become indispensable, we become more a vital integral part of Klal Yisroel.

One of the most central nuscha’os for the tefillos of these days is the special nusach of Yeshivas Chevron. The hauntingly beautiful nusach has spread across the world and heavily influences the tunes and sounds of Rosh Hashanah.

The nusach is largely the innovation of Rav Shalom Schwadron, the legendary baal tefillah and maggid. The master communicator cobbled together different nuances from many others and formed a nusach that touched the soul, stirring and inspiring people who davened with him to seek great heights and perfection. One of the Chevron classics is the niggun that Rav Shalom adapted for the pizmon of Omnom Kein…Solachti.

Chevroner talmidim asked the beloved baal tefillah the source of the tune. He explained that this song was unlike all the others that originated from baalei mussar and Chassidic greats. He related that as an orphaned child, he stayed at the Diskin Orphan Home for a period of time.

“There,” he recalled, “a young boy, orphaned of both parents, sat next to me. He was so sad, a broken young boy. He would sit and hum a pitiful tune comprised of notes of longing and pain. That tune emanated from the boy’s wounded soul and always touched me. Every year I use the niggun, and every year I remember that boy.”

Rav Shalom, a man with a vast heart, who was easily touched and touched many, didn’t just find a tune to beautify his tefillos. When he davened, he was b’achdus with everyone in the crowd. He thought about them and their needs, and he did his best to help corral the prayers on high. He thought of that little boy, the broken orphan, from way back when, singing to himself a haunting tune, seeking to somehow overcome his loneliness and depression.

A humble man full of love for everyone, Rav Shalom connected with that boy and his soul, channeling that emotion into the tefillos as a master representative, a “shliach tzibbur,” attaching himself to his brethren, bringing them all together as one. Their voices rose along in unison, marshaling their strengths and bringing them to the level of holiness the days call for.

The more we realize that we are part of a group ruled by Hashem, the closer we will be to realizing our goal. When we grasp that kol Yisroel areivim zeh bazeh and comprehend that we are small when we stand alone; but can achieve much when we are united, we will find favor in Hashem’s eyes and in the hearts of our fellow Jews.

“Useshuvah, usefillah, utzedokah maavirin es ro’a hagezeirah.”

One who seeks to improve himself and chart a better course for the new year cleanses himself of his prior wrongs and silliness. He turns to Hashem in tefillah and asks to be returned to His good graces along with the rest of Klal Yisroel. He rises above his selfishness and apathy, accepting others, caring about his fellows, contributing to their welfare and the betterment of mankind. Tzedokah tatzil mimovess, for the more we give, the more we share with others, the more unselfish and humble we are, the more we live b’achdus with everyone, and the greater our chances of a favorable outcome.

Chazal say, “Eizehu chochom? Halomeid mikol odom. Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” The isolationist is myopic, deprived of the understanding and scope he could have achieved had he been humble enough to learn from others.

Now is the time for cheshbon hanefesh, perceiving what we did right, what we did wrong and what we can do to correct those errors. The process of teshuvah involves charotah al he’ovar and kabbolah al he’osid, regret for the past and positive resolutions for the future. The two must be linked. Engaging in charotah over past failings must bring us to undertake specific kabbalos to better ourselves in the coming year and conscientiously carry them out.

The Rambam states in Hilchos Matnos Aniyim (10:1) that Am Yisroel will merit to be redeemed in the zechus of the mitzvah of tzedokah. Perhaps we can say that the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because we lacked achdus and were consumed by sinas chinom. For us to overcome that deficiency and merit the redemption, we have to not judge people cynically and belittle those who are superficially different. We have to make room for them in our hearts, homes and schools. There is no better way to “put your money where your mouth is,” to show real achdus, than to invest tzedokah money in the dreams and hopes of another.

One who has perfected his ethical conduct to the degree that he can be a productive and harmonious member of the klal is one who can appreciate the oneness and unity of Klal Yisroel and thus fulfills his obligation of shetamlichuni aleichem.

What did that sign hanging in Kelm mean? It meant “Be a mentch, a klal mentch, and refine your middos so that you are b’achdus with everyone else.” It meant to accept Hashem’s rule over you and recognize that shetamlichuni aleichem is serious business for serious people in a serious time.

We are entering a month when achdus is the central avodah.

On Rosh Hashanah, we plead for the chance to be an agudah achas. Before Yom Kippur, we ask mechilah from each other. On Sukkos, we grasp four minim, symbolizing all sorts of Jews. Then, finally, on Simchas Torah, we dance as one, with no more barriers between us.

That’s the avodah of Malchiyos.

Achdus brings to malchus. Recognizing that our roles, distinct as they may be, are part of a single unit, focused on the same goal. Making yourself part of a community doesn’t mean that you have to surrender your personality and individuality. You can be who you are without letting that compromise your loyalty to the community. The challenge of achdus is subordinating your selfish inclinations and conquering your gaavah so that you can work with others for the common good.

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel once rose in front of the Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim bais medrash packed with talmidim and issued a plea: “There are many different types of talmidim here, following many different mesoros. There are Sephardim, chassidim and immigrants from Russia, along with typical Israeli, American and European bnei Torah. I urge you all to form minyonim so that you can honor your mesorah and maintain your minhagim.”

The rosh yeshiva paused. “But when seder starts, when it comes time to learning, I want all those groups to merge into one. The oilam should all learn together!”

When we see the realization of the tefillah, “Veyei’asu kulam agudah achas,” from all corners of the world, Jews uniting together, “la’asos retzoncha beleivav shaleim,” we will know that we are on the path toward a shenas geulah veyeshuah.

Kesivah vachasimah tovah.

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