Members in Good Standing1
If there are sections of the Torah that emphasize uniformity and sameness, this is not one of them. The opening lines divide the Jewish people into no less than ten groups. That is quite a few divisions in a pasuk which chiefly emphasizes the common fate of all those who survived the previous forty years and now stood together in a covenant with Hashem! There must be some important point to apportioning them to so many subgroups. Somehow, what we share does not erase what divides us.
Looking at the Zohar, our confusion spins out of control. The hayom / “this day” of the first pasuk alludes, according to the Zohar,2 to the Day of Judgment – to Rosh Hashanah, the day in which we picture humanity passing under the rod like a huge herd of sheep. We are judged as individuals, and on the other hand, we are united by the arduous experience we all undergo at the same time. So focusing on individuals would be justified, as would looking at the entire collective. But why introduce the notion of a significant number (which ten always is!) of subgroups?
The Torah teaches us here about the extraordinary differences within a process that unites us. We all submit to Hashem’s judgment on Rosh Hashanah. That judgment, however, is exquisitely tailored according to different levels at which people are positioned.
Everyone is judged according to expectations suited to his rank and station. Ordinary people are judged as we might expect. Their actions are weighed; any case against them is made by their aveiros, their illicit actions. Great people, however, find the Heavenly court taking a hard look at their thoughts, for which they are held accountable! Even the lowly “wood-cutter and water-drawer” merit a different judicial protocol. Their intellectual grasp is limited – and so are Hashem’s expectations of them. Yet they, too, are judged as to how well they contributed what they were suited – and therefore expected – to contribute.
Moreover, the ten groups have meaning even for the single individual. We do not stay on the same level constantly, and our movement between levels can be jerky and discontinuous, rather than smooth and consistent. We may be the “heads…and elders” at some times, and join the wood-cutters and water-drawers at others. Hashem will judge as differently.
Teshuvah, or more accurately the quality of teshuvah we are asked to do, follows the same pattern of nuanced and multi-tiered expectation. The rehabilitation of the commoner is unlike that of the king’s inner circle. A commoner who insults the honor of the king will not have to do much more than he would if he wronged one of his friends, which is to show contrition and offer apologies. Because this commoner understands so little of what makes the king a regal figure, he cannot be expected to do much more than that.
A loftier person, particularly one who had been allowed in to the king’s inner cabinet, is expected to make amends differently. Should he offend the king and offer no more than the commoner in the way of apologies and regrets, he would add insult to injury! His deeper understanding of the king’s greatness and majesty should cause him much deeper anguish. If he fails to display it, his insubstantial attempt at seeking forgiveness is itself a form of lÚse majesté. We like to think of ourselves as most contrite and humbled when we recite the vidui, and use every letter of the alef-beis to express synonyms for our transgressions and trespasses. Yet if we fail to use the opportunity to dwell on the seriousness of our offenses, if we cannot move ourselves to bitter tears over our failure, our confession itself is an aveirah! We can point a finger of blame at our own yetzer hora for holding us in its sway while we sinned in a crime of passion; we have no similar excuse for a lukewarm teshuvah after we thoroughly regain our composure.3 Freed from the grip of our desires, we should be able to look more objectively upon our misdeeds. If we did, we would be consumed with shame and remorse. (An entirely different argument also invalidates a half- hearted teshuvah. While the gift of teshuvah remains beyond our comprehension – it is inconceivable to us that a person can be restored to his innocence as if he had never committed the crime – some of our teachers have pointed to at least partial “justification” for Hashem’s accepting it. In true teshuvah, we do not escape paying a price for our aveirah. Whatever joy and pleasure it may have brought us is neutralized by the pain and agony we experience in reflecting upon our transgression. A teshuvah that is less than heartfelt does not provide a counterweight to an aveirah committed with enthusiasm and zeal.)
Proper teshuvah demands our thorough understanding of the sin, and a full awareness of the One before Whom we stand. Our parshah alludes to this: “You are all standing today…before Hashem your G-d.”4 In other words, you must see to it that you understand the implications of standing before Hashem. Know the One in Whose presence you stand!
Our ability to understand anything about HKBH, of course, varies from person to person. We have thus arrived at another way of understanding the panoply of subgroups that open the parshah. The continuum of discernment of Hashem is spread between end points stretching from the heads of tribes to water-drawers. The depth and quality of teshuvah Hashem expects of us is not uniform. He asks of us only what is within the grasp of the group within which we best fit.
The parshah continues to develop the allusion to Rosh Hashanah. “For you to pass into the covenant of Hashem your G-d and His imprecation….”5 Almost by instinct, when we hear about Rosh Hashanah from the distance, we think of the approaching judgment. This pasuk, however, stresses the other great theme of Rosh Hashanah – using the day to enter into a thoroughly new relationship with Hashem. We receive Him as if He were crowned our monarch that day. We should see ourselves as pressing all parts of our selves into a new covenant with Him.
The theme of the new relationship is front and center in the machzor, not the theme of the Day of Judgment. More times than we can follow, the refrain we hear ourselves call out is “And You Hashem …will rule alone over all your Creation,” and “Rule over the entire world.” It is this relationship of Ruler and ruled that we must bring ourselves to understand and feel.
The two themes meet at times. Toras Avos sees this in the paragraph after each of the shofar-sounding interludes in the repetition of the Musaf. “Today is the birthday of the world. Today all creatures stand in judgment, whether children or slaves.” The judgment itself, he explained, is whether we stand before Him as children or as slaves! If we are the latter, our service of Him on Rosh Hashanah is motivated by yir’ah, brought on by the judgment itself. If we come to Him as children, however, we are not preoccupied by the judgment and its consequences, but the willingness to join with Him in a special covenant and relationship.
Bais Avraham took this one step further. The opening word of the parshah, atem, can be read as an acronym for al tashlicheini milfanechah, do not cast me out from before You. The deepest prayer of a Jew on this day, his greatest fear, concerns being banished from the inner court of the King. No other punishment, G-d forbid, is as insufferable as removal from His presence. Dovid suffered greatly for twenty-two years, explains the Reishis Chochmah.6 He endured pain for thirteen, lost his ruach haKodesh for twenty-two, and was afflicted with tzora’as for six months, at which time his colleagues on the Sanhedrin shunned him. He had much to complain about, much to daven for. In the midst of his tribulations, the summary of his feelings was still, “Do not cast me out from before You; do not remove Your ruach haKodesh from me.”7
When this is the chief concern in a Jew’s heart on Rosh Hashanah, when his mortal fear is losing any part of his closeness to his Creator, then the harsh judgments fall off from him on their own. Through this, he merits a year of salvation and compassion.
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom pgs. 184-186
2 Zohar 2:32B
3 See above, parshas Pinchas, where this idea is further developed.
4 Devarim 29:9
5 Devarim 29:11
6 Sha’ar HaTeshuvah, chapter 3
7 Tehilim 51:19
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org