By the time the month of Elul arrived to my hometown of Munkacs in the Carpathian Mountains, the cooler air of fall also appeared. Elul signified that the High Holidays were almost upon us.
In Europe before the Holocaust, as we entered Elul, we began our mental and emotional preparations for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the synagogues, we began adding psalms of penitence, and at the end of the morning prayer, to prepare ourselves for the spirit of penitence, the shofar was sounded.
Slowly we began wishing each other beyt auch zu a guttes yuhr — may you be successful in requesting of G-d a good year. As a child, I sensed the uneasiness that appeared among the adults. After all, soon the holidays would start, and our fate for the next year would be determined.
Hitler was flexing his muscles, and even though it was before Kristallnacht, anti-Semitism was rampant not only in Germany, but even in Munkacs. As we were approaching Rosh Hashanah, we became more and more conscious of our powerlessness and more fearful of the future.
Each year we were aware, as Rabbi Amnon described in the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, that life and death, poverty and well-being, health and illness were independent of our will and were instead in the hands of G-d.
How often did I hear my mother’s sigh of oy Gottenyu? We needed help and didn’t know what the future held for us, so each year we came to seek the only help we could get: G-d’s help.
From my childhood almost into adulthood, I was taught that whether I would be rewarded or punished depended on my adherence to G-d’s commandments. To me, this meant adherence to ritual commandments.
How well I remember one of the rabbis in Munkacs bewailing our sins and was sure we would suffer punishment because of the sins we committed. The one I remember most clearly, even when I was in my early teens, was his angry attack on the women.
“Oh, women, how sinful you are,” he scolded with ferocity. What kind of sin had they committed to deserve such abhorrence — a sin that in his view threatened the existence of Jews?
The sin he spoke of was the violation of the laws of nidah – of menstruation. (Laws regarding sexual behavior seem so important to Judaism, at least to traditional Jews, that we choose to read the Torah chapter related to sexuality on Yom Kippur.)
The rabbi was disturbed because some modern women refused to cut off their hair and consequently could not fulfill the Torah-defined laws of ritual cleansing in the mikvah. With their hair intact, the rabbi argued, the women caused a separation to exist between their body and the water, and they thus failed to have a proper cleansing and hence performed unlawful, ritually unclean sex.
Adherence to ritual laws was of far greater concern than the violation of the moral law. Because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were the time for accountability for adherence to ritual laws, the rabbi pleaded with the women: Cut your hair; otherwise, Jews will suffer.
It is important that we and all of mankind should be held accountable for our sins, for the violation of the mitzvot. It is important that we should be taught achraut — responsibility for our actions.
The idea of accountability was introduced to me in my childhood. I was always reminded that at night, while I slept, my soul ascended to heaven, and there in my own handwriting I entered in the Great Book all the things that I did and for which on Rosh Hashanah I would be held accountable.
Yes, I should be held accountable, but for what?
I should be held accountable for whether I obeyed the mitzvot. In the Judaism of the shtetl, the mitzvot were primarily perceived as the ritual commandments.
Did I obey Shabbat as prescribed in the Shulchan Aruch? Did I recite the morning prayers and put on the tefillin as I was commanded? Did I, G-d forbid, eat nonkosher food?
This is what being Jewish meant in the pre-World War II Diaspora.
But life has taught me that to be a Jew, we need to be held accountable for adherence to moral laws more than to ritualism. I learned a long time ago that one of the central teachings, at least according to my very Orthodox Hasidic grandfather, is that before anything else I should always strive to be an eidler mench — a moral and caring human being.
Today, perhaps more than ever, we must place greater credence on moral life than on ritual performances.
This view is not new. All one has to do is read the Prophet Micah, who tells us what G-d wants of us: to do justice, to love mercy and to practice humility.
While as a child I was taught that the beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d and obedience to ritual laws, being Jewish has changed for most people. It is no longer fear of G-d but adherence to godly principles.
It would be good if instead of prayers we began the High Holidays by reading Chapter 1 in Isaiah. From him we can learn that his benign G-d cares more about morality than ritualism.
This view goes back much further than Isaiah. It is also what G-d expressed to Abraham when the latter argued to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sins are not the omission of petty ritualism but the violation of universal justice, which demands that all people should have access to the necessities of life.
Today the whole world stands in the crossroads, and we need to decide what path we and the rest of the world should follow. Among many problems, our leaders have turned away the principle of achraut, the belief in human interconnectedness making us responsible for one another’s needs.
If you ever read the haggadah, you should be aware that the evil person, the rasha, is one who cares little for the collective. He is the selfish individual who spurns mutual dependency.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come to remind us of the importance of the collective to our life and the importance of our interconnectedness.
The sages made an interesting allegory about the relationship of the individual and the collective. The individual, the sages tell us, is like a finger, an entity that is a part of a larger entity, the hand. Should one finger in that relationship become hurt, does not the whole hand suffer?
Judaism does not teach selfishness. To the contrary, we believe that if one person in the community suffers, the whole community suffers. We are not here to fight each other for the acquisition of more goods. We must care for one another’s needs — this is the principle of tzedakah and gemilut chasadim, the concern for human welfare.
The great sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who I believe is the savior of Judaism, walked with one of his students in Jerusalem and came to the Temple, which recently had been destroyed by the Romans. The student raised his voice and cried: “Woe is to us. The Temple is destroyed, and how will we gain atonement and absolution for our sins?”
Rabbi ben Zakkai responded: “We have something even more powerful than sacrifices. Performing gemilut chasadim, the performance of acts of lovingkindness, is the surest way to achieve redemption for sins.”
The Torah, our sages remind us, begins and ends with G-d performing acts of lovingkindness. He provided fig leaves to Adam and Eve when they became aware of their nakedness. He came to take Moses’ soul with a kiss, and He himself buried Moses.
The future of the world, my friends, is assured so long as we continue to perform justice and acts of kindness and care for one another.
We, the members of the Shema Yisrael congregation, wish all of you a good and sweet year of 5778.
Regular AJT columnist Eugen Schoenfeld is one of the service leaders for Shema Yisrael — The Open Congregation.