Avodah for the High Holidays

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The Yomin Noraim instill a sense of hesitancy, awe, and fear in the heart of a yid. The other holidays seem easy in comparison, at least from my perspective.

  • Sukkos we build a sukkah and shake arba minim.
  • Simchas Torah involves hakafos.
  • Chanukah has candles lit in a set way. And the oil…
  • Purim has Megillah, Seudah, and more.
  • Pesach involves lots of cleaning and kashering. Gotta get rid of that chametz and lead Seder.
  • Shavuos means learning Torah all night long whilst enjoying cheesecake.
  • Even Tisha B’Av is easy in a sense that one can watch inspirational videos and go about some degree of regular activity, being guided through the day.

All of these days are very physical in action.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, however, are much more challenging.

  • The davening is longer and unique.
  • The melodies different and impressing.
  • The significance can be felt in the ambiance.
  • These days are so…spiritual…in nature.
  • It’s that inner work that I believe intimidates so many.

But why does it feel that way?

Rav Berkowitz brings the Ramchal who says in Derech HaShem that HaShem created the energy for one whole year, and that each year the same energy is on repeat. Essentially, every Elul is the same Elul, and each year’s Yomim Noraim are the same Yomim Noraim. When we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we’re not adding another year to the calendar. It’s not year 5783. It’s year one. It’s the creation moment. That’s part of the power behind the season – it is imbued with the same creative forces of the first Rosh Hashanah. The same Yom Kippur as well – that original moment of teshuva out of love. Yes, it’s the same for the other holidays as well, but there’s a unique energy to the High Holidays that mark these Days with Awe.

This concept is full of potential that we can grab on to – right here, right now. The power of creation is just as powerful as the first time, and the power of teshuva even more so. 

The typical approach to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is one of trepidation. Reading the machzor, it’s easy to understand why. Who will live? Who will die? By water or by fire? It’s scary stuff.

The chassidishe approach doesn’t buy into the hype. Instead, we focus on a higher avodah. HaShem loves us, deeply so. So these days…they’re about simcha. Unrestrained, unbridled, raw simcha. The simcha we bring ourselves to on these days will be the simcha that powers us through the year. Yes, we ask these questions about the coming year, not as a means to scare us to teshuvah, but rather as a recognition of HaShem’s magnificence. 

When it comes to Geula, there are two types of redemption. The Berdichiver Ruv Z’L comments on it. When klal yisroel is worthy, Torah observant, full of piety and chesed, it will be a redemption of ultimate salvation. When klal yisroel is not so worthy, however, it is an intervention of power called “G-dly might.” This is similar to yetzias mitzrayim. Even though, at the time, bnei yisroel did not merit redemption from their own low state of affairs, HaShem redeemed them because of their potential. 

This brings us to back to the Ramchal’s comment on how each year is the same year. HaShem is outside of the concept of time, so from G-d’s perspective, each Rosh Hashanah is the same Rosh Hashanah. And now we see that the power behind the day is the same original energy as well, without any loss of koach. When we combine these, we understand how HaShem judged bnei yisroel on their potential – because for Him, it is all concurrent, and that potential was (and is) actually in progress at that very time. 

So too for us.

The Bobover Ruv Z’L comments that we daven for the redemption of G-dly might in our Shemoneh Esrei. When we seek HaShem out, we ask Him not to judge us on our past or current state, but on our potential. We are asking HaShem for a re-creation this next year based on our potential, not where we currently stand.

That’s how powerful this season is. The world will be set with an accounting for the next year based on our davening. Who will live, who will die, who will be rich, who will be poor, etc., is determined now, using the creative energy of the season combined with HaShem looking at our potential. 

Having addressed Rosh Hashanah, what can we glean from the chassidishe masters on Yom Kippur?

The first Rebbe of Bobov, Rebbe Shlomo Z’L, tells a mashal about a mortal king and a minister who found favor in the king’s eyes. The king gifted the minister with fine garments. One day the minister wore the garments in an area of mud and dirt. After realizing his mistake upon seeing the dirty garments, the minister was afraid of the king’s anger and disappointment over his negligence. The minister tried very hard to clean the garments but could not remove the stains. The minister went to the king and begged forgiveness for his lack of respect for the garments, and by extension, the throne. The king told the minister that he forgave him in full but that the minister needed to realize that the forgiveness would not remove the stain.

The Bobover Ruv teaches on this lesson – we can do teshuvah to seek forgiveness, but there is still a blemish on the neshama, a stain on the garment. When we are overcome by the insanity of earthly desires, or chas v’shalom, commit an aveira, we create a stain on our soul, presumably present even after teshuvah. 

There is a type of teshuvah, however, that can remove even the smallest blemish on the purest neshama, and that is teshuva out of love. The Gemara on Yoma (86b) teaches that teshuvah out of love transforms sins into virtues. This is where Rebbe Shlomo brings the point back on a pasuk in Yeshayahu: “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” 

During these Days of Awe, let’s grab on to this opportunity afforded to us. HaShem is judging on potential, and we can rack up how great our potential this next year is by how we engage with the yontif.

I think this is why so many are intimidated by the season and miss the opportunity for the avodah of simcha – because they feel the power behind these days.

If we were to engage in the simcha, even superficially and without heart, the dividends are multiplied more than we realize. HaShem rewards us for the effort, even if we don’t authentically feel it at the time.

Rosh Hashanah gives the power of creation, formation, and judgment. Let us be judged favorably and merit great potential.

Yom Kippur gives the power of teshuvah. Let us engage this energy with a complete teshuvah out of love. 

And may we all be inscribed in the book of life for good.