Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Yom Kippur
To dedicate this lesson

The High Holy Days


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. Recalling the Past
2. Provider of Bounty
3. Returning From Exile

As a child, I recall the High Holy Days as a time of judgment - a period in which our reality was enveloped by a concern, a fear that the Almighty would choose to judge any one us unfavorably. At that time, the Ten Days of Repentance stressed the theme embodied in the "Netaneh Tokef" prayer: "Let us convey the power of this day's holiness, for it is awesome and frightening...On Rosh Hashanah we will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur, we will be sealed.... [We wonder] how many will pass from the earth and how many will be born.."

Over the years, however, the character of these days has been altered somewhat. In place of the fear and trepidation of being judged by the Creator - a sense of wonderment and awe has emerged, a growing realization of God's kingship over the entire earth. This new focus is clearly stressed in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: "Recite the verses relating to My Kingship so that you can accept me as your King." Thus, instead of the dread and personal introspection that were once the call of the day, we now stress our joy and appreciation of the picture of splendor and loftiness of God sitting on His Divine throne.

The view of God as a King who bestows bounty and blessing on His world - permeates our mystical literature. According to the Kabbalah, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, should be seen as one who sits on His Divine throne and dispenses, from his treasure-house sustenance and life, spiritual and physical bounty. This Divine generosity is, however, met by all sorts of spiritual resistance that challenge it, forces that argue that such sustenance is not deserved by all. This leads to "Heavenly deliberations" as to whom the goodness should be awarded, and to whom not. From this perspective, the theme of judgment becomes secondary to the revelation of the bounty bestowed by the Master of the World - on His world. In contrast to the view of our mystical literature, the Talmud and Halachic texts stress the theme of judgement. And yet, as our mystical literature is gradually revealed, the Days of Awe take on their new quality.

In my opinion, though, another key factor is at work here: the major historical changes experienced by the Jewish people. Throughout the lengthy, 2,000 year exile, we were dispersed amongst the nations. Because of this, we could not function as one nation, but only as individuals: Each congregation had a life of its own, scattered bones and limbs...

Now, thank God, we have returned to the Land of Israel and have once again become "one nation." Over fifty years have passed since the State of Israel was first established, since we once again began to merge into one people, since God's Divine Kingship once again began to be revealed. While Israel was in exile, God's "Shechinah" - his Divine Presence - was in exile with us. Conversely, with the return of His people to the Land, the Master of the Universe, the King of the World, is being revealed in all of His splendor. Certainly, we still have some way to go until we are fully redeemed, but we can already sense His blessings.

As the service of God takes center-stage, replacing fear, a broad vision simultaneously takes the place of private introspection. The Jewish people's return from exile, and the gradual revelation of the Inner Torah's approach to the Ten Days of Repentance, are part and parcel of one united process. The redemption of the People of Israel and the uncovering of the secrets of the Torah are, in actuality - one.
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