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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Yom Kippur 5774 "REJOICE WITH TREPIDATION"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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When the Staum children were younger, they would periodically engage me in a game of “chase me”. I was assigned the role of ‘monster’, which meant that my job was to chase them with slow deliberate steps, my hands outstretched in front of me, while they gleefully ran away. After a few trips around the kitchen and living room they would begin to tire and slow down. But when they would turn around I would still be slowly approaching, my hands menacingly outstretched, mumbling that I was going to catch them.

When they had no more strength to run, they would freeze for a moment, not knowing how to proceed. Then they would look at me and run back towards me, poised for a hug, with a big smile on their face. At that moment I would melt. I would bend down and scoop them up and give them a big hug and kiss. Some scary monster I turned out to be….

Every special day on the Jewish calendar possesses its own ‘flavor’, laws, and uniqueness. The festivals are days of external celebration and joy, while public fast days are doleful times dedicated to repentance.

The great holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur however, are somewhat enigmatic. They seem to possess dichotomous, even paradoxical, emotions.

The Gemara[1] states that Hallel[2] is not recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Gemara explains, “Is it possible that the King is sitting on His Throne of Judgment, with the books of life and death open before Him, and Klal Yisroel will recite song?”

On the other hand, the Tur[3], quoting a Medrash explains that, although normally when one has to stand trial he dons black clothing, and does not shave or put on freshly laundered garments, “Klal Yisroel is not that way! They don white and they cloak themselves in white. They shave their beards, and they cut their fingernails and they eat and drink on Rosh Hashanah, because they know that G-d will perform a miracle on their behalf.”

From the Gemara it is clear that the High Holy Days are a time of such intense fear and trepidation that it is inappropriate to sing songs of praise to G-d. Yet the Medrash portrays Rosh Hashanah as a time when we are brimming with confidence that we will be victorious in the meticulous judgment of the day. What is the proper emotion that one should feel on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - fear or joy?

In the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah we state, “ממך אברח אליך – From you I flee to you.” In a similar vein, the Mishna[4] states, “He who leads the services on the Yom Tov of Rosh Hashanah, the second chazzan causes the shofar to be blown; but when Hallel is recited, the first chazzan recites the Hallel.”

In his commentary of the Mishnah, Rambam writes, “The Mishnah states ‘at the time of Hallel’ because they did not actually recite Hallel – not on Rosh Hashanah and not on Yom Kippur[5]. This is because they are days of service, submission, fear, and trepidation from G-d. We fear Him and we flee and escape to Him. We engage in repentance, supplication, and implore Him for forgiveness and atonement. With all of these concepts, it is inappropriate to be joyful and jubilant.”

The Rambam echoes the idea mentioned in the prayers which seems to make no sense. How can one flee from something by running to the source of the fear? If we are afraid of G-d, how can we escape Him by going back to Him?

The Brisker Rav explained that, truthfully, the precision and meticulousness of the judgment should fill a person with excessive fear and trepidation. When one is confronted with something frightening his natural inkling is to try to escape the source of the fear. We too seek refuge from the terror which envelopes us on the Day of Judgment. However, since G-d is the Supreme Judge and, “The whole earth is filled with His Glory”, it is impossible to escape Him.

There is only one possible way for us to mitigate our fear and dread, and that is by becoming close to G-d. When one feels connected to G-d he can feel secure that “Our father our King” loves him and wants the best for him. Therefore, “From you I flee” - from the terror of the infallible judgment, I escape - “To you,” by drawing myself close to G-d through repentance, contrition, and submission.

Based on this, Rav Dovid Soloveitchik shlita[6] explained that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are indeed days of intense fear and dread. However, we believe that our repentance and prayers help us draw closer to G-d and, in turn, G-d protects us from retribution and punishment. The feeling of vindication that stems from being in the embrace of G-d, as it were, is cause for internal joy. Therefore, although it is a day of awesome trepidation, our hearts are also filled with a surge of joy because our souls have the opportunity to reconnect with its true source - the source of eternal life.

Rabbi Soloveitchik continues that this idea is essential in understanding the flow of the unique prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At first glance, the prayers seem to portray conflicting emotions. We recite somber, penetrating prayers immediately followed by joyous exultations of G-d’s Glory, sung to jovial, cheerful tunes.[7]

When the Sages enacted the structure of the prayers, they did so in a manner that reflects the inner “emotions” of the day, in order to help us relate to the day. It is a combination of fear from the terror of the celestial judgments and the joy of being able to feel close to the infallible and eternal Judge. But more importantly, the Judge is our loving father who awaits our repentance and the opportunity to hear our prayers.

“From you”, from the terror of all that is mentioned in “Unsaneh Tokef”, “I flee to You”, to “Melech Elyon- the Supreme King” whose reign is eternal, because “Ayn Kitzva Lishnosecha- There is no end to Your Years”.

If one analyzes the Ashrei prayer[8] recited thrice daily, the entire prayer seems to be grammatically inconsistent. Of the twenty-one verses in the prayer, eleven are written in second person, where we address G-d directly as, “You”. In the other ten verses, we address G-d in the third person, as, “He” or “His”. In fact, throughout the entire chapter, there is a vacillation between addressing Hashem in the second person and the third person.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt’l explained that there are two ways in which one can relate to G-d. One is through love, in which a person feels close to Him, and the other is through fear, in which one is awestruck by His Omnipotence and Omniscience. As one immerses Himself in Avodas Hashem (Service to G-d), he feels a burning desire to come ever closer to G-d, as it were. But as one is drawn closer he reels back in awe and fear of the Master of the Universe. The greater one rises in spiritual heights the more he realizes the greatness of G-d and the more he is seized with fear and awe. Thus, there is a constant fluctuation of emotion, shifting between a passionate desire to draw closer to G-d followed by being gripped with awe and fear from His Majesty and Glory.

Dovid Hamelech, who surely experienced this inner turmoil and conflict, expressed it in the Ashrei prayer. The prayer begins in the second person, as Dovid Hamelech addresses G-d directly, in an expression of endearment and love, as one who is drawing nearer to Him. But then, he suddenly shifts into third person, addressing G-d as “Him” and “He”, as if speaking from a distance. It is the expression of one who is seized with fright, and escapes back from the source of the fear, and only later relates, with awe and reverence, the awesomeness of what he experienced.

Rabbi Schwab explains that this is part of the reason why there is an ancient custom for Jews to “shuckle”, to sway back and forth, while davening. The forward motion expresses one’s desire to draw close to G-d, while the backward motion symbolizes one’s reeling back in awe and fright from G-d’s Awesome Presence. The repeated swaying represents this repeated experience of love and joy followed by fear and awe.

The selichos prayers recited prior to and following Rosh Hashana commences with the recitation of Ashrei in oreder to preface our supplications with words of praise for His Goodness and Kindness. With Rabbi Schwab’s explanation in mind, we can offer a novel understanding of why we begin the selichos prayers with the recitation of Ashrei.

The selichos prayers are our manner of beseeching G-d, not only to forgive us for our many sins, but also to enable us to feel His embraceThe central prayer of selichos is the thirteen Divine Attributes of G-d, which describe G-d’s infinite kindness, including withholding anger, mercifulness, compassion, truthfulness, and goodness. As one describes those attributes, it should fill him with a passionate desire to be close to the Being that possesses such perfection and goodness. But, at the same time, when we deepen our understanding and appreciation of G-d’s perfection and greatness, it gives us cause to fear.

Ashrei, which expresses this internal emotional seesaw, embodies the inner emotions we aspire to feel through the recitation of selichos. “Serve G-d with awe; rejoice with trepidation.[9]” Therefore, Ashrei is the most appropriate prayer with which to begin selichos.

The elite period of the High Holy Days are a time of fear and joy intertwined. However, they are not conflicting emotions. Rather, a progression of joy, love, and closeness, which inevitably leads to fear, trepidation, and “reeling backwards”. Still, the feeling of spiritual bliss that resulted from that initial triumph propels the person to seek it again, thus beginning the cycle anew.

As Yom Kippur concludes, we muster our remaining strength and cry out the fundamental declarations of a Jew’s faith. “Shema Yisroel”, “Boruch Shaym”, and “Hashem hu HaElokim”! During those precious moments our soul momentarily transcends our physical bodies and reconnects with its source. They are a moments that must carry us through the year!

“Praiseworthy are those who dwell in Your House”

“From you I flee to you”

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[1] Arachin 10b

[2] the chapters of praise and thanksgiving recited during joyous holidays

[3] 581

[4] Rosh Hashanah 4:7

[5] i.e. the Mishnah is referring to the other holidays when Hallel is recited

[6] Kuntrus Hamo’adim

[7] For example, in the prayer, “L’bochayn levavos b’yom din- For He who tests all hearts on the Day of Judgment” we delineate the precision and exactness of the frightening judgment. Yet, moments later we buoyantly sing, “Melech Elyon- The Supreme King” and “Atah hu Elokaynu- You are our G-d”,in which we speak of the magnanimity of the opulence and majesty of G-d, as He sits surrounded by myriad legions of angels.

Similarly, in the Mussaf prayer we recite the soul-stirring and frightening prayer of “Unsaneh Tokef kedushas hayom- Come let us describe the sanctity of the day” which describes the terror and fright that grips the angels in heaven on the Day of Judgment. The prayer continues with a description of the exactitude of the judgment, that every person’s actions are weighed individually, and ultimately judged about all that will transpire during the coming year. But, immediately afterwards, the mood drastically transforms to one of sublime joy as we sing the prayer, “Ayn Kitzvah- There is no end” which expresses the Eternity and Omnipresence of G-d’s Kingship, to an upbeat, march-like tune.

[8] Tehillim 78:38, 144:14 & 145

[9] Tehillim 2:11

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