Before Hashem You Shall be Purified: ‏Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Days of Awe

 

By Arnold Lustiger

Ohr Publishing

Edison, NJ, 1998

161 pages

Reviewed by Shlomo H. Pick

Both the scholar and the layman welcome the appearance of any newly published work on the teachings of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Whether presenting explications of Talmudic texts or enlightening difficult areas of Jewish philosophy, these works alleviate the relative scarcity of volumes on the Rav’s Torah in all areas. One of the newest of these publications is Dr. Arnold Lustiger’s edition of the Rav’s drashot on penitence, which were delivered between 1973 and 1980.1

The volume commences with Rosh Hashanah and the commandment of the shofar. On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar demands of the Jew hirhur teshuvah (the “awakening” of repentance), and the Rav offers a personal experience to bring his ideas on this subject alive (8-10). “Precisely what is involved in the emotional experience of hirhur teshuvah? The Rav said that while abstract concepts are often easily described, it is far more difficult to convey such a subjective emotional experience. He therefore felt reluctantly compelled to relate the following personal occurrence as an analogy to clarify this concept.”

On the seventh day of Pesach, 5727 [1967], I awoke from a fitful sleep. A thunderstorm was raging outside, and the wind and rain blew angrily through the window of my room. Half awake, I quickly jumped to my feet and closed the window. I then thought to myself that my wife was sleeping downstairs in the sun room next to the parlor, and I remembered that the window was left open there as well. She could catch pneumonia, which in her weakened physical condition would be devastating.

I ran downstairs, rushed into her room, and slammed the window shut. I then turned around to see whether she had awoken from the storm or if she was still sleeping. I found the room empty, the couch where she slept neatly covered.

In reality she had passed away the previous month. The most tragic and frightening experience was the shock that I encountered in that half second when I turned from the window to find the room empty. I was certain that a few hours earlier I had been speaking with her, and that at about 10 o’clock she had said good night and retired to her room. I could not understand why the room was empty. I thought to myself, “I just spoke with her. I just said good night to her. Where is she?”

“Every Jew is obligated to sustain similar emotions on Rosh Hashanah. The required response to the shofar, which the Rambam refers to as awakening from sleep, is the abrupt, tragic realization that the false assumptions upon which we build our lives have come crashing before our eyes. We are jolted with the sudden awareness of the grievous extent to which our actions have alienated us from God. Amidst the panic of this experience, we have neither the intellectual nor the emotional fortitude to adequately express remorse, resolve, confession, or even prayer. We find ourselves alone, bereft of our illusions, terrified and paralyzed before God.”

Later on in the book, Lustiger presents the Rav’s thoughts on the approach of Yom Kippur and the lack of passion in contemporary Orthodox life (60-61):

Contemporary Orthodoxy is well grounded intellectually. In spite of this, however, its followers lack passion and enthusiasm. This deficiency is especially evident on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur…

How can a Jew pray on Yom Kippur and not feel the greatness, the fire and holiness of this day? How can I possibly impart such an experience? Perhaps one can begin to awaken the ecstatic feeling by discussing the customs and laws which we observe on Yom Kippur. From within the allegedly dry confines of Jewish law, there is an awesome, warm, enormous world–there is a definite transition from Halakhah to service of Hashem. Perhaps through such a discussion, the audience will be awakened to the religious mood that a Jew must find himself in on Yom Kippur.

…I remember how difficult it was to go to sleep on Erev Yom Kippur. The shohet (ritual slaughterer) used to come at the break of dawn to provide chickens for the kaparos ritual, and later the people would give charity. The wallets of Jews were open twice a year, Erev Yom Kippur and Purim–but especially on Erev Yom Kippur. Minhah, vidui, the final meal before the fast [seudah hamafsekes], my grandfather’s preparations–all made Erev Yom Kippur a special entity, not only halakhic, but emotional and religious as well.

Erev Yom Kippur constitutes the herald that the Ribono Shel Olam is coming, that “lifnei Hashem tit’haru”–“before Hashem you shall be purified.” 

The Jew’s yearning to encounter God is so intense, that he simply cannot wait until the onset of the holiday to achieve purity, but begins to reach out for purity through the commandment of honoring Yom Kippur on erev Yom Kippur.

The final chapter discusses the Avodat Yom haKippurim (description of the Yom Kippur Temple service) in the Mussaf service. The Rav noted that the description of the Avodah culminates in the majestic piyyut, Mar’eh Kohen, which describes the luminous appearance of the Kohen Gadol after successfully completing the Avodah:

Why the happiness in reciting Mar’eh Kohen? Why was it sung with such a happy tune? The answer is that the Kohen Gadol reflected the radiance of the Shekhinah. Through witnessing the radiant appearance of the Kohen Gadol, there could be no doubt about Hashem’s acceptance of Klal Yisrael’s prayers.

During the Avodah, the Jew had been transported to a different, beautiful world of the Temple service, experiencing the pleasure and delight in the awareness of God’s proximity and the heralding of Israel’s atonement.

Suddenly the liturgist and the reader of the piyyut are rudely awakened from a dream. They cry, “This is no longer the reality in which we live. It existed once, yes, but is no more.” One finds himself alone on a stormy night, dark, lost, and he cries out, “All this occurred while the Temple was in existence; fortunate the eye which saw all these things.” Fortunate the eye—but not our eyes.

Yom Kippur has been transformed into Tisha b’Av with the recitation of kinot (lamentations). Why? The Rav quoted the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 4b): “Every generation in which the Temple is not built is as if it was destroyed by that same generation.” The function of mourning immediately after the recitation of the Avodah is in recognition of our sins that have extended the Temple’s state of destruction. On Yom Kippur, one must experience the reality that the Temple no longer exists–with the hope that this would spur one to complete penitence.

As more of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s works are published, it is clear that Dr. Lustiger will occupy a distinguished place among those who disseminate the Rav’s works. Our fervent prayer is that all of the Rav’s shiurim be published soon in order to quench the thirst of thousands of Jews who long to study his teachings.

 

Rabbi Dr. Pick is a rosh metivta at The Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies (Kollel) Bar-Ilan University. He has published reviews of the Rav’s publications in the Hebrew daily Zofeh and in Badad, A Journal of Torah and Scholarship, published by Bar-Ilan University.

 

Notes

  1. In contrast to many of the transcripts that have been written of the Rav’s lectures, the Rav is mentioned in this work in third person, while direct quotations of the Rav are indented and italicized. Moreover, the book is arranged topically and not chronologically. Hence, different aspects of the various sermons have been combined to fully develop any given topic.
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This article was featured in the Fall 2001 issue of Jewish Action.
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