Some time ago, I participated in a discussion about the meaning of the High Holidays. One of the individuals in the group stated that the time offers her the opportunity to communicate closely with God. This is why she often prefers to stay home rather than attend services, especially during Yom Kippur. In order to justify her feelings, she quoted an halachic statement: During the 10 Days of Awe, the period of time between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, it is a mitzvah to ask forgiveness from other people for our sins and mistakes and whom we may have treated unjustly or offended, while Yom Kippur is consecrated to repentance for sins committed against God. Since God is everywhere, she did not see any need to ask God’s forgiveness in company of members of her synagogue community. Therefore, she stays home on this day. Upon hearing her words, however, the first passage that came to my mind was “Do not separate from the community.” (Avot)
That conversation led me to reflect deeply on why we spend these days in community. If teshuvah, this coming back to oneself, is at the core of these holy days, why do we not spend them in a retreat, a place where we could examine in depth the relationship between creature and Creator? It would be a place much less stressful, where we would not need to concern ourselves with other people’s prayers and needs and all the obstacles that can alter the dialogue between God and the individual.
If we spend these days together, in community, is it because somewhere there is a deep connection between teshuvah (repentance) and community – a relationship that cannot take place in individual prayer? Leviticus Rabbah explains the situation in these terms:
“When Jews are together, they are like a giant and their arms are like one long arm that can reach up to heaven and obtain God’s forgiveness.”
Based on these words, we can imagine a collective effort of thousands of voices from the four corners of the earth that during the High Holidays sing the same prayer at the same time: selach lanu ki chatanu.
Praying in community can be a source of strength, cohesion, and mutual support. Indeed, praying in the presence of others, our fellows, while we are asking forgiveness is far from inconsequential. Is it not God who requires each one of us to witness others admitting their faults? Is it not true, during this trial which begins on this first day of Rosh Hashanah, when each of us will face the supreme Judge, that the community, which is also called edah (witness) in Hebrew, is obligated to give testimony (in Hebrew, ed)? If we have to ask for forgiveness from our fellows before we can address ourselves to God on Yom Kippur, it is because the relationship each of us has with other people is the paradigm, the template, for the relationship we want to have with God. If our fellows’ forgiveness takes precedence over God’s forgiveness, it means that how we treat others is an essential first step toward Divine forgiveness. Our ethical relationship with people is the starting point for our relationship with the Other. It is like a sketch of a masterpiece. We cannot create a masterpiece without making a sketch first. Similarly, we cannot obtain divine forgiveness without asking for human forgiveness first. This is the interpretation of the passage from Pirke Avot: “He in whom the spirit of his fellow-creatures takes not delight, in him the Spirit of the All-present takes not delight.” (Pirke Avot 3:13)
How can we ask God to forgive the sins we committed against God when we behave in an unethical way toward others? When we are part of a community, we are all responsible for our ethical behaviors toward one another, Jew and non-Jew alike. When our eyes meet the eyes of others during these days, those eyes are mirrors that reflect the ethical standards, the behavior of each one of us and remind us to be mensches. Can I, or you, look at those eyes directly? Or do we need to avoid them?
It is only together, as a community, that each of us can present ourselves to God to be judged. Facing our Judge, we are hostages of one another. Our fellow is not our Hell (what compels our worst behaviors) but rather the witness of our highest ethical behaviors: if the people we hurt are not here today, if our witnesses fail to present themselves, our cases are weakened. Our fellows open the door to the Divine.
We can ask ourselves why in Judaism, our relationship with others is so important. Why is it paramount, to the extent that Rabbi Akiva ranks as the most important principle in Torah the famous passage (Lev 19:18) “Love your fellow as yourself. I am the Lord”? The Talmud says that the hermit cannot be saint. In Judaism, the highest form of behavior does not consist of renouncing life’s pleasures, excluding oneself from the community and practicing aestheticism. Rather, the ideal Jew is the chassid, the tsadik, the Just, who lives in an ethical way. It is in this daily facing of life and how we relate to others where ethical behavior finds its full expression, the Jewish ideal. And it is through how we treat others, the respect we show them and how we relate to them, that we express our reverence for God, who created human beings in God’s image.
Judaism has created the idea of “fellow”, and with it the ideas of humanity and humaneness. Judaism teaches us that loving one another and love of the Divine are synonymous because in each human face we can see God’s face. The mitzvah of loving one’s fellow does not mean to love based on an individual’s position in society, according to medals, merits, power or money, or how famous that person is. We Jews value each individual’s human dignity and accord each one the place that God has accorded to that individual. The immense purpose that God has for our fellows is encapsulated in these following words: created in God’s image. (Gen 1:27)
If, in all our dealings with our fellows, honoring God is implicit in the virtue of our being guarantors of our Creator’s purpose and magnificence , the challenge is constant and burdensome. “Love your fellow as yourself” is not an easy task if we want to accomplish this obligation sincerely and unhypocritically. The challenge is to put aside natural selfishness in order to fulfill a mitzvah. In a hassidic story, a student raises the following question: “Our sages have taught that everything has its place, even human beings have their place. If so, why then do humans feel sometimes in a narrow place? Answer: Because they want to occupy the place of the other.” This dialogue succinctly expresses how difficult relating to others respectfully can be. Our fellow is an annoying impediment who stands between us and our desire for power, our tendency to behave unjustly or violently…all natural inclinations, but never excusable.
Alain Finkielkraut wrote in his bookWisdom of Love: “The Other, that’s the problem! … It is not me who loves the fellow in a natural way, it is the other who is my responsibility and my mishap, who haunts me and crushes me – in short, who makes violence to my nature by commanding me to love the other.” It is not surprising, then, that the Torah will command us to love our fellow, a starting point in the difficult, ethical path that humans must follow to show reverence to God.
At the same time, this love cannot be an all-encompassing love but needs to be narrowed. It should not lead to the disappearance of the self into the other because you are also created in God’s image. Rabbi Akiva reminds us, “Your own life takes precedence over that of your fellow.” (TB BM 62a) This commandment is as difficult as the one to love our fellow. It is easy to love those who are like us, who reflect our own image, with whom we share friendships, interests, desires, love. It is much harder to love those who are different from us, who reflect a distorted image of ourselves – an image that we may not like at all! – who criticizes us, who constantly questions us, who challenges our routines, our prejudices, our autonomy.
And loving our fellows should also include loving our enemies, who deny us, who want us dead, who are amoral. For certain, Torah does not ask from us what’s easy. There is no need to command me to love my friends. It is a requirement: “Love your fellow as yourself.” This also means to love as yourself those who are far away from you. Through the countenance of our nemeses, we have to see their humanity and look for the hidden Divine within them. Proverbs reads (25:21) “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat. If he is thirsty give him water to drink.”
But if love is respecting the other, how can we love our enemies when their acts are reprehensible and unethical? Do we limit the love for those who deny us? Again, there are no limits. The answer to this conundrum lies in the concept of teshuvah, returning to oneself. The Talmud teaches us that God does not want the death of the sinner, but that the sinner should change ways and live. Therefore, teshuvah is the ability to change bad into good, enemy into friend, hate into love, “bad-factor” into benefactor. But we also know that we cannot accomplish this task through magic or the miraculous. It demands effort, time and constant questioning. And let’s not forget that the enemy that we find so hard to love may be ourselves. Frequently, while we easily find fault with others and not in ourselves, there is something in our fellow’s visage that makes us aware of what needs to change in us.
The presence of the community is essential to the quest for teshuvah. During this High Holidays, we have a chance to deserve love and to spread love, the kind of love that expresses itself in simple actions. It is in this mutual, ethical relationship within the community that we will stand in front of the Creator to plead our cause and ask for forgiveness.