Despite the daily reminders during the month of Elul, Rosh Hashana has a way of creeping up on us, and before we know it, the festival is upon us. The shul service is a lot longer than usual, with lots of extra liturgy, so maintaining intensity throughout is a huge challenge for some. I don’t know how people cope with this. I often find myself going through the motions, and only being particularly inspired by a small number of segments of the service.
In order to tell you about one of them, I have to digress briefly with a Talmudic story. In a section discussing the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple, the Talmud (Gittin 56a) relates as follows:
Shortly before the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai smuggled himself out of the besieged city of Jerusalem and gained an audience with Vespasian. Rabbi Yochanan entered and said: “peace be upon you, King”, to which Vespasian responded: “you deserve to be killed on two counts! Firstly, I am not a king, and secondly, if I am a king, why didn’t you come sooner?”
Rabbi Yochanan took leave to answer the second question first, and explained the political environment in Jerusalem, and therefore why he was unable to visit sooner. As he finished speaking, a messenger came in to report that the Nero had died, and that Vespasian was now indeed the new Emperor. This answered Vespasian’s first challenge. Vespasian was suitably impressed, and agreed to grant Rabbi Yochanan and the scholars the city of Yavneh, thus facilitating the continuity of Torah study (see a more detailed account here).
During the period from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, some parts of prayer that are recited regularly through the rest of the year, gain a deeper or more solemn meaning. One of my favourites is the declaration of ‘HaMelech’ early in the service. Usually, on every Shabbat and Holydays, the liturgy reads “the King who sits on His lofty and sublime throne”. For Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we delete one letter, and change the meaning to: “the King sits …” in the present tense, reminding us that God is metaphorically sitting in judgement right now.
My machzor has a little note before this section. It relates the story of the Chassidic Rebbe, Reb Aharon of Karlin, who once, when reciting these words on Rosh Hashana, fell into a faint. After the service, they asked him after what happened, and he told them that as he was about to say these words, he contemplated the aforementioned story in the Talmud, where Rabbi Yochanan is challenged by Vespasian: “If I am a King, why did you take so long to visit?”
Applying this to the relationship between himself and God, the King of Kings, he said to his chassidim: “I can understand how Rabbi Yochanan could answer Vespasian’s question, but when we call God our King, can we answer the same question?” This part of the service is an intensely humbling moment, and never fails to send shivers down my spine.
Wishing everyone a Ketivah v’Chatima Tova – may you be written and sealed for a good year!
The article originally appeared on Galus Australis, and the article image is taken from there.