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Yom Kippur

September 20, 2012

Many Little Things-One Big Thing

By Rabbi Len Levin

“May all Your creatures unite in a single band, to perform Your will wholeheartedly” (from the Uv’khen prayer in the Yom Kippur Amidah).

Jewish thought is a rich network of debates on fundamental issues. I was fortunate to be able to work with Rabbi Gordon Tucker on translating Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah,an encyclopedic work that reveals the rich tapestry of debate of the rabbis and later Jewish thinkers about fundamental issues of theological outlook within Judaism.

One of the fundamental debates running throughout Jewish thought is: Does God require many little things of us, or a few big things? In the grand theophany at Sinai, did God reveal all the 613 precepts of the Torah? Or did God reveal the ten great principles that underlie all Jewish law, and reserve the explication of the details to Moses later in the Tent of Meeting?

A similar debate percolates throughout much of Jewish literature, and especially throughout the lengthy liturgy of Yom Kippur. On reciting the long and short confessionals, one may well ask: is one confessing a lot of little sins, every little thing one could possibly do wrong? Or are the many formulations variations on a few basic themes, saying in many varied ways the same basic flaw in the divine-human relationship expressed in a lot of different ways?

In a famous essay, the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha-Am formulated one of the basic dichotomies in Jewish thought as the debate between priest and prophet. Indeed, Yom Kippur showcases this debate in the very center of the liturgy. The Torah reading, from Leviticus, gives the priestly conception of the essence of the day. Sin is experienced as a pollution affecting the people at the heart of its ceremonial life. Purgation is required. (A basic meaning of Kippur is purgation.) Sacrifices must be brought; the sins of the people must be symbolically laid on a goat’s head and sent into the wilderness. Then we turn to the Haftarah and read the prophet’s conception of the day: “unlock fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, when you see the naked, clothe him” (Isaiah 58:6-7). Both are affirmed as necessary. The debate is a debate within Judaism.

Rabban Gamaliel III (3rd century) put it pithily: “Do God’s will as if it were yours, so that God will do your will as if it were His” (Avot 2:4). The fundamental issue facing us-the fundamental teshuvah (turning / repentance) required of us on this day-is to stop putting ourselves at the center of our priorities, and to start putting God at the center. But God’s purpose embraces us all-all Jews, all humanity, all life, all existence. So to put God at the center is to see a unified purpose embracing all existence, and to live our lives so as to contribute harmoniously to the good of all.

How much of the bitterness and strife in the world is the fruit of egocentricity! On the personal level, how many relationships are in difficulty because people battle about the rights and prerogatives of the “I” instead of focusing on the common goals of the “we”! On the political level, how much discord is generated by social and economic groups jealously guarding their own narrow interests and prerogatives instead of asking how they can cooperate for the good of society as a whole! On the international level, how many wars are fought because each nation (or sect or clan within a nation) sees only its own cause as sacred and just, instead of seeing all humanity as God’s children, and (in the words of the Uv’khen prayer in the Yom Kippur liturgy) uniting in a single band to perform God’s will wholeheartedly!

Many of the particulars in the Al Het confessional refer to the posture of parts of our body-“for the sin we have sinned against You through hardening our hearts…uncleanness of our lips…hardening of our foreheads…frivolity of our heads…hardening of our necks…interference of our hands…confusion of our hearts.” I see these as all failure of the will, failure to direct our will in furtherance of God’s will. We need to train all parts of our body to a common goal, in service of God.

The task facing us is to unite our will with God’s will, so that we may all cooperate, so that our partners, our families, our society, and all nations of the world may subordinate our egos and join harmoniously in a common purpose. God created a glorious world and made us the stewards of it. May we unite, to live in harmony, to realize its potential and bring that divine purpose to fruition!


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy of pluralism at AJR and is the co-translator with Gordon Tucker of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah (Continuum, 2007).