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Praying with All of Israel

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Text file

Summarized by Aryeh Dienstag



Prior to Kol Nidrei, we recite the following declaration (Al da’at ha-Makom):


With the approval of the Almighty and with the approval of the congregation, in the convocation of the court above and in the convocation of the court below, we sanction praying with transgressors.


The real purpose of Kol Nidrei is to allow the “transgressors,” those who have been excommunicated from the community, to rejoin the congregation for the Yom Kippur prayers.  This proclamation is the opening of the Yom Kippur prayers in the liturgy of all Ashkenazic Jewry.  In Ashkenaz, the cherem (excommunication) was a powerful a form of punishment and an effective tool to protect the community from negative influences.  Nonetheless, the Ashkenazic Torah leadership established Kol Nidrei as a mechanism to allow these people to rejoin the congregation for Yom Kippur.


This is not simply a nice gesture to an excluded part of the community during times of trouble; this inclusion is based on a clear mandate of Chazal.  The Gemara in Keritut (6b) states:


Rabbi Chana bar Bizna said in the name of Rabbi Shimon Chasida: Any fast that does not include the sinners of Israel, is no fast, for the odor of galbanum (chelbona) is foul, and yet it was included among the spices for the incense. 


The Gemara states that a fast that excludes the sinners is no fast – and presumably this implies that the prayers offered in such a fast will not be answered.  Rabbi Shimon Chasida is teaching us an important rule, that whenever we have a fast, it is not enough for those who follow the Torah to beseech God for mercy; the entirety of the Jewish community must be included in the prayer.


Moshe Rabbeinu was the quintessential model of this trait.  After the sin of the spies, Moshe does not simply ask for mercy on himself or on those who remained clear of sin.  Rather, he pleads:


Pardon, I beseech You, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your mercy, as You have forgiven this people from Egypt until now (Bemidbar 14:19).


Moshe prayed on behalf of the entire nation.  Similarly, when the children of Israel were fighting against Amalek, Moshe took part in the pain of the nation as a whole. 


The Gemara in Ta’anit (11a) states:


A person should share in the distress of the community, for so we find that Moshe, our teacher, shared in the distress of the community, as it is said (Shemot 17:12), “But Moshe’s hands were heavy; and they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat upon it.” Did Moshe not have a bolster or a cushion to sit on? This is what Moshe meant [to convey], “As Israel are in distress I too will share with them.” He who shares in the distress of the community will merit to behold its consolation.


Moshe sat on a rock so that he would feel the pain the nation was experiencing. 


The Torah even considers the eventuality that an entire community might commit a sin, and it then prescribes a specific sacrifice whereby the community can gain atonement for this act: 


Then it shall be, if anything is committed by ignorance without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one young bull for a burnt offering… And all the congregation of the people of Israel, and the stranger who sojourns among them shall be forgiven; seeing as all the people were in ignorance. (Bemidbar 15:24, 26)


We see from here the only proper way to seek mercy from God and be answered is to include the entire nation.  These verses reinforce the message that Rabbi Shimon Chasida learns from the incense, that even sinners must be included in the community in a time of trouble. 


This notion can relevant at any time of the year.  Yet, it is particularly pertinent to Yom Kippur.


Rosh Ha-shana is both a universal day and a day for the individual.  It is the day that commemorates the creation of the world, and thus a day for judgment of the entire world.  There is judgment on the global scale, as well as individual judgment.  However, the special significance of the Jewish people is not inherent in the definition of the day.  


On the other hand, the opposite can be said about Yom Kippur.  Regarding Yom Kippur, the day is entirely focused on the Jewish people as a nation.  The concluding blessing recited in the central kedushat ha-yom blessing, which speaks to the definition of the day, refers to God as “Melekh mochel ve-sole’ach la-avonoteinu, ve-la-avonot ammo beit Yisrael, the King Who pardons and forgives our iniquities and the iniquities of His people, the house of Israel.”  It is a day when the community as a whole receives forgiveness from the Almighty.  The elaborate, intricate, critical Temple service of Yom Kippur is performed on behalf of the entire Jewish people – the community as a whole; the vidduy, confession, undertaken by the Kohen Gadol, High Priest, is recited on behalf of the entire nation – not just those who observe all the mitzvot.


However, Yom Kippur ought not be conceived as a day of unity for the Jewish people in a geographic vacuum.  The land of Israel is the locus for the unity of the Jewish people.  The Rambam writes in numerous places of the special status the land of Israel regarding the establishment of the Jewish people as a community.  Only in the land of Israel is the Jewish nation seen as one cohesive, organic, indivisible entity.  One such source is in the Sefer Ha-mitzvot (mitzvat asei 153), where the Rambam writes that any kiddush ha-chodesh (sanctification of the new moon) – even when it must be performed in the Diaspora – must trace its roots back to the land of Israel to be effective. 


For this reason, on Yom Kippur it is essential that our mindset in prayer is one focused on the Jewish people in toto – not just those with whom we pray in the immediate sense.  When we ask God that “the memory of Your entire nation Israel should come before You,” we must have in mind the entirety of the Jewish people, regardless of the religious observance of any particular Jew.


There are those in the Religious Zionist community who speak now about “disengaging” from the nation as a whole, since they do not approve of the actions of some fellow Jews.  This is not the proper Jewish approach, this is not the way to beseech God for mercy, this is not the way to observe Yom Kippur, and this is not the proper understanding of the unifying message of the land of Israel.


We need to integrate the message of Rabbi Shimon Chasida that “Any fast that does not include the sinners of Israel, is no fast,” and include all of the Jewish people in our prayers.  This way we will follow the prescription for beseeching God, properly celebrate Yom Kippur, and fulfill the mission of the land of Israel.  This way we will, God willing, merit a good year, achieving forgiveness and atonement for ourselves and for the entire Jewish people.



[This sicha was delivered on leil Yom Ha-kippurim 5766 (2005).]

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