Rosh Hashana Day 2
By Joel Grossman, September 21, 2017
One of the pleasures of the High Holiday machzor is coming across prayers that we say only once a year, that were composed just for these special days. We are so used to the regular weekday and Shabbat prayers, that the once-a-year prayers such as Unetaneh Tokef feel special, even meriting that overused adjective “awesome.” We also have to add various phrases into the familiar Amidah, giving us a new awareness that these are not regular days, as we concentrate on not saying the familiar beginning of the Amidah by heart and remembering to insert “Zachreinu l ‘chayim” and the other passages.
By contrast, this is a reminder that we need to work hard during the rest of the year to have some level of kavanah, of intentionality, when we say familiar prayers. When we very familiar with a particular prayer we may rush through it, with our minds a million miles away. This is certainly true of a very familiar prayer which comes at the end of every single service, shacharit, mincha and maariv, the Aleinu. Originally Aleinu, written by Rav, was meant to be the introductory paragraph of the Malchuyot section of Musaf on Rosh Hashono. It is still the beginning of Malchuyot, but the Rabbis liked the prayer so much that they incorporated in all 3 of the daily services, so that we say Aleinu more than a thousand times a year.
Perhaps what is so remarkable about Aleinu is that it is a particularist statement, which contains a statement of Jewish exceptionalism, which we will look at in a moment, and then it becomes a universalist statement with its instruction to us to repair a broken world. Let’s take a closer look, and please follow along in the Machzor on p. 130. The first two lines of the prayer appear to be universal: it is for us to praise the Ruler of all—adon hakol, not elokeinu v’elokei avotainu—not our God alone but adon hakol, the Ruler of all. The prayer next says that we should acclaim or give glory to yotzer breishit—the creator of the world. Once again, the world was created for everyone, not us. It doesn’t say the God who took us out of Egypt, but the God who created all humanking.
The prayer then takes a sharp turn. After saying we should praise the Lord of everyone, the Aleinu says –in its most particularistic passage—shelo asanu c’goyei haaratzot—God didn’t make us like the other nations, v’lo samanu kmishp’chot haadama, and he did not give us a destiny like other peoples. And this notion of Jewish particularism and exceptionalism is even more explicit if you follow a tradition that adds one more sentence at this point in the prayer: she’hem mishtachavim l’hevel va’rik l’el lo yoshia, they worship vanity and emptiness, a god who cannot save them. Some have the custom of spitting when they recite this verse. This added verse points out how other nations foolishly worship an empty god (lower case “g”) which is contrasted by the God whom we worship—anachnu korim u’mistachavim umodim—we bow to and worship and are grateful to God who is the king of all kings.
The remainder of the first paragraph of Aleinu praises God as the essential force of nature, who extends the heavens and establishes the earth, and who is God alone, en od, there is no other. The first paragraph ends with a quote from Dvarim, from parshat Va’etchanan obliging us to know that our God is the only God, in heaven and here on earth.
The second paragraph of Aleinu is an amazing change of direction, leaving the particularist aspect of God and setting forth a universalist statement of hope that not just Jews but all people will join in the sacred work of tikun olam, or repairing the world. We hope for a time when idols are destroyed as we are prepared for a new age, an age of tikun olam, an age when kol bnei basaryik’ru beshmecha, when all of humankind will call on you by name, because kol yoshvei tevel, all who live on this earth will know that all every knee must bend to you. Pause for a moment to recall the first paragraph in which only our people –anachnu korim umistachavim—only we bow to God, but in the second paragraph all people who live on earth will bend their knees before God. Vikablu chulam et ol malchutecha, they will all accept the yoke, or the obligation of God’s kingship. We will no longer differentiate ourselves from the goyeh haaratzot, the other nations of the world, but we will join with them in bending our knee to God, the only God, who will be king over all the world. We Jews will no longer have a special, elevated relationship with God; instead we will be partners with all people in worshipping God and working together to repair the world.
I can think of other prayers that emphasize our special relationship with God, often with a reference to our forefathers, or to the Exodus from Egypt, or the special Amidah for yom tov that says atta b’charanu mikol ha’amim, you chose us from all other peoples, or the final line of the kaddish –oseh shalom bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael, God who makes peace in the heavens, please bring peace to us and all Israel. There are also more univeralist prayers, such as ha’meir laaretz v’ladarim aleha, God illuminates the earth for all who live here. Or Psalm 8, on p. 42, which is the Psalm for Rosh Hashono which focuses on the idea that hayom harat olam, today the world was created, and speaks of God’s majesty being recognized throughout the world, even mentioning the birds who fly above and the fish who swim in the oceans, all recognize God’s majesty.
So while I can think of some prayers that speak to us as God’s chosen people, and some which speak of God’s majesty for all peoples and animals, I know of no prayer like Aleinu that combines these two somewhat contradictory notions. What was the author’s intent in doing so? I certainly don’t know. But I can guess that the author’s vision was a two-part process. First, we accept and worship God, and then we become an or lagoyim, a light to the nations, who follow us in this worship which becomes universal. But that second event cannot happen before the first; in other words only if and when we accept God’s kingship over us are we ready to spread that message to the rest of the world. That’s not God’s job. It’s ours.
Two contrasting texts show Jewish tradition’s acceptance of both universalism and particularism. The Torah begins with creation of all manking, not of Jews. Yet, the Torah ends with the words “l’eyney kol Yisrael, in the eyes of all of the Jewish people. Both are part of the Torah.
Similarly we can contrast the phrase kol yisrael aravin zeh lazeh, all Jews are responsible for each other, with a passage from the Mishna in Sanhedrin, found on p. 40 of the machzor. The Mishna asks why God created only one person at the beginning of Genesis. The answer is to teach us that if we destroy one person, it is as if we had destroyed the whole world, but if we can save one person it is as if we have saved the entire world. My father loved this piece of Torah, and spoke of it often. In fact, my father lived his life with this as his guiding principle, doing anything he could to save the life –or the soul—of a single person. He loved this phrase so much, and he lived by it, so we put it on his gravestone.
So let’s talk about another interpretation of the word Aleinu, outside the context of this prayer. The word literally means it’s upon us, or it’s our duty, or it’s up to us. A similar phrase can be found in Pirkei Avot, stating lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’i atta ben chorin l’hipater mimena—it’s not alecha—up to you, or your duty, to finish the work, but you are free to avoid it either. Aleinu –the word itself, not as used in the prayer—is about taking responsibility. Even though we cannot possibly do all the work that needs to be done, that’s no excuse for not doing what we can. Just as on Pesach we recite all the things that would have been enough, dayenu, on this Rosh Hashono let us think about all of the things that are Aleinu, that are up to us. As we perform a cheshbon hanefesh, as we examine our victories and our failures during the past year, and plan to do better in the year to come, let’s think about this very important word, Aleinu—it’s up to us.
- If the State of Israel needs our support, Aleinu.
- If Temple Bath Am needs our commitment for the shul’s future, Aleinu.
- If the Daily Minyan, or a hiva minyan needs people, Aleinu.
- If refugees in Darfur need food and shelter, Aleinu.
- If Jews anywhere in the world need our help, Aleinu.
- If Syrian refugees need our help, Aleinu.
- If there are poor and homeless people in Los Angeles who need our help, Aleinu.
- If we can fight to preserve DACA and let people who came here through no fault of their own, stay in ouir country, Aleinu
- If those devastated by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the earthquake in Mexico need our help, Aleinu.
- If white supremacists and neo-nazis seek to take away the rights of minorities, Aleinu.
- If women’s right to choose is threatened by the government, Aleinu.
- If non-Orthodox Jews are not treated as full Jews by the Israeli rabbinate, Aleinu.
- And finally, as long the world remains broken and there is a need for tikun olam, Aleinu.