Yom Kippur 2018: It’s on Us

Posted on Sep 20, 2018

Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen’s 2018 Kol Nidre sermon

A few weeks ago, I was leafing through the Mahzor Lev Shalem in preparation for the High Holidays, and for some reason my eye wandered to the English translation of the Aleinu prayer. Aleinu is one of the most familiar prayers in Jewish liturgy. It concludes practically every service. I pretty much know it by heart, so I had never bothered to look at the English. You, too, if you are a regular shul-goer, have said Aleinu hundreds or even thousands of times, and you probably have not thought very much about the complexities of its message. The music we generally use for Aleinu during the year, and the prayer’s placement at the very end of the service, both conspire to have us not pay close attention. We sing Aleinu to a snappy 19th-century melody, in a major key, which moves us forward at a rapid and steady pace. The tune works well for us at that point in the service: we all know that when Aleinu is over, there is only mourners’ kaddish and Adon Olam or Yigdal, and of course announcements, before the service is done and we can snack and schmooze at kiddush.  

If we do pay attention to Aleinu, it is most often to ponder what seems to be a four-fold expression of gratitude for not making Jews like everyone else. This is the issue that the editors of Lev Shalem have addressed in their new translation, which I will share with you in a moment. First, however, I want to reflect on the message and meaning of the prayer as a whole as we encounter it on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Here our attention is assisted by the music: we sing Aleinu on the High Holidays to a centuries-old melody that is much more appropriate to the weight and complexity of the words. My hope is that sustained meditation upon Aleinu in the next few minutes will make our time in shul over the next 24 hours that much more meaningful.

The key word of Aleinu is the first word, which gives the prayer its name. The word has two parts: al, which means “on,” and nu, which means “us.” Put them together and you get “It is our duty,” or “It is incumbent on us.” Lev Shalem goes with “It is for us.” I think the best translation for Aleinu is the most colloquial and literal one: “It is on us.”

When we say “That’s on me” or “I’m on it,” we usually mean that we are going to take care of something, accept responsibility for doing something, or acknowledge fault for a mistake. Obligation is not a popular theme with many Americans these days, including many Jews. Autonomy, freedom, keeping all options open—these have much more immediate appeal. One often meets Jews who assert that no one has the right to tell them what to do, or what they should do—Jewishly or in any other domain—and certainly not their rabbis or their in-laws or their age-old religious tradition. Sovereign selves claim that it is their individual right to decide for themselves, with no outside interference, what they should do or believe; it is right in their eyes that they so decide; it would be wrong of them not to exercise such total autonomy. 

We all know such people, and truth be told, their voices sound inside us as well. Not wanting to do something often leads the mind to construct reasons why we should not do the thing we resist, why it would in fact be wrong to do it. “Conscience doth make cowards of us all” at such moments. Indeed, we sometimes tell ourselves that conscience merely repeats the words of internalized authorities that should no longer be accepted without question—parents, for example, or custom. We know better than to simply obey the dictates of conscience or any other voice of authority.

To which Judaism says, especially on Yom Kippur: get real, people. Be serious. Of course autonomy and freedom are to be respected. There is no moral action without them. Judaism greatly values free choice for the good. But it teaches that none of us is free of obligations and responsibilities that must be taken on whether we like it or not. Some of what is commanded comes to us from the outside, like speed limits and taxation. Other duties come as the corollary of love: love of children, or partners, or parents, or friends. All these loves carry duties and responsibilities in tow. Even obligations like speed laws and taxation are the price of living in society. There are times when all of us just want to be left alone to do what we want, when we want. At wiser moments, however, we admit to ourselves that it’s a blessing to be needed, and a pleasure to have useful work to do that people value. It’s enormously satisfying to contribute your labor to a common cause that you and others hold dear.

The Malkhuyot section of the Lev Shalem Mahzor includes a beautiful poem by Denise Levertov, entitled The Thread, that begins this way: “Something is very gently, invisibly, silently, pulling at me—a thread or net of threads finer than cobweb and as elastic.” The poem concludes: “Not fear but a stirring of wonder makes me catch my breath when I feel the tug of it when I thought it had loosened itself and gone.” 

Thank God for the responsibilities which come of loving, being needed, belonging! This is the great joy of having something that is “on you” to do, only on you, or also on you. There is work to be done in this world, and you need to take on your share of it. One of the conversation partners quoted by the public radio host Krista Tippett in her recent book, Becoming Wise, puts it this way: “What if we were exactly what’s needed?  What then? How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world?”  

Notice the use of “we” as well as “I” in that brief citation, a move very much in the spirit of Aleinu, which assures us in its title word that in undertaking this work that needs doing, none of us is alone. The Shema addresses Jews in second person singular: “Listen, Israelite.” It does not want any of us to be able to hide from its summons. Each and every one of us is called to the task, the blessing, of loving God and God’s creatures. Answering that call, each of us becomes part of a communal “we,” the children of Israel, allied with other human beings, all children of Noah. 

The liturgy of Yom Kippur is couched almost entirely in the plural. It provides each of us the strength and comfort that comes of being part of a larger whole. You have to do teshuvah for yourself—no one else can do it for you—but none of us can accomplish it without the help of the people we are closest to. They are, not by chance, probably the ones we’ve hurt most in the past year. We need the help of our community for teshuvah as well. It matters a lot on Yom Kippur to know that everyone around you, on the row in front and the row behind, from one end of the room to the other, is engaged in a parallel process of teshuvah. We are alone in it together.

If the Aleinu prayer had been called Alai, “It is on me,” me alone, I doubt I’d be successful in my teshuvah, or my tefillah, or my tzedakah. My attempts at repentance, at prayer, and at good deeds would all likely fail. Lesson number one in the project of building a better world, and rebuilding ourselves, is that we do not build alone and do not build for ourselves alone.  It’s not about me, not about you, it’s not even about an us limited to the people in this room. The responsibility for failure and the credit for success are more widely shared: ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu. We have sinned. In the plural. Anu amekha, ve-atah eloheinu. We are God’s people. In the plural.

The rest of Aleinu comes to answer the two fundamental questions raised by its first word: What is the work that we are called to do? And who is included in the “we” that is summoned to do it?

What are we commanded to do?  To “praise the Lord of all, to acclaim [or ‘give greatness to’] the Creator . . . to bend the knee and prostrate ourselves before the king of kings of kings, the Holy One Who is praised,” and—we read in the second paragraph of the prayer—to hope for the day when the earth’s abominations will finally be swept away. The prayer ends with that grand vision, built upon phrases from the books of Exodus and Zechariah. “The Lord will be king forever and ever. The Lord will rule over all the earth.” The original liturgical home of Aleinu was the Malkhuyot section of the Musaf Amidah on Rosh Hashanah, which is devoted to proclaiming God’s sovereignty.  Somewhat later, the prayer found its way into the Yom Kippur Musaf, where we will encounter it tomorrow, introducing the Avodah service, and later still—around the year 1300, probably—it became part of daily and Sabbath services, where we most often encounter it.

No matter what its liturgical context, it’s hard to miss the fact that the primary work that is “on us,” according to Aleinu, is testifying to God’s sovereignty. What does that mean? Given everything we know from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Rabbis, it is impossible for me to believe that the point of saying Aleinu is verbal testimony alone, let alone simple praise.  No earthly sovereign worthy of the throne wants mere flattery from his or her subjects.  However we understand God, I don’t think God wants or needs us to pile on words of praise, or the animal sacrifices that in ancient times were the flesh-and-blood equivalent of praise and thanksgiving. That is of course Isaiah’s message in the haftarah that we will chant tomorrow. Fasting and prayer are not enough. Remember George Bernard Shaw’s great line about what it’s like to be treated as a god: everyone worships you and no one does your will. The point of the worship Jews do, especially on Yom Kippur, is redirection of the will, away from “I want” to “God wants,” away from my needs to those of the world. 

One can’t help thinking, though, when reading repeated proclamations of God’s sovereignty, that just as the power of earthly kings is far from absolute, this must be true of God as well. A lot of what goes on in the world that God allegedly rules cannot be to God’s liking, and God seems unable or unwilling to stop it. This is an ancient religious conundrum. The biblical books of Samuel and Kings make it clear that the last thing a person should want in life is to be an earthly king. Supposedly absolute sovereigns often do not get their way.  But the Bible also makes clear—and Jewish history confirms—the awesome power of kings, and of the emperors known as kings of kings, to do enormous harm, and also to do good. Jews have long known that our people and the ideals we stand for have no chance of survival in a world ruled by power alone:  kings and kings of kings. We have been sustained over the centuries by trust that the “king of kings of kings” would stand with us, if we walked in God’s ways. Right would ultimately defeat might. This confidence is often hard to sustain—one reason I think we affirm it so often in prayers such as Aleinu.

The point of proclaiming God’s sovereignty, then, is to prod us to recognize, and to act on the recognition, that God is ultimately in charge, not you or me; that God’s word should be the one we obey, not that of earthly rulers. We bend the knee to remind us that we should bend our will to God: to demand more of ourselves and others, for example. To be more just in all our dealings. To open our heart to the stranger and to loved ones. To love more. We do not do these things, much of the time. We often mean to, but we forget. When we say Aleinu, especially during the Ten Days of Teshuvah, we acknowledge that these things need to happen more in the world—beginning at this moment, here and now, with us.  

The “us” who this responsibility is “on” is, in my view, first and foremost, those who declare acceptance of the obligation.  The original Aleinu prayer contained a phrase—censored in the Middle Ages by Christian rulers who found it offensive; restored to many Orthodox siddurim and mahzorim;  but left out of Conservative and Reform prayer books because we too find it offensive and untrue. After praising God for “not making us like the nations and families of the earth, not making our lot like or fate like theirs,” the censored part continued with the words,  “they prostrate before vanity and emptiness, and pray to a god who cannot save.” Omitting those words makes the others more problematic. It makes sense to thank God for not making you like other nations if they pray to illusory gods, whereas you pray to the true creator of heaven and earth. Once the second part of the verse has been removed, why leave the part expressing thanks for the difference between us and them? 

That’s why Lev Shalem translates this way:

“It is for us to praise the ruler of all, to acclaim the Creator who has not made us merely a nation, nor formed us as all earthly families, nor given us an ordinary destiny.” 

The word “merely” gets us away from an inherited emphasis on us versus them. It focuses us instead on the work that needs owning and doing. The Biblical writers and the rabbinic sages after them believed that immorality was an inescapable corollary of idolatry. If you were caught in the trap of worshipping many gods and their images—gods usually associated with cities or nations or empires and their human sovereigns—you by definition could not do the will of the One God who had created all human beings in God’s image. Jews in medieval Ashkenaz, consistently persecuted by Christians, had no scruples about denying that their enemies served the true God; if they did, why would they be treating God’s Jewish children as they were? Worshipping that One God, on the other hand, you were obligated—Jews were obligated—to treat all God’s human creatures with respect, and work toward the day when all would recognize that obligation.

Aleinu, as Lev Shalem and I read it, does not ask Jews to thank God for not making us Gentiles. It rather urges us—we who, unlike some others, do acknowledge the sovereignty and oneness of the Creator—to act on that recognition and raise up the condition of humanity. The “we” that Jews once believed included only Jews is now a wider circle that takes in many faiths and peoples. The concluding verses of Aleinu look forward to the day when all God’s creatures will join in that acknowledgment of responsibility for all of God’s creatures. Read this way, the prayer states what Jews should be doing in the world, and why they should be proud to be Jews, the people that bear this distinctive message. Aleinu reminds us that each and every person matters. It urges each of us to try as hard as we can to use our few years on earth wisely, and calls upon us to be grateful for another chance, another year of life, to get right what we too often get wrong. This message makes sense of the fact that some Jewish martyrs in the Middle Ages went to their deaths proclaiming Aleinu along with the Shema. Aleinu was a truth they desperately wanted to re-affirm and transmit.

I conclude by noting that we will recite Aleinu tomorrow afternoon just before the Avodah service that recalls the sacrifices performed by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies of the Temple on Yom Kippur. We will re-enact in words the dramatic ritual of sacrifice that was believed to renew life for the entire people of Israel. It is not too much of a stretch to say in 2018 that renewed life for the world depends on what you and I and others similarly committed to writing in the Book of Life do this year and in coming years on behalf of planet Earth and its creatures. We did not know until recently that we had to worry about this. This year, sad to say, it is pretty certain that unless the world’s governments and peoples make a swift and dramatic turn from the usual way of doing things, the health of the planet will be severely damaged. Millions of lives will be affected. That is already happening. The secretary-general of the United Nations warned—on Rosh Hashanah, as it happened, the birthday of the world—that if we do not take sustained action very soon, it may be too late.  

That is a very scary thought—and it means that now more than ever we do not have the luxury of giving up on the power of teshuvah. We do not have the right to despair—not of ourselves, not of our neighbors or our governments, not of the world. For we are commanded to choose life, choose good, choose blessing; we who accept responsibility for serving the Creator of all, must—as Aleinu urges—“hope in You, Lord our God”—or “hope for you, Lord our God.” Al ken nekaveh—therefore we will hope, and act on that hope—to see God’s will performed universally. Aleinu urges us to proceed in confidence that human beings can act as one, and take on the work that only we can do, together. One day—one day—the Lord will rule over all the earth, the Lord will be One, and the Lord’s name will be One.

The work has to start somewhere, God knows; it has to begin with someone, a community of someones who know they are not alone. We are the generation called to this responsibility. It is on us. That is why we are here this day, and every other day throughout our years.