By Rabbi Lester Bronstein
I love Rick’s tochechah (reproof) to Ilsa near the end of Casablanca: “Look, pretty soon you’ll realize that the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
He’s trying to get her to think beyond her personal trauma at a time when the fate of the entire free world hangs in the balance.
Sorry, but this is how I often feel when I read some of the contemporary poems, meditations and interpretations relating to our Days of Awe. So much of it is directed toward our own inner turmoil, our private regrets, our need to apologize to one another and to forgive one another—for hurt feelings, for stray comments, for thoughtless words and actions, for neglect of friends and loved ones.
Of course all of these things are important. They’re always important. They are the stuff of our daily lives. We ignore our relationships at our peril. We neglect our own inner growth at our peril.
But this is Rosh Hashanah. This day and its grand themes belong to the whole Jewish people, even to the whole universe. We individual Jews—and yes, we are unique individuals with our own individual problems—belong to a people much bigger and older than our singular selves. That people—that identity—lays claims on us, especially on this day. Our Jewishness, both our link to tribe and our link to covenant, constitutes the major claim of this day. This day has tokef. Importance. Sobering awe.
The service of the kohen gadol (high priest) on Yom Kippur gives us some instruction here. The text reminds us that the Kohen started out his ancient observance of the Day of Atonement by asking forgiveness for himself. Then he moved to a recitation on behalf of his entire family. After that, he prayed for atonement for the whole people of Israel. Finally, he directed a prayer to God for the totality of God’s universe.
That model found its way into our modern prayer books for a good reason. It was meant to suggest that each of us is like the kohen gadol. Each of us needs to “clean up our own act” first, to “come ’round right,” as the Shaker hymn phrases it. But then we need to go much, much further in our working toward teshuvah (repentance). We need to see ourselves as humble servants in the greater task of helping our people, and ultimately of allowing our people to contribute to universal redemption.
In our day, there is no shortage of concrete matters burdening the Jewish people specifically, or our planet generally. You know as well as I what they are. I’m not suggesting that we simply get over our own problems and concentrate on bigger matters. Rather, I hope we can learn to move through our personal agenda swiftly so that we can work together to meet our collective challenges.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and the days that intervene—provide space for that work. What a shame if we left the magnificent Neilah service having cleansed our souls, as it were, but not having thought a whit about Israel’s dilemmas, about starvation and oppression around the globe, about unemployment and undereducation in the United States, or about the mistrust that continues to prevail among the various factions of our Jewish people, especially when we discuss Israel’s existential quandaries.
We need to think and act collectively if we are to make something of our private repentances. We need to recall what matters most about human well-being, and then we need to gather strength on these holy days for the work of meeting those crying needs.
Instead of a hill of beans, we can build a mountain of hope and redemption. That task will take a kehillah, a community, lifting one another up. That’s an admirable goal for our own kehillah in the days to come.
Rabbi Lester Bronstein is the vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis.