Back to Basics

Nov 24, 2014

by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky

“Simplify, simplify.” “Back to Basics.” “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” These ideas are not just management mantras. They express some of the foundations of our spiritual “work” as we approach the Yamim Noraim, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

On Rosh Hashana we stand before G-d asking to be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year. Our request is not accompanied by repentance, but only by the sound of the shofar blasts. Preceding the sound of the shofar, we recite the blessing “lishmoah kol shofar,” to hear the voice of the shofar. How does the shofar play such a central role in bringing about a favorable judgement? And what is the meaning of the blessing we recite.

Kol, voice, is the primary element of dibbur, speech. While speech is the expression of an intellectual process, emanating from one’s thoughts, the voice, which precedes speech, is an expression of one’s fundamental being, emanating from the life-breath. In man’s creation, it was the “breath of G-d” that infused man with life (Breishit 2:7), and the sound of the shofar, made with no more than a breath, is the declaration that the Divine life force is our essence. The blowing of the shofar is to help us identify the source of our being, and if we succeed, we are confident that G-d’s judgement will be based on this essence, leading to a year of life and prosperity.

Yom Kippur is the day that we live a most simplified existence. Forgoing food and drink, the pursuit of physical and material pleasures, there is great equality and unity among all Jews. We break down the barriers that separate us from G-d, as well as from our fellow man. G-d sees that the essence of our existence is pure and holy. The repentance of Yom Kippur is a demonstration that our sins are caused by factors which are external and coincidental to our essence. Pursuit of worldly pleasures and possessions, social competition and interpersonal strife are all shown to be completely detached from our true selves. Standing before G-d in such a pure state enables Him to forgive the sins caused by these confounding forces.

While the details of simplification practiced on Yom Kippur are not sustainable in our daily lives, the process continues as we leave our permanent home to dwell in the Sukkah. The minimal protection it provides reminds us of the fragile nature of our existence in this world and our complete dependence on G-d. The Sukkah enables us to sharpen our perspective of what are our real necessities and what truly are the “main things” in our daily lives.

Binding together the etrog, lulav, hadasim and aravot symbolizes the fundamental unity of the Jewish people. Every Jew, even one lacking in Torah and mitzvot, is an inseparable part of the bond that unites all Jews. When we return to basics, every Jew is important, every Jew plays a role. Tishrei is the month in which we are judged by G-d, both individually and collectively. But it is also the month in which we judge ourselves. Throughout the month of Tishrei, our task is to return to fundamentals: to define what is truly important, create priorities, determine our goals and to realisitically assess what means we have available to achieve these goals. May it be G-d’s will, that through our clarifying of the essence, we will all merit to be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a wonderful and productive year.

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