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Do we still know how to atone?

September 24, 2012

Have an easy fast and a good year:

The Forward asked a series of writers answer the question: Do we still know how to atone?

  • The Thrill of Repentance, by Louis E. Newman, the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies at Carleton College and author of several books on Jewish ethics, most recently, “Repentance: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuvah”
  • In Acknowledging Our Gravest SinLawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at the Hebrew Union College in New York, and editor of “We Have Sinned — Sin and Confession in Judaism: Ashamnu and Al Chet.”
  • Owning Up to My Corrections, by Randy Cohen, author of the recent book “Be Good: How To Navigate the Ethics of Everything”
  • Hitting the Moral Reset Button, by Dan Ariely professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University

You must watch this video: IDF Chief Cantor Sings “Unetanneh Tokef”

This video clip, which was produced especially for the Jewish High Holidays, shows the IDF chief cantor and IDF soldiers singing the prayer “Unetanneh Tokef” in the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv. The video features footage of the Yom Kippur War and one of its heroes, Brig. Gen. (res.) Avigdor Kahalani, who was a battalion commander in the Armored Brigade, fought in the battle of the Valley of Tears and was awarded a Medal of Valor.

Also, this you  must read … it is from one of our own.

Dear Rabbi Wohlberg,

Thank you for the kind email. Despite what you think, I was quite happy to receive pre-delivery editions of your High Holiday sermons. In this foreign time and place, your messages should provide a small sense of normalcy for at least a few minutes.

Once I got past the fact that you made time to email during such a busy time, and that you generously passed on what is usually well-guarded like a state secret, I was most struck by the tone of your email. You seemed– dare I say– lost for words. Yes, it’s rare that a Day School graduate or congregant finds himself in a war zone. You probably never foresaw this when you conceived the Beth Tfiloh idea more than a quarter century ago. If you have the time, allow me to provide you some words, something to link us during what is no doubt a tumultuous time for us both.

Quite often, rabbis and lay leaders, you included, have focused their Rosh Hashana sermons on the famous metaphor “B’Rosh Hashana kol ba’ei olam ovrim l’fanav kivnei maron”—“On Rosh Hashana all mankind pass before Him like sheep before their shepherd.” Most every modern translation pushes the “sheep” translation. It paints a nice picture, combining a grandfatherly, bearded Charlton Heston-like shepherd with Pixar-animated fluffy sheep. But it’s hardly something a boy from Baltimore or a Rabbi from Brooklyn can relate to. But there’s another, long ago lost explanation for the phrase “kivnei maron.” In his 1874 work, Jahrbuecher fuer Juedische Geschichte und Literatur, Nehemia Brull postulated that kivnei maron was not two words but one—that the space between the two words was actually a missing vowel. And so, really, the word is “kivinumeron” translated as “like a numeron.” “Numeron” is greek and latin for “a legion or troop of soldiers.” And so, the alternative translation, supported by early editions of the Talmud, Toseftah Rosh Hashana, and 10th and 12th century Genizah fragments, provides that on Rosh Hashana we pass before Him “like armies of the House of David” or “like battalions before a King.”

Some say this explanation was inspired by the Romans—the Rabbis saw the way Roman commanders inspected their troops, one-by-one, before major battles. Another explanation says that much as a battalion marches as one unit, so too the Jewish people march before God as one unit. Finally, a third says that despite the recurring theme throughout Rosh Hashana of judgment and trial, we should not forget that this is a holiday, a day of celebration. And so, like military units parading before a new monarch, we parade before the Heavenly King to celebrate his coronation renewed.

For obvious reasons, as I spend this High Holiday season in Afghanistan, I find this alternative explanation of kivnei moron more fitting than the classic “sheep before the shepherd” metaphor. And I think it works for you and your congregants as well. Anyone who has seen or stood in a military formation for inspection knows that preparation is key. We spend hours preparing our uniforms, removing loose threads, polishing rank, aligning and measuring ribbons and medals. We spend even more hours cleaning rifles and rehearsing the movements required to perform inspection arms. So too, for the High Holidays, people spend hours shopping and getting fitted for new suits or dresses, ironing dress shirts, or for you, the countless hours you spend choosing that new tie and getting the Windsor knot just right. Many of you also prepare your equipment: a machzor, a honey bear, and reading material for those long musaf moments. We get fresh haircuts…so do you. We have assigned spots in the formation…you have assigned seats in the sanctuary. We have a senior leader to bark out greetings and commands…you have a Cantor Albrecht. When the commander stands in front of us, we salute…when you go before your Commander, you bow.

Some people sweat an inspection, worrying if the commander will ask a questioned they’re not prepared to answer. Some are timid while others greet the commander confidently. Some require no more than a once-over, while others are inspected for minutes that seem like an eternity. And while this happens, the entire unit stands at attention. So too, while some are sweating God’s annual inspection, the entire congregation and Jewish people stand with them, awaiting judgment. Now, a story:

A few years ago, I was part of a week-long training exercise overlapping Rosh Hashana. Recognizing the potential conflict, I brought it to my chain-of-command’s attention weeks in advance. My commander had no idea what Rosh Hashana was, but, out of respect for me, asked “How big a deal is this?” Trying to properly frame the issue for him, I responded: “Would you schedule this exercise over Christmas or Easter?” He said he would pass it up and see what he could do, but the answer was likely going to be that it was essential that I participate. As the weeks passed, my commander continued to inform me that he was still waiting on an answer. As my fellow Marines and I packed our bags the night before departing, I figured the request was denied and prepared for a week out in the field. Not surprisingly, my mother had collected some honey sticks and dried apples, sending them to me for use in the field. After a few days and nights playing GI Joe, the first night of Rosh Hashana arrived. As the sun went down, my platoon continued to prepare for some sort of night attack. At some point though, we entered the stage every soldier dreads…the pre-battle wait. This provided the perfect opportunity. Two Jewish Marines in my company learned that I was planning on doing something that night to celebrate the holiday. And so, under cover of darkness, the three of us sat on a fallen tree, sweaty, muddy, and tired, as I led us through a few prayers and blessing the apples and honey. It wasn’t much, but for five to ten minutes, we fulfilled the commandment to be joyful during our holiday.

The next day, the first day of Rosh Hashana, my commander pulled me aside and let me know that, despite not having final approval yet, they were working on an extraction plan so that I could get to services for the second day of the holiday. I told him I wouldn’t hold my breath but thanks for continuing to work it.

We have a saying in the Marine Corps: “The Marine Corps’ gonna get theirs.” Usually, this means that when a holiday weekend arrives, you should use it as a true three-day holiday. Spend it with friends and family, go somewhere fun, because one day, somewhere, the Marine Corps will eventually get theirs. The Marine Corps always gets theirs. And it’s only now, as I write to you from Afghanistan, that I truly appreciate what this means. You see, when I was out in the field for that training exercise, on the second night of Rosh Hashana, my commander came to me and finally told me that they were pulling me out first thing in the morning so that I could make services for the second day of Rosh Hashana. He explained that when all was said and done, it was an easy decision for the higher-ups to justify, despite a supposedly important exercise, because, eventually, the Marine Corps always gets theirs. A war was going on far across the world where Marines and others truly had no choice but to spend their holiday away from the comforts of home. One day, that would be me. But for now, back home, where we weren’t under the constraints of real combat, there was no reason to keep me from my holiday. So the next morning, I was extracted from the middle of nowhere, rushed back to camp, cleaned up, and sent to services.

Unfortunately, my current situation will not allow me to celebrate the upcoming holidays in typical or traditional fashion. While there are a few bases and chaplains hosting Rosh Hashana services across Afghanistan, mine is not one of them. And mission requirements and security issues will prevent finding a ride or hopper to someone else’s service. This year, the Marine Corps is getting theirs… But there is no higher honor than to spend this important time of year standing before my commander with fellow servicemembers and allies, knowing that I also stand with a battalion passing before their King.

Thank you for the kind email. Shana Tova. Semper Fidelis.

Captain Joshua J. Chinsky ’01
United States Marine Corps

P.S. Yes, you can tell people that the Master of the Sermon finally reached Afghanistan.

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