A few weeks ago I was in Israel, trying to be helpful to my father, who was in the hospital. On Sunday morning I took a brief stroll to the hospital’s small shul, and noticed a Sefer, a book that I had never seen before, a new collection of Torah thoughts from Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, an important Rav of the last century whose words I have often shared with you. I had not seen this new collection, and I borrowed the book briefly to leaf through it. I saw there a beautiful thought for the High Holidays but stored it away as I did not know if I could use it this year.
Late Sunday we brought my father home from the hospital B”H, and on Monday I was sitting in my parents’ home and was sitting for a few minutes in my father’s library when I noticed a Sefer, a book, I had not seen before, a volume on the festivals by Rav Yosef Lipovitz, an unusual student of the Musar school whose other books I have studied. I leafed through it briefly and saw a beautiful thought for the High Holidays – precisely the same idea I had seen in the other work. So I figured – I need to share this. And the more I thought about it, the more it struck home, and the more it seemed a part of what we need to be thinking about.
Their thought involves a known statement of our Sages regarding the story of Yosef and his brothers. When Yosef revealed himself to the brothers the verse says that, “His brothers could not respond to him because they were shocked and confused.” Our Sages in the Talmud (Chagigah 4B) commented, אוי לנו מיום הדין ואוי לנו מיום התוכחה; “If the brothers could not absorb the rebuke of a human being, how will we be able to stand the rebuke of the Almighty?!”
The issue with this is that nowhere in the verse does it say anything about Yosef rebuking his brothers! He identified himself, asked if his father was still alive, and then proceeded to graciously make them feel better, attributing his sale to Egypt to a Divine plan created for their benefit, and inviting them to move to Egypt where he would take care of them. Where is the rebuke?
Both of these rabbis asked the same question, and both gave the same response: The greatest and most profound rebuke is not a scolding, a lesson taught with words. The greatest and most profound rebuke is to see how someone else reacted to their similar challenges; to see how someone else is rooted in and driven by higher and greater things; how someone else has mastered the art of living. When the brothers – who had their petty issues with Yosef that had led them to sell him, their flesh and blood, into slavery – when the brothers saw how Yosef acted towards them when the shoe was on the other foot; how Yosef was gracious and forgiving; how Yosef reached out to them to make them feel comfortable rather than seizing the opportunity to put them in their place; this was the most searing rebuke. Look how he has acted! How did we allow ourselves to act so differently, to stoop so low?!
And so when Rav Yitzchak studied this verse he would cry and say if we can feel so petty in the presence of another human being, how small will we feel when we encounter the divine?! How trivial and unimportant will the erstwhile and mundane pursuits of our lives seem!
That is the greatest rebuke; the most profound lesson. And isn’t it always the case that the most profound lessons are not the spoken ones, but the lessons taught by example? The opportunity to see life lived well, life lived on a higher plane?
שהחיינו. We appreciate the Gift of Life. But for us חיים, “life”, is not simply living and breathing. When the verse describes man coming to life, Onkelos is careful to translate the verse differently – not that man became simply a living soul but rather he became a communicative being, a מדבר – because for man life is not just the mundane; it is the sublime. Every day when we daven we say כי הם חיינו, that our life is Torah. Our life is not to be seen as separate and apart from our highest faculties and aspirations. For us this higher form of living; this is life.
And to some degree for us this is Yom Kippur. For one day we take ourselves to a much higher plane. We pull out of the petty, of the pursuit of the gastronomic and the cosmetic. And from that vantage point we are able to look at the rest of our lives and say – wait, Ashamnu. We have left so much undeveloped. This day, these moments, are when we are our own example to learn from.
The Tur quotes the Midrash Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer that says that the Satan, the prosecuting angel, points out to G-d how saintly the Jewish People are on Yom Kippur, how they seem simply angelic.
והכי איתא בפרק ט”ו מפרקי ר”א ראה סמאל שלא נמצא חטא בישראל ביום הכפורים ואומר רבון העולם יש לך עם אחד בארץ כמלאכי השרת מה מלאכי השרת יחיפי רגל אף ישראל יחיפי רגל ביה”כ מה מלאכי השרת אין להם קפיצה אף ישראל אין להם קפיצה עומדין על רגליהם יום הכפורים מה מלאכי השרת נקיים מכל חטא כך ישראל נקיים מכל חטא מה מה”ש שלום ביניהם כך ישראל ביום הכפורים והקב”ה שומע עדותן מן המקטרגין ומכפר עליהם:
Rav Itzele of Peterburg – the great Mussar master – used to explain that the Satan had not given up his day job; he had not switched sides to advocate for the Jewish People. Instead he said to G-d, “Look at what they can be! Look at how they elevate themselves to be really great, really sublime!” Yom Kippur is a chance to “rebuke” ourselves, by drawing ourselves to our full height and creating a new standard for ourselves.
I will never forget something I experienced thirty years ago, when I had the sad privilege to attend the funeral of Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest rabbis of our time.We were standing in the street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, amongst thousands, on a cold and rainy fast day, Taanis Esther, listening to the eulogies on loudspeakers. The speaker was Rabbi Nissan Alpert, a student of Rav Moshe who was himself dying at the time, and he spoke in a warm, clear but cracking voice about his beloved teacher. He cited the verse in the last prophesy, the words of Malachi, who praises the Kohein who was so outstanding, like a divine angel, “and no wrong crossed his lips.” Asked Rabbi Alpert, “First he is described so positively and magnificently, and then the best you can say is that he said nothing bad?” He went on to explain that even the greatest people sometimes need to say something bad, a word of rebuke or correction. The Kohein however was so great that he never needed to do that. His very presence and carriage conveyed the lesson and made the word of rebuke superfluous. Rav Alpert then broke down and said about his Rebbe Rav Moshe that his persona was so elevated he never needed to rebuke – ועולה לא נמצא בשפתיו. His very being, his living example, taught the lessons of life most profoundly.
One of the high points of the Davening of Musaf is the poem מראה כהן, describing the radiance of the Kohein Gadol after he emerged from the service in the Holy of Holies. Simply it describes the joy and relief at an important and dangerous job well done. Perhaps however it represents something more. Yom Kippur is the anniversary of Moshe’s achieving forgiveness for the Jewish people. When he achieved this and came down from the mountain, he too looked radiant; so radiant in fact that the people had a hard time looking at him. But nevertheless when he spoke to them he made sure they saw him. Because seeing his face, it was seeing what a person could be, could become. It was more than his words; it was his presence, his being, his persona.
And so too, in the Temple on Yom Kippur; to see the face, the radiance of the Kohein Gadol, to see what a person can be when he brushes up against holiness; this was in a sense the climax and the goal of Yom Kippur. Now we saw what life can really be like.
Recently I was speaking to someone dear to me, a member of the community who has been struggling with something. Much as he tried, as he wanted, he could not seem to overcome the problem, a very private problem. I do not know if this was good advice, but I made this suggestion to him: “When you struggle with this issue, or when you fail at it, stop and look yourself in the mirror, look yourself in the eye, for a good fifteen seconds. Ask yourself if that is who you want to see when you look yourself in the eye.” We all want to be better. We all want to be in some way how we present ourselves today, on Yom Kippur. We all want to carry a bit of the glow of Moshe Rabbenu, of the glow of the Kohein Gadol.
I share this with you now for three reasons. First, as we focus on the gift of life, we need to realize that it is not the life that we simply live and breathe but the life of the רוח ממללא, of the higher being, the communicating spirit of man. It is the life of כי הם חיינו, infused by Torah and higher values. The life that is sublime, the life of personal greatness, of the radiance of the Kohein and of the glow of Moshe. The life of Yom Kippur. That is the life that we pursue.
Second, as we strive forward, I want to have us focus less on words of rebuke, on specific thoughts and lessons, and instead ask you to use the rebuke of Yosef, to focus on and think of an example of a life well lived that will guide you. Because there is no greater lesson, no greater rebuke, than seeing life well lived.
And third I share this specifically in these moments before Yizkor, when many of us here are drawing up those images of those dear to us, in our minds and hearts.
Every year on Erev Yom Kippur I have had the privilege of receiving the Bracha of Erev Yom Kippur from my father לאוי”ט, if not in person then by phone. This year for the first time my father was unable to share it himself, and my mother לאוי”ט shared it with me while my father listened in. And I must tell you that the thought that I learned at his bedside and that I shared with you today was front and center in my mind when my mother was reading to me the Bracha. That thought helped me understand that just like the greatest lessons are not taught by words, but by the image of the person and how they live their life, the greatest Bracha is also beyond words, but in that vision of that person, and what they showed you and shared with you.
And it is that image of your parent or grandparent that I hope you will feel, you will bring to mind, as the image that will stand before your eyes now and always, as your greatest source of blessing.
And let each of us consider how we can be that image for others, how our radiance and our presence can be a source of blessing to all those around us, now and always.