In 1917, Chaim Nachman Bialik, a Jewish poet and writer born in Ukraine in 1873, published an essay entitled “Halakhah and Aggadah”. In his essay, he describes the interplay between these two elements in Judaism. Halakhah refers to Jewish law, which is “severe, strict, hard as iron”, and represent how observant Jews shape their lives according to a fixed pattern. Aggadah, on the other hand, refers to the non-legalistic narrative portions of the TaNakH, Talmud and Midrash, which are “compliant, merciful, softer than wool”, and represents the expression of our ceaseless aspiration. Bialik argues that these two elements are complementary and must work hand in hand. He writes, “Halakhah is all husk, body, action; Aggadah is all content, soul aspiration. The first is hardening inertia, compulsion, and submission… the second, continuous renewal, freedom, and spontaneity”.
In our lives, we need structure and purpose, we need a direction of travel, and the capacity to dream our journeys. We need Halakhah and Aggadah.
Yom Kippur perfectly embodies this tension between structure and meaning, between dream and reality. These are some of the harshest mitzvot of the Jewish corpus of laws, and at the same time, we are invited to reinvent ourselves, to write a new personal narrative to transform the world around us.
On Rosh Hashanah, I offered you three Jewish stories which talked about resilience, responsibility and the Jewish attitude to hardship: persistence, and hope. When the world around us seems so gloomy, we must remind ourselves of our heritage, of the stories of our ancestors, and how, in their times, they faced their own difficulties.
Let’s read another story in the Talmud, tractate Eruvin, page 53b. The story goes that a Sage from the first and second century C.E., Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, was walking along a path. He saw a young man sitting at the crossroads. He asked him, on which path shall I walk to get to the city? The boy replied, this path is short and long, and this path is long and short. The Sage walked on the path that was short and long. When he approached the city, he found that gardens and orchards surrounded it, and he couldn’t find the trails leading through them to the gates of the city. He went back, met the young boy again, and said, “My son, didn’t you tell me that this way is short?” The boy replied, “and didn’t I tell you that it is also long?” The Sage then kissed the boy on his head and said, “Happy are you, O Israel, for you are exceedingly wise, from your old to your young”.
But Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah was in a hurry. He didn’t understand what the boy was telling him: you have a choice between two paths, but one will lead you the long way, and the other, straight to the destination. However, one will appear simple and easy, and it won’t be the one that, in the end, will be the right option. This Aggadah is at the core of what Yom Kippur is about: we have a choice. We always have a choice.
We have a choice between taking the road on the left, or the path on the right.
We have the choice to confront our fears, our shortcomings, our flaws, or to indulge ourselves in self-justification or self-righteousness.
We have the choice to confront the reality of our world, and to talk openly about what, or who is divisive in our society.
We have the choice to make the correct choices, the ones that enable proper social interactions with our fellow human beings, to enhance the quality of our communal and social life, and to ensure that no one is left out or forgotten.
And we have the choice to refuse to be overwhelmed by the noise of the world. After decades of optimism and a sense of progress, our western world is becoming increasingly confused, bewildered, and deeply worrisome. Psychologists now recognise that there are anxieties related to current challenges, such as global warming, and the use of social media.
The world of social media is putting the self on a pedestal that can hardly hide the sheer uncertainties surrounding our lives. Mental health has become a great concern for parents and carers, and many of us experience some sort of mental health issues during our lives. Of course, that is nothing new. Philosophers have long discovered that the finitude and uncertainties of life is part of the human experience. These are also the teachings of Judaism: how to live a meaningful life, to find the resources we need in our tradition, and to accept what cannot be changed. Judaism is an act of resistance, perspective against immediacy; ethical conduct against lawlessness.
Yom Kippur is about choice. It is not surprising that many Jews, who otherwise do not attend synagogue very often, decide to mark Yom Kippur. Rabbi Alan Lew (d. 2009), in his book ‘This is Real, and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation’ (2003), explains that during the time that begins in the summer, on Tisha B’Av and the restart of the Torah cycle on Simchat Torah, with this climax on Yom Kippur, we are engaged in a journey “of self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness and spiritual evolution… from birth to death and back to renewal again” (p. 83). This process of spiritual awakening is only possible if we reflect on our actions, seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, let go of the past and move forward, embrace change and transformation in our inner life, cultivate gratitude and appreciate the blessings in our life, connect with the community, and embrace our own mortality, so we can live in the present.
Our liturgy says, in the Unetane Tokef, “On Rosh Hashanah, it is written, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed, who will live and who will die…” but Teshuvah (returning, turning, repentance), prayer and righteous deeds can transform (ma’avirin) the harshness of the decree. In other words, prayer, righteousness and Teshuvah will not change what happens to us. Rather, they will change us. We don’t follow these rules to avoid death. We follow these rules because they transform us. Of course, these Ten Days of Repentance won’t change anything in themselves. It is a process that started long ago, and that will continue after Simchat Torah.
This is where Aggadah meets Halakhah: we are constantly rewriting our own stories by adopting an ethical behaviour, that will transform our life for good. Nobody, not even God can do it. It is your choice; it is your decision. And it is you who will have to live with the consequences of your choices.
Ken Yehi Ratzon
May it be God’s Will.
Rabbi Rene Pfertzel
Kol Nidrei 5784 / 2023