During Yom Kippur services, we read about the rituals the High Priest performed in the Temple. After its destruction, the job of preparing for and conducting the Yom Kippur atonement service falls on us. Neither the Torah nor the Talmud instructs us exactly how to approach G-d, but in the Mussaf service on Rosh Hashanah we explicitly ask G-d to treat us “like children” to Him. We approach G-d similarly on Yom Kippur, the culmination of the Ten Days of Repentance.
Deuteronomy Chapter 14, Verse 1 guides us toward an understanding of what it means to be children to G-d. It states, “You are children to the Lord, your G-d; do not cut [your bodies] nor tear out your hair between your eyes [over] a dead person.”
This appears to be a non sequitur. What connects these two clauses? Rashi (1040-1105) explains: “Do not place a cut or scratch in your flesh over a dead person ... you are G-d’s children and worthy of looking handsome [and not repulsive from defacing ourselves].” Notice that Rashi includes “scratch,” along with the word “cut.” As G-d’s children, we do not deface our bodies deliberately, even with a minor scratch.
Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) gives a theological interpretation: A child does not understand everything his parents do, but accepts that they know best. So too must we accept that G-d decrees the deaths of our loved ones, even if we don’t understand why. Therefore, particularly, we may not mutilate ourselves as a sign of mourning.
Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) disagrees with Rashi on the meaning of the term “G-d’s children,” arguing it has nothing to do with an obligation to maintain good grooming. If it did, the Torah should have issued a blanket prohibition against self-mutilation and not tied it to mourning. Instead, Nachmanides understands the concept of “G-d’s children” in the context of the next verse: “For you are a holy nation and G-d chose you from among the nations to be [His] treasure[d] nation.” “G-d’s children” and “holy nation” complement each other.
Like Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides says we are G-d’s children, and we must accept His decisions. Nachmanides adds that we are a holy nation and G-d will preserve the souls of the departed. As such, we should not mourn at all, but people naturally grieve over loss of their loved ones in this world and thus the Torah prohibits only excessive mourning. According to Halacha, we observe a one-year mourning period for our parents and 30 days for other close relatives. As time passes, grief slips away.
Finally, the rabbis of the Talmud cast the meaning of “G-d’s children” in a much different light. The word “titgodedu” (lit. cut) in the verse comes from the word agudah, a group or faction. As such, the verse can be read, “You shall not make yourselves into factions.” We must live with each other in peace and not turn disagreements into schisms. Under this formulation, “You are G-d’s children” means that we belong to the same family and must learn to live with each other.
In conclusion, behaving like G-d’s children has three components. First, we must respect ourselves. We must not mutilate ourselves physically or emotionally. G-d created all of us to be handsome and we must maintain our beauty. We must maintain our self-worth always.
Second, we must respect G-d. Sure, we struggle with His decrees, but, in the end, we accept them. We believe in the depth of our souls that He loves us. However, faith requires that we embrace, not deny, human nature. Repressing our emotions does not make us religious. Quite the contrary. Ethics of the Fathers (5:20) teaches that we must channel our personal characteristics to the service of G-d.
Third, we must respect each other. We can disagree with the practices of other Jews. We must not demonize them.
If we do our part, G-d does His.
By Joshua Z. Rokach
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah (YISE) in Kemp Mill, Maryland. It meets for all minyanim on Shabbat and yomim tovim in the upstairs small beit midrash in the new wing at YISE.