The motif of community is central to Jewish identity. Beyond that, it is central to humanity as well. The final chapter of the book of Shemos, Sefer HaGeula, concludes with Moshe’s address to the people. וַיַּקְהֵל – he gathers them together, in an expression of Kehila, community, to tell them about the centrality of two things. Shabbos, and service through the Mishkan; both of which are expressions of community.

Rabbi Sacks teaches that Shabbos created a moment in time for community, and the Mishkan, which morphed into the Beis HaMikdash, which has morphed in the Beis HaKneses, our shuls. At these points, community is fully expressed, and individuals unite. Judaism attaches immense significance to the individual, and every life is its own universe. Each one of us, all in God’s image, is different, and therefore unique and irreplaceable.

Yet the first time the words “not good” appear in the Torah are at the beginning of Creation, “It is not good for man to be alone”. Much of Judaism is about the shape and structure of our togetherness. It values the individual but does not endorse individualism.

Rav Hirsch notes that at the point community was established, and the Mishkan was fully operational, Moshe withdrew, his task complete:

וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד ה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן. וְלֹא יָכֹל משֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד ה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן – The cloud covered the Tent, and God’s glory filled the Mishkan. Moshe could no longer enter the Mishkan, because the cloud rested upon it, and God’s glory filled the Mishkan. (40:34,35)

Rav Hirsch further notes that this mirrors a much earlier foreshadowing:

וַיִּשְׁכֹּן כְּבוֹד ה עַל הַר סִינַי וַיְכַסֵּהוּ הֶעָנָן  – And God’s glory rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it… (24:16)

Moshe was the ultimate agent to carry out the epic mission he was assigned, and this was the conclusion to an important chapter in the Jewish story. When the task was given, it came with a lofty ideal:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם – The should make me a sanctuary; and I will dwell among them. (25:8)

This was a task given the community, and it was for the community to take up. Moshe showed them how, but now the community had to step in and take over. It wasn’t about him; it was about the community.

Before establishing the Mishkan, there wasn’t a way for people to interact with God in a substantial way. But now and for all time, Torah, mitzvos, and prayers had a framework; a lens to see them through. These are things demanded of the community, from within the community.

Appropriately, it is on this note that book of Shemos, The Book of Redemption, concludes. The transformation was complete. From Egypt, a band of ragtag slaves were now united with liberty, identity, and freedom to serve God as one nation together.

From Egypt, a band of ragtag slaves were now united with liberty, identity, and freedom to serve God as one community. One nation together.

For most people, the most powerful liturgy in our prayers is u’Nesaneh Tokef. It’s the part that people most connect with.

The first part sets the scene:

כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם, וּבוֹ תִּנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ – Awesome and frightening, today, Your kingship rises…

The second part sets what is at stake:

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן, כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת – Who lives, who dies…

The third part declares that we don’t believe in fate. There is hope! Nothing is set in stone, and we trust Hashem. We shout loudly:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree!

Rabbi Sacks explains that this third part is a crystal clear paradigm of what we believe.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur might be about what will happen in our lives. But even that is not set in stone. We simply don’t believe in a rigid, preordained fate. More than we believe in fate, we believe in ourselves; in our power to change through prayer, improvement, and good deeds. We believe that ultimately, we can influence and control our own destinies. We hope.

We cling on to hope, always. How many prophecies of doom were averted when people changed? That’s what we read about on Yom Kippur, in the story of Yonah and Ninveh.

The Gemara teaches that with a sword on your neck, you still pray. Hope remains.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה don’t mean repentance, prayer, and charity. תְשׁוּבָה means homecoming and return; because we have lost our way. But hope is not lost; we just need to come back. תְפִלָּה means judging yourself. Where do you really stand? But there is hope. צְדָקָה means justice. It’s not just nice, it is the just thing to do. Because others need hope.

Together, they are מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – because there is always hope. In the darkest of times, when the odds are stacked, hope remains.

The closing of u’Nesaneh Tokef says how אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר – man’s beginning and ending are earth and dirt. This recalls imagery of Yakov, who, at the lowest point in his life, dreams of a ladder on the dirt:

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה – It’s base was on the earth, but it reached the skies above…

We come from the dirt, but with hope, we can reach the skies.