Poor Sefer Yoel. It always tends to be ignored when it comes to Trei Asar. Everyone remembers Sefer Yonah from Yom Kippur, Hoshea from “Shuva Yisrael ad Hashem Elokecha,” and Malachi from the last two pissukim which have been referenced as referring to Ba’alei Teshuva. But Sefer Yoel? It appears briefly at the Seder right before the Makkos (the spilling on wine when “blood, fire, and pillars of smoke” are mentioned) and here as part of the Shabbos Shuva Haftorah. However, even on Shabbos Shuva, it is sandwiched between the more famous sections from Hoshea and Micha. Why did the Chachomim choose this passage from Sefer Yoel as one that is meaningful for Yom Kippur?
On first glance, the answer seems obvious. The pissukim appear in the context of Bnai Yisrael’s collective tefillah asifa due to the worst locust plague in Jewish history. This plague was so awful that even Rashi claims it might have been worse than Makkat Arbeh. Therefore, Bnai Yisrael gather together to mourn, fast, and cry out in tefillah that Hashem should remove the plague, which He then proceeds to do.
The power of fasting and crying out in prayer are part of the three-fold process which nullifies the evil decree. This process, summarized by the phrase, “u’Teshuva, u’Tefillah, u”Tzeddakah Ma’avirin at Roah ha Gezeira,” is achieved via repentance, prayer, and giving charity. On top of these three words in the Machzor, there are three smaller words: “tzom, kol, and mammon,” or “fasting, raising one’s voice in prayer and giving money.” Fasting and loudly davening and integral parts of Bnai Yisrael’s actions in response to the locust plague in SeferYoel.
However, a second approach to why Sefer Yoel is chosen as part of the Haftorah keys around a smaller phrase in the pissukim. The pissukim state that everyone must come out to daven, even the “Chosson M’Chodro, v’Kallah M’Chupatah,” the bride and groom. This pair is rarely summoned out for national service. One of the only other times they come is when Bnai Yisrael is engaging in a Milchemet Mitzvah, or a war for a mitzvah purpose, such as the destruction of the Seven Nations. What is the connection between collective tefillah for a locust plague and a Milchemet Mitzvah?
If one looks through Tanach, there is a connection between tefillah and war. When Yaakov Avinu prepares for his encounter with Eisav, he prepares for war and he prays. When he tells Yosef that he has given him the city of Shechem, he says he captured it with his bow and arrow. The Targum translates the Hebrew words for “bow” and “arrow” as referring to tefillah. When King Yehoshafat goes out to war against the kings of Ammon and Moav, he is told to send the Levi’im in the front lines, and then they should sing “HoduL’Hashem, Ki L’Olam Chasdo.”
There is also a negative relationship between someone who refuses to join the Jewish people in times of hardship and refusal to join a Michemet Mitzvah. Elimelech is severely punished for refusing to empathize with a starving Jewish people, and fleeing to Moav. Similarly, when Bnai Yisrael go to war against Shevet Binyamin, they execute the residents of Ya’avesh Gila’ad due to their refusal to join in a perceived “Milchemet Mitzvah.”
Therefore, if the Choson and Kallah refuse to join in the collective tefillah asifa, they are demonstrating a callous attitude toward their suffering brethren. They are saying that they are too busy with their own Simcha, and it doesn’t bother them that everyone else’s crops are being destroyed by the locusts. They are refusing to join a spiritual Milchemet Mitzvah, and the consequences could potentially be disastrous for their marriage. Therefore, they must go out to “battle” along with everyone else.
Sefer Yoel’s description of everyone going out to daven applies to our modern times of distress. Sometimes when there are times of distress for Klal Yisrael, people ignore their pain. They think to themselves that it doesn’t really matter that these other people are suffering due to its lack of impact on their own lives. In contrast, Sefer Yoel tells us that in times of hardship, no one is exempt from partaking in tefillah, not even the often excused Choson and Kallah. Tefillah in times of Tzarah is a true Milchemet Mitzvah and no one has a right to refuse to join the battle at the portentous hour of Yom Kippur, when Klal Yisrael’s decrees are being sealed for the upcoming year.
In conclusion, Sefer Yoel teaches us about the power of collective tefillah and fasting. It explains why fasting and loud prayer are such a key part of the process to nullify negative decrees, and that it is not enough just to feel bad for one’s sins. It also proclaims to us that even if we believe that our lives are going well, we cannot ignore the rest of Klal Yisrael’s troubles. Aseres Yemai Teshuva is an hour of battle in Heaven on our behalf, and Hashem wants every Jew to engage in combat for his or her own success, in addition to those of Klal Yisrael. May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for the upcoming year, and may Klal Yisrael only receive Gezeiros Tovos due to our unity in prayer and fast this Yom Kippur.
By Adina Brizel