Although Aleinu was composed by Yehoshua bin Nun, and the Anshei K’neses HaG’dolah instituted its inclusion in the Malchiyus section of tefilas Musaf on Rosh HaShanah, it was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who instituted saying it daily after each tefilah. He did this to strengthen the emunah and spirits of klal Yisrael, who were living through the painful times of the destruction of the second Beis HaMikdash.
Both the first paragraph and the second paragraph of Aleinu begin with the letter ayin and end with the letter daled, alluding to the idea of testimony, bearing witness, as the ayin and daled form the word עד–eid (witness). This symbolizes our unique position, obligation, and privilege of being the chosen ones to testify about Hashem’s active hashgachah in the world. We immediately begin with referring to Hashem as “אדון הכל–Adon Ha’kol (the Master of all)” to emphasize this crucial point that differentiates us from the rest of the nations. They may agree that Hashem is “יוצר בראשית–Yotzeir b’reishis (the Molder of primeval creation)” – the creator of the world. However, they believe that this was the end of His involvement. In Tehilim, David HaMelech writes: “רם על כל גוים ה’, על השמים כבודו–Ram al kol goyim Hashem, al ha’shamayim k’vodo” – i.e., to the nations, Hashem is way up there and it is below His dignity to involve Himself with this world down here. We, on the other hand, know and proclaim that Hashem is Adon Ha’kol – Master and Ruler over all of creation, up in shamayim and down here as well. This is the meaning of “לתת גדולה ליוצר בראשית–laseis g’dulah l’Yotzeir b’reishis”: We “add g’dulah” to the nations’ limited belief, so to speak, by recognizing and proclaiming that Hashem is Adon Ha’kol. [HaRav Chaim Friedlander, Sifsei Chaim – Moadim 1]
Next, we thank Hashem for not making us like the “nations of the lands” – “שלא עשנו כגויי הארצות–she’lo asanu k’goyei ha’aratzos.” The nations are bound to their lands, and when they have been driven out of their lands, they have faded away. We, on the other hand, are privileged in that our existence is not dependent on our land in the same way. While Eretz Yisrael is certainly very important to us in many ways, we have had to exist, and do exist, independent from our homeland. In fact, as if to stress this point, we actually began as a nation in the desert before we entered Eretz Yisrael. We also unfortunately were without our homeland for close to 2,000 years, and yet we survived and have not faded away. Our existence is solely dependent on our learning the Torah and performing mitzvos, representing our doing the Will of Hashem and “attaching” ourselves to Him.
We also thank Hashem that “לא שמנו כמשפחות האדמה–lo samanu k’mishp’chos ha’adamah” – for not establishing us as the families of the earth. The earth represents nature. The essence of the nations is their connection to “mother nature” and physicality. Our essence, on the other hand, is our connection to Hashem and His Torah, to the spiritual and the eternal.
The goal of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai will be achieved if we recite Aleinu with kavanah and reflect upon it and allow it to affect us, as we head to our next destination. As we prepare daily to head back out “into the world” after tefilah, let us solidify and strengthen our emunah in Adon Ha’kol and raise our hope and expectation of our future g’ulah, may it be soon in our days, b’ezras Hashem, where all the world will recognize that Hashem is One.
שלא שם חלקנו כהם, וגורלנו ככל המונם
For He has not assigned our portion like theirs, nor our lot like all their multitudes
Every person and every nation has a portion (חלק–cheilek) and a designated objective (תפקיד–tafkid) in the revelation of Hashem’s honor. In general, the other nations’ cheilek is to support and assist klal Yisrael (though today we do not see how they actually support us) in our tafkid. However, we are more privileged to have a more direct service of Hashem through learning and fulfillment of the Torah.
Goral (גורל) represents the tools that Hashem provides us with, so that we can perform our tafkid. Each of us has a unique tafkid, and each of us is given exactly what we need when we need it, to fulfill that tafkid. [HaRav Chaim Friedlander, Sifsei Chaim – Moadim 1]
Today, when we do not have prophets to tell us precisely what our tafkid is, the Vilna Gaon says that our tafkid is to focus on learning, to fulfill the Torah and mitzvos, and to do Hashem’s will to the best of our understanding. HaRav Shlomo Wolbe [Alei Shur] explains that the Gaon is not saying that we don’t have an individual tafkid today, but rather that we do not have n’viim or ruach ha’kodesh to determine what that tafkid is on our own. However, if we learn Torah and perform mitzvos with purity of heart to understand and perform the true will of Hashem, then the Torah will guide us to our tafkid. This requires many years of toil, learning Torah and performing mitzvos properly, coupled with a lot of work to remove our personal desires and biases from clouding our judgment. Our ultimate goal must be to uncover and perform the ratzon of Hashem and not to gratify ourselves personally.
If we are thinking, Why isn’t Hashem giving me that million-dollar deal so I can give all that tz’dakah that I want to give, perhaps that is not yet our tafkid at the present moment. We are required to do our part as mentioned above and learn to trust that Hashem will do His.
Recapping the essence of Aleinu up to this point: We are praising Hashem, Who not only created the Universe but Who is also the Master over all, and Who watches over us with hashgachah pratis. We are also expressing our understanding of how privileged we are to have been chosen collectively as Hashem’s nation, having the honor of serving Hashem more directly than all the other nations of the world. We are similarly privileged on an individual level to serve Hashem more directly than individuals from other nations. These privileges should cause us to feel great joy over our good fortune to have been created as members of klal Yisrael.