In his post-Rosh Hashanah reflections, The Jewish Worker includes this point:
It amazes me how people waltz in to shul late on Rosh Hashana. Yes, davening is earlier then a regular Shabbos, but still how hard is it to get to shul on time?
I'd like to offer an alternative perspective. There is a famous story, which I will borrow from NCSY's website:
One of the more famous Chassidic stories is told about Rav Moshe Leib Sassover and Yankel the misnaged, an opponent of the Chassidim, who was visiting Sassov during the yomim noraim period when Jews rise before dawn to recite the selichos. When Yankel came to the shtiebel to daven and noticed that the Rebbe, Rav Moshe Leib, arrived in shul after the selichos service had concluded, he confronted the Rebbe’s followers and asked how can a Rabbi come to shul when the selichos are already over. In unison, the chassidim responded: “you don’t understand, the Rebbe is late because he ascends high into the heavens to pray on behalf of the Jewish people.”There is a more modern version of this story, which I hope to retell accurately:
Dissatisfied, Yankel decided to investigate on his own to prove all the chassidim wrong. Early the next morning, Yankel heard the Rebbe rise and leave the house with a package of food and an axe. Yankel followed. Dressed like a peasant, the Rebbe walked into the woods, took out his axe and chopped a tree into firewood. The Rebbe then took the bundle of wood and walked to an old, run-down house. An elderly woman let the Rebbe into her home. Pretending to be a peasant, the Rebbe explained that
he had brought the woman wood and food. When the woman stated that she had no money to pay for these things, Rav Moshe Leib responded: “That’s not a problem. We’ll put it on account and you can pay me when you have the money.”
Yankel watched all of this transpire from the darkness of the night. And when the elderly woman told the Rebbe that she was not strong enough to light the fire, Rav Moshe Leib placed the wood in the furnace and recited the 13 middos: “Hashem, Hashem, Keil, Rachum V’Chanun, G-d, of Mercy and Compassion.”
Yankel ran back to the shtiebel, and when asked whether he had seen the Rebbe ascend high into the heavens, without pause he responded: “Yes, yes, high into the heavens, if not higher.”
A certain avrech was consistently late for davening. One of his rabbeim rebuked him for this, telling him that he should try to come to shul on time.
The avrech explained: "You don't understand! There is a woman in this neighborhood who has 5 children, and she had difficulty in the mornings getting them up, dressed, and fed. And so, before going to shul, I help her deal with this."His rebbe: "Wow! What a great mitzvah! Now I understand completely. But tell me, how can I contact this poor almana, so that I can assist her as well?"The avrech: An almanah!? Chas veshalom! She's my wife!!
While this was clearly meant as a joke, I think that it has a lot of merit to it in all seriousness. Charity begins at home, and one of the most important aspects of marriage is the opportunity (and perhaps the obligation to desire to find opportunity) to do tremendous chessed for one's spouse. And I also think that this attitude, not of "what can I get?" but always mutual "what can I do for the other person?" leads to better shalom bayit and in general a happier and successful marriage.
It is true that women are patur from mitzvos aseih shehazman gerama, and thus possibly from getting to shul for the beginning of it -- and a large part of this may be the sociological cause that they raise and deal with children, which makes performing many of these mitzvos quite difficult -- even so, I don't think the husband should entirely bow out.
Let us say that one's wife is pregnant and also not feeling well, and could greatly use some extra sleep. Assuming one is not taking all the kids to shul, is it a bigger mitzvah to abandon her to cope with the kids on a given morning in order to daven betzibbur, or to daven without a minyan at home? I think at the very least it should be a question, and I would even lean towards saying that it is a bigger mitzvah to stay at home.
Let me give you an extreme yet practical case from someone I know in the neighborhood. I won't name names so as not to embarrass him. But his wife is pregnant and has another medical condition approaching chronic fatigue syndrome, and he has a few children, who would need monitoring of a parent. His wife wanted to also go to shul. But the kids somehow slept until 9:20, his wife, who had been up during the night, awoke at 10 AM. Getting everyone up and out took him to shul on the first day (when there was no shofar blowing) at about 11 AM. While shul on a typical Shabbos began at a bit after 9 AM, since it was Rosh Hashanah it began at 8 AM. And so he came quite late for davening, and was more than a bit sheepish about this.
He didn't expect this, and maybe he should have arranged to have a babysitter beforehand, to handle such an eventuality would it occur.
But would I look down at him for making this choice? Certainly not! In fact, I would even say that he exhibited good traits and exemplary behavior on the Yom HaDin. To cite Yankel the misnaged, "he went high into the heavens, if not higher."
Of course, not every case is the same as this. Some people simply like to sleep late, or have difficulty getting up for shul in the morning, and did this in this instance as well. But for any individual, not knowing his particular circumstances, I would not judge.
Also, to those others, I would understand them. Shul is indeed earlier than usual. (In some instances, more than an hour and a quarter earler.) So it might be difficult to start the day and get out of the house so early, particularly married men with kids, or even simply people who have difficulty waking up early in the morning and who would not set an alarm clock, since it is Shabbos and Rosh Hashanah. Indeed, even on the morning of Mattan Torah the Jews slept late! People nowadays do not have roosters.
And besides being earlier, Rosh Hashanah davening is more shlepped out. Yes, this was instituted halachically for certain reasons. But the fact is that even on a typical Shabbos, some people find davening boring and shlepped out. And IMHO this can often lead to talking. Could you imagine how such people might relate to the longer, stretched out davening on Rosh Hashanah. They might not appreciate all the piyutim. Coming late to shul might well be a coping mechanism, since it effectively cuts the davening short. And I am not sure that I would always condemn this corrective trend of the hamon am.
All that said, it certainly is good to get to shul on time, and to develop the attitude and approach described in The Jewish Worker's post.