What’s Wrong with the High Holiday Prayers?
A Chassid went to the Baal Shem Tov in Mezhibuzh and said, “Rebbe, I want to see Elijah the Prophet.”
“It’s simple,” said the Baal Shem. “I’ll tell you what to do. Get two boxes and fill one with food and the other with children’s clothes. Then, before Rosh Hashanah, travel to Minsk. On the outskirts of town, right before where the forest begins, is a dilapidated house. Find that house, but don’t knock on the door immediately; stand there for a while and listen. Then, shortly before candle-lighting time at sunset, knock on the door and ask for hospitality.” The Chassid went home and told his wife he would be away for the holiday. “How can you leave your family?” she said. “The children want their father to take them to the synagogue!”
He told her, “I have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Elijah the Prophet!” Finally, she agreed that it was something that he could not pass up.
So, he went and did as the Baal Shem Tov told him. He filled the parcels with food and clothing and went to Minsk, where he found the broken-down house at the edge of town. He arrived shortly before evening and stood in front of the door, listening. Inside, he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry. And it’s Yom Tov and we don’t even have decent clothes to wear!” He heard the mother answer, “Children, trust in G-d. He’ll send Elijah the Prophet to bring you everything you need!”
Then the Chassid knocked on the door. When the woman opened it, he asked if he could stay with them for the holiday.
“How can I welcome you when I don’t have any food in the house?” she said. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I have enough food for all of us.” He came in, opened the box, gave the children the food, and they ate. Then he opened the other box and the children all took clothes for themselves: this one a shirt, that one a jacket, the other one a hat. He was there for two days, waiting to see Elijah the Prophet. He did not even sleep. How could he sleep? How often do you get a chance to see Elijah the Prophet? But he saw no one.
So, he returned to the Baal Shem Tov and said, “Master, I did not see Elijah the Prophet!”
“Did you do everything I told you?” asked the Baal Shem Tov.
“I did!” he said.
“And you didn’t see him?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Rebbe! I didn’t see him!”
“Then you’ll have to return for Yom Kippur,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “Go back before Yom Kippur, with a box of food, to the same house. Again, be sure to arrive an hour before sunset, and don’t knock immediately. Wait for a while and just stand in front of the door, listening.”
The Chassid went back to his wife and told her he would be away for Yom Kippur. “How can you leave your children again?” she asked. “But the Baal Shem Tov says I’ll be able to see Elijah the Prophet, like one of the great tzaddikim!” he said, “How can I not go?”
His wife agreed that it was worth going away for two or three days if he could see Elijah the Prophet.
So, he went back to Minsk before Yom Kippur. This time, he went earlier and stood in front of the door, listening. Inside he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry! We haven’t eaten the whole day! How can we fast for Yom Kippur?” “Children!” said the mother. “Do you remember you were crying before Rosh Hashanah that you had no food or clothes? And I told you, ‘Trust in G-d! He’ll send Elijah the Prophet, who’ll bring you food and clothing and everything else you need!’ Wasn’t I right? Didn’t Elijah come and bring you food and clothing? He stayed with us for two days! Now you’re crying again that you’re hungry. I promise you that Elijah will come now, too, and bring you food!”
Then the Chassid understood what the Baal Shem Tov, had meant. And he knocked on the door.
I know what you’re thinking. Rabbi Shapiro is going to tell us that we can all be Eliyahu Hanavis!
That would have been a great drasha. Everyone would have been happy at the brevity.
I would end the story and just say, “So find ways to be the Eliyahu that others are looking for. Good Yuntif!”
Like Jeff Forman’s famous Shabbos drasha. “Be Nice…Good Shabbos!”
While that is a message I can absolutely get behind, that not my message tonight.
Tonight I want to ask, what about the 1000s of poor starving Jewish families or other human beings, who don’t have Elijah show up with a big bag of food. How come they don’t deserve a miracle? How come their children have to suffer and starve? Did they have too many sins?
Tonight I want to talk about divine fairness and the High Holiday prayers, specifically unesana tokef.
Unesaneh Tokef Kedushas HaYom:
We will observe the mighty holiness of this day. For on this day You sit in judgement, every human being passes before You and all their deeds are known to you. And You inscribe their destiny.
On Rosh Hashana it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many will be born, who will live and who will die, who will have a long life, and who a short life. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity Avert the Terrible Decree.
This prayer is based on the statement in the Talmud Tractate Rosh Hashana:
Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan: Three books are opened on Rosh HaShana before the Holy One, Blessed be He: One of wicked people, and one of righteous people, and one of everyone in the middle.
Completely righteous people are immediately written and sealed for life; completely wicked people are immediately written and sealed for death; and everyone in the middle are left with their judgment suspended from Rosh HaShana until Yom Kippur, their fate remaining undecided. If they merit, through the good deeds and mitzvot that they perform during this period, they are written for life; if they do not so merit, they are written for death.
There is a similar metaphor using a balance- a scale.
Hashem sits in Judgement!
All these teachings are so paradigmatic, that they are etched in our mind from childhood.
We’re taught them and we believe in them but if you really examine them. They don’t make any sense!! They don’t come to fruition in our lives.
Many evil people seem to do just fine. They perpetuate wars and conflict, and they seem to succeed. Why are they still in the book of life?
If you take the teaching of Rav Yochanan to it’s logical conclusion, every year all the wicked people should die, and amazingly, righteous people should go on living forever! If anything, I see the opposite. It is so often the most wonderful people who end up with terrible suffering that has no explanation.
Or more simply put in Billy Joel lyrics I absolutely hate, “Only the good die young.”
And will teshuva tefillah and tzeddaka really save you? So a person who dies, they must not have done enough teshuva, tefilla, and tzeddaka?
It’s clearly a flawed paradigm, but it extends to a bigger problem in faith.
We believe that Hashem will protect us and take care of us. We believe that our good deeds should translate into reward and protection from above. When someone points out that this is often not the case, it can create doubt for us who are modern in outlook.
I need to point out that this problem should not be a true challenge to our Bitachon our Emunah- our faith in God, because it isn’t true that we believe that God will take us on a joy ride. That is not Bitachon. Bitachon is believing that no matter what I’m going through, I trust Hashem is with me and giving my soul exactly what is needed, even when things are tough.
But in the minds of fundamentalists who refuse to look at facts that are inconvenient to their belief, pointing out that the righteous don’t always make it into the book of life can cause great anger. Heresy! Apostasy they cry!
The most famous of Jewish apostates was a great rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, who one day declared: Ein Din, V’Ein Dayan- There is not justice and there is no Judge. And became excommunicated and forever known in Talmudic lore as Acher- The Other.
This happened recently in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu recently got in hot water over statements he made trying to persuade Israelis not to make the annual pilgrimage that 40K men make each year to spend Rosh Hashana in Uman, Ukraine- the burial place of the holy Rav Nachman of Breslev. I mean, who wouldn’t want to leave their families and go to a war zone for the holiday?
Netanyahu said, “Israeli citizens who are traveling to Ukraine must take personal responsibility for their travels. God has not always protected us, not on European land and not on Ukrainian land.”
It didn’t take more than a minute for a tremendous uproar from the ultra-orthodox community. I won’t repeat the worst of the statements from politicians and rabbis which ran from personal attacks on Netanyahu to the wild claim that it was the Zionists who caused the Holocaust. The most levelheaded response came from
The rabbis who lead the coalition’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
“God always protected the Jewish people during persecution, this is the reason that the Jewish nation is the only one which has miraculously survived for thousands of years,”.
“Of course, the condition for divine providence is adherence to faith and observance,” In other words, the Jewish people have indeed suffered, but as a direct result of their sins.
They are not making up this approach no matter how awful it sounds. They are just taking what it says many times in the Torah and they are interpreting it to its logical conclusion. Just look at the tochecha: Sins lead to Punishment. Suffering is because of our sins. So the logic would follow that the holocaust is a direct result of our sins.
The Talmud in Brachos addresses the question of suffering in a much more nuanced way:
אָמַר רָבָא, וְאִיתֵּימָא רַב חִסְדָּא: אִם רוֹאֶה אָדָם שֶׁיִּסּוּרִין בָּאִין עָלָיו — יְפַשְׁפֵּשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו. פִּשְׁפֵּשׁ וְלֹא מָצָא — יִתְלֶה בְּבִטּוּל תּוֹרָה..
וְאִם תָּלָה וְלֹא מָצָא — בְּיָדוּעַ שֶׁיִּסּוּרִין שֶׁל אַהֲבָה הֵם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֶאֱהַב ה׳ יוֹכִיחַ״
So suffering can be because of sins. But can also be from God’s love.
What does it mean, “You should understand it to be the suffering of love”?
The great medieval rabbi Rashi comments:
Suffering out of love: God makes people suffer in the this world even if they are free of sin in order to increase their reward in the world to come – so that they will receive more than their actions merit.
It’s the secret fix for all the problems of tsaddik v’ra lo, and rasha v’tov lo.
There is divine math going on that we can’t see, and in the end, fairness will be maintained. Undeserved suffering in this world is a way to get an even better place in the world to come. If you had any sins, better to neutralize them here and have a perfect Olam Haba.
But at the end of the day, even this wise explanation by Rashi doesn’t sit well with me. It doesn’t explain the deaths or illnesses of children, it doesn’t explain the holocaust. It is logical but not fully satisfying, at least to me. I think many frum Jews are just fine with this explanation. To them, faith means understanding God and being able to say, I understand why. It’s for the reward in heaven.
I don’t understand why. I don’t understand children suffering, I don’t understand innocents dying. I don’t understand any of it because I’m also feeling and giving credence to my heart and soul, and I’m not satisfied to use a logic that eases just the mind.
So I thought and thought and came up with an answer from the Torah of my Kishkes.
Small things- fridge breaking, Raven’s losing the game in the last seconds, a flat tire, stubbed toe, speeding ticket, etc… examine your deeds.
Big things- Cancer, poverty, the holocaust, we must remember they are Yisurim shel Ahava.
To me, that means, we don’t know why they happen. It is a complete mystery, but there is one thing we know. God doesn’t hate us. Hashem loves us. It is from love.
The most logical conclusion when a person is suffering is either, there is no God, or God must hate me. Many times the two are combined in the most illogical of ways: “I don’t believe in God, because God did this (awful thing) to me.” And it makes sense, who could live life believing in a God that is mean and spiteful?
The Talmud is offering a third option. There is no good explanation to wrap your head around, but just know this. Hashem loves you and will never stop loving you. No matter what you go through, you are surrounded in God’s light. Our tradition teaches in numerous places that Hashem is actually, if possible to say, suffering with us when we suffer.
This is the only answer that sits well with me. Having the humility to say we don’t understand and we will never understand, but we trust in Hashem nonetheless.
So we come back to our original question: Why keep the faulty prayers that rely on a paradigm that we know doesn’t really hold up?
Why don’t we incorporate the humble answer into our prayers.
Maybe unesana tokef should say, “We don’t know why you choose who will live and who will die, but please, please, give us and our loved ones another year of life!”
Is it to scare us into teshuva? Maybe…probably at least somewhat…doing teshuva, even out of fear of punishment is still a good thing. Halevi, we should all do teshuva to avoid God’s wrath.
But I don’t want to believe that the whole high holidays are just a divine scare tactic.
One answer that I find beautiful is the reinterpretation of the terms life and death by the rabbis of the Talmud. In tractate Brachos we learn, “Tzadikim are called alive even in their deaths, and the wicked are called dead even when they are alive”. With this approach who will live and who will die, the book of life and the book of death can take a radically new meaning. You can be in the book of life and still pass away, and be in the book of death, and still live. You may be breathing, but if you are evil, your soul is dead. Your contribution to the world is nothingness and destruction. But the righteousness of good and holy people reverberates for generations as light and love and holy behavior in their children and grandchildren and disciples. They are still alive.
I have one more answer to share.
The perspective shared in unesana tokef is essential to our faith and our survival as Jews. In fact all civilized society depends on it.
Believe in the paradigm of reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, is the foundation of our belief that God is good and fair. For the good of our psyche, for the continuation of faith, and for our society to hold up, we must hold tight to the belief that the world is good and that God is a fair God.
It is the opposite of idolatry which believes in gods that are selfish, cruel, and violent. god’s that reflect the worst and most immoral parts of humanity. That idolatry is a response to looking at the world and saying. This is not fair and not good, so I better get some power on my side that can destroy all the other powers that are coming to hurt me. A power that can get me wealth, pleasure, and dominion over my enemies. That is idolatry. A reality based on a belief in the essential evilness of the world.
Judaism is the exact opposite. Our core belief is in one good God, a fair God, who created all of humanity as God’s children.
When God reveals God’s essence to Moshe. A moment that plays a big role in the Yom Kippur service of selichos. Right before God passes by and we learn the 13 attributes of God’s mercy, Moshe says to Hashem, “Show me your Glory” Hashem says to Moshe, “I will pass All My Goodness before you.” This is one of the only times when God refers to Godself. And what is God’s self-definition? Not awesome power, not greatness, but rather, “Goodness”. You want to know the closest word we have to describe the essence of God? That word is “Good”. You don’t even have to say I believe in God. You could say I believe in Good and I’m pretty sure it means the same thing!!!
So how do we believe in Good, in a world that seems so bad, so often?
We cling to the paradigm of divine fairness and goodness as the cornerstone of our faith.
It is exactly this reason, that when we lose someone we love, we say, “Boruch Dayan HaEmes” and why all the prayers at a funeral relate to Tzidduk Hadin- doing our very best to accept that God is still fair, God is still good. We will not give up on this life and close our hearts with darkness. At the moment when the pain is the worst, we are called to proclaim, I believe that the world is still Good!
And so the Jewish people have survived over and over again. We’ve never lost hope. And so too, we as individuals survive. We strengthen ourselves in faith, and never give up on our mission of mimicking the goodness of the Creator, by being good ourselves.
As King David puts it so beautifully in holiday psalm:
Luley Heemanti Liros B’Tuv Hashem B’Eretz Chaim: What would have happened if I had not kept the faith that I would see the Goodness of Hashem in the land of the living?
Our faith, and I don’t use that word lightly, means that we wish each other a happy, sweet, healthy, prosperous New Year, and we believe it with all our heart. While at the same time knowing that whatever will come our way, we will greet it with love of Hashem, gratitude for life, and the continued desire to make the world a better place for all of God’s children.
May we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life- for joy, for health, for nachas, for shalom, and may we all merit to see and believe that this world is filled with God’s Goodness embracing us and strengthening us with every breath.