God on trial
Who judges whom on Yom Kippur?
Once there was a poor, elderly Jewish man who lived in a shtetl in Poland. As it was for most Jews, life was hard for him, and he struggled to get by, day to day. Through all the ups and downs, he remained a pious and proud Jew.
One Yom Kippur night, after a long Kol Nidre davening, he returned to his humble little home. He kissed his children goodnight, and when all were asleep, he pulled out a diary and opened it on the table in front of him. “Master of the Universe,” he said in a quiet but firm voice, “I have spent many hours pouring out my heart to you, detailing all of my many sins, expressing my remorse at my failings and my determination to do better next year, if only you will give me that chance.
“But now, with all due respect to your greatness, I have a few grievances of my own to discuss with you. Do you see how very poor we are here, oh Master of wealth in the world? Do you see the way we live, hardly able to put food on our table, saving a small piece of meat or fish for the Shabbat table, if we are lucky enough to afford one? Do you remember how last Passover, we made do with just three matzot, even though we had 10 guests at our little table? Are you aware of how frightened we are to live in this place, surrounded by people who hate us, never knowing when the next disaster might come?
“Now, you certainly have the power to make things better, and I am sure you are kind and merciful and generous – that’s what all my prayers say. So why are you not helping this lowly Jew who has never forsaken you, never given up on you, who tries his best to keep your commandments? If you can do it, then why don’t you do it?!”
And with that, the man closed his book of complaints, said the Shema, and fell asleep at the table.
We all know that there are two primary types of judgment on Yom Kippur. One, of course, is the judging that God does of us as individuals, of the nation of Israel and of the world at large. As the ancient image suggests, he opens the books of life, rendering judgment for all. And then there is the judging that we do of ourselves. The word lehitpalel (to pray) literally means “to judge oneself.” Through prayer, fasting and confession, we engage in a self-investigation that compels us to critique our own behavior and correct the areas in our lives that are in dire need of repair.
But I suggest that there is also a third type of judgment. On Yom Kippur, we have to engage in an intense dialogue with God, sharing our innermost thoughts, wishes and fears, and even our dissatisfaction with those things that deeply trouble or confuse us. We have to do this respectfully, of course, because God is the King and he holds our lives in the balance. But God is also Father, a loving Father who wants the best for us. He must also be able to hear our most pressing problems, pains and perplexities, and not summarily dismiss them.
The readings of the High Holy Days clearly send the message that God is approachable. Abraham, never afraid to speak up when he feels it is warranted, expresses his anguish at the lack of a rightful heir to carry on his legacy. Sarah refuses to accept the fact that she cannot have a child, and continually pleads her case before the Almighty. Hannah, too, is not content to remain childless, despite her husband telling her that he “is better to her than 10 children.” And Jonah the prophet expresses his unhappiness with God in physical rather than verbal form, by running away from Israel. Moses will later continue this tradition, confronting God on numerous occasions, citing Divine injustice and God’s own lack of forgiveness.
We begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidre, a prayer that is nothing but audacious, for in it we release ourselves from unfulfilled promises. We tell God from the get-go that we are not prepared to be disenfranchised, to be excluded from the community of Israel, even if we have sinned! And then later, we will read the martyrology, the account of the 10 great Sages murdered by the Romans, sending its own powerful message to God: Look what you put us through – the pain and pogroms and persecution and autos-da-fé and holocausts that we suffered – and still we remain faithful to you. And you won’t forgive us?!”
Of course, there will always be people who say, “We cannot question God; His ways are perfect and inscrutable.” If that satisfies you, then fine and well. But if a part of your soul screams out for answers – if you are distressed or distraught or suffering from loss – then I see no reason to remain silent. In fact, silence may only alienate and drive you further away from God, the very opposite of what Yom Kippur is meant to accomplish.
Along with words of praise, contrition and submission, let us have an honest conversation with our Creator, even if it does put Him on the spot, for this is the hallmark of an intimate relationship, one based on trust and mutual respect.
May all our requests and petitions to God be fulfilled for good – this year and every year.
God must also be able to hear our most pressing problems, pains and perplexities – and not summarily dismiss them
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]sion.net.il
STATUE OF the Emperor Hadrian unearthed at Tel Shalem, commemorating the Roman military victory over Bar Kochba, displayed at the Israel Museum. The Yom Kippur service describes how Hadrian decided to martyr 10 Sages as ‘punishment’ for the 10 brothers the Torah notes as having sold Joseph.