God on trial

Who judges whom on Yom Kip­pur?

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - STE­WART WEISS

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

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

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.

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