Posted on | September 14, 2010 | By Judy Resnick | 10 Comments
One Yom Kippur, in his drashah right before the Neilah prayer, our rav gave a short but powerful speech. He started off with a tragic narrative of a family that lo aleinu lost a child in a fire. Then he spoke about “taking back last year’s Neilah.” If someone had been through a painful year, he/she might wish with all of his/her heart the power to take back last year’s Neilah and really daven with extra special kavanah, The rav said, “Next year we might regret doing only lip service for this year’s Neilah. So make this year’s Neilah really count. Daven with extra kavanah so that next year you won’t want to take back this year’s Neilah.”
I have tremendous respect for my shul’s Rav, a brilliant man, totally frum Jew and eloquent speaker. Yet I find the concept of “taking back last year’s Neilah” more than a little bit chilling.
I haven’t read Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the horrible year when she lost her husband (and later her only child). From the reviews and comments that I have read, magical thinking or wishful thinking is a kind of self-delusion that one somehow has the power to influence events through unconnected actions, sort of along the line of, “If I wear my Jets jersey to every home game, the Jets will win the Super Bowl,” or more importantly, “If I pray and give charity, then my close relative will recover from his/her terminal illness.”
Of course, an Orthodox Jew does engage in some of this thinking, it’s part of our Emunah. We’ve all heard the saying, “Tzedakah tatzil Maves,” charity saves from death; also the famous line from the Yoraim Noraim tefillos about how “Teshuva, Tefillah, Tzedakah” can cancel the evil decrees against us. But as a noted rebbetzin once said, “G-d is not a waiter to whom we can give orders.” A beloved rabbi, the rebbetzin’s husband, was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. Despite the outpouring of sincere prayers and tzedakah given on his behalf, the rabbi was niftar only weeks later. Should that shake our Emunah? We continue to pray and give charity when someone is ill, but don’t we already realize that sometimes we will not get the answer we want?
There is a story in the Agadita of the Gemara of two men who were about to die by hanging. (Sorry, I don’t remember the masechta and daf: if someone else can supply it, I would be grateful). Both men, about to die, offered up a prayer. One man’s prayer was granted (the rope snapped and he was saved) and the other man died. There is a machlokes as to whether the man who died offered up a “sincere” prayer, but then what is a “sincere” prayer? The Gemara seems to indicate that the man who lived had true Bitachon that his prayer would be successful. That only leads to more questions – the man who died lacked Bitachon? What does “faith in Gd” and “trust in Gd” really mean, especially to someone facing illness or death? Does he really need to believe that everything will be turn out to be Bseder and OK and wonderful?
I find the concept of “taking back last year’s Neilah” ironic because bli ayin harah, I had a very good year this past year 5770 in many important ways, yet I don’t remember having davened such a special Neilah last Yom Kippur. Maybe I should say to Gd, in a more august and respectful manner of course, “Let’s have another one just like the other one,” if only I knew how. Then those of you who had sadly not such a great past year might protest, “I davened such a meaningful Neilah last year, why did G-d give me those painful difficulties in 5770?”
In reality, there is no way to “take back last year’s Neilah,” any more than we can take back a car accident or stop a disastrous past choice. Perhaps the Rav was referring to having foresight almost as keen as our 20/20 hindsight, to be able to daven this year’s Neilah with as much Kavanah as if we really did (and do) have the power to prevent bad things from happening in our lives.