Recently on the street, I met a fellow that I see in synagogue every once in awhile. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked, “So, I’ll see you on the High Holy Days?” I got an answer I did not expect. “I’m thinking about skipping services this year, rabbi. I just don’t think they deliver on what they promise.” “What do you think you are being promised?” I asked. “Look, rabbi, I try to be a good guy all year, 24/7. I give money to charity and though I don’t pray too often, when I do, I put my heart into it. But I’ve got to tell you, I lost a lot of faith when I lost half of my house and both of my cars to Hurricane Sandy. How did my prayers and my being a nice guy help me? If that’s what the prayer book preaches, I just don’t think it’s for me.”
As he spoke, I could envision the page of the Mahzor (High Holy Day Prayer Book) to which he was referring. The text reads “utshuvah, utfillah utzdakah maavirin et roah hagezerah.” In many Mahzorim, they translate this statement as, “Repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.”
Whether out of sincere interest or simply out of respect for me, the fellow stayed with me long enough to hear my reply. “That’s not what it says in the prayer book,” I told him. “What it really says it that repentance, prayer and acts of righteousness will avert the severity of the decree. What I mean by that is that we live in a world where bad and good things can and do happen to us. Sometimes we cause the events. Sometimes others thrust them upon us and sometimes circumstances converge in our direction like they did with Hurricane Sandy.”
“Often, the ‘decree’ cannot be averted. But if you live a life governed by repentance, prayer and acts of righteousness, your soul will be coated in ‘spiritual Teflon’ that will help you find the wherewithal to withstand the vicissitudes of life. Repentance will put you in touch with yourself. Prayer will bring you closer to God and acts of righteousness will bring you nearer to your fellow man. That closeness will gird you with strength. And after the hurricane, inner strength is probably what you need the most. I urge you to pray and I urge you to pray with the community, because communal prayer has efficacy. When we pray with each other, we feel less alone and that brings us strength too.”
As he turned to walk away he said, “I guess you gave me something to think about.” “I hope I see you on the High Holy Days,” I said, using the same words as before but with a new, more personal urgency. “Come on down and we’ll think and pray and learn and grow together.” I hope I do see him at services and I hope that you’ll be there too.
Warm wishes for a sweet New Year.