While taking a walk the other day, I met a fellow that I see in synagogue every once in a while. 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. Yet, last year I lost my dad to Covid. My brother has cancer. If my business declines any more, I won’t have a business. So 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 says 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 young man 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.
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."
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.”
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 Day,” 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.
Graber is the rabbi for Temple Hillel of North Woodmere and Valley Stream.