Sunday, September 9, 2018

Derashah for Rosh HaShanah 5779: The Wounded Prayer

I haven't posted anything on here in ages, and I have no idea who is reading, but if anyone is, here is the derashah I intend to present on the second day of Rosh HaShanah:

Rav Schachter’s Tefillah
Berachos from tzaddikim are a dime a dozen in certain circles – but not generally in YU circles. In YU, the normal story is of the fellow who went to Rav Soloveitchik and asked him for a berachah, and Rav Soloveitchik responded, “What are you, an apple?” So that makes the following story,[1] which I will abbreviate somewhat, remarkable.
It was 2001, and Rav Herschel Schachter was in Israel with his son, Yummy, with whom I verified this story. On the night before they were leaving Israel, they forgot a suitcase in a taxi. They didn’t know what to do – but it worked out. A a later passenger recognized Rav Schachter’s name on the tag, and told the driver that Rav Schachter is “the Baba Sali of American Ashkenazim.” The driver contacted an Anglo he knew, who happened to be in the same Miluim unit as a relative of Rav Schachter, and so the bag came back. But that’s not the important part of the story.
When the driver brought the bag, he wanted a moment with Rav Schachter. The driver grabbed his hands and started crying; he said, “Rabbi, my wife and I have been married for 14 years and we have no children. Please give us a berachah for a child.” Rav Schachter holds the driver’s hands, cries with him, and says to him, “You are going to be blessed with a child within the next year.”
The driver leaves, and Yummy demands of his father: “How could you say that to him? You have no idea! They’ve been married for 14 years!” To which his father replies, “Yummy, we’re going to daven for him.”
About a year later, it’s Simchas Torah. During the dancing, Yummy sees a young man trying to approach his father. Yummy asks what he wants. The young man says he had just been in Israel, and on a cab ride the driver had heard him speaking English. The driver asked if he knew Rav Schachter, and when he said Yes, the driver asked him to pass along a message: He and his wife had just had a baby boy.
Yummy asks his father, “Did you daven for him?” And his father replied, with tears in his eyes, “Every day. Three times a day.”
I bring this story as neither prescription nor consolation; I am well aware that tefillos are not always answered positively, and that people who are experiencing difficulty having children will not necessarily find comfort in this event. I bring this story because I think it says something important about tefillah, and why and how we daven.

Let’s go back more than 3000 years, to yesterday’s haftorah. Chanah, the outstandingly righteous[2] wife of Elkanah, has no children; her husband, Elkanah, marries a second wife, Penina.[3] Penina produces children, and torments Chanah for being unable to do the same. And every year, they go through the same routine: the family travels to the Mishkan, they bring korbanot, and Chanah sits at the family feast without an appetite.

But one year, the narrative changes. After the feast ends, Chanah davens – and it’s not your standard tefillah. As the gemara explains based on cues in the text, Chanah launches an aggressive assault on Gd. She calls Gd by the sacred name צבקות, Master of Multitudes - she is the first person in the Torah to do so![4] But in the talmudic read, she means “Master of Multitudes” not as an honour, but as an assault. She argues angrily, “Master of Multitudes! Of all of the multitudes of multitudes You created in Your world, why are You too stingy to give me just one child?”

And Chanah, with her aggressive, angry demand, succeeds; on Rosh HaShanah, Hashem remembers Chanah and grants her a child, Shemuel.

And a third story of unusual tefillah accepted, this one from 2100 years ago. It was a year of terrible drought; Succot came and went, as did Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, and still there was no rain. The people sent for Choni haMe’agel – Choni the Circle-Drawer. He davened for rain, but nothing happened. Then he drew a circle and stood inside it, and swore by Gd’s Name that he would not leave the circle until Hashem displayed mercy. Rain began to drizzle, just enough to free him from his oath – but Choni remained in the circle, sayng, “That’s not what I asked for; I want rain that will fill cisterns.” The rain then poured down with destructive force, and Choni again complained, “That’s not what I asked for; I want rain of berachah.” And beneficial rain then fell – but to the point that it created dangerous flooding, and so Choni davened once more, “This is not the rain Your people need!” And the rain relented.[5] Like Chanah, Choni was answered with חן from Hashem.

Why are these tefillot answered?!
Three stories of accepted prayers, and I don’t understand: Why does Hashem listen to any of them?
·         Why does Hashem honour Rav Schachter’s guarantee?
·         Why does Hashem accept Chanah’s demand?
·         Why does Hashem go along with Choni’s very-specific tailorings of the rain he received?
I believe the answer lies in understanding what davening is all about. Why are all of us here, right now, beyond a sense of obligation – what are we doing when we daven?

Tefillah as Demonstration of Emunah
Rambam[6] cast davening as an act of devotion; the Torah says we are to serve Hashem with our hearts, and this refers to prayer. So we humble ourselves before the Creator of the Universe, in sincere service. But within that view, the point is for me to express devotion, not to guarantee people success, or make aggressive demands, or stipulate exacting specifications on a wish list!

But there is another vision of why we are all here in this room. Ramban[7] argued that if tefillah is a biblical mitzvah at all, it is actually a mitzvah of expressing emunah. When we have trouble, when we experience a need, when we are in pain, we are summoned to faith, to the trust that Hashem has the capacity to help us, and to turn to Hashem for that assistance. Even though we all know of prayers that have not yet yielded berachah, tefillah is about having that emunah that Hashem can assist us.

This brand of tefillah is not a display of praise or requests, per se; this brand of tefillah is a demonstration of a profound relationship with Gd which sees through the world we observe with our eyes and finds inspiration in our heart’s awareness of our Creator.
·         This is what Rav Schachter expressed, with his guarantee; he channelled the certainty of Ramban that Hashem possesses the ability to help.
·         And this is what Choni did; his demands were remarkable, but they also rested on the bedrock of unshakable faith that Gd could help them in their state of need.

Chanah’s Aggressive Demand is also an act of Emunah
But one more step, because Chanah’s prayer requires additional explanation. How do anger and aggression express emunah? In a world of ahavah and yirah, of love and reverence for Gd, of shevach and hodaah – thanks and praise – where is there room for anger and aggression?

I think it depends on where the anger and aggression originate.
·         A tantrum, venting frustration with a universe that does not comply with our expectations, is not about emunah.
·         But anger that comes from wounded emunah, faith in a vision of Gd that is not visible in the world around us – that’s still faith.

When a Jew holds the Torah’s religious view of Hashem as the Gd of Justice and Mercy, and events around her do not meet the standard set for Gd by the Torah itself, then a sense of betrayal can set in. Where is the Gd who protected Yosef? Where is the Gd who took us through Yam Suf? Where is the Gd who led our ancestors into Eretz Yisrael? And then the Jew has two options: To reject and walk away, or to faithfully appeal to the Gd described by the Torah. [8]

I believe there is no contradiction between love of Gd, and anger when the Gd we love is not visible in our lives. I believe there is no contradiction between reverence for Gd, and an aggressive demand that Gd’s own values should be manifest in our world. Chanah’s ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem are intact.

The proof of that ahavah and yirah is that Chanah chooses not to walk away; instead, she faithfully appeals to the Gd described by the Torah - a Gd who would want, who should want, to give her a child. She cries out צבקות! She recognizes Gd as not only the Master of multitudes, but the Creator of those multitudes. Axiomatically, from the start of Bereishit, Gd is on the side of life, generating it and perpetuating it. Chanah believes that it is inconceivable that Gd should deny her request to bring more life into this world to serve Gd. And so she leans in assertively because she knows Gd, and she knows what Gd should do to create life.

This is why we are here – as Ramban said, as Rav Schachter and Choni displayed, we are here to express our emunah that Hashem can give us a good year ahead, that Hashem wants to give us a year of berachah ahead.

For some of us, life this past year has been good, full of simchah; we have every reason to believe, and we gratefully daven to a Gd who has met and exceeded our expectations. But for some, life has been hard; emunah in Gd has been pushed to its limit, and perhaps beyond. Then we face Chanah’s choice – do we walk away, or do we lean in? Gd’s feelings are not so easily bruised; let us coronate Hashem as befits this day, but let us also express our sense of pain and betrayal, even as we assert that we know Hashem can give us what we need.

Even on the day of Divine coronation, seemingly the least likely day for aggression to be acceptable, Hashem answered Chanah’s aggressive prayer positively,[9] and the same will be true for us – if our emotion is not simply a matter of venting frustration, but rather it bespeaks faith that our vision is in line with Hashem’s vision.
·         If we want parnasah in order to be able to feed our families and support the needy, causes which Hashem claims to endorse -
·         If we want health in order to be able to fulfill mitzvot and improve our world, causes which Hashem claims to endorse -
·         If we want friendships in order to be able to build community and create chesed, causes which Hashem claims to endorse -
Then we need not limit ourselves to a meek plea; we can make a demand. We can be aggressive. We can say, “This is what You want, too!”

The Shofar
We are about to blow the shofar. In Tanach, the shofar plays multiple roles, all related to our emunah:
·         ד' אלקיו עמו ותרועת מלך בו – It is the horn declaring Divine majesty and honour;
·         היתקע שופר בעיר ועם לא יחרדו – It is the siren making us tremble in fear as we are called to reckoning;
·         But it is also קוֹל שׁוֹפָר שָׁמַעַתְּ נַפְשִׁי תְּרוּעַת מִלְחָמָה, the trumpet of battle, summoning us to aggressive war.

If we believe our requests for the coming year are justified and faithful, then let us sound the trumpet of battle, putting forth our tefillah with forceful faith, and as He did for Chanah, perhaps Hashem will respond to us. May we be blessed with a כתיבה וחתימה טובה, for health, of blessing, of peace and security in Israel and the world over, of nachas and fulfillment and Torah and mitzvot, for the year to come and beyond.

[2] See Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg on Bamidbar 28:4 for a particularly interesting note
[3] Malbim to Shemuel I 1
[4] Berachot 32
[5] Taanit 23a
[6] Sefer haMitzvot, Aseh 5
[7] Hasagah to Sefer haMitzvot, Aseh 5
[8] Consider Avraham debating Gd regarding Sdom, and shouting חלילה לך! It is a desecration for You! I have faith in You as the שופט כל הארץ, the Supreme Judge, how could You not carry out justice?
Consider Moshe, who blames Hashem for the Eigel, shouting, ודי זהב, You gave them the gold! I have faith in You as a fair Gd, how could You put the Jews in the position of sinning by abandoning them with the gold for six long weeks?
Or consider Iyov, who calls Gd, צרי, “My enemy”, and yet Gd says of Iyov that he is עבדי, “My loyal servant”. Why? Because all along Iyov kept faith in his vision of Gd as just; his cries of “enemy” came only from his sense of betrayal, that Gd was not living up to His own self-description.
And consider Choni. It’s not the circle that made it happen; it’s his tefillah: “רבש"ע! Master of the Universe! בניך שמו פניהם עלי, Your children have turned to me!” They are Your children – and I have faith in You to deal with them as a parent deals with children! And why have they turned to me for them? “שאני כבן בית לפניך, for I am like a child of Yours,” they have faith that You will deal with me as a parent deals with a child!
[9] For a variety of reasons within the story, it is unlikely that Chanah’s tefillah was voiced on Rosh HaShanah – but it was answered on Rosh HaShanah.


  1. Thanks for posting! I look forward to this every year!

  2. I just read a Dvr Torah of yours in the YU magazine on Rosh Hashanah and wondered about you.

    Your three examples were of unselfish prayers. Chana wanted to a baby for Gd, not herself.
    Choni wanted rain for the community.
    And the taxi driver had done a great mitzvah helping to return a lost object, so the rabbi prayed to give him a gift from Gd.

  3. JR - Thanks; comments welcome!

    Batya - Thanks for checking. One day I may be able to tell the story of the past several months... And yes, they were unselfish prayers. To me, that's part of what demonstrates that the davener's strong emotion was not venting, but rather was a lishmah expression of a sense that Hashem was not demonstrating the traits associated with Him in the Torah.