I have to remind myself often of what I cannot do. I cannot change Ismaili Nasrallah, the murderous head of Hezbollah. Much as I would like him to realize how much more he hurts his own people, I cannot change his heart and mind. I cannot heal the sick. I have watched friends and family suffer from illness and watched it uncontrollably progress. I wish I could say a magic prayer and heal them, but I cannot.
I cannot force people to stop making destructive choices. I cannot in one breath solve the problem of poverty and hunger even in Santa Clara County. I am one limited finite person. All this and more I cannot do.
If I stop here, however, I am immoral and selfish. For all that I cannot do, there is much I can do. I may not be able to heal illness, but by visiting the sick I can alleviate the suffering that accompanies physical pain. Suffering is the existential awareness of pain, which means that a person can suffer without physical pain and be free from suffering despite immense physical pain. Visiting the sick cannot affect pain but it can be a balm for suffering. Feeding a hungry person cannot alleviate world hunger, but it can fill one empty stomach. I cannot change the choices that others make but I can change the choices that I make.
Rosh Hashanah calls our attention to what we can and cannot do. We pray to a Creator who decrees who will live and who will die. Even in our powerful age of science and medicine, life remains uncertain. People still die by fire and by water. People still live even though physicians predict their almost certain demise. The world remains tantalizingly out of our control.
The paradox of the human condition is our great power even in the face of this powerlessness. A story is told of a boy whose mother was terminally ill. His father invited the shamash of the congregation to stay with them over Rosh Hashanah so that he would have a warm place to sleep and good food to eat. During his stay, the boy gave the man his bed and his place at the table, saving out the tastiest morsels for their guest.
Later, the father commended the boy on his caring and compassion. The boy said, “I did it for mother. For the Machzor says that the evil decree can be lifted through prayer, repentance, and tzedakah.” “Oh my son,” said the father, “It is not your mother’s decree that you can lift. It is that of the shamash.” Powerless to heal his mother, this boy is all powerful in the interior world of the shamash. Tzedakah averts the evil decree.
Prayer, tefillah, lifts the evil decree because it is through prayer that we discover and confront our own selves. A prayer of the heart heals and in that healing alleviates our own existential suffering. Pain is a fact. How we let it influence us is a choice. Aaron loses his two sons prior to Yom Kippur and makes the choice to become a lover and pursuer of peace. Then he spends the rest of his life blessing and praying for others, offering comfort to families, lifting the evil decree of so many.
Teshuvah, repentance, averts the evil decree. I cannot change the choices of others but I can change my own choices. I cannot make others turn away form the damage they inflict upon themselves and their loved ones, but I can myself turn towards Hashem. The impact on me and those around me of such a change is beyond measure.
There is so much we cannot do but there is so much we can. Rosh Hasahanh is the birthday of the world, the birthday of a world in which our choices matter. What we do counts, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in ways that seem small but are immense in an interior world of a loved one or even someone we have never met. The challenge of Rosh Hasanah and Yom Kippur is to do that which we can. This is why Hashem can call this world “very good” because goodness exists even in the midst of pain.
May we all be blessed with a year of peace, prosperity, and the blessing to bless others,
Rabbi David Booth