Praying Like the Poor
by Rabbi Shaul Robinson
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Rabbi Shaul Robinson has served as the Senior Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue since 2005. He received rabbinic ordination from Ohr Torah Stone’s Joseph & Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary.
We approach the Yemei HaDin and Yamim Noraim in a manner that would have been completely unthinkable last year. Around Purim time the world as we know it came screeching to a halt and has in no way returned to normal. Erev Rosh Hashana 5781 the world is divided into two spheres – places where the virus has returned, and places that live in fear of the virus returning.
The statement of chazal תכלה שנה וקללותיה seems particularly appropriate this year. In the Tochacha of Parshat Ki Tavo we read that terrible suffering come to the Jewish people
תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא־עָבַ֙דְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּשִׂמְחָ֖ה וּבְט֣וּב לֵבָ֑ב מֵרֹ֖ב כֹּֽל׃
What does Moshe Rabenu mean, particularly with the two seemingly extraneous words – ‘mirov kol’? Although there are hundreds of answers to this question, I believe that this year we have all learned what the pshuoto shel mikra is. Because we had everything – every imaginable kind of blessing – precisely because we had so many blessings, we did not see them as blessings at all. We took them for granted, and never stopped to be grateful for them.
Psychologists speak about ‘baseline happiness’. The idea that even people blessed with tremendous fortune soon begin to take everything for granted. A person may feel that if, for example, they win the lottery, they will be happy, and that happiness will last for the rest of their lives. But countless studies show that, in a matter of months a new ‘baseline’ begins to assert itself. The new found fortune is taken for granted -and no longer contributes to a general sense of happiness in the winner’s life.
We were, at least until a few months ago – a world of ‘mirov kol’. When was the last time you felt intense wonder, gratitude, for being able to get on a plane? To hug your parents or grandchildren? To be able to go to an office, or to be able to go to school? For millions of Jews in Chutz L’aaretz unable – for the first time in our lives – to be able to set foot in Eretz Yisrael, it is humbling, almost shaming to think how we took some of the greatest miracles in Jewish history for granted.
Health, wealth – even the social fabric of the Western World, have shown themselves to be flimsy, tenuous concepts.
Yet when I think of last Rosh Hashanah , of the countless hours I spent in Shul davening, I realise that I did not take a moment either to express gratitude for these things, and certainly not to be able to enjoy them in the coming year.
It did not occur to any of us to be able to pray that we should be able to go to a store without worrying about being infected, able to see family or friends, able to pray with a minyan or millions of things that together made us the most blessed generation in human history, but failed to make us even in the slightest bit grateful or full of joy.
But that perhaps can be the source of tremendous strength and hope as we enter into a New Year. The Gemara in Rosh Hashana (16b) tells us that
וא”ר יצחק כל שנה שרשה בתחלתה מתעשרת בסופה
Any year that is ‘poor’ at the beginning will be ‘rich’ at the end. Rashi explains
שישראל עושין עצמן רשין בר”ה לדבר תחנונים ותפלה כענין שנאמר תחנונים ידבר רש
This Rosh Hashanah we go before Hashem as ‘rashin’ poor people. Not in the sense that we do not have enough for our daily needs. But a poor person knows how much money – down to the penny – he has in his pocket. He knows how much food remains in the pantry, and how much he needs to get through the month. A poor person doesn’t overlook or take for granted what he does have.
And that is what Chazal mean – if we enter Rosh Hashanah, as we did every year, incredibly blessed, but oblivious – and therefore ungrateful – for what the Almighty does for us – then we make ourselves vulnerable. There may be painful, unwelcome, but very important lessons for us in the coming year. We have experienced such a year.
But this year – we enter Rosh Hashana as rashin – as people acutely aware of our needs, of our vulnerabilities, and of our blessings. Will there be a Jew anywhere in the world who recites the ‘shekheyanu’ blessing on Rosh Hashana without tears in their eyes this year? Of gratitude for simply being here – for having lived, in the midst of a pandemic, to see another year? Will any of us take for granted the roof over our heads and the food on our plates? And if we are blessed to have another person present to say ‘Amen’ – there should be no end to our gratitude.
There is no question that we enter Rosh Hashanah this year as ‘rashin’. Let us use this seering, humbling, scary year to find ways to pray to Hashem with sincerity, express longing, gratitude, heartfelt supplications for a year of health, love, closeness, restoration, redemption and return to Eretz Yisrael. And may he Answer us with abundant rachamim!