Todd Berman

Keeping the World in Our Prayers: A Rosh HaShana Meditation

Powerfully, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and profound religious thinker, points out in Orot HaTeshuva that repentance applies both to the individual and the nation. As individuals, each is required to reckon with his or her past successes and failures. Yet, Rav Kook explains, we must also do so as members of the collective.

Looking at the present state of the world, how can we not be driven to tears?  Yes, we have had many successes, but hearing and seeing the events going on in the world, do we not need to take international stock of the situation? Is it not time to international repentance?

While we can point to many failings this past year, the state of the refugee crisis stemming from Syria weighs heavily on my mind. Have we, members of the nations of the world, done enough to prevent evil, stop war, and help the needy? The migration of Syrian refugees – and of course hundreds of thousands of victims – overwhelms even the coldest of hearts. Who can look at the pictures in the media and not cry?

As members of the Jewish community preparing to stand before God tomorrow, we will be taken to task. The rabbis of the Mishnah teach, “On Rosh Hashanah all the inhabitants of the world pass before Him like ‘Bnei Maron.’  While the Talmud offers various interpretations to the unique phrase “Bnei Maron” all of them seem to agree that each individual throughout the world must stand and be judged for our actions and for what is in our souls.   The poet testifies to our trust that God both knows our hearts and is the ultimate source of salvation, “and we all believe that he examines our souls [kilayot], and saves from death and redeems from destruction.”  Traditionally, we are called upon to pray not only for ourselves but for the world. To turn to God and beg Him to save not only ourselves but all those in need. But prayer will not suffice. If we want God to act, we must also imitate His mercy.

But can we pray for others who seem so different than we? Do we dare offer safe haven to these others who are from countries less than friendly to ours?

The great work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, offers a moving religious model. Shockingly, the Zohar critiques Abraham in one of his finest hours. While discussing Abraham’s brazen confrontation with God when at first he hears that Sodom is to be destroyed, the Zohar compares Abraham to Noah. Noah, following God’s command, built a life raft for himself and his family. Abraham challenges the Divine calculus.

Rabbi Yehuda said, ‘has anyone seen such a patriarch of mercy as our father Abraham.  Come and see: Regarding Noah the text says, ‘And the Lord said to Noah, the end of mankind has come…make an ark of Gopher wood for yourself’ and Noah was silent and did not beg for mercy. But Abraham, when God said to him, ‘the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is vast [and therefore they must be destroyed]’ immediately the text states, ‘and Abraham approached and said, ‘will You destroy the righteous with the wicked?’

Yet as wonderful as Abraham’s actions are, the Zohar quotes a critical opinion of his actions. Continues the Zohar,

[However,] replied Rabbi Elazar, ‘even Abraham acted imperfectly.   Noah did nothing and asked neither to save [the righteous] nor [the wicked]. Abraham followed the letter of the law and asked that the innocent not die with the guilty…but he was imperfect because he didn’t beg for mercy for all [sinners and innocent alike]…Who was perfect? Moses was! For when God said, ‘they have quickly strayed from my way…they have made a golden calf and bowed down to it’ immediately it says, ‘and Moses prayed to God’ until he said, ‘forgive their sin, and if [You will] not,[then]  erase me from Your book.,‘  even though they all had sinned, Moses didn’t move until God forgave them.’ (Zohar I:106a)

I find Rabbi Elazar’s statement amazing. Moses, says the Rabbi Elazar, prayed and acted perfectly for he risked his own life unlike Abraham, to protect sinners.  The proof text of Moses’ actions forms the basis for the selichot prayers we say this season each and every day. We remind God that He forgave and saved even the sinners. But we also need to remind ourselves that He did so because His servant Moses risked his own life for theirs.

There are many fathers, mothers, and little children fearing death or worse not far from our border and throughout the world. How can a heart not melt at the sight? We know so little about them beyond the fact that they are humans in great need. If Moses is to be our model, we must keep them in our prayers and find every way possible to help them find a safe haven.  Both prayer and practical action are the needs of the day. Even if some or many do not agree with us, and perhaps even support our enemies, we must do whatever we can to alleviate the situation. Israel’s medical assistance to many and the countries beginning to open their doors is critical. The world needs to do more.

On this day of Judgement and prayer, may we keep all those families and individual refugees in our hearts and prayers and may we, members of the world community find a way out of these tragedies.

If we expect Him to hear our cries, we must hear theirs.


Shana Tova and may it be a world filled with peace, salvation, and safety for all.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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