During the Ten Days of Penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I paid a visit to a friend who was suffering from despair and depression. I reminded him that this was the period for the most sincere of prayers must be recited in order to be healed and pardoned. My elderly friend, a scholarly man well-versed in Judaism, related to me a Hassidic tale of the Frightened Fox. “Said the Baal Shem Tov: the lion became enraged at his subjects, the animals of the forests. They asked the fox to placate the King of Beasts by relating to him an appropriate fable. The fox replied, however, that fear had caused him to forget his fables. Hence, the beasts were compelled to wait on the lion themselves. In the same fashion, replied the Baal Shem Tov, on the Days of Awe, the people of the congregation should not depend upon their rabbi to pray on their behalf. Each one should do so by and for himself”.
I asked my friend what he thought of this Hassidic parable. Without hesitating, he replied in a bitter voice, “I have asked Rabbis to pray for me for many years. None have. Or if they have, their prayers were unanswered. Similarly I have for decades been praying for a member of my family who is in need of divine help. But my prayers have fallen upon deaf ears. God does not see my tears nor does He hear my prayers. So why should I continue to pray when what I have prayed for has not been granted?”
I responded by sharing with him a remark of the Kotzker Rebbe who related that his grandfather would visit the impious and say to them, “I do not care what deed of impiety you do, but perform for me one request: say the Shema daily. It is such a little request.” It is said that many did so and became men of faith. It is a comforting lesson to those sinners who recite the Shema that through its power they may escape perdition.
My words did not touch the soul of my depressed friend. He was accustomed to praying daily and reciting the Shema and yet felt abandoned by God who did not respond to his prayers.
He took me into his library. Among the thousands of volumes were many holy books. On the walls of his study he pointed out some thirty-six plaques, citations, proclamations and awards he had received during a lifetime of study. There were photographs on the walls of royalty, presidents, prime ministers, religious leaders. Government officials with whom he had met personally over the course of fifty years.
He treasured them and recalled happy memories when he was once a SOMEONE and with tears in his eyes he related that since his retirement he was now only a SOMETHING, forgotten by friends and associates, by colleagues and by those whose lives he had once touched with tender loving care.
After his death, all the awards would be cast into the rubbish heap, unwanted by his survivors.
A kindly and wise woman in his community tried in magnificent words to re-assure him that he was needed, respected and loved. But words alone do not dispel years of loneliness and depression. He had traveled the world over, visiting the graves of Jewish saints, appealing for intercession before the throne of the Holy One, only to return to his home, his petitions unanswered.
Painfully, he shared with me that he was losing his faith, that his daily prayers were now empty words void of meaning for him. It was a great shock for me to hear those words.
I quoted to him the words of the Rebbe of Bratzlav on trust. “Even though you may be unconvinced that you merit God’s blessing, remember that He is merciful”.
The Baal Shem Tov cited the case of two men who have confidence in Divine Providence. The first look for the manner by which God will grant them His abundance and they become anxious when it seems to them that He has not found His means for answering their needs.
The second men of trust have full confidence in God. They believe that He will sustain them in return for their many years of loyal service and devotion. Theirs is genuine trust.
It is not an easy thing to convince another of his self-worth when he himself apparently has lost it. But the Yomim Noraim are the days of soul searching, of introspection, of self-examination, of recognition of one’s deeds.
My prayers on these days are less for myself and more for my old friend. I pray that he will receive a favorable reply from the Heaven of Heavens to his one daily repeated petition.
“Ha tzadik be-emunato yichyeh”. The righteous shall live by his faith.