On Rosh Hashanah it will be written and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die?
For many, these words from Unetaneh Tokef are the most challenging that will be recited over the course of Rosh Hashanah. They raise profoundly difficult questions that elude easy answers. Is it really true that those who died over the past year were judged by God as wicked? This hardly seems to accord with our experience of reality. People have often shared with me that these words can be especially painful after a loss. They imply that God’s intentions can be known with certainty and that the righteous do not truly suffer.
It is important to understand that our generation is not the first to struggle with Unetaneh Tokef. In a Rosh Hashana sermon delivered nearly eight hundred years ago, the great rabbinic scholar and leader Nachmanides, vigorously disagreed with the way the piyut is commonly understood. He points to numerous Biblical verses that describe the righteous suffering unjustly, and he even demonstrates that the prophets themselves challenged God on this very point. To cite just one example, the prophet Habakuk demands of God (1:3), “Why do you allow me to see sin while all you do is watch? Violence and injustice is all around me while the ones who pervade evil still remain.”
In response, some rabbis offer a reinterpretation of the words from Unetaneh Tokef. They claim that they refer not to this world but the next one. We are judged on Rosh Hashanah not for life or for death but whether or not we have merited at this point in our lives for a place in olam haba, the world to come. Nonetheless, the questions do not go away. In the months following the loss of our twins, I spent a lot of time struggling to answer them. There are some moments when I feel blessed that we had them in our lives for the short time that we did. However, there are others when I question the choices we made and all I feel is overwhelming pain and anger for the loss.
On more than one occasion I have been asked by members of my synagogue whether or not my faith has survived intact. To be honest, there is no simple answer to such a question, but I want to share some of my thoughts out of the hope that others may find them helpful in their own struggle with these questions.
In times of despair I often find myself turning to the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Rebbe Nachman was an unusual Chassidic rebbe. As the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, he had an impeccable yichus, but he was never satisfied with presenting chassidut as it had been taught and lived in previous generations. More than any other Chassidic rebbe, he understood that while we strive for joy, life often is full of disappointment and heartbreak. We aspire to feel God’s loving presence but all too often we feel only His absence. It is traditional for Breslover chasidim to make a pilgrimage to Rebbe Nachman’s grave on Rosh Hashanah. Even if we can’t be there, perhaps the light of his Torah can offer us hope in the darkness.
In one of his most important teachings, Rebbe Nachman directly addresses the question of why the righteous must suffer and why at times the world feels so cruel. He notes that these issues are rooted in the act of creation itself, and therefore they are appropriate to reflect upon during Rosh Hashanah when we commemorate the creation of the world. Rebbe Nachman writes:
That when God wanted to create the world, there was no place in which to create it, because there was nothing but Ein Sof (infinite light without end). Therefore, God contracted the light to the sides, and through this contraction, a Void was made. Within the void, all time and space came into existence.
Rebbe Nachman explains that such a theology presents us with a paradox. God contracts Himself in order to create the Void, a space that is empty of God, otherwise how would it be possible that there be space for creation? At the same time, however, there must surely be Godliness in the Void as well, for there is nothing that can exist in creation without the Divine life force. This paradox is not easily resolved.
Even after the world comes into being, Rebbe Nachman explains that in truth the Void does not disappear. We know this because we all have felt God’s absence in this world, and when we feel God’s absence, we hear those questions that arise from the Void. Why does God not answer my prayers? How could a just God create a world full of so much pain and suffering? What makes these questions so devastating, Rebbe Nachman explains, is that they have no answers. They have no answers because they come from the Void where even God cannot be found. When we pursue them, we run the risk of plunging forever into the Void. Loss forces us to confront the Void described by Rebbe Nachman. It tears our world apart and opens an abyss that threatens to swallow us whole. The day we buried our twins will forever be one of those moments for me. Every step at cemetery on that bright winter morning is seared into my memory. When I stood at the grave staring at the small hole in ground, all I saw was a pool of darkness.
So what do we do when we face the Void and hear the whispers of questions that have no answers? The first step Rebbe Nachman says is silence. If questions have no answers then offering words will only do more harm than good. The intellect is of no use to us in the Void. God brought the world into being through the spoken word, but the Void precedes creation. Silence can be excruciatingly hard when we face such questions, because we are desperate to grasp onto any idea that might provide an answer.
In my rabbinic work this is a regular occurrence for me. I am often approached by individuals who seek answers for their pain and loss. It takes a profound act of restraint to refrain from saying that, “it is all part of God’s plan and that everything will ultimately be for the good”. Even if I don’t believe such things to be true, I still want to offer something that will take their pain away. At best, such answers may offer temporary comfort but they cannot truly dispel the darkness of the Void. When we face questions without answers, silence is the most authentic response, but it is important to keep in mind that silence is not emptiness. Silence can be filled with meaning. In Pirkei Avot (1:17), Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel teaches that all my days I was raised among the scholars and have found nothing better than silence. The willingness to be silent when faced with questions that have no answers can be a supreme act of faith as it says in Psalms “to you God, silence is praise.” God is beyond all words and human comprehension and therefore there are moments when silence is all that we can offer Him.
However, we are Jews, and we are not capable of remaining permanently silent. The next step, Rebbe Nachman teaches, is that we must find our way out of the Void through the power of song. According to Rebbe Nachman, every aspect of creation has its own particular song and melody. This includes both the good and the bad. Yet, there is one song that encompasses and transcends them all- the song of faith. The song of faith is the song of God’s infinite light that exists even when one is in the Void.
Rebbe Nachman calls it a niggun, a wordless song, and this is point is important. The song of faith transcends the intellect. It rises and emerges from a place beyond all rational thought. Melody and music without words can inspire us to profound emotion and fill our entire being with meaning. This is a point that has been understood by both the Jewish tradition and philosophers and writers throughout the ages. Unlike all other art forms, music is not an imitation of anything that exists within creation. It is fundamentally original and yet also universal. We primarily experience the world through our eyes, however seeing is always external. When we sing or hear music, we feel it inside of us. It becomes part of who we are. Even the great skeptic Frederique Nietzsche understood the power of music was undeniable. He writes:
God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principle task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and to the true.
Rebbe Nachman teaches that only melody and song and music can take us out of the Void, and after my own loss, music became a place of refuge for me. As my wife and I stood by the grave on that bright winter morning, we sang the music to Hinei Ma Tov U’Mah Nayim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad. “How wonderful it is for brothers to dwell together as one.” Niggun, music without words, has the power to take us out of the Void. It cannot provide answers, but it can lead us upwards.
Since then I have tried my best to embrace the niggunim, the wordless music that exist all around me. The niggun of holding hands with my wife as we walk together on a Shabbat afternoon. The niggun of tucking my kids into bed and singing shema with them. The niggun of being in synagogue on a Shabbat morning and seeing it come alive with energy and vitality. Music though not rational points us toward a reality beyond our own. It hints to the existence of something more than we can ever quite put into words.
Rosh Hashanah too has its own niggun, its own wordless melody. The Chassidic tradition describes the shofar as a kol belo dibbur, a voice without speech. Rav Natan, the primary student of Rebbe Nachman, explains that through the sound of the shofar, we merit to be saved from the darkness that surrounds us. In order to understand this teaching, we must first examine the shape of the shofar. Halacha requires that one blow from the narrow end and not the wider end. Even if one could make a sound blowing the opposite way, one would not fulfill the mitzvah. Rav Natan notes the word for narrow in Hebrew is tzar and is related to tzarot or tsuris, the word for pain and suffering.
The narrow end of the shofar has no natural opening and in fact, we must drill a hole in order to blow into it. So too we have to make a small opening in our suffering in order to let the music of the shofar be heard. The niggun, the wordless melody, of the shofar pierces the darkness of our fear and pain, and when it does so, God opens that hole a little wider. In fact, Rav Natan teaches that the wordless melody of the shofar opens a small window into olam haba, the world to come, so that its light can shine into this world. The shofar’s music raises us up and points to something both ephemeral and eternal- a reality of faith just beyond our own that we can almost reach out and touch.
You do not have to suffer tragic loss in order to feel God’s absence or to be reminded of the Void. All you have to do is look around and witness the massive pain and suffering all around us. Inevitably you will hear the whispers of questions that have no answers.
On this Rosh Hashanah, may we all merit to hear the wordless melody of the shofar. May it lift us up from whatever Void we may have fallen into, and may we all join our voices together in the song of faith.
 Ran, Rosh Hashanah. 16b, s.v. V’nechtamin
 Likkutei Moharan 64
 Frederique Nietzsche: A philosophical biography
 See for example the Ba’al HaTanya in his Likkutei Torah (Derushim L’Rosh Hashana p. 58d)
 Likkutei Halachot (Rosh Hashanah 1:1),