Just before Rosh Hashana, someone approached me with a very difficult question. Let’s call her Sarah (not her real name). Sarah’s family member is suffering from a very serious illness and Sarah, who is married, was told by some people that covering her hair could significantly increase the chances that her relative would recover from this illness. Sarah wants to feel that she is doing everything she can for her relative and she doesn’t want to have any regrets later if she feels that she could have done something and didn’t do it. She asked me what I thought.
I struggled with the appropriate response. While I believe that married women should cover their hair, I am hesitant to reinforce the notion that observance of any particular mitzvah is the key to potentially saving someone’s life. I also struggle with the implication that women covering their hair or other observances of modesty laws should be the focal point of their religious observance, to the extent that they hold this kind of unique power. Yes, the Zohar does state that a woman who is even more stringent than what is halachically necessary by covering her hair even in the house when nobody is present will receive the promise of good fortune to her family and the Mishna Berura (75:14) actually cites this statement. However, we don’t accept this stringency as law. There are countless Rabbinic statements about the reward for particular mitzvot and the punishment for particular sins, and we understand that sometimes our Sages stressed the importance of certain mitzvot to their constituency by using this tactic of promising great reward for observance and/or great punishment for failure to observe. But frankly, that’s not how we live our lives. We live our lives trying to interpret halacha as best as we can with the guidance of our Rabbinic leaders. But we generally do not assert that observance of mitzvah A will grant me a shidduch, and observance of mitzvah B will grant me good health, and observance of mitzvah C will grant me wealth and riches.
In fact, we must be mindful of a potential danger when making supreme religious sacrifices to help overturn a Divine decree. The danger is that despite the sacrifices, the outcome will not be favorable and the greater the sacrifice, the greater the disappointment and potential disillusionment with God. If Sarah makes significant religious sacrifices, meaningful changes in her halachic observance, and the outcome is not favorable, will she then reject God, saying “After all the sacrifices that I made, this is what happened?”
That being said, while we stop short of claiming specific reward for particular mitzvot, we do hold on to the concept of teshuva and increased observance, more generally. One of the most stirring liturgical poems during this High Holiday season is “U’N’Taneh Tokef.” At the end of the poem, we recite “u’teshuva u’tefilla u’tzedaka maavirin et ro’a hagezeira,” that repentance, prayer and charity can remove an evil decree. This line, whose source is the Talmud Yerushalmi (Taanit 2:1), seems to indicate that we can influence the outcome of God’s judgment over our lives. Especially at this time of year, many of us pray passionately, many of us make donations or pledges for Kol Nidrei or Yizkor appeals, and many of us resolve to be better, with the belief that our repentance, prayers and our charity can influence God’s judgment. Jewish philosophers discuss how our prayers or our behavior can achieve this goal, and have historically arrived at some telling conclusions.
Rav Yosef Albo (Sefer Ikkarim 4:17) explains that God’s decree that someone should suffer an unfortunate fate might be canceled through prayer or a change in behavior. When we pray or change our behavior, we become different people, not the original people who were subject to God’s original decree. Additionally, Ben He He tells us (Avot 5:23) that “l’fum tzaara agra,” the greater the pain that we endure in the study of Torah and in the performance of mitzvot, the greater our reward will be. Even the Rambam, a rationalist, believes that God intervenes in what goes on the world, but He intervenes more subtly. He intervenes only in man’s consciousness, influencing people to act in a certain way if they are deserving of this. According to the Rambam, it would seem that the more that we are willing to sacrifice for God in observing halacha – any halacha, for that matter – and in studying Torah, the more Divine influence we may merit, which may in turn influence the outcome of God’s judgment over our lives.
How then, do we balance these seemingly conflicting theoretical approaches? Should crisis spur us to action, because our actions can change the course of God’s will? Or do we reject the presumption that any particular deeds on our part will induce a change in God’s plan? The answer, I believe, is that we do have a strong tradition that repentance, prayer and charity can overturn an evil decree and that, with regard to repentance, the greater the repentance, the greater the chance to overturn the decree. However, there are no particular guarantees. It doesn’t work like a “segulah” – if you do X, then God will do Y. Rather, on a holistic scale, if we truly sacrifice to improve ourselves in our mitzvah observance, this effort transforms us and can impact our fate in the coming year. Crises can present an opportunity to push ourselves, and halacha recognizes that. For example, even though in halacha we discourage people from regularly making vows out of the concern that they might not uphold them, in times of crisis we are permitted and perhaps even encouraged to make vows. There is a realization that desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures.
Practically speaking, it seems to me that the first theological step in confronting a crisis is the recognition that this is the optimal time to build a relationship with God through prayer. The Ramban writes that the only Biblically-mandated prayer is prayer in times of crisis. Every other prayer, such as the prayers that we recite on a daily basis, was only created by the Rabbis. While this may seem intuitive – to call out to God in our suffering and pray – in fact, doing so represents a real theological challenge. It is easy to believe in God when everything is great, and to sing His praises. However, to turn to God when we are faced with questions – why do I have this illness, why can’t I find a shidduch, why can’t we have children, why can’t I find a job – indicates a desire to feel connected to Him even when we struggle with His will. Turning to God during times of crisis means that we remain faithful even when it is hard to have faith. This is the essence of prayer.
As a Rabbi, how do I share this message with someone who is in the midst of suffering. After all, how do I, a person who is blessed with a beautiful family, good health, and a wonderful job, have the audacity to tell someone who is suffering that they must love and remain faithful to God even in the midst of unimaginable hardship? Add Sarah’s question, and I feel somewhat at a loss. Sarah is suffering already. Am I really meant to tell her that not only must she reach out to God in her suffering, but that the degree to which she does may impact her relative’s health? Must I tell her that the more heroically she acts and the more she sacrifices in her observance of mitzvot, the greater the potential to change the suffering? What right do I have to impose such a burden on her? When my own mother was stricken with stage four cancer in her late sixties, I tried to remain faithful to God and turn to Him and further develop my relationship with Him. But I don’t recall making some supreme religious sacrifice in the hopes of changing my mother’s fortune. But now I wonder. What should I have done? And would I have been receptive if someone tried to guide me to do so?
In spite of my own hesitation, Sarah asked me for my honest opinion. So what am I to do?
My response to Sarah’s question is that when confronted with a crisis such as the one she is experiencing, our first goal, if possible, is tefillah, with the realization that prayer was created by the Torah for this exact time. Those who can all out amidst their suffering and connect with God through tefillah are nothing short of heroic. Beyond that, I cannot recommend a specific course of action. I can only present the information as I understand it. I can present to Sarah the potential benefits and potential costs of making religious sacrifices in our lives, whether it’s for the mitzvah of covering your hair or any other mitzvah for that matter, but ultimately, what someone does in such a situation is an entirely personal decision.
In my work, I am often overwhelmed by people’s capacity to connect with God from even the darkest places. Truly, this should be our goal. The way that each of us gets there may differ; whether we connect by taking on a particular mitzvah we had not observed before, or through other means of prayer, charity, and repentance, our task is to seek out God even when it is hard to feel Him with us. Just last week, I visited some patients in a local hospital and I asked the wife of a patient if she thinks that her husband will be discharged before Rosh Hashana so that they can both spend the holiday at home. She told me that she doesn’t know what will be, but she has experienced so many acts of “hashgacha pratis,” or Divine intervention, for her and her husband on a daily basis that it doesn’t matter where she is for the holiday. Whether it’s at home, or in shul or in the hospital, she feels that God is with her wherever she is. I hope and pray that if, God forbid, I am ever in a similar solution, that I will have this woman’s faith in God. My hope for all of us this year is that we not be tested in this way at all. May we all feel God’s presence in our lives through only goodness, and may all our tefillot be those that emanate from simcha, or happiness.