People are talking about the occasion for weeks beforehand. Everyone wants the best seats. They all come dressed festively. Countless rehearsals precede the day. The moment bestows an aura on the humblest hall.
Yet it is not a theatrical presentation. It is a prayer service; the assembled community of Israel celebrating its Creator.
It has its drama, but not because of theatrics but because of majestic themes and magnificent language, lent emotional passion by cantorial and choral music.
The sages said that he who has not rejoiced at the festival of water drawing on Sukkot has never seen real joy. Similarly. anyone who has not been swept along by the service on the Days of Awe has not yet known the fervour of liturgical greatness.
Interestingly, the Talmud says that Musaf on Rosh HaShanah is an exception to the rule that prayers may be recited on one’s own; this service must be said with the congregation. “In the multitude of people is the King glorified” (Prov. 14:28).
The Musaf comprises Malchuyot (“God is King”), Zichronot (“God remembers”) and Shofarot (“God is revealed to the sound of the shofar”).
Why these three themes? Albo says (Ikkarim 1:4) the three sections stand for the three axioms of Judaism – God’s existence, reward and punishment, and revelation. So what we proclaim on Rosh HaShanah is our faith as Jews, and our loyalty to the King who created the world, scrutinises human deeds, and guides His world to the ultimate redemption.
But there is no-one who does not, even occasionally, have a problem with each of the three assertions.
We know moments of greatness of faith. But we also know littleness of faith. At times we say, “I believe in You, God of Israel, though You do everything to make me stop believing In You”. At other times we confess, “Try as I can, I cannot believe”.
Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev called all his townspeople together to make an announcement. They wondered what he could have to say that was so important. The moment came. He stood up and declared. “I called you here because I want you to know… there is a God in the world!”
Whatever Berditchev thought, I know how some modern Jews would respond like this: “Very nice, the rabbi’s got religion – now let’s get on with life!”
But the fact is that there are sincere people who have their problems with religion, difficulties with God. Their Jewish commitment is unquestioned, but they find it hard to utter a full-throated Shema Yisra’el.
So I thought I might consult God Himself for guidance as to what to say to them.
What does God say?
Human vision is clouded. As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said. “Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so this small earthly life keeps our gaze from the vast radiance and the secrets that fill the world. He who can draw it away from his eyes, as one draws away the hand, will see the great light at the core of the world.”
At times He feels humans are overtaken with arrogance. Nietzsche was the greatest atheist of all, not because he denied God but because he said, “If there were a God. how could I possibly bear not to be this God myself?”
But most of us are not Nietzsche. Our problem is anger with God, especially when innocent people suffer, especially after a Holocaust.
Yet despite what the theologians call the problem of evil, God longs for human beings to see that, without Him, there is a problem of good. They ask, “If there is evil, how can there be a God?” He adds, “But since there is also good, how can there not be a God?”
• “Take a step back and look at My world, its grandeur, its beauty, its intricacy, its pattern. You find Me when you are amazed and awestruck at my creation!”
• “Look at your child, that tiny bundle of potential. Observe its eyes beginning to see, its heart to feel, its mind to think, its talents to appear. In your child You see the spark of divinity!”
• “Contemplate the human mind and heart, its capacity to push out the boundaries of knowledge, the scope of ideas; to feel deeply and to burst into great works of art, music and literature. This too is part of Me!”
• “Heed the still small voice of conscience, impelling you to decency and menschlichkeit. Hear the voice of Sinai with its ringing message of truth, justice and peace. The challenge has its source In Me!”
• “See My hand in history, especially that of the Jewish people. Observe My people restored to their land as I promised, and protected against massive threats to their survival. That, My children, is also My doing!”
• “Be drawn by the pull of the infinite upon the finite, sense the spiritual energies in the universe, feel you are in the presence of something greater and higher than yourself. There you encounter Me!”
The problem of good will not let us deny or doubt that He exists. Yet does the problem of evil not argue against His existence?
WR Sorley, quoted in Isidore Epstein’s “Faith of Judaism”, answers, “Unless we assume the existence of God, we have no reason to object to the evil.” David S Shapiro writes of the paradox “where we can only question God’s existence by silently affirming it”.
What we must first do is admit that some, indeed much, evil emanates from man, and in a world where man has free will, God runs the risk that His creatures will do harm to each other.
But since we know God finally intervenes to save His children, why does He not intervene earlier? And what do we say about types of evil which are not man-made?
In the end God reminds us, as He reminded Job, that He is God and we are human, finite. Our span is limited. Are we likely to understand everything about the universe? Were we there at creation? With such a big question. are we not too little to find the answers?
Nonetheless we will continue to agonise. But the agonising must not stop us getting on with our lives, and living them in the presence of God.
Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “We do not know how to solve the problem of evil, but we are not exempt from dealing with evils in the world which we can eradicate”.