“There are no atheists in foxholes,” goes the saying. When in dire straits, even the greatest non-believer will often admit that until now his life was a farce. He had denied G-d’s existence only because he wanted to live without any constraints – like an animal, without the burden of his conscience. Now, when he feels helpless, as shells explode around him and the angel of death ruthlessly snatches away his comrades, he raises his eyes in prayer to G-d, whom he just rediscovered.
We Torah-observant Jews are definitely light years ahead of that poor fellow. But in a certain way we are similar. Let us think about how we daven Shemoneh Esrei. We all try to concentrate, but it is difficult. Our mind wanders, and we daydream about countless topics. And before we know it, we find ourselves taking three steps back.
But if, chas v’sholom, a person is told by his doctors that he has a severe disease and needs to undergo intense medical treatment, his prayers take on new dimensions. Each word is said with emotion and feeling, because he knows that his life is on the line. And if his business is floundering, he pours his heart out during the blessing of Bareich Aleinu, and begs Hashem for help.
Sure, we are much better than the atheist who only sees the truth when it may be too late to start living a life of faith. But to a certain degree we also forget about Hashem when the sailing is smooth. How can we rectify the problem?
This Shabbos is Rosh Chodesh Elul. In just thirty days it will be Rosh Hashanah, when Hashem will decide what will happen to us in the upcoming year – and sometimes the ruling can have an effect that will last for many years to come. Since we are judged based on our past performance, we should be quite terrified. But for some strange reason we are calm and complacent. Indeed, much ink has been spilled regarding this phenomenon: Just several generations ago, even the simple water carrier was terrified when Rosh Chodesh Elul arrived, but in our times, it is very difficult for us to truly be worried about our impending judgment.
One of the explanations given is that in those generations most people did not really know where their income would come from, nor whether there would be food available. And, at any moment, the gentiles could rise against the Jews with terrible pogroms and persecutions. Before the discovery of antibiotics, a simple cold could lead to deadly illnesses. The people living in those times truly understood that they were totally dependent on Hashem’s ongoing protection and kindness. Hence, the Yomim Noraim were truly scary days. But in our modern age, our livelihoods are relatively secure, we have doctors who can cure most ailments, and except for sporadic terrorist attacks, we feel more or less safe. Of course, in our hearts we know that everything we have is truly from Hashem, but those feelings are not enough of a reality in our daily lives. Thus, Rosh Hashanah does not have enough significance to us. What can we do to change our mindset?
The Poor “Rich” Man
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16b) states: “Reb Yitzchok says that any year that is poor in the beginning will be rich in the end.” Rashi explains that “poor in the beginning” means that “Klal Yisroel makes themselves poor on Rosh Hashanah to utter supplications and pray, as it says in Mishlei (18:23) ‘A pauper utters supplications.’” On Rosh Hashanah we must turn to Hashem in prayer the same way a poor man asks people for help. Rav Matisyahu Salomon, the famed Mashgiach of Beis Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, explains this with the following parable:
Everyone thought that Bob was fabulously wealthy. The estate that sprawled over several acres, the fabulous mansion, the numerous luxury cars, the private yacht and airplane – they all bespoke riches. Not to mention his downtown skyscrapers and countrywide chain of stores. But the truth was far from what the eye beheld. For the last three years Bob had suffered tremendous losses on all financial fronts. He desperately tried to bail himself out of the rut he had fallen into, but to no avail. The bank began warning him of seizures and foreclosures, until, one day, it came. “If you do not pay us the money you owe, in exactly three days we will seize all your assets and properties,” the letter from the bank stated. Without waiting a moment, Bob ran to the bank manager and literally went down on his knees. “Please, please, have mercy!” he pleaded. “If you take everything away I am finished! I have new plans which will definitely succeed! Give me a few more months to save myself!”
If a person foolishly feels that he is all set and does not need Hashem for anything, he will not view his life as being on the line. Entering Rosh Hashanah in such a manner is not very smart. We must consider the possibility that we are in exactly the same situation as our friend Bob. Yes, Baruch Hashem, we have health and parnasah, but perhaps it is all on credit! Maybe Hashem in His infinite kindness is giving us a chance to mend our ways – but at any moment He can decide that the time is up. And in truth, that is what happens every Rosh Hashanah. Just as the bank reevaluates its client’s credit ratings from time to time, so too, each year on this day, Hashem evaluates how we have acted until now. And then He decides to extend us credit, or, chas v’sholom, not to.
We must approach Hashem the same way that Bob beseeched the bank manager, and beg Him like a poor man. If we do so, says the Gemara, we will merit a good year. The more we show that we realize that we do not deserve anything, the more we will deserve mercy.
The Daily Foxhole
Let us return to our daily Shemoneh Esrei. One of the reasons we have so much trouble concentrating during a regular Shemoneh Esrei is the same reason we do not feel scared about Rosh Hashanah: We simply do not feel that we are in danger. But if we would think about all the people who suddenly lost their parnasah or health, we would change our mindset. All those cases teach us that nothing can be taken for granted. Then, every time we ask Hashem for health, we will do so as one who really needs a medical salvation, because we never really know if our good health is really just on credit.
We are better off than the atheist in the foxhole – his faith in Hashem is buried so deep that it requires a life-threatening situation to bring it to life. We, on the other hand, know the truth – we are just fast asleep. With a little thought, we can awaken ourselves, and show our true colors.
If we use these days of Elul to instill in ourselves the reality that one good year does not tell us anything about the coming year, by the time we reach Rosh Hashanah we will truly be able to pray to Hashem like a poor man does. And then, we will merit, b’ezras Hashem, having a happy sweet New Year.Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus