I often encounter people who are certain God hates them. They are aware of the Torah’s statement whereby “You are sons to the Lord your God,” and know that “God loves every Jew”—but they are also aware of the sins they have committed in their lifetime. They are convinced that God sits in the heavens and looks at them, disappointed. The only reason He does not punish them is because of His infinite patience and desire of their repentance. They fear to think of the ultimate Day of Accounting. Better to avoid thinking about it than become mired in the depths of anxiety.
When the Yamim Noraim approach—the Days of Awe—these individuals become filled with a feeling of intense heaviness. After all, this is a time of judgment, and God takes out His scales with merits on the right and sins on the left. When their name is called they, and only they, know which is heavier. For them, the Yamim Noraim are a pressure-filled and unpleasant period which would best pass as quickly as possible.
Of course, even they know that the Yamim Noraim are also a time of joy and forgiveness of sin. They are also certain that God sits on a throne of mercy, coming closer to us in the Ten Days of Repentance than during the year-round. Yet they do not feel worthy. They are convinced that God has no desire for creatures so full of sin such as themselves, and that all the talk of His mercy is but small consolation.
Man does not stand as a vessel for God’s use, and he should not judge his flaws by seeing himself as such
In this article, I would like to explain the roots of this pessimistic approach, present a somewhat different perspective on how people should stand before God, and propose a different metric for how we should judge ourselves. Man does not stand as a vessel for God’s use, and he should not judge his flaws by seeing himself as such. Man should stand before God in a human sense, as a personality maintaining a relationship with God. My hope is that this approach will contribute to our Jewish life in general, and to the period of the Days of Awe in particular, this being a time of joy and spiritual elation, founded on a sense of proximity to God.
Something versus Someone
In the Hebrew language the slightest of alterations distinguishes between the word for something (mashehu) and the word for someone (mishehu). But while the words are similar, the concepts they represent are entirely different. Something is a term that refers to an object lacking a persona—something inanimate, vegetative, or animal. Someone, by contrast, refers to a subject, a creature that speaks its own words, a human possessing a personality. Sometimes, though, the obfuscate someone with something; on occasion, we fall into the trap of referring to a subject as an object.
When somebody orders a plumber to fix a burst pipe, the plumber can be seen—for the purposes of this article—not as someone but as something. The homeowner with the plumbing issues has no interest in the plumber’s personality. He minds not who does the job; it could even be a robot for all he cares. The pipe needs fixing; the method, who does it, is irrelevant. Even in jobs requiring deeper human involvement, we sometimes tend to treat the person as a useful object. For instance, the friend I am studying with for a test, or the chavruaa I join when I fails to understand the sugya on my own, can easily become an object. If my sole goal is to understand the material, the friend is liable to become a means, treated as an object rather than a subject—something rather than someone. But if I understand that studying with my friend is part of a relationship, a connection with a personality, then she will never be something, but forever remain someone. Even if the study session doesn’t work out as planned, the relationship will not collapse.
when the relationship is based on him and her being a someone for each other[…] the relationship buds precisely when nothing is being done
The strongest example of treating a person as a someone is a wedded couple. We might observe the couple simply sitting together and doing nothing. Even as they sit silently, without exchanging as much as a single word, they revel in one another’s company. The pleasure of just being together expresses their treating each other as personalities, detached from the instrumental value each possesses for realizing specific goals. When a couple’s relationship is based on this or that functional purpose, it will never lead to such deep sentiment. The relationship will be dependent on its utilitarian justifications: providing food, raising children, aesthetic pleasure, social status. The partner is thus nothing more than an object serving this or that purpose, and the attitude towards him or her never rises above the functional. But when the relationship is based on him and her being a someone for each other, the mutual actions rise above the dimension of mere aims, and the relationship buds precisely when nothing is being done: just from sitting together and watching the world go by.
This is no less true of any human relationship: parents and children, friends, even neighbors. In any interaction between people, the moment a human relationship is formed it by definition transcends technical goals. The interest is in someone, not something.
The prohibition against idolatry refers to making an object of God. At the basic level, idolatry refers to fashioning an idol of God Himself. But there is also a deeper layer. The attitude of pagans toward their gods was functional. We learn in the book of Yonah how at times of strife the people on the ship took hold of their idols and cried out to their gods. In their conception, their gods were something, not someone. For the pagan there is no element of covenant, of a mutual relationship between Man and God. It is purely an instrumental affair, based on fulfilling personal needs. It lacks an element of deep humanity, and the concomitant level of commitment that derives from the same source.
Thankfully, ours is not the lot of the pagans. Our prayer is an expression of relationship, not of automation. Yet absurdly enough, while we certainly do not make God into an object, a something, we often do this to ourselves: we make ourselves an object in relation to God.
What are we for God—something or someone?
What are we for God—something or someone? God placed us here, in the world. He gave us the Torah, which instructs us in how we ought to behave: what we should and should not do. But that is far from the entire story. Beyond commandments and prohibitions, the entire Torah is also a deeply human history—a tale of a profound and ongoing relationship (as that of a married couple) between God and the People of Israel. This is how we look in the eyes of God. We are not here only for technically discharging our Torah obligations; for such a purpose God might have created robots. We are here to maintain a true relationship with God, a relationship that makes emotional as well as practical demands, just like the human relationships we live.
Yes, we cannot speak of an emotional relationship devoid of practical obligations. All relationships combine both, and this is certainly true of our relationship with Hashem, as we find in the book of Devarim: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem your God require of you, but to fear Hashem your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of Hashem and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” This is equally clear elsewhere: “And it shall be that if you earnestly obey My commandments which I command you today, to love Hashem your God and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” The Torah makes no distinction between the devotion of the heart and the obligations of the body: observance of the commandments derives from love and expresses it at the same time. Thus, even within the framework of a commandment dealing with an earthly and practical obligation, such as building cities of refuge, it is written: “And if you keep all these commandments and do them, which I command you today, to love Hashem your God and to walk always in His ways.”
But while we cannot separate the practical sides of entering the Divine covenant from the concomitant emotional connection, we must still ask: What is primary? What is the principal expectation of God from us? That we observe His commandments, or that we maintain a covenant with Him?
The idea of “bread of shame,” which Rav Moishe Chaim Luzzato—Ramchal—discusses at length in several places across his renowned books, explains why God placed Man in a world full of trials and tribulations. Ramchal assumes that God created the world to benefit His creations—human beings. He created Man to observe the Torah with its many mitzvos, thereby allowing him to merit eternal reward. Yet the question remains: Why is there even need for either? After all, He could benefit us without Torah and Mitzvot, even without the difficult trials of this world? The answer, according to the Ramchal, is that in this situation receiving such reward would be akin to consuming “bread of shame.” Receiving reward without having worked for it is a source of shame, for it is free and unearned. God thus created us complete with internal forces pulling us in different directions and forcing us to stand at the crossroads and decide between them. This is what we call free will. After choosing the good, we receive the reward with which God blesses us with without shame; we worked for it and earned it by the sweat of our toil.
The significance of our being capable of shame is that it turns us into someone, a subject
In my youth, I was still bothered by the question: Why should receiving reward investing labor shame us? The answer, it must be, is that God created us to be bashful, such that we are ashamed to receive free gifts. But why did He not create us otherwise, in a manner that would allow us to unashamedly receive free gifts? This would surely make life much easier, and seemingly far more pleasant. Why did he need to create us to feel ashamed at receive free gifts, which then forced the next stage—creating us as complex beings capable of choice and granting us commandments, prohibitions, and trials? Could we not forgo the whole issue?
The answer to this question is that we cannot really give to something, but only to someone. The significance of our being capable of shame is that it turns us into someone, a subject. “Bread of shame” expresses the idea that there needs to be someone there to receive the benefit, to be given the bounty. There is nothing more normal than a person telling his fellow: “Your shirt is dirty, let me change it so you look nice.” But if a person approaches a wall and says: “Dear wall, you are so dirty, let me paint you so you look nice”—he “humanizes” (anthropomorphizes) the wall. A wall qua wall has no “personality.” It is an object, not a subject. When something lacks personality, there is no point in granting it benefit.
God, who wished to give us His goodness and bounty, could not have created us as robots lacking will and personality, for doing so negates the possibility of giving. To actually give, in the sense of a relationship, He had to create us with choice, as human beings struggling with variant and opposing forces, with personality and free will. This is how we became a someone rather than a something. As “someones” can God perform with us true acts of giving.
As Sons or as Slaves
The foundation on which both creation and our own existence is based is our relationship with God. We do not work at a mitzvah factory, with God serving as the boss whose task is to measure output and allocate salaries. We are God’s sons. If the world is a factory, then the boss is our father. The entire purpose of the factory is so that He can meet us each day and be glad that we work for Him. This factory has no goals of profit and loss in the conventional economic sense. Even if production is low, the father is interested in its existence because the workers are His children.
Mitzvos and transgressions are tools in our relationship with God. Some of them directly address the relationship: prayer, the joy of holidays, Shabbos, and even commandments the apply to human relationships. These are all observed within the framework of our relationship with the Divine. Others relate to the relationship in a less obvious way, yet they, too, are a part of it.
This article does not mean to diminish, even slightly, the importance of deeds. We live in a world of action; reading the Shema a minute after its time has passed is too little, too late; if two letters are stuck to each other in a Torah scroll the scroll is invalid. Experiencing the emotional element of Divine worship does not exempt us from its practical side. Rather, the central point this article comes to emphasize is that we must be people before God, and that the idea of standing before Him is at the heart of the entire Torah.
Yes, a person must give an account for all his actions. Still, if he continually feels that he is “full of sin,” combined with a sense that God is displeased with him because he fails to properly observe the commandments, he is surely missing the point. His self-conception is that of a machine, living his life as a robot in a factory for producing mitzvos and sins. Alongside care in keeping the commandments, the central question that must always occupy us, the more so during the Yamim Noraim, is our relationship with God. Are we walking in God’s path? Are we interested in doing His will? Do we fear and love Him? Feelings of love and fear, even of shame and guilt, are the main expression of a relationship. If these feelings exist, then the person who feels them stands before God as someone, not as something.
Commandments and prohibitions are the building blocks of the covenant between God and us […] but it would be a mistake to live our lives as though we were machines in His service
Certainly, we need to incessantly question our deeds. Commandments and prohibitions are the building blocks of the covenant between God and us, and we cannot forgo them. But it would be a mistake to live our lives as though we were machines in His service. Our focus is on the question of whether we are someone for Him. Do we really live a life of relationship with Him, one that we sense, one that reflects “worship of the heart”? How much nachas are we giving him with our decisions, even if they are good? How much do we feel His existence, his presence, on a daily basis?
This change of perspective brings us to the recognition that God loves us. Even if we are full of sin, the relationship with Him flourishes. In times of sadness, heaven is on our lips; in times of gladness, the heart turns to song in gratitude to God. Every prayer and blessing are forms of communication. Every act of charity, even the tiniest, is worship of God. The very fact that we are pained by those deeds that displease Him places us as someone standing before him.
Days of Awe: Strengthening the Relationship
The mussar masters, headed by Rav Israel Salanter, emphasized the aspect of judgment in the Yamim Noraim. Even today, Haredi schools, yeshivahs, and girls’ seminars focus their educational energies on the severity and even terror of that judgment.
But surprisingly enough, the prayers of the Days of Awe largely ignore this aspect of the time, and only a small part of them even mention the concept of judgment. And what of the rest of them? They include blessings of malchuyot, zichronos (only part of which refers to judgment), and shofaros; sacrifices and the order of Temple service; God’s holiness and greatness; the Kingdom of God in our time and in the future; confession and seeking forgiveness; the chosenness of the Jewish People and the hope of their ultimate prevailing.
The central subject of the prayers is our standing before God—standing as someone. We recognize His greatness and holiness, and thus prostrate ourselves before Him. We crown Him over us because we are interested in a relationship of king and nation, in addition to the basic relationship of father-son and husband-wife. We are happy in His being a forgiving God, for this allows us to strengthen the relationship with Him; we see atonement in order to strengthen this connection. The yearn for the avodah of the High Priest, for it embodies the peak of the relationship between God and us.
It is painful, and indeed a great shame, to see people who are uncomfortable with the atmosphere of tension felt during the Yamim Noraim
The Yamim Noraim are times of an exciting closeness to God; they provide a wonderful opportunity to taste the wonder of that nearness. The Sages say of this period: “Seek God where He is, call for him when He is near.” It is painful, and indeed a great shame, to see people who are uncomfortable with the atmosphere of tension felt during the Yamim Noraim: This discomfort derives from a misunderstanding of the essence of this time, and of the depth of their own relationship with God. If the perspective on life is that we are someone before God, and not merely something; meaning, if the goal of our life is to communicate with God and not to robotically fulfill the mitzvos, then the Yamim Noraim are a truly amazing time.
We learn in the book of Nechemiah how Ezra read from the Torah during Rosh Hashanah, and the people, who understood they were not properly observing the day, burst into tears. When Nechemiah saw this, he rebuked them: “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of Hashem is your strength.” This leads to some difficulty: Was there not a wonderful opportunity here for repentance on the day of judgment? The people understood they had sinned and wept for it. Why does Nechemiah pass up this opportunity to encourage them to repent? Instead, he silences them and stops them from crying. This is not a day where we are something.
Rosh Hashanah is not a day on which we calculate what we did or didn’t do in terms of production. It is a day when we are someone. We stand before God and are happy in our relationship with Him. And, indeed, after the holiday of Sukkos, all the People of Israel gathered anew and conducted a day of repentance for their deeds.
God Desires the Heart
The Gemara in Sanhedrin gives wonderful expression to the concept of the Decline of the Generations. Rava tells of the difference between his generation and the previous generation of Rav Yehuda. In the latter, they would study Maseches Nezikin alone, which deals with monetary laws, remaining unfamiliar with all the rest of the Talmud. When Rav Yehuda would come to a study subject related to Taharos, he would declare: “This is a field which Rav and Shmuel understand, not me.” By contrast, in Rava’s generation, there were thirteen yeshivah academies, whose students were all familiar with the entire Talmud. Despite the fact that his generation was full of Torah scholars, Rava said their prayers were answered less often. In times of drought Rav Yehuda would only take of a single shoe, beginning the order of fasts, and the heavens would open. By contrast, in Rava’s time “we pray and pray—and there is no rain.” Rava concludes that despite the prevalence of Torah scholars in his time, “God desires heart.” In Rava’s generation they were surely more learned, yet worship of the heart was weaker.
Despite the flowering of Torah and diligence in mitzvos, Hashem wishes to see the human heart open up to Him honestly. Especially in our frenetic age, we have difficulty standing in prayer as a son baring his soul to his father, forgetting about all the worries and troubles of daily life. It is hard for us to derive a simple joy in being Jews, in bowing and prostrating ourselves before the King of Kings of Kings.
Our religious lives should revolve around the central issue of whether we stand before God as someone […] or whether we are merely something.
God created us, as Ramchal assumes, for our own good—to give us. In the terms of this article, God created us to be in relationship with us—since there is no other way to truly give. You can give someone; you cannot give something. Our religious lives should revolve around the central issue of whether we stand before God as someone, so that a relationship exists between us and the Creator, or whether we are merely something. In our relationship with God, the question of whether we have more sins than mitzvos is secondary. A person focused on this sort of accounting, and who allows this focus to shift his attention from the relationship with God, is missing something deeply central in his Divine service.
With the coming of the Yamim Noraim, the focus on being someone rather than something can bring us tremendous blessing. If the central question of our life will indeed be standing as someone before God, then we will understand how He loves us and desires us. Thus our religious lives will become full of spiritual content and enjoyment, and God’s love will be our bastion.