Now and again, I encounter people—religiously observant, generally virtuous people—who think God hates them. At the very least, they are certain He doesn’t love them.
They are, of course, well aware of the Torah’s declarations of Divine love: “You are sons to Hashem, your God.” They know that “God loves every Jew.” But they are deeply cognizant of sins they have committed, of numerous shortcomings and profound character flaws. They are convinced that God sits in Heaven and looks down upon them with deep disappointment. The only reason He refrains from meting out immediate punishment is because of His infinite patience and His desire for their repentance. The thought of the ultimate Day of Accounting dooms them to a life of constant anxiety.
With the approach of the Yamim Noraim these individuals become filled with an intense heaviness. As a time of judgment, when God brings out His scales and weighs up merit against iniquity, the Yamim Noraim are a pressure-filled and quite unpleasant time of the year. It is best to pass them by as quickly as possible.
For others, the very same Yamim Noraim are a time of joy. God sits upon a throne of mercy, coming closer to us in the Ten Days of Repentance than during the entire year. Yet, the said individuals feel unworthy. Convinced that God has no desire for creatures so full of sin as themselves, talk of His compassion is but small consolation.
With all its seriousness and gravitas, it remains a time of joy and spiritual elation, founded on a sense of proximity to God. Missing out on the joy of the days is missing out on their basic essence
In this article, I would like to explain the roots of this pessimistic approach and present an alternative perspective on how people can stand before God, alongside a different metric for how we should judge ourselves. I will argue that we, men and women, do not stand as a vessel for God’s use and should not judge our flaws by seeing ourselves as such. Rather, we stand before Him in a distinctly human sense, as personalities maintaining a relationship with Hashem.
My hope is that this approach will contribute to our Jewish life in general and to the period of the High Holidays in particular. With all its seriousness and gravitas, it remains a time of joy and spiritual elation, founded on a sense of proximity to God. Missing out on the joy of the days is missing out on their basic essence.
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 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, we 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 this article—not as someone but as something. The homeowner with plumbing issues has no interest in the plumber’s personality. From his perspective, the job could be performed by a robot. The pipe needs fixing, while the method is irrelevant.
Even concerning jobs requiring deeper human involvement, we sometimes treat the person as a useful object. For instance, the friend I study with for a test or the chavrusa I join when I fail to understand the sugya on my own can easily become objects. 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; failing is part and parcel of every human relationship.
[W]hen the relationship is based on him and her being a someone for each other […] the relationship buds precisely when nothing is being done
The primary example of treating a person as someone is (of course) a wedded couple. We might observe the couple simply sitting together and doing nothing. As they sit silently, without exchanging as much as a single word, they revel in each other’s company. The pleasure of just being together is the most profound expression of our human capacity for treating others as personalities, detached from the instrumental value of 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 depend on its utilitarian justifications: providing food, raising children, aesthetic pleasure, and social status. The partner becomes 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 someone for each other, the mutual actions rise above the dimension of mere means to achieve a given purpose, and the relationship flourishes precisely when nothing is being done: just sitting together and watching the world go by.
This is no less true of any human relationship: parents and children, friends, even neighbors. By definition, the moment a human relationship is formed it transcends technical goals. The interest is in someone, not something.
One of the Torah prohibitions against idolatry refers to making an object of God: it is forbidden to fashion an idol of God Himself. The concept underlying this prohibition is the objectification of God, reflecting the functional attitude of pagans toward their gods. Caught in a deadly story, the book of Yonah tells of how those on board the ship took hold of their idols and cried out in desperation 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 parallel level of commitment derived from the same source.
The Torah utterly rejects this form of worship. Our prayer to Hashem 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? Beyond instructions, commandments, and prohibitions, the God-given Torah presents a deeply human history: a tale of a profound and ongoing relationship between God and the People of Israel (the terminology of fidelity and betrayal is often that of a married couple). This is how we look in the eyes of God. We are not here just for the technical purpose of 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 in.
Yes, we cannot speak of an emotional relationship devoid of practical obligations. All relationships combine both, which is certainly true of our relationship with Hashem. The book of Devarim makes this dual nature very explicit: “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 external limbs: observance of the commandments derives from love and expresses it simultaneously. Even within the framework of 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: Which of them 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 discusses at length in several places across his works, explains why God placed us in a world full of trials and tribulations. Ramchal assumes that God created the world to benefit His creations—human beings. He created us to observe the Torah with its many mitzvos, thereby allowing him to merit eternal reward. Yet the question remains: Why is there even a need for either? After all, He could surely shower bounty upon us without Torah and Mitzvot, and without the difficult trials of this world. Ramchal answers that in this situation, receiving such a reward would be akin to consuming “bread of shame.” Benefiting without having labored to earn the benefit 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 Divine reward 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 bounty without prior 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 receive gifts unashamedly? This would surely make life much easier and seemingly far more pleasant. Why did he need to create us with an instinct of shame at receiving 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 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 friend: “Your shirt is dirty; let me clean it, so you look better.” But if a person approaches a wall and says: “Dear wall, you are so dirty, let me paint you, so you look better,”—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 any kind of 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 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 someone rather than something. Only as “someone” can God perform with us true acts of giving.
As Sons or as Slaves
The foundation on which the entire creation and our existence are 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 children. If the world is a factory, then the boss is our father. The very purpose of the factory is 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 that 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 these actions must be performed within the framework of a relationship with Hashem. We must first be people before God, and 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 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 part and parcel 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 the service of God. Our focus is on the question of whether we are someone for Him. Do we trulylive 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 sinful, the relationship with Him can flourish. In times of sadness, heaven is on our lips; in times of gladness, the heart turns to song into 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 High Holidays. 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 High Holidays 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 malchuyos, 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 seek atonement in order to strengthen this connection. We yearn for the service 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 an 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 High Holidays: 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 High Holidays are an 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 raises 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, silencing them instead and stopping them from crying?
The answer is that 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 rejoice in our relationship with Him, recalibrating it, as it were, to the way it should be. After the holiday of Sukkos, all the People of Israel indeed gathered anew and conducted a day of repentance for their deeds. But this is not where we begin. On Rosh Hashanah, the focus is on the relationship itself.
God Desires the Heart
The Gemara in Sanhedrin gives a 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 greatness of his generation, which was full of Torah scholars, Rava indicated that their prayers were answered less often. In times of drought, Rav Yehuda would only take off 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 the heart.” In Rava’s generation, they were surely more learned, yet worship of the heart was weaker.
Notwithstanding 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.
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 a 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 the Creator and us 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, focusing on being someone rather than something can bring us a 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.