Jewish Journal

Rabbie Yosef Kanefksy’s Yom Kippur sermon: Luck and Forgiveness

Moed Kattan 28a

אמר רבא: חיי, בני ומזוני, לא בזכותא תליא מילתא, אלא במזלא תליא מילתא. דהא רבה ורב חסדא תרוייהו רבנן צדיקי הוו, מר מצלי ואתי מיטרא, ומר מצלי ואתי מיטרא. רב חסדא חיה תשעין ותרתין שנין – רבה חיה ארבעין, בי רב חסדא – שיתין הלולי, בי רבה – שיתין תיכלי. בי רב חסדא – סמידא לכלבי ולא מתבעי, בי רבה – נהמא דשערי לאינשי, ולא משתכח

במזלא תליא מילתא


Rava said: Length of life, children, and sustenance do not depend on one’s merit, but rather they depend upon luck. As, Rabba and Rav Ḥisda were both pious Sages; one Sage would pray during a drought and rain would fall, and the other Sage would pray and rain would fall.

And nevertheless, their lives were very different. Rav Ḥisda lived for ninety-two years, whereas Rabba lived for only forty years. The house of Rav Ḥisda celebrated sixty wedding feasts, whereas the house of Rabba experienced sixty calamities. In other words, many fortuitous events took place in the house of Rav Ḥisda and the opposite occurred in the house of Rabba.

Things depend on luck.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that Rava’s view is not the exclusive one in our tradition.  Prominent sections of our Yamim Noraim liturgy are founded on the alternative view that there is a strong correlation between length of days and repentance, between having blessings and being righteous. Some might argue that this is in fact the essence of the Yamim Noraim.

At the same time though, we know what Rava is talking about. He is simply articulating what we have all observed with our own eyes, and have experienced in our own existence. That God IS, and God cares, and God commands, but there is a large realm of randomness out there. God often just isn’t involved on the individual fate level.

Rava was of course, no heretic. He had a different experience of faith. One which could only enhance our Yom Kippur – and our lives – if we can identify and articulate it, and weave it into the fabric of our own faith experience.

To generate a hopefully helpful metaphor: There are two movie reels that are rolling simultaneously on Yom Kippur. Let’s call one of them the “zochreinu l’chaim” reel, which features us, urgently and repeatedly requesting life, health, and blessings in the year to come. This is the reel that has sound, and words, and song. And let’s call the other the “cheshbon hanefesh” / personal accounting reel, which has no liturgy, no music, no audible sound; it is the one that runs internally, comprised of sharp memories and profound regrets, of determined resolutions, and sincere commitments to fix,  change, and improve.

At those moments of Yom Kippur when we in standard Tishrei faith mode, the two reels are completely woven together, with our articulated pleas for life and blessings carrying inside them the silently pledged resolutions and commitments. But there are also the moments when we are squarely in Rava mode, במזלא תליא מילתא and suddenly the two reels are just not talking to each other. Have we, at those moments, fallen out of Yom Kippur? Has the whole film broken down?  Or are the two reels just running simultaneously and independently, and this too is Yom Kippur. And this too, is a hallowed, intense, sacred faith experience.

Donniel Hartman has pointed out that in its very opening chapters, the Torah has explained that sometimes the reels will feel like they are rolling together and that sometimes they won’t feel that way, and that we need to master both of the resultant types of faith experience. In chapters two and three of Breisheet, God is an intimate and invested presence, molding the human with his hands, enlivening the human with his own breath, planting a garden to satisfy the human’s needs, and when necessary, castigating the human for his transgression. But the first chapter is thoroughly different. There, God is majestic, regal and distant, creating worlds through his speech, and then leaving the day to day operations in the hands of the creature who possesses His likeness…. And in the sand of a fair degree of mazal. “Take both of these visions, The Torah is saying.  You will need them both, to maintain your spiritual fire, and your sanity.

Friends, when we are inside the standard Tishrei faith mode, when we are knowing in our deepest kishkes that life and blessing are inextricably bound up with repentance and recommitment, let us drink in our faith in God who sees the sincerity of our confessions and tears up the evil decree. The faith in God’s intimacy and immanence.

And when we are in Rava mode, when we are knowing God as our Creator and commander who has granted a wide berth to nature and to luck in determining our fate, let us inhale a different aspect of faith  – our faith in the dramataic assertion that our Sages made in their commentary on B’rasheet chapter one, that from the beginning God sought partners upon the Earth, who could help shoulder God’s work, who could keep advancing the Divine vision for things, by sustaining, protecting, and being a conduit of God’s blessing to all that God created. The faith that God had entrusted and empowered us to be His partners.

For Rebbe Nachman, this was the very essence of the faith experience. Just as seeds that are planted in the ground will only sprout and grow in the presence of the right nutrients in the soil, the noble desires and lofty aspirations that are planted in the human heart  – to repair what is broken, to correct what is crooked, to create what is needed, to do those things which the Lord our God hath told us are good –  those desires and aspirations will only sprout in the presence of faith – the faith that these intentions represent nothing less than the fulfillment of Divine dreams. This faith is so crucial because obstacles will invariably arise. Whether in the form of self-doubt, of naysayers who deny that it can be done, or in the form of the real-life challenges that we just didn’t foresee.  And what gives us the strength to power through those obstacles is:

As a child of the 1970’s , I still marvel at the college kids who founded the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. What were they thinking? It was surely 1 part thought and 9 parts faith.

When the reels are running as one for you today, grab that faith and don’t let go. And when the reels are running separately let’s ask God, Ha’melech Ha’chafetz b’chayim, for forgiveness and for life because we need forgiveness and life, and we want forgiveness and life, and separately – in a profound gesture of faith, let’s ask God to be the wind in our sails, the partner in our efforts, because we need that and want that no less.

God and God of our ancestors, Forgive us and pardon us today, why? Because

  אָנוּ פְעֻלָּתֶךָ וְאַתָּה יוֹצְרֵנוּ

We are your creatures, and You are our craftsman; and because

אָנוּ קְהָלֶךָ וְאַתָּה חֶלְקֵנוּ

We are your true believers, and You are our portion in life