Taking Back Last Year’s Neilah

One Yom Kippur, in his drashah right before the Neilah prayer, our rav gave a short but powerful speech. He started off with a tragic narrative of a family that lo aleinu lost a child in a fire. Then he spoke about “taking back last year’s Neilah.” If someone had been through a painful year, he/she might wish with all of his/her heart the power to take back last year’s Neilah and really daven with extra special kavanah, The rav said, “Next year we might regret doing only lip service for this year’s Neilah. So make this year’s Neilah really count. Daven with extra kavanah so that next year you won’t want to take back this year’s Neilah.”

I have tremendous respect for my shul’s Rav, a brilliant man, totally frum Jew and eloquent speaker. Yet I find the concept of “taking back last year’s Neilah” more than a little bit chilling.

I haven’t read Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the horrible year when she lost her husband (and later her only child). From the reviews and comments that I have read, magical thinking or wishful thinking is a kind of self-delusion that one somehow has the power to influence events through unconnected actions, sort of along the line of, “If I wear my Jets jersey to every home game, the Jets will win the Super Bowl,” or more importantly, “If I pray and give charity, then my close relative will recover from his/her terminal illness.”

Of course, an Orthodox Jew does engage in some of this thinking, it’s part of our Emunah. We’ve all heard the saying, “Tzedakah tatzil Maves,” charity saves from death; also the famous line from the Yoraim Noraim tefillos about how “Teshuva, Tefillah, Tzedakah” can cancel the evil decrees against us. But as a noted rebbetzin once said, “G-d is not a waiter to whom we can give orders.” A beloved rabbi, the rebbetzin’s husband, was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. Despite the outpouring of sincere prayers and tzedakah given on his behalf, the rabbi was niftar only weeks later. Should that shake our Emunah? We continue to pray and give charity when someone is ill, but don’t we already realize that sometimes we will not get the answer we want?

There is a story in the Agadita of the Gemara of two men who were about to die by hanging. (Sorry, I don’t remember the masechta and daf: if someone else can supply it, I would be grateful). Both men, about to die, offered up a prayer. One man’s prayer was granted (the rope snapped and he was saved) and the other man died. There is a machlokes as to whether the man who died offered up a “sincere” prayer, but then what is a “sincere” prayer? The Gemara seems to indicate that the man who lived had true Bitachon that his prayer would be successful. That only leads to more questions – the man who died lacked Bitachon? What does “faith in Gd” and “trust in Gd” really mean, especially to someone facing illness or death? Does he really need to believe that everything will be turn out to be Bseder and OK and wonderful?

I find the concept of “taking back last year’s Neilah” ironic because bli ayin harah, I had a very good year this past year 5770 in many important ways, yet I don’t remember having davened such a special Neilah last Yom Kippur. Maybe I should say to Gd, in a more august and respectful manner of course, “Let’s have another one just like the other one,” if only I knew how. Then those of you who had sadly not such a great past year might protest, “I davened such a meaningful Neilah last year, why did G-d give me those painful difficulties in 5770?”

In reality, there is no way to “take back last year’s Neilah,” any more than we can take back a car accident or stop a disastrous past choice. Perhaps the Rav was referring to having foresight almost as keen as our 20/20 hindsight, to be able to daven this year’s Neilah with as much Kavanah as if we really did (and do) have the power to prevent bad things from happening in our lives.

10 comments on “Taking Back Last Year’s Neilah

  1. The last thing we should want is to put a guilt trip onto sincere Jews who really went all out during Neilah but later went through hard times.

  2. Speaking as one who has buried a child, I feel that the Rabbi’s words were insensitive and out of touch.

    “Magical Thinking” is part of the process defined by Kubler-Ross

    Shana Tova
    Chatima Tova

  3. I agree with Judith Resnick’s main point. While it is good to encourage everyone to daven “as if” the future really depended on it (because it does, in part), the deeper hashgachas Hashem is unpenetrable to us, and the Rav may have unwittingly sent the message that Hashem’s calculations are simple, and totally dependent on our Kavana during Neilah. My husband says that his Rosh Yeshiva said once that prayer is not like a vending machine, where you put in your prayers like a coin, and the results are spit out like a bottle of Coke.

    “Magical thinking” in the way Judith explains Joan Didion wrote, is relating to prayer like a vending machine. Prayer can effect change, but it is in a more profound way. By showing a higher level of bitachon with serious kavana, a person changes himself and thereby might change a decree by making it less or not needed anymore, given the person’s changed spiritual state (that’s how I understand it-please correct me if I have it wrong). There is also a more simple level, which is sometimes Hashem just wants us to ask Him for things which He can give us. By not asking at the correct source, we forgo these things.

    But my opinion is like Judith’s. The Rav was well meaning, but it doesn’t sit well with me either.

  4. Thank you!

    Near the end of the war, my father’s unit (701st Tank Battalion) came onto a small concentration camp at Gardelegen, where, shortly before, the Germans had torched a large building filled with Jewish and other slave laborers, murdering nearly all of them.

    At war’s end, the Americans faced the Russians across the Elbe River. My father saw many Germans struggling to escape across the river to surrender on the American side to avoid certain death at the hands of the Russians. On the web I saw a picture of one vessel used, an amphibious Volkswagen.

    One account I read noted “brave” German soldiers tricking their way past terrified civilians to get across.

    Many have believed that the US Ninth Army, which included my father’s unit, could have taken Berlin. However, General Eisenhower refused General Simpson’s request to do so, stopping him at the Elbe, probably because of a prior high-level arrangement with the Russians.

  5. To Bob Miller #2: I clicked on the link and read your father’s obituary. You should be very proud that your father Royal Miller a”h was among those brave soldiers who fought Amalek and defeated the Nazis, yimach shmom. It was also gratifying to read that your father had four great-grandchildren, meaning that he had the tremendous nachas of seeing grandchildren grow up and get married and have their own children. May you be comforted in your loss along with all of the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.

  6. My father passed away last week at age 93 after a long illness and was buried Erev Rosh Hashanah. At Neilah time last year, it seemed as if I and the people around me were very engaged and very aroused to do teshuva. If things happened later that saddened us, it was the will of HaShem, for His very good reasons, and not necessarily because anyone took it easy on Yom Kippur.

    My father’s obituary, shown here
    covers only a fraction of what he was and did. We miss him greatly but don’t blame ourselves.

    That said, we can always improve our davening, Torah study, performance of mitzvos, and personal midos.

  7. I like the idea of taking back last years neila. The year of magical thinking is not a silly book. Its about Didion’s every day bravery, in the face of two tragedies, the death of her husband and of her daughter back to back. It’s very real and worth reading.

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