(RNS) — The final days of 2017 have been the occasion for various published lists of “the most notable” happenings of the past year. I have read many of those lists, including the ones focusing specifically on religious happenings. But nothing in any of those summaries can match for me an intriguing account of a faith-based “annual review” told by Rabbi David Wolpe in his 1991 book, “The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God.”
Here is the story: A distinguished rabbi was getting ready for the opening service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish year. It was a requirement that the rabbi could not begin the prescribed prayer until the exact moment of sunset, so he stood in silence before the Ark of the Covenant, waiting for the right moment.
The rabbi seemed to be so deep in thought that his congregants were wondering if the prayer was going to begin on time. But then he began to speak: “Dear God,” he said, “we come before You this year, as we do every year, to ask Your forgiveness. But in this past year, I have caused no death. I have brought no plagues upon the world, no earthquakes, no floods. I have made no women widows, no children orphans. God, You have done these things, not me! Perhaps You should be asking forgiveness from me.”
At that point, however, the rabbi’s voice softened: “But, since You are God, and I am only Levi Yitzhak, Yisgadal v’yiskadah sh’mei rabah (Magnificent and sanctified is Thy Name),” and he proceeded with the time of worship.
I know that many of my fellow Christians would be shocked by the way that rabbi addressed the deity. There is a thin line that separates blasphemy from the genuinely spiritual. In commenting on this story, though, Rabbi Wolpe insists — and I agree — that in this case the rabbi did not cross the line into the realm of blasphemy. He knew, Rabbi Wolpe explains, that God is the Author of the very standards that he asks us to uphold in deciding matters of right and wrong. “To assume that we may not question God,” says Wolpe, “is to assume that we have no real handle on what is good.”
In fact, the complaints that the rabbi addressed to God have a strong biblical feel to them. Many of the Hebrew psalms are prayers of lament, some of them directly challenging the deity. Psalm 44 provides a clear example: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? … Why do you forget our affliction?” The freedom to express that kind of complaint to God, as Rabbi Wolpe points out, is a sign of a profound intimacy between a human being and God.
While I may not have yet acquired the requisite degree of intimacy with the divine, I am inclined nonetheless to do a lot of lamenting as I look back on the events of 2017. The tragedies that have long plagued the human condition were clearly on display on a daily basis. In addition to the injustice and mean-spiritedness — a lot of it outright wickedness — for which we humans are directly responsible, we have also seen unimaginable human suffering caused by natural disasters.
The complaints uttered by the rabbi standing before the Ark of the Covenant, then, ought not to be all that shocking to our spiritual sensitivities — which means that many of us will also feel the need to offer up the kind of prayers that the rabbi went on to address to the deity in that Day of Atonement service. We too can acknowledge that God is God and we are at best finite and broken creatures who must look beyond ourselves for both forgiveness and signs of hope.
Several years ago a reporter called to ask me what I thought the most important religious event was of the year that was coming to a close. I gave a different kind of answer than what she was looking for. For all I know, I said, the most important event of the year occurred one Sunday morning in an inner-city church service in the South side of Chicago, when a 13-year-old girl, having heard a sermon about God’s concern for the oppressed, bowed her head and promised the Lord she would devote her life to the struggle for justice.
I am grateful for the lists I have been reading of “the most notable events” of the past year. But at present many of the most hopeful occurrences of 2017 are likely hidden from our view.
Rabbi Wolpe’s story is about lament. But it is also about a profound sense of mystery that gives hope to those of us who see this new year as yet another “year of our Lord.”