Dedicated by Liad Braude, in honor of the coronation of the King

Rosh Hashanah Essay
The World Is Not Deaf to Your Prayers
How the Rabbi Convinced Simon Wisenthal to Pray

Your Shul Experience

Berkowitz and Rabinowitz were business partners, and both were avid golfers.

"Rabinowitz, listen up, "exclaimed an excited Berkowitz. "Those buyers we have been schmoozing-up called to say they got a reservation for us to meet them for golf at their exclusive country club this Saturday at 8 A.M."

"Sorry, replied Rabinowitz, I can't go. It's Shabbos and I will be in shul."

"Shul, shmool, what are you talking about?  This is a BIG deal!  And, anyway, YOU in shul?  Since when? As long as I've known you you've been an atheist.  When we were kids you were a communist."

"That was all before Goldstein came to town. You remember, when he came as a refugee without a penny in his pocket.  And now, he's a multi-millionaire. Some say he may be worth billions. Well, Goldstein tells me that it's all because he goes to shul and talks to G-d."

"Rabinowitz, you expect me to believe that YOU are going to shul to talk to G-d??? You are a radical atheist. Common, stop selling me babbe masos…"

"No!” Says Rabinowitz. “Goldstein goes to shul to talk to G-d. I go to shul to talk to Goldstein."

How Can He Be So Insensitive?

The Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah tells the story of Chanah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Chanah, the childless wife of Elkanah, came to Shiloh (where the Sanctuary stood before King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem) to pray for a child.

Chanah’s soul was pained. She prayed to G-d, weeping profusely. And she vowed a vow and said: "O Lord of hosts... If You will give Your maidservant a child, I shall dedicate him to G-d all the days of his life..."

Eli, the High Priest at Shiloh, watched as she prayed profusely before G-d. She spoke with her heart, the prophet relates. Only her lips moved; her voice was not heard. Eli thought her to be a drunkard. He says to her: "How long shall you be drunken! Put away your wine and sober up!"

Chanah replies: "No, my master, I am a woman whose spirit is in pain. I have drunk neither wine nor any other alcohol. Rather, I have poured out my soul before G-d; do not think of me as inappropriate…"

Eli blesses her that G-d should grant her request. That year, indeed, Chanah gave birth to a son, whom she named Samuel (which means "asked from G-d"). After weaning him, she fulfilled her vow to dedicate him to the service of G-d by bringing him to Shiloh, where he was raised by Eli and the priests. Samuel grew up to become one of the greatest prophets of Israel.

The story seems senseless.

The pain of a woman who craves a child and cannot fulfill her dream is profound beyond words. (Rachel tells Jacob, “If I can’t have a child, I am considered dead.”) Yet in this story, a woman comes to the sanctuary to plead with G-d for a child, and the High Priest of Israel—the Kohen Gadol, considered the spiritual master of the age—considers her a drunkard, demanding from her to go sober up, join AA, and then come back and pray? Could the spiritual leader of Israel at the time not distinguish between a plastered drunkard and a sincere worshipper? How callous, clueless, and insensitive can one be? Just because she is whispering her prayers in silence, and she seems deeply disturbed, does it mean she is inebriated?

The Drunk Cries and Laughs

One of the most illustrious Rabbis of the 19th century, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the Chasam Sofer, offers this insight.[i]

Eli was not heartless. Rather, he was struck by an enigma. He saw a woman who on one hand seemed broken-hearted, devastated, and grief-stricken. But when he looked again, he saw simultaneously a person projecting serenity, confidence, joy, and inner calmness. How can both emotions coexist in the same person at the same time? They can’t unless he or she is… smashed! We have all seen people plastered: They cry one moment; then break out in laughter the next. They are unpredictable, inconsistent, and erratic. They love you and then a moment later hate you. They hug you and then they curse you. They kiss you and they smite you. They are happy, and they are sad. They are unbalanced physically, verbally, and mentally. (Those of us who grew up in homes with alcoholics know the pain and fear of living with someone who is completely unpredictable. His or her kindness in one moment can turn into unbridled rage the next). Eli thus presumed that Chanah must be inebriated. That’s why she can cry and laugh at the same time.

Chanah understands his thinking. Listen to her words to him: And Hannah answered and said: No, my master, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit, and neither new wine nor old wine have I drunk; rather I poured out my soul before G-d.

Chanah is explaining to Eli who she is. She is broken. She is scarred. She carries a deep pain in her soul. She wants a child, and she can’t have one. Her life is tinged by sadness and she can’t deny that. How then can she be full of vitality and be filled with an inner serenity and majesty? For this, she continues: “I poured out my soul before G-d.” I have a G-d to speak to, so my brokenness and sadness are tempered by a sense of calmness and grandeur. Chanah is both bruised and whole; she is full of anguish but also full of rapture. She feels dejected but also embraced. She is scared but she is also a whole. Not because she is drunk, but because she has a G-d whom she can speak to openly, intimately, to whom she can—in her words— “pour out her soul.”

She says to Eli: I am been talking to G-d. Will he answer my prayers? I hope so. But the very fact that I am able to come and talk to G-d, gives me a measure of peace. The fact that I feel I am not alone, someone is holding my hand, as I tread the rough terrain of this planet, someone is listening to me, someone cares to know how I am feeling—that itself provides me with a sense of calmness.

That’s what we learn from Chanah. I can pour out my heart and my soul to G-d. I can just talk to G-d without a script, knowing that the universe is not deaf to my plight and my anguish. I do not know what He will do about my conversation, but I can reach out and talk to Him heart to heart.

As one person wrote: G-d does not have an i-phone, but He is my favorite contact. He does not have Facebook, but He is my best friend. He does not have twitter, but I follow him nonetheless. He has a massive communication system, but never puts me on hold. 

And note this fact: Chanah did not follow “shul” protocol. “She spoke what is on her heart,” the story says. She does her own thing. The prayer book may be the facilitator, but the essence of prayer is the personal, intimate, heart-to-heart bonding time with our Creator.

The Sidur in the Camps

Simon Wiesenthal (1908 – 2005) was an Austrian Holocaust survivor who spent four and a half years in the German concentration camps such as Janowska, Plaszow, and Mauthausen.

After the war, he became famous for his work as a Nazi hunter. Wiesenthal dedicated most of his life to tracking down and gathering information on fugitive Nazis so that they could be brought to justice.

At a conference of European Rabbis in Bratislava, Slovakia the Rabbis presented the 91-year-old Simon Wiesenthal with an award, and Mr. Wiesenthal visibly moved, told the Rabbis the following encounter that he had with Rabbi Eliezer Silver.

Rabbi Eliezer Silver (1882 - 1968) was among American Jewry’s foremost religious leaders, and most noted for spearheading efforts in rescuing as many Jews as possible from Europe. He raised funds, requested exemptions on immigration quotas, offered to ransom concentration camp prisoners for cash and tractors – talks that freed hundreds from Bergen-Belsen and other death camps—and organized rallies in Washington. After the war, he traveled to Europe and worked tirelessly on the ground to assist his brethren.

It was in Mauthausen after liberation that Simon Wiesenthal was visited by Rabbi Silver when he had come to help and comfort the survivors.  Rabbi Silver had organized a special prayer service and he invited Wiesenthal to join the other survivors in praying. Mr. Wiesenthal declined and explained his position.

“When I was in camp, I saw many different types of people do things. There was one religious man of whom I was in awe. This man had managed to smuggle a Siddur (Jewish prayer book) into the camp. I was amazed that he took the risk of his life in order to bring the Siddur in.

“The next day, to my horror, I realized that this was no religious man. He was renting the Siddur in exchange for people giving him their last piece of bread. I was so angry with this Jew, how could he take a Siddur and use it to take a person’s last piece of bread away? So I am not going to pray, if this is how religious Jews behave.”

As Wiesenthal turned to walk away, Rabbi Silver tapped him on the shoulder and gently said in Yiddish, “Oy naar, naar.” Wiesenthal was intrigued why had the Rabbi called him childish. The answer wasn’t long in coming.

Rabbi Silver continued, “Why do you look at the manipulative Jew who rented out his Siddur to take away people’s last meals? Why do you look at that less-than-noble person? Why don’t you focus on the dozens of Jews who gave up their last piece of bread in order to be able to use a Siddur? To be able to talk to G-d? Why don’t you look at those awesome people who in spite of all their suffering still felt they can connect to their Creator?

“The Germans deprived them of everything! They had nothing left. The last thing they owned, their courage, hope, faith—that the Germans could not take away from them. Is this inspiring or what?!” Asked Rabbi Silver.

Wiesenthal joined the service and shared the story some sixty years later.


[i] Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762–1839), known to his own community and Jewish posterity in the Hebrew translation as Rabbi Moshe Sofer, also known by his main work Chasam Sofer (translated “Seal of the Scribe” and acronym for “Chidushei Toras Moshe Sofer”), was one of the leading rabbis of European Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century. As Rabbi of the city of Pressburg, today Bratislava, in the Austrian Empire, he established a yeshiva in Bratislava (Pressburg in German), the Pressburg Yeshiva, which became the most influential yeshiva in Central Europe, producing hundreds of future leaders of Hungarian Jewry. (This yeshiva continued to function until World War II; afterward, it was relocated to Jerusalem under the leadership of the Chasam Sofer's great-grandson, Rabbi Akiva Sofer, the Daas Sofer.)
The Chasam Sofer’s published works include more than a thousand responsa, a commentary on the Torah titled “Toras Moshe,” a commentary on the Talmud, sermons, and religious poetry. He is an oft-quoted authority in Jewish scholarship and his Torah chiddushim (original Torah insights) sparked a new style in rabbinic commentary.

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Class Summary:
The Art of Prayer