A man visiting from Manhattan introduced himself after finishing a Shabbat afternoon class in Jewish ethics and told me the following story: In the early years of Lincoln Square Synagogue, when Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was the rabbi, he always wanted a certain leading member to serve as cantor for Neilah on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Riskin felt this man was the perfect choice for the role because he was a Holocaust survivor, a very kind and caring man, an observant Jew who raised a wonderful family, and he was blessed with an exceptional voice. This member always refused without offering any explanation. Finally, one year, Rabbi Riskin insisted that the man explain why he wouldn’t accept. The rabbi argued that it made no sense, particularly because the man always agreed to lead the service every other time he was asked.
The man finally told Rabbi Riskin: “You know I am a Holocaust survivor. When the war ended, I was very angry with God. For years, I was totally nonobservant. I violated the Shabbat and ate non-kosher foods. I was really angry with God. He took everything from me. My whole family was killed by the Nazis. But that all changed when I got married and had children. Slowly but surely, I returned to observance through my children. But I must tell you that every Tisha b’Av, 20 minutes before the end of the fast, I take a drink of water. This is my war with God.”
Rabbi Riskin listened carefully and then said: “That you have a war with God is totally understandable, but the one who leads Neilah can’t be at war with his fellow man. And therefore it is you that I want to lead Neilah.”
I wonder, was Rabbi Riskin right? Neilah on Yom Kippur led by a man who doesn’t fast the full Tisha b’Av? In order to answer this question, I reviewed the words of the prophet chosen for Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat preceding Tisha b’Av.
In the opening chapter of Isaiah, the prophet criticizes the Jewish people with the harshest words imaginable. In the name of God, the prophet screams, “Bring no more vain offerings; incense of abomination they are to Me; as for new moons and Sabbaths and the calling of assemblies, I cannot bear iniquity along with solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they are a trouble to Me; I am weary of enduring them” (Isaiah 1:13-14).
The prophet declares that God is not interested in our prayers. Our sacrifices, we are told, are a farce. But what instigated such a terrible response from God? What caused God to reject our ritual service to Him?
Three verses later, Isaiah relates exactly why God was upset with us. “Devote yourself to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). And if that wasn’t enough, six verses later he announces, “Your rulers are fakers and cronies of thieves, every one avid for presents and greedy for gifts; they do not judge the case of orphans, and the widow’s cause never reaches them” (Isaiah 1:23).
What is God upset about? The prophet tells us we were ignoring those in need. The orphan and the widow, the two most vulnerable in society, are mistreated and ignored. The worst part of being a widow or an orphan is that no one pays attention to you. How often I have heard a widow cry to me that, without a husband, she is not only lonely but also ignored.
Rashi, the classical medieval biblical commentator, notes that the prophet was critical of us because the court system ignored the vulnerable and was concerned only with the wealthy and influential. When a community’s court system mistreats the vulnerable, it isn’t a single agency that bears the blame; rather the entire society is at fault.
So, in retrospect, I think Rabbi Riskin’s response was both apt and Jewish; one that is rooted in the message of our prophets and one that we all need to learn. The ritual law is important, but Judaism demands that it must be combined with a heart that cares for those who need us the most.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.