A fishing boat was once caught in a terrible storm. Unable to withstand the heavy rains and tempestuous waves, the boat capsized. Everyone on board drowned with the exception of two men who had managed to hold onto some floating wood. Fortunately, these two survivors were pulled by the currents to a small, desolate island, where they collapsed onto the shore.
As the two friends lay on the beach, sapped of their strength, they understood that the only thing they could do was to pray. They decided to split up. Each went to opposite sides of the island wondering whose prayers would be more successful.
The first thing that they both prayed for was food. They were starving! After praying well into the night they finally fell asleep. In the morning, the first man found a fruit tree right next to where he was sleeping. Unfortunately, on the other side of the island, the land remained desolate and the second man went hungry.
Encouraged by his success, the first man began praying for more and more things. Each of his requests was answered, while the man on the other side of the island still had nothing. Finally, the first man prayed for a ship to come and save him. Lo and behold, the next day a ship appeared on the first man’s side of the island. Without a second thought, the man boarded the ship, abandoning his friend on the other side. “Why should I be the friend of a person whose prayers are never answered, and who is not worthy of receiving God’s blessings?” he thought as he set sail from the island.
Suddenly, a voice called out from Heaven: “Why did you abandon your friend on the island??” The man replied: “This is my ship! I prayed for it! If his prayers were not answered, it’s clear that he wasn’t worthy of being saved!”
“You are mistaken!” said God. “Your friend prayed for one thing, and for one thing only, and HIS prayer was answered completely. Without your friend’s prayer, you never would have received My blessing!”
The first man was shocked. “Really?? What did he pray for? How was he answered?”
To which God replied: “His only request, his only prayer, was that all of your prayers should be answered. He was praying for you.”
The portion of Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20) begins:
“You stand this day, all of you, before Hashem your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, our children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer” (Deuteronomy 29:9-10)
The foundational Jewish mystical work, known as the Zohar, teaches that “this day” refers to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This gathering, in which the people stood together before Moses ready to hear his words, took place on the Jewish New Year, and so we always read this Torah portion right before Rosh Hashanah.
But there is something strange about these opening verses. Why does the Torah, seemingly unnecessarily, list all the different groups of people who gathered: the leaders, the officers, the children, the woodcutters and the water carriers? Why didn’t the Torah just say “You are all standing here together”?
The commentaries explain that this list of Israelites is meant to teach us a fundamental lesson about how we must approach Rosh Hashanah. All of us are different – in our abilities, in our life situations, and in our missions in this world. And for that reason, all year long, each one of us prays for something different – I pray for what I need in my life, and you pray for what you need in yours.
As a result, it is all too easy to become caught up in my own problems. I have so many needs of my own, how could I possibly understand or relate to yours?
The portion of Nitzavim teaches us that Rosh Hashanah must be different. On Rosh Hashanah we must begin the new year together. By listing the different groups, young and old, leaders and lay people, the Torah is teaching us that on Rosh Hashanah we must remember that we are one. That your pain is my pain, and my pain is yours.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972), a Polish-American rabbi, theologian and philosopher, described prayer as our “spiritual home.” It is where we are reunited with our Father who loves us, and where we come to our senses about what is real and important in this world. The moments when we close our eyes during our silent prayers and whisper a few words of longing to our Creator are the moments when we are home.
But, continued Heschel, “A home is more than an exclusive habitat, mine and never yours. A residence devoid of hospitality is a den or hole, not a home. Prayer must never be a citadel for selfish concerns, but rather a place for deepening concern over other people’s plight. Prayer is a privilege. Unless we learn how to be worthy, we forfeit the right and ability to pray.”
Even the most beautiful and comfortable home is a home of selfishness and darkness, “a den or hole,” if it does not make room for others.
Prayer cannot and must not be a purely personal or individual experience. What could be more selfish than that!
We read in Psalms (55:19): “He has redeemed my soul in peace – for there were many who stood with me.”
Like the prayers of the men on the island, our prayers are answered when we stand together and pray for each other.
This is the message of the opening verses of the portion of Nitzavim, and this is the message of Rosh Hashanah.
May we all rise above our individual needs and our self-absorption, and truly stand – and pray – with one another.