Breslov Hassidim have many customs and traditions that look strange from the outside but actually make a lot of sense from the inside. One spiritual practice, called Hitbodedut, involves going out to the forest or some secluded place and talking to God. It is not prayer, or at least not prayer in the form that most people recognize as prayer. The idea is to speak to God as if you were having a face-to-face conversation. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov would take a rowboat to the middle of a large lake and speak to God while the boat drifted.
One time, I was out in the forest, ranting at God. I was 38 years old, dirt poor, and single. I had worked hard all my life, or so I thought, and had nothing to show for my efforts. Of course, I blamed God. After screaming about all the years of hard work and everything I wanted, I looked up at the heavens and screamed, “I want what I have coming! Give me what I deserve!”
As my words echoed in the forest, I realized exactly what I had said.
“Ummm…scratch that,” I said softly. “I’d rather not get what I deserve.”
I think King David understood this perfectly when he wrote Psalm 43.
In Psalm 43, David calls out to God deal with his enemies:
Vindicate me, O Hashem, Champion my cause against faithless people; rescue me from the treacherous, dishonest man. Psalm 43:1
David then reveals what is really bothering him; God has made his life difficult:
why have You rejected me? Why must I walk in gloom, oppressed by the enemy? Psalm 43:2
David is asking God to deal with him justly. While he may not be perfect, compared to the “treacherous, dishonest” men who oppress him he is an angel. He calls out to God to stop these enemies from persecuting him.
David then references Jerusalem and the altar, which seems incongruous to the western mind. What does crying out for justice have to do with religious rituals?
The truth is, justice is holy. As an expression of this, the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of ancient Israel, held court in a special hall that was half inside the Temple and half outside. Carrying out justice is establishing the order of the world as God intended it.
Justice is entirely objective. It is between me and God. I am not innocent or guilty in comparison to someone else. Hopefully, we are all doing our best to live up to our potential.
The story is told that when Rabbi Zusha of Manipol (1718–1800) was on his deathbed, his students found him in uncontrollable tears. They tried to comfort him by telling him that he was almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham, so he was sure to be judged positively in Heaven. He replied, “When I get to Heaven, I will not be asked “why weren’t you like Moses,” or “why weren’t you like Abraham.” They will ask, “why weren’t you like Zusha?” Why didn’t you fully live up to your own potential?”
We should not be judged as compared to people who are much greater than us. We are judged for who we are. God judges us based on our own abilities and capabilities. Next to a saint, we may seem terrible, but compared to someone else we may look like a saint. When we pray, we should ask God to look at our positive attributes, qualities, and achievements while overlooking our faults.
We expect God to judge us this way, and we are expected to judge others in the same manner.