And every year, just as certainly, I answer, “Ask me in a year.”
I don’t mean to be flippant or preachy or elusive. It’s simply the only truthful answer I can give.
I can’t determine “how” my davening was—if such a thing is possible—by the quality of my kavanah, the spirituality of the services or the performance of the chazzan, and certainly not by the length of the prayers at whatever synagogue I happened to be.
“How” was my davening? (A corollary question: “Are you ‘ready’ for yom tov?” Meaning, not have you squared your accounts with Heaven, but is your shopping done, are your guests invited, are your tickets ordered?) Ultimately, only God can answer if I prayed sincerely and selflessly, if my thoughts in shul didn’t stray, if I took the machzor’s words to heart, if I did teshuvah properly during the Days of Repentance.
At a practical level, I can tell “how” my davening was only by this standard: Were my prayers answered? Did the people for whom I wished health and happiness achieve it? Did I witness the improvement in my character for which I wished?
If I stood before the bench on the Days of Judgment making specific requests, if the Judge of Judges was issuing a verdict, if He was determining our finances and friendships and other necessities for the next twelve months, if He indeed was weighing the deeds of the entire world, if He was writing next year’s verdict in the Books of Life and Death . . . how could I say what the verdict was? How could I say “how” my davening was before Sukkot had even begun?
It’s like asking a dieter how his diet went on the first day. Ask me “how” my davening was in a year.
But no one does.
And I don’t think about it often enough during the next eleven-plus months. I don’t set up specific goals by which I can determine, after the third of Tishrei, “how” my davening was.
If I did, I would probably be more aware and more questioning—“Why is something taking place, or not taking place?”—of everything in my life.
If I did, I would keep in mind that the Divine verdict, far from being permanently sealed on Yom Kippur, can be subsequently changed.
If I did, I would realize that the ups and downs from Tishrei to Elul—health blips, financial setbacks, et cetera—were determined for my good at the start of the year.
If I did, I would speak and behave better.
If I did, I would realize that everything happening in my life is for a reason, beyond my immediate ken.
A few years ago I took a nasty spill on the sidewalks of Lublin. During a walking tour of the Polish city on the second day of Pesach—I had led, as a volunteer, the Jewish community’s Sedarim—I suddenly tripped, falling directly on my face. Dazed, I wanted to return to my hotel, but my escort-interpreter knew better.
“You’re bleeding badly,” she told me (I couldn’t see my face). “You have to go to a hospital.”
Despite my protests, she flagged down a passing car, pushed me in the back seat; good Samaritans hurried me to a clinic. I needed some stitches above one eye; my face was bruised; my nose, X-rays revealed, was broken. Somehow I hurt a leg and an arm.
There was no lasting harm. All my injuries healed, with no visible scars.
In time I realized—from my limited perspective—why I fell. I gained more appreciation for my taken-for-granted health. I joined a health club to rehab my injured limbs and I’m in better shape than I would have been sans accident. I developed a stronger bond with my now-close friend from the Lublin Jewish community.
I could not see this on the day of the accident. With emunah, with my Rosh Hashanah davening in mind, I should have seen my accident as bashert.
Now, when I question why something untoward comes my way, I try to keep this lesson in mind. But I don’t do it often enough.
Every year in Elul, on the eve of Tishrei, if I am, Baruch Hashem, still here and healthy and employed, if my family and friends are well, if I have accomplished since the High Holy Days last year much of what I had prayed for, I can answer the question I was asked nearly twelve months ago—my davening last year was very good.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer for the Jewish Week in New York.