There is a famous philosophical problem called The Problem of Evil. We believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient, yet we see evil all around us. It’s not just for philosophers; it’s a question we all ask ourselves:

Why do bad things happen to good people?

The different approaches to this are called theodicy. Some try to explain how everything that we call bad is somehow actually good, or that God is simply beyond understanding. There is some merit to these and similar arguments, but they are impractical.

Anyone who claims to have “the” answer to almost any philosophical question is undoubtedly obnoxious, and is probably wrong. The nature of such things is that they either have no single resolution or no resolution at all. The best we can say is that different approaches work for different people.

We might learn one such approach from the story of Avraham.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the response to the question is how we live in reaction to the existence of the problem. We ought to respond in kind when we see something is wrong and try to make it better. While this does not directly address the question, remember the question has no answer; at best, it can only spur a practical response in us.

After passing the great test of the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac, there is a long denouement, where Avraham goes home and receives word that his brother had many children from his many wives and had formed quite a clan. Despite all God’s promises, Avraham has had to fight for everything he has; yet his brother seems to get everything from life easily.

But Avraham does not complain that God has been unfair. Because sometimes we just need to get on with it.

Imagine a world where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Who would be bad if you knew that every time you steal, you get cancer?

Everyone would be good all the time.

The only way it is possible to be authentically good is if you don’t know the consequences. If the consequences don’t look random, goodness cannot exist. But in a world where the greatest philanthropist can still die in a terrible car accident, goodness is real. You do it because it’s important, or because it’s the right thing; it’s intrinsic, and not out of an expectation that God’s bounty will immediately follow.

We read the story of the Akeida and the news that follows on Rosh HaShana. The story recalls the merit of our heroes, but also the struggles they faced in their day to day lives.

Sometimes it just isn’t fair, and sometimes there is no answer good enough. All we can do is respond in the way we choose to live; we just have to get on with it and do the right thing.

Rosh Hashana is a day of renewal, not just of our lives, but also of our relationship with God.

The unique prayer themes of Rosh Hashana are Sovereignty, Memory, and the Shofar – where we crown God as our King; recall the heritage of our relationship, and blow the shofar – מַלְכֻיּוֹת זִכְרוֹנוֹת וְשׁוֹפָרוֹת.

Judaism’s innovative concept of a God we can have a relationship with can seem absurd enough, but the idea of crowning God is stranger still. To some extent, maybe it defies explanation.

The Baal HaTanya notes that we can readily understand crowning a human; the Queen of England is not so drastically different to her staff and subjects.

But how can we “coronate” God, and how can that be something God “needs” from us?

Judaism’s answer is straightforward: because God loves us.

That’s what Memory is – זִכְרוֹנוֹת. We recall the stories of our heritage, showcasing the relationship our ancestors carved out, and that falls to us to take up the mantle.

This may seem circular – מי יצדק לפניך בדין – why should the stories make a difference either?

R’ Nechemia Sheinfeld answers that this is what the Shofar addresses. The Shofar is symbolic of crying – real and authentic emotion. Our relationship with God is irrational, and we simply embrace the absurdity of it.

God wants a relationship with each of us because He loves us, and like a father can’t resist his crying child, it is unconditional love.

We believe that we are judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the year gone by and the year to come.

If our forecast is inescapable, why would we spend the year hoping for anything different?

While we believe in a Judgment Day, we nonetheless believe that it is still only a snapshot in time and that with repentance, prayer, and charity; we can change our fates – וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that the conventional translation of these words obscures their literal meanings.

The word for repentance means homecoming or return – because however lost we may be, we can find our way home – תְשׁוּבָה. The word for prayer means judging ourselves through earnest introspection – תְפִלָּה. The word for charity means justice – because it is something we dispense ourselves – צְדָקָה.

These are all aspects of ourselves that we have agency over.

R’ Micha Berger notes that they each parallel the three kinds of relationships we have – with God; with others; and with ourselves.

Reminding ourselves that there is a God who wants us to be more than sentient mammals; who watches over us, and what that means for the way choose to live are expressions of Tefila that we control.

Giving charity; volunteering; speaking kindly; helping a neighbor, and appreciating family and friends are all expressions of Tzedaka we control.

Improving ourselves; developing a more even temper; cultivating humility, and choosing to live an authentically Jewishly oriented lifestyle are all expressions of Teshuva that we control.

Improving just a single characteristic constitutes a change substantial enough that we believe it can change the future.

You are the master of your fate and the captain of your destiny.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur always coincide with the end of the Torah cycle, which concludes with Moshe’s warnings that after receiving all our blessings, we must not forget God:

צוּר יְלָדְךָ, תֶּשִׁי; וַתִּשְׁכַּח, אֵל מְחֹלְלֶךָ – You were not mindful and forgot the Rock that bore you. (32:18)

The Kotzker Rebbe notes the dramatic irony of forgetting the very same God who bestows the ability to forget – it is short-sighted, self-serving, and selective.

The Dubner Maggid quips that when a business person can’t keep his obligations, he might hire a lawyer who would advise him to plead insanity to his creditors for a smooth settlement; but when it’s the lawyer’s turn to get paid, the lawyer will laugh if the businessman pleads insanity – he devised the strategy!

Socially and religiously, we sometimes need a little slack or leniency, but we must be careful not to take it too far, especially to people we owe a debt of gratitude to. It’s generally inadvisable to deny, deflect, or downplay the things we’ve done wrong.

Healing and forgiveness can only begin when we take responsibility for ourselves.

One of the most beautiful and innovative themes in the Torah is the concept of teshuva – return and repentance. Everything broken and lost can be found, fixed, and restored.

Whatever mistakes we have made, we believe that Hashem loves us and will accept us the moment we make up our minds:

וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶתשְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִםיִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִםמִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. Even if you are displaced to the edge of the heavens; that’s where God will gather you from – He will fetch you from there. (30:3,4)

R’ Chaim Brown notes that Hashem promises to find us twice – וְקִבֶּצְךָ / יְקַבֶּצְךָ.

What does the repetition add?

Rav Kook teaches that the first promise is about a physical return to Israel, and the second promise is that God will also return us from the outer edge of the spiritual universe – קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם.

The Sfas Emes teaches that Hashem makes this promise regardless of whatever it is that brought us there to that spiritual wilderness – whether it’s upbringing; bad choices; poor self-control – none of it matters – מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ / וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ.

An astounding number of people today believe they are irredeemable and have done terrible things. But if you’re not an adulterous, idol worshipping murderer, the odds are that you can make amends pretty easily. And even if you are, Hashem doesn’t give up on us!

So forgive yourself for yesterday; make amends today; all for a better tomorrow.

One of our core beliefs is the concept of teshuva. We believe in our ability to repent and make amends, both on a personal and a national level.

The majority of Jewish people are only loosely affiliated and are not well versed in our beliefs and traditions; so they certainly don’t know they might be doing something wrong.

How can we fix something we don’t even know we’ve broken?

Perhaps we really can’t fix it ourselves. But we don’t need to, because making teshuva doesn’t happen in a vacuum:

 וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶתשְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִםיִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. (30:3,4)

Teshuva is a gift of compassion, and wherever we find ourselves, however far we’ve fallen, God will find us and bring us back.

R’ Jonathan Sacks likens Teshuva to the waves of diaspora immigrants who escaped to Israel – when Europeans, Yemenites, Moroccans, Russians, and Ethiopians stepped off their planes into a land they’d never seen before, they still knew they were home – וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה

The Shem mi’Shmuel explains that God’s compassion amplifies the steps we take to make amends – ועֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים. A person who sinned their entire life can repent on his deathbed – כי לא תחפץ במות המת, כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה ועד יום מותו תחכה לו, אם ישוב מיד תקבלו.

The popular aphorism has it that home is the place that when you go there, they have to let you in. Teshuva is the return to a religious home – even if you’ve never been there before.

If God doesn’t give up on us, we shouldn’t judge ourselves worse according to some perverse higher standard.

Maybe no-one knows the exact “right” way to make amends and do better, but Hashem promises to help us.

As Rabbi Nachman of Breslev put it: if you believe you can break; believe you can fix. Just a few moments of real introspection goes a long way. We just have to take a step, because the perfect is the enemy of the good.

But even if we have given up and do nothing, God still won’t give up on us.

After the Golden Calf incident, Moshe’s asked Hashem to aid his reconciliation efforts, and Hashem taught him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy by which God governs the world.

This formula is considered one of the core elements of teshuva, which is why it is a focal point of many prayers surrounding Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.

When Hashem taught them to Moshe that he would forgive freely, the Gemara cryptically allegorizes that Hashem wore a Tallis, as though leading a prayer service – שליח ציבור.

What is the point of the imagery of God as a prayer leader?

R’ Moshe Einstadter explains that the function of the prayer leader is to be the agent of the community represents those who don’t know how to join in – quite literally, שליח ציבור.

In order to participate, the people who don’t know what they are doing must depend on the people who do.

The leader can pray just fine on his own, yet since people need him, his prayers have an enhanced capacity that serves his audience’s needs.

We have the same relationship dynamic with God.

We all make mistakes. We are human, and we can’t help ourselves. We are fallible! The natural state of the universe is entropy, a tendency towards disorder and chaos.

The imagery Chazal offer proposes a powerful resolution.

To save us from our own frailty and fallibility, Hashem acts exactly like a שליח ציבור by granting us the gift of being able to make amends.

One of the most moving parts of the Yamim Noraim liturgy is u’Nesaneh Tokef.

It starts by setting the courtroom drama – כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם, וּבוֹ תִּנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ – and tells us the the stakes are high – בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן, כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת.

Yet the conclusion of the prayer is entirely incongruent with the beginning. We shout loudly:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – But repentance, prayer, and charity avert the evil of the decree!

We believe there is hope and that nothing is set in stone.

Are we judged on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, or can we change it?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not exhaustively binding because we simply don’t believe in a rigid, preordained fate.

We cling on to the hope, that ultimately, we can influence and control our own destinies.

There is a very good reason we read the story of Jonah and Nineveh on Yom Kippur – Tanach is full of ominous prophecies that were averted when people decided to change.

More than we believe in fate, we believe in ourselves, and in our power to change.

Everyone has their own conception of what prayer is, and with good reason considering how personal it is.

While there are diverse philosophical schools of thought about precisely how prayer works and what it does, the Torah makes it emphatically clear that – at least on the surface level – when we pray, God listens.

What kind of prayers does God listen to?

The story of Yitzchak’s childhood recounts how Sarah saw Yishmael as a bad influence on Yitzchak and sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away.

They eventually got lost in the desert and ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. No mother could bear to watch her child slowly die, and she cries in despair, looking at her hopeless situation, and prays – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.

And Hagar had a vision of a nearby oasis and was able to save her son.

This probably seems to conform with a conventional understanding of prayer, yet the story does not credit her prayer as the reason Yishmael was saved:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven, and said to her: “Don’t worry, Hagar; God has heard the voice of the boy in his state.” (21:16)

The angel says that Hashem listened – but not to her. What moved Hashem was the voice of the dying boy – קוֹל הַנַּעַר.

The story never attributes an action to Yishmael; his suffering is entirely passive. Perhaps he cried or groaned in anguish, but whatever he did is not significant enough for the story to record as an action he took.

Yet that invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the story, and probably ought to shape our understanding of prayer.

The Midrash imagines that the angels didn’t want Hashem to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit.

But the Torah tells us that God sees the world differently. God judges circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם. The story of Yonah in Nineveh reaffirms this.

Our daily prayers affirm that Hashem is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת.

Hashem loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we specify righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילת צדיקים / תפילתן של צדיקים.

Everyone is capable of a one-off, pure prayer.

The story of how Yishmael was saved teaches us that prayer isn’t confined to ritualized formal rote. Maybe that’s why we read this story on Rosh Hashana.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; or whether you know how to pray or even understand the words.

Because Hagar’s “proper” prayers weren’t enough; just a single real moment of pain from a sad boy mattered a whole lot more.

One of the highlights of most people’s Jewish calendar is the Rosh Hashana seder, at which we customarily eat foods we call Simanim – loosely, “Signals”.

Dipping the apple in the honey is the iconic classic, and every community has their own, be it beets; dates; leeks; pomegranates; pumpkins; beans; or even a whole lamb head.

What turns a quaint dish into a time-honored tradition is the small prayer that accompanies it, consisting of some sort of pun or wordplay: apples are sweet, so we wish each other a sweet year. Pomegranates are full of seeds, so we wish to be full of good deeds. The head is where the brain is, so we pray that we are the heads and not the tails.

You can even make up your own. Some French-speaking communities eat bananas – which sounds like “Bonne Année”, the French greeting for “Happy New Year”.

This all sounds like good fun, and possibly light-hearted.

Yet it is anything but that.

The Gemara states that Simanim are a legitimate thing – סימנא מלתא. History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes – our ancestors’ stories signal a possible future of ours – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.

The Simanim on Rosh Hashana are not frivolous games.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the Simanim are supposed to make an impression, bringing our thoughts and aspirations into the world of action through this activity.

When Israel’s prophets would warn the Jews of impending exile, they would also have a visual cue symbolizing their approaching demise, offering an experience of the prophecy through actions, senses, and feelings rather than through the words of the prophet. Jeremiah wore a cattle yoke, signaling the burdens to come; Isaiah walked around nearly naked, signaling the people’s vulnerability and defenselessness; Ezekiel had to bake a bread substitute over manure, signalling the unclean foods the Jewish People would subsist on in exile. The action was not an eccentric restatement of the message; it was a key part of their duty to warn about the posible future,

The Simanim are indicators that initiate action, beginning the process of actualizing our hopes and dreams.

Breaking some of the common Simanim down shows the depth of their meaning.

For the apple and honey, staples at every Rosh Hashana table, the prayer we say is may the year ahead be good but also sweet. Because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet – תְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה

The word for “year” – שנה – shares a root with the words reiteration and change. The way to another year is through change – שינוי. Retracing steps, something new on top of something old, isn’t progress. A drawing that is erased still leaves the paper smudged. We don’t ask for another year, but a “new” year. The most incredible thing we can ask for is a fresh start and a new iteration – שתחדש.

Instead of bringing old baggage, we should realize the choice is ours.

Different communities differ on whether they eat a morsel from a fish head or lamb head, but the blessing is the same: may we be heads, not tails – שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב.

When looking at an animal, it may seem like they are essentially the same, just a body length apart.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests that actually, the tail can occupy the same space as the head, but it can never get to where the head is, because the head leads, and the tail just follows.

While we don’t get to control all circumstances, variables, and people that make up our lives; we do get to exercise our free will. All we really are is the sum of the choices we’ve ever made. While we can’t choose to be happy, healthy, or successful; we can choose to take steps those things more possible.

In other words, all we can choose is what we choose.

If choices define you, and you are a passenger to someone else’s choices, you are their tail.  Floating with the current is not the same as swimming.

Rav Shimshon Pinkus explained it as a wish for a year that is intentional – לראש; with constant course corrections going forward – שנהיה; because if your actions today are based on yesterday’s decisions, can end up being your own tail!

There is a reason that the Simanim are beloved in every Jewish home. They bring our hopes and dreams from the realm of thought into the sensory world we can touch and feel.

There core components to Teshuva are remorse and making amends. A prerequisite to these is taking ownership of our actions.

Before Moshe died, he warned the Jewish People not to deny or avoid their mistakes:

שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם: דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ, וּפְתַלְתֹּל – Destruction is not His – it is His children’s shortcoming; a crooked and twisted generation. (32:5)

R’ Avrohom Shor teaches that our actions shape our realities: anger creates fear and withdrawal, greed alienates partners, gossip erodes trust, and laziness hinders results.

Sometimes making amends is as easy as apologizing, but not always. For example, years of anger and abuse cannot be undone by suddenly turning soft and gentle; we might genuinely want to change, but the resentment caused by years of negativity will linger for quite some time, and we are responsible – שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם.

How can we mitigate that?

R’ Ahron Belzer remarked that we should allow those our nearest and dearest to see more of our inner lives. It can only be a good thing for them to know that we too are flawed and just trying our best.

It can only be a good thing for our families to know about our good deeds and community work, most especially young children, who learn from example:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם – The hidden things are Hashem’s; the revealed things are for our children and us for eternity. (29:28)

Those close to us see more than we think. So if you are committed to improving and making amends,  put it on display, so your loved ones can learn and participate – וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם.

When it’s authentic, they should only be supportive and encouraging, and your example will have a ripple effect.

During Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Selichos prayers, we refer to Hashem as old and kind -ותיק ועושה חסד.

While we readily understand the benefits of kindness, it’s an odd thing to call someone “old” and mean in a good way. How does being “old” modify God’s kindness?

Imagine speeding your car down the road and getting pulled over by the police.

Maybe you could talk your way out of it by saying you had a family emergency, and if the police officer is in a good mood, he’ll let you off with a warning.

But what if the very next day, the same police officer pulls you over in the same place for the same offense, and you then give the exact same excuse?

Every year, we make the same promises and the same excuses.

Yet Hashem never tires of us, and that’s the quality we admire here.

That the same old judge from yesterday and a year ago can still bear to listen kindly.

One of the most prominent and enigmatic stories in the entire Jewish tradition is the Binding of Isaac – the Akeida. It is a textbook starting point for discussions of right and wrong; and it cemented Avraham from wandering nomad into the pantheon of Jewish Patriarchs.

Reasonable people have long disagreed over precisely which part of the story constituted the test, but what’s interesting is the way the Torah subtly describes Avraham’s struggle to comply:

קַחנָא אֶתבִּנְךָ אֶתיְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁראָהַבְתָּ, אֶתיִצְחָק, וְלֶךְלְךָ, אֶלאֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה – Please take your son, your only son whom you love – Yitzchak – and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a sacrifice… (22:2).

The Ran points out that Hashem never instructed Avraham to sacrifice his son; Hashem only requested it – קַחנָא.

Framing it as a request colors the turmoil Avraham faced – we can conceivably imagine Avraham exercising his choice and refusing – which some commentators argue he should have.

As Avraham approached the mountain, he found his task getting harder:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶתעֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶתהַמָּקוֹםמֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw the place from a distance. (22:4)

The Nesivos Shalom notes that הַמָּקוֹם is one of Hashem’s names, describing the attribute of immanent omnipresence, that God is everywhere, and “the place” of all things – הַמָּקוֹם.

Something did not feel right. He’d opposed human sacrifice his whole life, and yet here he was; about to destroy his life’s work and his family legacy, so he felt alienated –  וַיַּרְא אֶתהַמָּקוֹםמֵרָחֹק.

At the story’s dramatic crescendo, the Torah doesn’t simply record that Avraham attempted to murder his son. He has to force his hand to pick up the knife –  וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶתיָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶתהַמַּאֲכֶלֶת.

The Torah dissociates Avraham from his disembodied hand because Avraham wanted to resist what he was doing.

After this gut-wrenching struggle, an angel comes to stop him, and the test is thankfully over.

This story is held in the highest esteem, which is one of the reasons we read it on Rosh Hashana.

Not because it is a story about blind obedience and faith, but arguably, the exact opposite.

The lines between right and wrong are not always clear-cut, even for the greatest among us.