As we end the 10 days of teshuva and approach Yom Kippur, many of us ask: What is the purpose of prayer after Yom Kippur, during the new year? If our judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur, what is the function of our prayers during the rest of the year? If Yom Kippur holds the final decision over the status of our health, why do we pray for healing in our shemona esrei for the rest of the year?
One answer that Tosafot in Masechet Rosh Hashana 16a provides is that on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it is decreed whether we will become sick or not, but we can still pray during the year to be healed. Therefore, the prayer that we recite in the shemona esrei is “refa’ainu” – heal us – and not “don’t make us sick.” In other words, during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, our life for the following year will be planned out. But on each subsequent day of the year, we have the opportunity to react to that plan. Perhaps this approach can be best understood with the following story.
A young scholar came to Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov with a question. He had discovered a contradiction in the teachings of the Sages, and wanted to hear how the chassidic master would resolve it. On the one hand, the Talmud states that a person’s income and livelihood for the entire year are determined on Rosh Hashanah. On the other hand, it also declares that “a person is judged each day” for his livelihood. Was this not a contradiction? The Baal Shem Tov led the young Talmudist to the window, pointing to a water-carrier who was passing by, with a pole across his back and a pail of water tied at each end. “Come, let’s go speak with him,” he invited.
“Feivel, how are you doing today, my friend?” the Baal Shem Tov asked solicitously. “How is your health and how is your parnassah?” “Thank God, I’m fine,” replied the water-carrier, but then sighed unhappily. He complained about how difficult it was to carry such heavy pails all day, and yet he barely made enough money to survive. Not only that, but the local children teased him, and sometimes tipped over his pails. The Baal Shem Tov responded with a few commiserating words and a parting blessing. He and the student then returned to the house. “I don’t understand,” said the young man, still perplexed. “How does what he said answer my question?” The Baal Shem Tov smiled. “Come again tomorrow at this time and you’ll see.”
The next day, they stood at the Baal Shem Tov’s window, waiting for the water-carrier to pass by. As soon as they spotted him, they quickly went out to speak to him again. “Nu, Feivel, how are things today?” asked the Baal Shem Tov. “Thank God, I can’t complain,” answered the water-carrier cheerfully. “I have steady business—after all, everyone needs water. I’m not rich, but I get by. The pails are heavy, but praise God, I have a strong back.” “And what about the children who bother you?” the Baal Shem Tov persisted. “Children!” laughed the water-carrier. “God bless them! Children are supposed to be mischievous, aren’t they? Besides, I can always buy them off with a bit of candy.”
The water-carrier continued on his way with a wave, and the Baal Shem Tov turned to his visitor. “Do you see? He did the same thing yesterday and today and made the same amount of money, yet his feelings about it were completely different. It is true that a person’s income for the entire year is fixed irrevocably on Rosh Hashanah. But how we receive our daily allotment differs each day and that is our daily judgment.”
This is a special time of year. Indeed, God is making a plan for us for the year that has just begun. And at times, He may purposely present challenges to us throughout the year so that we will pray, so that we will reach out to Him, and so that we will demonstrate strength and fortitude. But what we must remember is that each day brings with it new opportunity, and every obstacle is a chance for us to improve ourselves and grow. Imagine if we truly lived each moment embodying this philosophy, how rich our lives would be.