World of the Sages: Prayers for repentance

Seeking to pinpoint the instant of divine displeasure, the Talmud asks: "When does God become angry?"

The month of Elul begins on Monday, and with it we enter the yemei haselihot veharahamim (the days of supplications and mercies) that culminate in the High Holy Days. Each day we sound the shofar and Sephardim begin to say selihot (prayers of supplication). Our sages teach that God's anger is momentary and fleeting (B. Berachot 7a). Seeking to pinpoint the instant of divine displeasure, the Talmud asks: "When does God become angry?" In response, the Talmud offers a bizarre gauge: God's momentary anger occurs during the first three hours of the day and is indicated by the paling of a rooster's red crest while that rooster stands on one foot. The Talmud relates a story of a sage who attempted to make use of this indicator: There was a non-believer who lived near Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. This heretic would harass the sage by citing scriptural verses to prove sectarian doctrines or to challenge rabbinic traditions. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was exceedingly agitated by his troublesome neighbor and decided to be rid of this heretic. He took a rooster and tied it between the feet of a bed. With the rooster in place, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi stared at it intently waiting for its comb to pale while it stood on one foot. Wide-eyed and waiting for the auspicious moment, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi intended to utilize that flash of divine anger and curse the heretic. At the crucial moment, however, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi dozed off, missing the opportunity to manipulate God's anger. Opening his eyes, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi concluded: "It is not proper to act so." The sage continued, citing biblical verses to buttress his conclusion: "Moreover, it is written 'His mercies are on all His handiwork' (Psalms 145:9) and it is also written 'For the righteous to punish is not good' (Proverbs 17:26)." One commentator suggests that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's misdemeanor was to cruelly tie down the rooster, limiting the fowl's movement for the sake of invoking divine anger against his oppressor. This approach would fit the first verse quoted: God's mercy applies to all his creations - even roosters (Rabbi Hanoch Zundel, Eitz Yosef, 19th century, Bialystok). Innovative though this approach may be, this passage appears to focus more on the non-believer than on the rooster. Furthermore, the second verse quoted admonishes the righteous who wish to punish, not those who mistreat animals. Interestingly, the idea of striving for the eradication of evil people seems to be based in Scripture: "Let sinners disappear from the earth, and let the wicked be no more" (Psalms 104:35). With this biblical notion in mind, we may ask: Was Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's scheme so odorous? A further talmudic passage explicates the meaning of this seemingly harsh verse by telling of another sage who had difficulty with his neighbors (B. Berachot 10a). Rabbi Meir had certain ruffians in his neighborhood, people who were ignorant of Torah and careless of its laws. These uncouth neighbors caused Rabbi Meir considerable distress. Seeking relief from the anguish caused by these louts, Rabbi Meir turned to God, requesting their death. Perceiving her husband's prayers, Rabbi Meir's wife, Bruria, queried: "Why do you pray for their death?" Rabbi Meir retorted that he was emulating the psalmist who desired the elimination of sinners from this world. Bruria, a Torah scholar in her own right, was not satisfied: "Scripture does not say hotim (sinners), it says hataim (sins); the psalmist is not praying for the purging of sinners, rather he is exhorting the eradication of sin. You should, rather, pray that these boors repent their wickedness." Rabbi Meir heeded his wife's sound counsel and changed the thrust of his supplications, and the neighbors changed their ways. A similar theme appears elsewhere, again with a female hero (B. Taanit 23a-b). Abba Hilkiya's prayers for rain were known to be answered. During one drought, the sages sent a delegation asking him to pray for rain. Before they could submit their request, Abba Hilkiya turned to his wife: "Let us go to the roof, out of sight of the delegation, and pray for rain. If we are fortunate, God will heed our prayers, and we will not take credit for bringing the rain." Positioning themselves in opposite corners of the roof, Abba Hilkiya and his wife prayed. The pair's supplications were answered as the sky clouded over. As the rains fell, Abba Hilkiya entered his house and feigning ignorance, asked his guests how he could help them. The delegation, however, was not to be fooled. They realized what had transpired and queried their host: "Why did the clouds approach first from the side of the roof where your wife stood, indicating that her prayers were answered first?" Abba Hilkiya offered two explanations, the first focusing on the opportunity a homemaker has to give the poor ready-made food, rather than money to purchase groceries. In his second explanation, Abba Hilkiya related a past event: "There were these ruffians in our neighborhood. I prayed that they should die, whereas my wife prayed that they should repent." Abba Hilkiya acknowledged the superiority of his wife's approach, and in this merit her prayers for rain were more potent. Returning to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi and his rooster - one commentator suggests that the sage reached the same conclusion that Bruria suggested to Rabbi Meir and as the wife of Abba Hilkiya intuited: Rather than cursing the heretic, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi should have prayed for his contrition (Rabbi Avraham Maskil Le'Eitan, 19th century, Minsk). Indeed, elsewhere in the Talmud, we are told that people who cause others to be punished on their account will not merit the highest levels of closeness to the Almighty (B. Shabbat 149b). The model suggested by these talmudic passages is to hope for delinquents' remorse, not for their punishment. We should not desire that sinners pay for their crimes; rather, as we enter the yemei haselihot veharahamim, our aspiration should be that people will feel more connected to our heritage and humanity closer to the divine. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.