Although it’s common to turn to chassidic tales as a portal through which to meditate on the High Holidays, I’d like, instead, to consider a story written by extraordinary Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.
Borges, of course, was not a Chassid. He wasn’t even Jewish. But he read Hebrew and was fascinated by Jewish texts, from the Zohar to Rambam to modern Jewish writers. During the 1930s and ‘40s, he spoke out against the Nazis. In later years, he publicly denounced Argentine anti-Semitism – so much so that his opponents accused him of being Jewish. In an essay called “Yo, Judío” (“I, a Jew”), he declared that, although he knew of no Jewish ancestors, he would have been proud to be Jewish.
‘He expresses regret not for what he has done, but what has been left undone because time has run out’
So I’d like to consider one of his stories, “The Secret Miracle,” as a sort of Jewish text, a Yamim Nora’im commentary. The main character, a Jewish playwright captured by the Gestapo, faces execution by a firing squad. He prays for time to complete what he was writing, begging God to grant him another year of life. In a dream, he hears a voice that tells him, “The time of your work has been granted.”
The commanding officer gives the command: Fire. Nothing happens. And the man understands he has been given a miraculous reprieve. Time has frozen for him so he can complete his magnum opus. He begins to work on his play – elaborating, correcting and perfecting it in his mind. After a year, he completes it. Then history resumes. The soldiers – who were not even aware that time had stood still for a year – discharge their rifles, killing him.
‘the man dies not because of evil in his soul, but because of evil in the world’
Borges’ story touches many of the major elements of tension that run through our machzor and characterize our experience of the Yamim Nora’im: the connections among suffering, goodness and evil; the efficacy of prayer; the relationship between a person and God, between mortality and meaningfulness, and between human boundedness and divine infinitude.
While Borges’ protagonist prays, he does not repent – does not do tshuvah – because both he and Borges locate evil not in the victim of the Gestapo, but in the perpetrators. Sentenced to be executed as a Jew and an anti-Nazi, the man dies not because of evil in his soul, but because of evil in the world. He expresses regret not for what he has done, but what has been left undone because time has run out.
My father gave me a machzor when I was a child. On the inside cover, he inscribed: “May all your prayers be answered.” My sense of what that simple sentence means has evolved over time. As in the Borges story, we too may sometimes find the parameters for change to be narrow and the conditions of life to be radically unjust. Observation and experience tell us that random things happen – that not only evil people, but also fine and good people sometimes suffer the fierce tribulations envisioned in our machzor.
In the Borges story, the Jewish man’s prayer is, indeed, answered, but so differently from what he must have imagined for himself. Outwardly, to all appearances, his prayer was denied. But internally, what he experiences is quite different. He is exquisitely aware of the finitude of life – in the words of the machzor, he knows he is like a tzel over (fleeting shadow), an anan caleh (passing cloud) – mortal, temporary, insignificant. At the same time, he experiences a link with eternity – a gift of time out of time, the completion of his masterpiece. Alone before a firing squad, he experiences the divine.
As in the Borges story, sometimes gifts come to us in ways we did not anticipate. We must find the means to open our minds and our hearts to them. In this way, we may experience difficulties not as harsh despair, but as a life saturated with meaning.