By Rabbi Rafi Goodwin, Senior Rabbi, Chigwell & Hainault United Synagogue
Erev Shavuot, Sunday 16th May, is a day etched in my memory. I was brutally attacked by two men in an antisemitic hate crime. (The men have since been remanded in custody). My life was in the balance. Thank God, I was saved by a few selfless and brave angels that God sent my way in my time of need. The special blessing we insert into the Amidah on fast days, ”Blessed are You, Lord, who answers in time of distress” was being played out in real time. What is more fascinating is the discussion I had with my five-yearold daughter, Rina, a few minutes prior.
Rina made the following observation: If Heaven is so special because God lives there, and when we die our souls go up to Heaven, we should be happy to die! She looked at me for my approval. After some deliberation, the famous song, ‘Neshomele’, written by Abie Rotenberg provided the perfect response. The song is based on the Midrash Tanchuma (Pekudei 3) and the last mishnah in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot.
It portrays a discussion between every soul in Heaven and the ministering angel responsible for pregnancy called Lailah (Talmud Niddah 16b). The angel summons the soul to be sent down into a newborn baby. The soul at first refuses to go. It bemoans that there is so much pain and evil on the earth below and yearns to stay in Heaven where it will be safe and pure. Despite its protests, the angel tells the soul it is time to face its destiny. The angel proceeds to show the soul that it can ultimately achieve so much more in a body doing mitzvot and learning Torah. The soul agrees to be planted into the newborn baby despite all the challenges that will await it in the years ahead.
Fast forward to the end of the soul’s time in the body. The angel summons the soul back to Heaven. At this point, the soul realises it will not be able to fulfil any more mitzvot once it leaves the body. The soul becomes distressed and pleads with the angel not to be taken away. The angel in turn then comforts the soul saying it has no reason to fear its destination, a seat right by God’s Throne.
I summarised this song to Rina and concluded that God needs us to learn lots of Torah and do lots of mitzvot and we do not want to go back to Heaven before we have done as much good as we can down here.
Looking back, it feels like the heavenly court was at that very moment deliberating my fate. The haunting words of Unetaneh Tokef were being read out, ‘’who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out his allotted time and who shall depart before his time.’’ The conclusion I came to with Rina’s help was, ‘not just yet’, I have got more to do.
Every Rosh Hashana we must ask ourselves: Are we going to use the new year God has given us to fulfil the mission our souls were sent down for? If we resolve to base our year on this question, we will merit to have a truly sweet new year.