Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Peshis’chah (1765-1827) said:

“Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he [or she] can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and there find the words:
בשבילי נברא העולם/Bishvili nivra ha-olam — For my sake the world was created.’ [1]
But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words:
ואנכי עפר ואפר/V’anochi afar v’efer — I’m only dust and ashes’ [2].” [3]

So which is it? Are we the most important thing that God ever created or are we common and worthless?

The Rebbe wasn’t asking us to be logically consistent. 

He was teaching us that in moderating our feelings, it’s sometimes necessary to assume one attitude and at other times to assume the exact opposite!

“One must know how to use them, each one in its proper place and right time. For many make the mistake of using them in their opposite applications.” [4]

That’s very parallel to the way that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works: Because our feelings depend on our thoughts, we can choose specific thoughts to moderate our feelings.

But the Rebbe’s goal for us was far broader than moderating feelings alone.

God is always present in and around us.

One of the main goals of meditation is take our attention beyond the field of thought, to the Divine Presence itself. But the experience of the Divine can be obscured by depression, anger, etc. 

Rebbe Simchah directs us to choose thoughts that maintain — or return to us — our sense of God’s Presence in our lives and in ourselves. Especially after we’ve experienced that through meditation or prayer.

Yesterday, I was teaching on an excerpt from the High Holiday prayer, “U’netanah Tokef:”

“On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed 
and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed:

How many will pass from the earth 

     and how many will be created;

who’ll live 

     and who’ll die;

who’ll die at his predestined time 

     and who before his time; 

who by water 

     and who by fire, 

who by sword
     and who by beast, 

who by famine 

     and who by thirst,

who by disaster 

     and who by plague, 

who by strangling 

     and who by stoning;
who’ll rest 

     and who’ll wander;

who’ll live in harmony 

     and who’ll be harried; 

who’ll enjoy tranquility 

     and who’ll suffer;

who’ll be impoverished 

     and who’ll be enriched;

who’ll be degraded 

     and who will be exalted.

             But Prayer, Repentance, and Charity annul the severe decree.”

I was teaching this to introduce the major theme of Rosh Ha-Shanah: God is King.

I explained it to mean that God is in charge of everything that happens to us. There can be a larger meaning, too: God is in charge of every ongoing detail of Creation, in however many universes or dimensions there are. While that larger meaning could be included in our “Rosh Ha-Shanah thinking,” the thrust of the liturgy is for us to consider what happens in our own personal lives.

The group I was leading, while not trained theologians, were bright and articulate enough to recognize and question a deep contradiction: Is God in charge of the wrong things we do? Or, do we have free choice, independent of God?

In considering their questions about this contradiction, I thought that Rebbe Simchah’s teaching could apply here, as well:

At times we must affirm that God is in charge of even our errors; at other times, we must affirm that we have free will and its accompanying responsibility for our actions.

At times, we all do things in error. We can choose our response.

When we recognize what we’ve done in error, and how we might correct it, we could regard ourselves as having free choice. We could then take responsibility and make amends, or correct what we’ve upset. 

But if we find ourselves overly remorseful or unable to fully correct what we’ve done, we could affirm for ourselves: All that happens — even our mistakes — is God’s Will for an ultimate good. Sadness, depression, excessive self-blame or guilt are to be avoided. They serve no useful spiritual purpose in themselves.

The beginning and end of the importance of everything that happens to us is our recognition of our relationship with God; our awareness of God’s Presence in our lives.

There’s no need to be logically consistent.  

“U’netaneh Tokef,” as representative of the Rosh Ha-Shanah theme, is about accepting God’s Will in all that happens to us — accepting it at least as “fair;” even better as “fair and good.”

How often, though, have we all experienced that some “mistake” that we made had an outcome that, somewhere down the line our lives, had a “good” consequence? Perhaps paying the price for a minor mistake helped us later on avoid repeating it, or even making a much bigger one?

Yet, “U’netaneh Tokef” also assumes that by recognizing that all that happens to us is a consequence of our own actions, we can make better choices in the future.

Rosh Ha-Shanah is designed by the rabbis to compel us to consider what place God has in our lives.

As one member of the group said at the end of yesterday’s “chat:”
“That’s the essential question.”


[1] Sanhedrin 37a
[2] Bereishith/Gen. 18:27
[3] quoted in many sources, including:
Buber, Martin (© 1948). Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters. Schocken Books. pp. 249–250
[4] I found this continuation of Rabbi Simchah’s teaching in Rabbi Jack Moline’s excellent sermon:
(I found Rabbi Moline’s article online. It showed the above address. However, the link seems to send us to a page that isn’t working at this time. I’ll leave the link as is, and check on it to see if it comes back online. In the meantime, try googling “Jack Moline Two Pockets”.)
Rabbi Moline indicates that he found it himself in “Iturei Torah,” a collection of Hasidic teachings on the weekly parshah.