Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lessons Learned from the Kohen Gadol and the Tailor

Lessons Learned from the Kohen Gadol and the Tailor

R. Dovid Gottlieb
(Kol Nidrei 5766 - 10-12-05)

The shul was hushed, all of the worshippers were crowded into their pews, and a nervous tension filled the air. The famed rebbe, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, stood, resplendently robed in white, before them. They waited and waited for the rebbe to begin the haunting recitation of Kol Nidrei but only silence filled the air. Dusk turned into night, but still the tzaddik remained silent. Filled with curiosity but paralyzed by fear, struck with wonder but restrained by awe, no one dared approach and remind him that the time to begin had passed.

Click here to read moreSuddenly the door flew open and a simple looking fellow that no one recognized stumbled into shul, finding an open seat against the back wall. And only then was Reb Levi Yiztchok ready to begin Kol Nidrei.

The curiosity of the congregants grew and grew until davening was completed at which time they converged on the stranger in the back. “Who are you?” “What brings you here?” “I am just a simple tailor who lives in the village,” replied the man.

Unsatisfied, the townspeople continued, “Didn’t you see that the entire service was held up until your arrival?” Still, no deeper explanation. The stalemate was finally broken when someone asked “At least tell us why you were so late to shul?”

“Okay,” said the tailor, “I’ll tell you what happened.” “At breakfast I had a little too much to drink so I lay down to sleep. When I awoke I realized it was too late to have a full meal before the fast so I decided to pour a glass of vodka and make a l’chayim. Seeing as I didn’t have anyone else to say it to, I decided that I’d make a l’chayim to the Almighty. So I said to Him: ‘Master of the Universe, let’s cut to the chase. Over the past year, with all due respect, You haven’t quite behaved Yourself. Look how many women were left widowed? How many children have been orphaned? How many children were taken from their parents? Plus, You are even guilty of gossiping. How else would the local squire find out about my little “side business” if You didn’t tell him? Nevertheless, God, we are willing to forgive you for everything, provided that you are willing to forgive us too.’ Then I washed back me vodka and made my way to shul.”

Stunned – and still confused – the listeners gave way and the tailor shuffled back to his home.

After Yom Kippur, Reb Levi Yizchok gathered his curious chassidim and explained what had occurred the night before. “The l’chayim of the tailor was so powerful that it burst forth all the way to the highest gate in heaven. It was only right, therefore, that we wait for him before beginning Kol Nidrei.”

For prayer to be effective it must be real. Tefillos that are honest and sincere are those which we can be sure are heard on High. We say every day in “Ashrei”: “Karov Hashem l’chol kor’av” – God is close to all who call Him; “l’chol asher yikra’u b’emes” – if they are honest – and real – when they call Him.

What the tailor lacked in philosophical sophistication – or even tact – he more than made up for by the honesty and intimacy with which he spoke to God.

An inspirational and instructive model of just this type of “real” tefillah comes from a sometimes overlooked section of our davening on Yom Kippur and is actually a “prayer within a prayer.”

The highlight of the ancient Yom Kippur service was, without any question, the entrance – and, hopefully, safe exit from – of the Kohen Gadol into the Kodesh Kadoshim, the Holy of Holies. Just once in an entire year there took place a convergence between the holiest person (the Kohen Gadol), the holiest place (the Kodesh Kadoshim), and the holiest time (Yom Kippur). The combined kedushah was so intense, in fact, that one slip of the Kohen Gadol’s concentration could result in the loss of his life. And so, when he emerged safely from this most holy of places you can imagine how relieved he and members of his family were. As a result, after successfully comleting his avodah, the Kohen Gadol offered a heartfelt and beautiful prayer.

The version we have in our Machzorim (Artscroll p. 570) is a poetic embellishment, arranged in the order of the aleph-beis, of a shorter text found in the Mishna (Yoma 5:1) and Talmud (Yoma 53b, Yerushalmi 5:1). What is so beautiful about the tefilla is that it is so real and direct, touching on all of our aspirations, from prosaic to sublime, as all of our needs, both spiritual and physical, are addressed.

Interestingly, upon closer study it becomes apparent that there is something surprising about the structure of the tefilla. As was mentioned, the requests follow the order of the aleph-beis. And yet, after 22 bakashos – corresponding to the entirety of the alphabet – there are an additional three requests. The contemporary work Shemen HaTov (Moadim pp. 97-99) observes that their inclusion, after the prayer should ostensibly have been completed, suggests a particular significance to these bakashos.

Shanah she’lo tapil ishah pri bitnah” – the first of these requests is that in the coming year women should be spared the pain of miscarrying. Why mention this, of all possible difficulties?

Pregnancy is full of all sorts of discomforts, ranging from physical to emotional. Yet all of this is courageously accepted in the great anticipation of the reward of a healthy and beautiful baby. When a miscarriage occurs, all of the previous sacrifice goes for naught. All of the hopes that pushed the expectant mother through the hardships are dashed; all of her dreams go unfulfilled. The searing pain from such a tragedy cannot be overstated.

There is a broader significance to this, as well. One doesn’t have to be an expectant mother to experience the pain of unfulfilled dreams and unredeemed sacrifices. This can occur to parents who spend years of effort giving everything they can to a child only to see that son or daughter grow up and reject the very values that parents hold most dear. Or to tireless business owners who invested everything they had – financially and emotionally – into their business, only to see it fall on hard times as the economic winds changed.

There are, of course, countless other examples of this type of tragedy and it is for protection from this that the Kohen Gadol prays. We are willing to sacrifice. We just pray that our sacrifice not be for naught but, rather, in service of a higher purpose.

Shanah she-ta’alenu sameichim l’artzenu” – next, he davens that our aliyah to Israel be joyous. The focus here isn’t on the aliyah per se, but the circumstances that surround it.

We live in a crazy world which is often sadistically cruel to Jews. The ever flexible ability of anti-Semitism to adapt its hatred to current circumstances was succinctly captured recently by Israeli writer Amos Oz (A Tale of Love and Darkness). He recalls that once upon a time, “Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: ‘Yids, go back to Palestine,’ so we came back to Palestine, and now the world at large shouts at us: ‘Yids, get out of Palestine.’”

Through it all – through all of the attacks, pogroms, and blood libels – Jews have fled to the safe haven of Eretz Yisroel. But the Kohen Gadol prays for a different reality. He prays for a time when people aren’t forced to flee from somewhere else but freely chose to run to Israel.

Rav Nachman Kahana beautifully explains that this duality is contained in the famous pesukim we read in the Haftorah on second day of Rosh Hashana. “Ki yesh sa’char lif’ulaseich na'um Hashem, v'shavu mei’eretz oyaiv” – your efforts will be rewarded as you return from the land of your enemies; “V'yeish tikvah l’achriseich n'um Hashem, v'shavu vanim ligvulam” – there is hope for you ultimately, as your children will return to your border.

Interestingly, we are only referred to as God’s children in the second half of the verse. Rav Kahana explained that this is because the two parts of the pasuk are referring to two different types of aliyah. The first refers to those who are fleeing an enemy pursuer. But the second refers to those who are not compelled to return by anything other than the desire of a child to be closer to his mother. This is what the Kohen Gadol is asking for, “she-ta’alenu sameichim l’artzenu.”

Additionally, I would add that there are many other forms of aliyah – spiritual growth – that we aspire to, and with these, as well, their motivation can come from different sources. Moments of great crisis or calamity, just as experiences of great achievement and accomplishment, can lead to spiritual aliyah.

She-ta’alenu smeichim l’artzenu” also expresses the hope that the inspiration for our aspiration come not from trial or tribulation but from God’s manifest blessing.

Finally, he requests “shanah she’lo yitz’tarchu amcha Beis Yisroel zeh la’zeh v’lo l’am acher” – a year in which we are each able to maintain our independence, not reliant on the help of either Jew or gentile. In addition to obvious benefit of preserving our dignity, there may be an additional meaning as well.

In bentching we ask that we not be forced to depend on “mantas bassar va’dam v’lo li’dei halva’asam” – the largesse and loans of other people. Here too the simple meaning of our request is aimed at avoiding the obvious embarrassment of needing the help of others.

But my rebbe, Rav Mayer Twersky, explained that the more profound fear is that if we become reliant on others we run the risk of forgetting who the ultimate source of all blessing and bounty is. The danger is that an appropriate appreciation of friends who have offered help could cloud out a sense of gratitude to the Ribbono shel Olam who is, of course, the real supplier to all, including our generous friend.

This may be the deeper point of the bakashah by the Kohen Gadol as well. We pray for financial independence because we want to be able to preserve a direct connection to Hashem as the source of blessing in our lives. Otherwise we run the risk of playing a game of “Spiritual Telephone” in which God must take His place in the back of the line – and may be forgotten altogether.

As we begin this marathon journey of Yom Kippur together, let us recall the crucial components of the Kohen Gadol’s prayer. We pray that any difficulties we endure be redeemed as sacrifices on the altar of a larger good; that the aliyos in our lives be inspired by love not fear; and that we remain independent enough to realize our direct dependence on Hashem.

And even more important than the specifics of the Kohen Gadol’s prayer, we must remember the message of the tailor’s prayer: for tefillah to have the utmost success it doesn’t always have to be pretty, but it does have to be real.

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