I. L. Peretz is considered one of the big three on the Mt. Rushmore of classic Yiddish writers along with Sholom Aleichem (who gave us Tevye the Milkman) and Mendele Mocher Sforim. In a riff on a classic Hasidic story, Peretz wrote about Lithuanian Jew – a Litvak – the paragon of an enlightened Jew – who traveled to the Ukrainian town of Nemerov – the epicenter of Hasidism (the epitome of anti-enlightenment Judaism) – just in time for the High Holidays.
He arrived on a Friday, and he wanted to speak to the rabbi about securing hospitality for Shabbat and the holidays. He was told that the rabbi was not available because every Friday the rabbi went to heaven. Sometimes, the rabbi missed morning services, and sometimes he was late coming back. Everyone thought it was a little strange that the rabbi would disappear to heaven for a full day so close to the High Holidays when there was so much to be done, but no one seemed to doubt that he was, in fact, in heaven for the day – except, of course, the newly arrived Litvak.
So, the next Thursday night, the Litvak hid himself so that he would be able to follow the rabbi and see where he was actually going. He saw the rabbi wake up and get out of bed well before dawn when no one was out and about. Instead of putting on the usual clothing of a Torah scholar, though, the rabbi went to his closet and pulled out the clothes of a Ukrainian villager. He coiled a long leather strap over his shoulder, grabbed an axe and headed out of town.
The Litvak quietly followed at a distance.
The rabbi found a tree that was perfect for firewood, chopped it down into logs that would fit in a stove and tied them together with his strap. He threw the logs over his shoulder and headed further away from town.
The Litvak quietly followed at a distance.
The rabbi approached a ramshackle hut and knocked on the door. A weak voice asked who was there. The rabbi called out in Ukrainian – not Yiddish, “It’s Vasili the woodsman. I have firewood for sale.” The weak voice responded, “I have no money for wood. You know, I’m just a poor Jewish woman – too sick to work this week.”
“I’ll give you a week’s worth of wood on credit,” the rabbi said. “How will I repay you?” she replied.
The rabbi scoled her, “Silly woman: you are a poor sick Jewish woman, and I am willing to trust you with a little bundle of wood; I believe that in time you will repay me. And you, you have such a great and mighty God, and you do not trust! Not even to provide you the amount for a bundle of wood? Here – I will even light the stove for you.”
As the rabbi unbundled the wood next to the woman’s stove, the Litvak heard the rabbi mumble the words of the preliminary service. As the rabbi carefully placed some logs in the stove, the Litvak heard the rabbi mumble the words of the Shacharit service. After lighting and kindling the flame, the Litvak heard the melody of Avinu Malkeinu under the rabbi’s breath.
At that point the Litvak headed back to town, telling nobody what he saw and heard.
A few days later, the rabbi was late for Yom Kippur services. People were getting nervous and asking where the rabbi could be on the most important day of the year, when everyone was counting on him to conduct services. One of his students tried to calm everyone down by saying, “Don’t worry. We know exactly where he is. He’s in Heaven.” And the Litvak called out: “If not higher.”
That Litvak never left Nemerov. He stayed and became the rabbi’s most devoted disciple.
Needless to say, when I found out that I had COVID and I would likely not be able to attend High Holiday services, I was devastated. After all, it’s the most sacred day of the year. Usually, more of us come together in one space than at any other time of year. It’s a special moment on the synagogue calendar.
Could there be any worse luck for a rabbi? Was God trying to send me a message? Did I do something seriously wrong?
Now, I don’t really believe that God punishes us that way and I don’t think I did anything that terrible this past year, but this story brought me some comfort. Because as important as High Holiday services are – spiritually, socially, educationally – missing Yom Kippur services is NOT the end of the world.
Missing Yom Kippur services would NOT define my Judaism or my relationship with God. The Rabbi of Nemerov makes sure that we know that.
So, I know I’m not the only one who’s feeling a little out of sorts – not observing Yom Kippur in the way that we had hoped. Sure, we’ve been dealing with this for 2+ years now, but I think we had all hoped that we were starting to move beyond COVID protocols. Nonetheless, here we are.
Once again, we will take advantage of this amazing technology to be together as best we can under less-than-ideal circumstances. But, the true challenge of Yom Kippur is not what we do with these 25 hours. It’s what we do with the coming year.
This past Sunday, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow for the past 30 years, wrote a guest essay for the NYT magazine entitled “My First Yom Kippur in Exile.” He is spending this Yom Kippur in Jerusalem – the spiritual capital of Judaism! – but he still feels as if he’s in exile. He and his wife were forced to leave Moscow because he would not express public support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. He wrote: “When we blow that shofar this year, let us remember that it is the role of faith to counter evil, to fight for the basic human rights of liberty and life.”
In other words, attending services is not an end unto itself. Attending services is supposed to motivate us to change the world. As you’ve probably heard me say before, the rabbis could not have been any clearer about this when they chose the passage from Isaiah 58 as the Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning. I try to call attention to it each and every year. The Prophet asks on God’s behalf:
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for people to starve their bodies?…
Do you call that a fast,
A day when Adonai is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the chains of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
So, while I am grateful that we can be together via Zoom this evening, I’d be even more grateful if our community focused on the following three things going forward:
(1) Participate in our Food Drive. When it first became a tradition to collect food on Yom Kippur, it was called Project Isaiah because of the text I just read to you. The idea was that we should donate the amount of food that we are NOT eating on Yom Kippur. Of course, much more is needed. I know that many of you are not going to be in the building during Yom Kippur. You can still swing by and leave food at the green awning without coming in. Or you can choose the hunger-fighting organization of your preference to make a contribution – my favorites are SHIP, Bobrow Kosher Food Pantry and Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger – local, local Jewish, National.
(2) Check in on people. One of the best things we have done as a congregation during my time here is the way that we checked in on one another during the worst of the pandemic. We had an amazing committee that made sure we didn’t miss anyone. But, a lot of it was informal. People just made sure that other people had what they needed and were doing okay. Like many of you, I was ready to move on from COVID living – until I saw that little line on the test last week. I was ready to live as if we didn’t have COVID still hanging over our heads. It was clearly hubris on my part.
For me, getting COVID – however mild a case it has been – was a stark reminder that we still have members of our community who for various health reasons are not able to rejoin us in person. They still need us to check in on them. We can’t forget.
(3) The Reorganization of our Social Action committee. Stacey Sacks and Heidi Block got us started and bunch of other folks have already come aboard. We are reinvigorating our relationships with Family Promise and SHIP – two local organizations that support temporarily homeless families and food insecure individuals. We are connecting our JLC students with adult members to work together on community service through a grant called “Better Together.” We are inviting anyone who has a passion for a particular mitzvah project or organization to bring that passion to our community when we have Mitzvah Day for the entire congregation toward the end of the school year to showcase all the ways that we can put our Jewish values into action and make the world the world a better place.
In short, we are challenging everyone to put on their woodsman’s clothing, pick up their strap and axe and get to work helping someone who needs it.
Once again, I love the High Holidays and I am grateful that we can be together even when we’re not completely together. As a rabbi, it’s the high point of my year. But, if this coming year, together, we check in on community members in need, feed the hungry and engage in projects that will make our world a better place, then we’ll clearly go even higher.
L’Shanah Tovah, RAF.