As I davened in the shaded yard of our dear neighbors’ home synagogue this Rosh Hashana, with its pastoral view of the Judean hills, I wondered how have I learned to not just survive but savor this 5-6 hour prayer experience, even on Yom Kippur while fasting?
The uplifting melodies of our local musician and Chazzan Zvi Zalevski definitely contribute, as does my fantastic machzor “Mimcha Elecha,” with its moving sources and stories.
But my connection to tefilla I think began decades ago, when my parents chose to send me and my sisters to a religious Hebrew School a few afternoons a week, where Cantor Blau, in his thick European accent, taught us a great love for the Jewish holidays, and challenged us to speed-reading contests – rewarded by a ball game in the yard, helping me learn Shema and many other basic prayers by heart at a young age.
“Girsa d’Yankuta” – what we learn when we are little never leaves our hearts.
This calls to mind a precious story introduced to me by Rav Gershon Kitsis, about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who one Yom Kippur, was aware of a terrible decree in Heaven against the Jewish People, but could not mitigate it, despite all his efforts. During the closing Nei’la prayers, it was revealed to him that the decree had been miraculously revoked, by one Cantonist soldier – a Jewish man who had been abducted to Czar Nikolas’ army when he was just a child.
The same soldier had led his fellow Jewish soldiers in the Yom Kippur prayers that they remembered, and before “Ne’ila,” he had cried out with all his heart: “Master of the Universe! What can we ask of you? Livelihood? Czar Nikolas gives us our food and shelter. Children? We have neither wives nor children. Our lives? And so what if Czar Nikolas has one less soldier?
Only one prayer do we ask of you: “יִתְגַּדַּל וְיִתְקַדַּשׁ שְׁמֵיהּ רַבא!” ‘May Your great name be magnified and sanctified!’”
From a bereft Jewish soldier during a time of no religious opportunity, to our lives of prosperity and complete religious freedom, I am infinitely grateful to my parents that their new free lives in America did not lead them to abandon their families’ spiritual heritage.
In Parshat “Ha’azinu” – “Listen” Heavens and Earth, for you alone can bear witness through the ages – it is exactly this “dor tahapuchot” – this “generation of tumult” that Moshe pleads with us to prevent.
“I will hide My face from them, this changed generation – unrecognizable as My children whom I have reared.” (Devarim 32)
The danger of physical bounty and freedom leading to spiritual poverty and distancing future generations from God is THE main theme of Moshe’s last teachings before he dies.
Even as my children grow as proud Jews and Israelis, and begin to create their own families, God-willing, I know that is not only our examples, but mostly God’s goodness from Above that will keep them close to the truths we cherish.
I pray this Yom Kippur that our children and our children’s children, in all their individual souls and roles in this world, remain blessed and connected, this year and always!
“Set your hearts to all the words that I testify through you today, so that you may teach your children to fulfill all the words of this Torah. For it is not an empty thing – it is your life and it will lengthen your days upon the Land that you cross over the Jordan to possess.” (Devarim 32)
Shabbat shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova!