This morning at synagogue, I was overcome with emotions as I remembered my younger brother, Harry Z”l, who passed away a few months ago. I couldn’t help but well up and shed a tear.
It brought to mind memories of when we were young and preparing for Yom Kippur, by setting out the old Kol Bo Machzorim for Dad Z”l and Mom. We couldn’t help but notice the tear stained pages. It was not unusual then to see people crying during prayers.
I remember well the time time when we visited relatives in Boro Park and prayed at the Blushiver Shtibel near their home, on Yom Kippur. The Blushiver Rebbe Z”l led the Neilah service. As he swayed and prayed, before the open Aron Kodesh, he quietly recited the names of the Kedoshim he knew, who were killed in the Holocaust. As he did so, he began sobbing uncontrollably. The feeling in the room was overwhelming and we all cried.
Over the years, there have been other times when praying, we were moved to tears. It often happened in the Avinu Malkenu prayer, when we are reminded of how G-d, our father and king, is there with us even in times of tragedy. Who can forget the gut-wrenching cry of one our Rabbis leading the prayer service, as he recited the verse asking G-d to help us in the merit of those who died by fire, in sanctification of G-d’s name? He had tragically lost a child in a fire and, as he broke down sobbing, there wasn’t a dry eye in the Synagogue. We all prayed with him and felt his pain.
There are also the sighs of distress, as passages in the prayers bring to mind all sorts of challenges we encountered over the course of a year, where we could have or should have handled the situation better than we did. Some also sigh in pain, because many are no longer so comfortable expressing sorrow or regrets with tears.
Know though that whether it’s words, sighs or tears, G-d hears and understands; it’s all prayer. Don’t be afraid to express heartfelt feelings spontaneously to G-d; be authentic. The prayer book is there as an aid to facilitate a conversation with G-d; not to hinder it.
There is an old Hasidic tale that illustrates this point in a most heartening fashion. The Baal Shem Tov was leading the service and there was a little child who did not know how to read or pray, in attendance that Yom Kippur. The child was so moved that he blew his whistle during the closing Neilah service. The Baal Shem Tov reported that it was the merit of the child’s heartfelt and spontaneous blow of the whistle that lifted everyone’s prayers to be accepted.
As we fast, honor all the other customs and commandments of Yom Kippur and join with others in the formal prayer service, don’t be afraid to talk to G-d. It can even be just a single tear or sigh; it’s all G-d needs to understand our heartfelt needs. May we all be sealed with a happy, healthy and blessed New Year.
[i] See I Samuel, Chapters1-2, including verses 1:10-11 and Radak, Abarbanel and Malbim commentaries thereon. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 31a.
[ii] See Exodus 6:5 and Rashi, Sforno, Ohr HaChaim and Chizkuni commentaries thereon.