My grandparents since 1727 until the Holocaust of 1939-1945 were chasidim in Poland. I never knew any of them but I have their photos and portraits since the 19th century…all with very long beards, side curls (payot) and dark clothing, long black robes, some with slight smiles, most with a volume of the Talmud in their hands.
As a young child they frightened me. And although I was raised in a modern orthodox home, I did not want to be associated with my chasidic family, all disciples of the famed Rebbe of Belz. Belzer chasidim who left their homes and families in the Polish villages in order to be with the Belzer Rebbe in his Court in Belz.
Knowing the joys of holyday celebrations with my family it was difficult for me to understand how my grandfathers could leave their families behind as they traveled to give tribute to the great leader of the Chasidic movement.
It was from reading some of the chasidic tales dealing with prayer that opened my eyes to the mysteries of their faith.
In one instance, a Jewish peasant was herding a flock of sheep into a pasture for grazing. Lifting his eyes upward to the heavens he cried out “Dear God, I am only a poor peasant herder of sheep. But if You had sheep, O my God, I would gladly tend them without receiving any payment”.
A chasidic man happened to be walking by and he overheard the words of the herder. He said to him, “My friend, that is not how a Jew prays. Let me teach you the correct words when you address your prayers to God”.
And the chasid taught him to recite the Shema which, as the central credo of Judaism, proclaims the oneness of our God.
A few days later, the same chasid was passing by and he saw the herder. He asked him if he was reciting the prayer which the chasid had taught him. But the poor herder, in shame, replied that he had forgotten the words of the prayer.
The chasid approached the tearful herder and embraced him. And he said, “My brother. Repeat the words which you have always offered to God. It is a prayer from your heart and God will receive it lovingly”.
In another instance, a poor man entered the synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. He had never been educated in Jewish prayer, could not read the printed words in the holyday machzor, and he trembled with fear that he would be punished for failing to pray.
Instead, he repeated all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet over and over again.
“alef bet gimel dalet….alef bet gimel dalet… alef bet gimel dalet…” A chasid who was worshipping nearby overheard the man’s words. He was not able to understand why the poor man was mumbling the letters of the alphabet until the poor man explained it to him.
“I do not know how to read the prayers so I just recite the letters of the alphabet. God will understand my prayer. He will assemble all the letters of the alphabet and will join them to form the prayer of my heart. It is the only way I know how to bless and give thanks to Him.”
The chasid embraced the man and blessed him with an assurance that God has certainly received his prayer and would answer him.
A third tale relates an unusual event. It was on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Hundreds of Jews were gathered in the synagogue swaying and praying with fervent devotion.
Suddenly they heard a loud shrieking whistle. Turning around to seek the source of the whistle they found the young whistle-blower and angrily attempted to throw him out of the synagogue. But the Chasidic rabbi stopped them and he said, “This poor boy does not know how to speak. He is unable to form words of prayer. And so he offered his whistle to God who understands and knows and has compassion and love. This poor boy’s whistle is greater than all of our prayers”.
These simple tales have meaning for all of us on these holy days. In addition to the printed words in the prayerbook, one should also add the private words which are embedded into our hearts. These personal prayers will come before the Throne of the Holy One.
And hopefully they will be received with love.
Shanah tovah mevorechet. A blessed good New Year to all.