#567(s5768-02 / 8 Tishrei 5769)

A Yom Kippur Story Repeats

Old men who remembered accompanying their parents to shul as children, young families who wanted a taste of their heritage after more than a half-century of Soviet persecution, and youth in their teens who barely knew they were Jewish, flocked to the main synagogue in Kiev.

A Yom Kippur Story Repeats

When "perestroika" became a reality in the former Soviet Union, Jews after many decades of forced assimilation were finally able to live openly as Jews again. The next year, in 1987, a young Chabad rabbi, sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was leading the Kol Nidrei services in the main synagogue of Kiev on Yom Kippur night.

Announcements of the services had been posted all over the city and Jews responded eagerly. Old men who remembered accompanying their parents to shul as children, young families who wanted a taste of their heritage after more than a half-century of Soviet persecution, and youth in their teens who barely knew they were Jewish, flocked to the synagogue.

The cantor chanted Kol Nidrei. The moving melody stirred the hearts of all those who had come. But as the service proceeded, the rabbi sensed feelings of disappointment beginning to surface. After all, most of the people had never been in a synagogue in their lives; none of them knew how to pray together with the cantor. Despite the best intentions, Hebrew-Russian prayerbooks, and explanations in Russian, he could sense that the people were becoming bored, and within their hearts a question was beginning to take form: Were these the prayers that they had yearned for so many years to be allowed to say? The Great Synagogue of Kiev

In the middle of the services, after the silent prayer said while standing, known as the Amida or Shemona Esrei, the young rabbi decided to make one more attempt to strengthen their involvement in the proceedings, so he ascended to the lectern and began to tell a classic chasidic story:

One Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov was praying together with his students in a small Polish village. Through his spiritual vision, the Baal Shem Tov had detected that harsh heavenly judgments had been decreed against the Jewish people, and he and his students were trying with all the sincerity they could muster to cry out to G-d and implore Him to rescind these decrees and grant the Jews a year of blessing.
This deep feeling took hold of all the inhabitants of the village and everyone opened his heart in deep-felt prayer.

Among the inhabitants of the village was a simple shepherd boy. He did not know how to read; indeed, he could barely read the letters of the alef-beit, the Hebrew alphabet. As the intensity of feeling in the synagogue began to mount, he decided that he also wanted to pray. But he did not know how. He could not read the words of the prayer book or mimic the prayers of the other congregants. He opened the prayer book to the first page and began to recite the letters: alef, beit, veit - reading the entire alphabet. He then called out to G-d: "This is all I can do. G-d, You know how the prayers should be pronounced. Please, arrange the letters in the proper way."

This simple, genuine prayer resounded powerfully within the Heavenly court. G-d rescinded all the harsh decrees and granted the Jews blessing and good fortune.

The Rabbi paused for a moment to let the story impact his listeners. Suddenly a voice called out, "alef." And thousands of voices thundered back "alef." The voice continued: "beit," and the thousands responded "beit." They continued to pronounce every letter in the Hebrew alphabet. And then they began to file out of the synagogue.

They had recited their prayers.

 

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[Reprinted from Keeping In Touch by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, published by Sichos In English.]


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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