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December 18, 2014 / 26 Kislev, 5775
 
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Atonement: Getting It Right


The newborn is far from shy about letting its feelings be known as it is thrust, against its will, into a frigid and foreign world. With flailing hands and pitiful wails, its displeasure is made amply clear. Which raises the question: Since the soul does not choose to spend time on this planet, is it fair that it is held accountable for the way it goes about living its life here on earth?

Some perspective is in order. A well-to-do man had difficulty marrying his two daughters off, for one was unsightly and the other a non-stop prattler. A smart matchmaker came up with a solution: he knew of two brothers, one blind and the other deaf, and suggested the former as suitable for the unappealing girl, the latter for her unrefined sibling.

The shidduchim were actualized and the couples got on well together for a fair amount of time. That is, until a miracle worker came to town one day and claimed to be a healing specialist who, for a substantial fee, could cure the brothers of their impairments.

But when the blind man’s eyesight was restored and his deaf brother regained his hearing, their woes began to mount and they refused to pay the physician for his services.

The case went before an arbitrator who ruled the brothers had a legitimate contention: whereas they had previously been happy with their lot, their new awareness of their wives’ shortcomings proved injurious to the health of their marriages and they thus should be freed of their obligation to pay the doctor – who was ordered to reverse the cure and restore the brothers to their former handicapped states.

The brothers vehemently decried the finding; there was no way they would subject themselves to further physical manipulation in such manner.

At that, it was decreed the brothers had shown themselves to be satisfied with the doctor’s service and had to pay him in full.

So it is with every soul claiming on his Yom HaDin that he did not ask to be born. In fact, the God that gives life is the One that can take it away. Yet most of us would rather live than die, in which case we are obligated to give our Maker a din v’cheshbon – an accounting of all our deeds on earth. (Mishlei Avos)

* * * * *

By the good grace of God, we are generously granted an annual day of reprieve. On Yom Kippur we abstain from all things mundane and beg, plead, and cry to our Maker over our misdeeds. Yet we still worry that our words of contrition are not penetrating the Heavens, and we wonder where we went wrong.

The following true story offers a clue as to where we may be coming up short.

The Torah giant Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Assad, the son of the Mahari Assad (one of the most prominent rabbis in Hungary – the name Assad was adapted from Aszod, the city where he was born), was the rav of the shul in Szerdahely for close to forty years. Every Yom Kippur he would lead the Ne’ilah service, as befits one who shepherds his flock with love and devotion and harbors a fiery love in his heart for his Creator. Who better to plead for his congregation when the heavenly gates are about to close?

It was therefore puzzling to hear Reb Aharon Shmuel asking the ba’al tefillah, R. Chaim Leib, to exchange duties with him – the latter to daven Ne’ilah and the rav to take over the Kol Nidre service.

The rav, who had been under the weather, gave the impression he felt he’d be too weak to properly carry out his sacred duty following hours of fasting. But that wasn’t on Reb Aharon’s mind at all.

It was actually R. Menashe Ber who motivated his decision. R. Menashe Ber had married off his daughter to an educated man studying foreign languages in his quest for a doctorate – the sort of languages the local Jews adjudged to be “treif.”

When news of the match had first circulated, R. Menashe Ber had been inundated with unasked for advice from harsh critics who demanded that he break off his daughter’s engagement. When the father, a melamed by trade, did not comply, parents of the children he taught systematically pulled their kids from his cheder, leaving the hapless family man bereft of a livelihood.

But this move paled next to the slap he was dealt when he was barred from the daily shiurim that routinely followed morning prayers and of which he had been a longtime devotee.

Those who did not view R. Menashe Ber’s “wrongdoing” as catastrophic were few in number. Their argument that his son-in-law could be a fine and good Jew despite his pursuit of a secular education was lost on the majority. Even children passing him in the street took to mocking him.

Since the rav hadn’t been well during this time, he’d missed out on the maelstrom of resentment and subsequent fallout – until R. Menashe Ber himself, unable to withstand the emotional assault, came to him in tears to ask if his sin was indeed so grave as to justify the suffering and endless shame he was made to endure at every turn of his daily existence.

R. Menashe Ber explained how he could not afford the dowry that would have rendered his daughter a viable shidduch candidate among his peers, and that when an out-of-town shidduch was proffered for his daughter, one who perceived her worthiness and imposed no specific dowry demand, he had made inquiries that verified the young man as shomer Torah and mitzvos and agreed to the match.

Rabbi Assad commiserated with R. Menashe Ber and made every attempt to sway the people close to him into recognizing that the poor man’s “folly” was not as ghastly as they would have it be – and conceding that they never would have consented to taking his daughter for any of their boys had it meant forgoing a dowry.

As the month of Elul approached, the rav lectured one and all about the need to ask for forgiveness and the importance of resolving the man-to-man conflicts for which Yom Kippur would not atone. The reaction was an incredulous, “What? He should forgive us?”

Elul went by, as did Shabbos Teshuvah. Erev Yom Kippur was upon them and one could count less than a handful of the locals who bothered wishing R. Menashe Ber a g’mar chasimah tovah.

Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Assad was beside himself with agitation. How could those who chose to ignore their brokenhearted brother expect Hashem to forgive their own sins?

That is when it dawned on the rabbi to switch roles: he would daven Kol Nidre and the ba’al tefillah would lead the closing service of Yom Kippur.

His voice tore through the air as he began, “Ohr zarua la’tzaddik u’leyishrei lev simcha” – “Light is sewn for the righteous, and for the straight of heart joy” – and then the haunting liturgy of Kol Nidre, three times over. When it came time for “Selach na la’avon ha’am hazeh” – “Please pardon the sins of this nation” – the rabbi became mute; he uttered not a sound, alarming the congregants.

The one standing closest to the rav saw tears beginning to flow from his eyes. When asked if he was feeling ill, the rav simply shook his head and pointed to the words “Selach na ”

Reb Sholom was a sharp-witted talmid chacham and caught on immediately, the Rav’s tears instantly dissolving the anger he had harbored in his heart for R. Menashe Ber – to whom he quickly strode over and said, loud enough for everyone to hear: “Reb Menashe Ber, here and now in this holy place, I beg your forgiveness for everything I have done to you and for having waited this long ”

Reb Sholom’s moving act inspired others to follow suit. Slowly, those who had snubbed and rebuffed the poor man made their way to him to ask mechilah.

Benevolently, R. Menashe Ber replied that he forgave them all and that he asked Hashem to forgive them.

The rav’s tears did not let up, but they were now tears of joy and he had no trouble enunciating: “Please pardon the sins of your nation ” A loud chorus of voices rose to a crescendo as the answer came thrice in succession, “Va’yomer Hashem salachti kidvarecha” – “And Hashem said, I forgive you according to your word.”

* * * * *

A chassid once approached the Chozeh of Lublin and asked for advice on how to do teshuvah.

“What have you done?” asked the tzaddik of the young man. “Is your sin one between you and your friend or between you and the Almighty?”

The chassid said he had sinned against his Maker.

“If that is so,” replied the Chozeh, “do not despair and do not cry. Hashem does not like us to be sad; you will achieve much more with simcha than with tears.”

The tzaddik asked again, “Are you certain you have sinned?”

In a tear-choked voice, the chassid replied in the affirmative and asked to be taught the art of repentance so that he could do proper teshuvah and be forgiven.

“Go home and don’t worry,” advised the tzaddik. “The mere awareness of your sin has freed you from it. The stamp of Hashem is Emes. If only I would be on the level where you find yourself.

“The rasha who knows he is evil is favored above the tzaddik who feels himself to be sin-free. The rasha, in admitting his wrongdoing, does not lie, while the supposed tzaddik is lacking the attribute of emes.

“There is no tzaddik who has not sinned. Those who believe themselves to be sin-free fail to repent even as they stand at the door to gehenom, convinced they’d been chosen to rescue the suffering souls there; the thought that they may have sinned and are being escorted to receive retribution for their transgressions does not enter their minds.”

* * * * *

During the Yamim Noraim Reb Nachman, the Breslover Tzaddik, had a dream. (He was aware that since we are bereft of the Beis HaMikdash, a tzaddik’s life is sacrificed for the sins of Klal Yisrael each year at such time.)

In his dream it was Yom Kippur and the heavens were casting about for a tzaddik to volunteer to forfeit his life for such cause.

The Breslover Rebbe undertook to be moser nefesh and make himself available. But soon thereafter he regretted his decision, yet had no way of concealing himself to forestall fulfilling his commitment.

In his dream he left the city. Though he walked and walked, he would find himself back where he had started out. He contemplated hiding among non-Jews but feared they would give him away when his brethren would come looking for him.

In the meantime, another righteous soul consented to be the korban in place of the Breslover Tzaddik, but still Reb Nachman feared his time to be imminent. His replacement turned out to be none other than the holy Berditchiver Rebbe, who passed away that Sukkos. (Reb Nachman’s fear was realized the following year, when he too ascended to the upper world – also on Sukkos.)

At the time, Reb Nachman remarked that even the ordinary person is conscious of the enormity of a tzaddik’s loss. Some simply feel that things aren’t quite right, while others perceive something to be missing from the world. The gloom manifests itself in different ways. One man believes he is despondent due to his struggle with parnassah, another blames his sadness on the aches in his bones, and so on. But in reality we are suffering the deprivation of a holy soul who has been taken from among us. A light has been extinguished and has caused the world to become a darker place.

* * * * *

We desperately await the clarion call – the blast of the shofarthat will signify an end to all tragedy. This year, Yom Kippur falls on Shabbos, a phenomenon that occurs less than a third of the time and which offers us an amazing vantage point.

On Shabbos the Midas ha’Din converts to the Midas ha’Rachamim. Furthermore, it is written that whoever heeds the commandment of keeping the Shabbos holy is forgiven for all his sins. As the verdict of penance for our errant ways is about to be sealed, how better to temper our Father’s vexation with us than by honoring the Shabbos, the precious gift He conferred on us as a means to elevate our souls and to unify with Him?

In Gemara Shabbos it says, “Were Israel to observe just two Sabbaths, they would immediately be redeemed.” Both Shabbos and Yom Kippur are referred to in the Torah as a Sabbath of Sabbaths (Shabbosin Shemos 35:1-2;Yom Kippurin Vayikra 16:29-31).

The two-for-one not only doubles the inherent kedushah of the remarkable day but allows us to observe two Sabbaths simultaneously.

If, in this unique circumstance, each of us would undertake to truly present ourselves as sincere penitents worthy of redemption, just imagine where it could take us. Just imagine

Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press. She can be contacted at

rachelw32@verizon.net.

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