No one understood more clearly than he that if the New Year and the Day of Atonement were a time of judgment and the days themselves a kind of trial, the Jewish people needed a defending counsel. For the key to these days was not strict justice but forgiveness. Had God not chosen the Jewish people? And did this not therefore mean that He loved them? And if He loved them, did He not wish to forgive them? If so, then the vital task was not to berate the congregation for their sins, but to plead with God to let mercy prevail.
This, Levi Yitzchak did. He did so each year in prayers of unprecedented audacity. He spoke directly to heaven. He did so familiarly, using the Yiddish language rather than the formal Hebrew of the prayer book. It was as if the synagogue in Berdichev had become the courtroom of the Jewish world, and in the hush before the judgment Levi Yitzchak approached the Judge and in words of passion sought to have the case dismissed.
One year he said, “Master of the Universe, Your people Israel have many sins. But You have much forgiveness. I propose an exchange. Let us trade our sins for Your forgiveness. And if You say that that is an unfair exchange, I answer that without our sins, of what use would Your forgiveness be?”
Another year: “Master of the Universe, You know that even the humblest Jew, if he saw a holy book lying in the street, would pick it up, kiss it and put it in a place of honor. But we, Your people, are a holy book. Your words are written in our lives. And we are lying in the street, crushed by poverty and persecution. Can You pass by and not pick us up?”
And on a year when Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat: “Master of the Universe, You have given us many laws. And You, being just, are bound by those same laws. What we may not do, You do not do. But today is the Sabbath. And on the Sabbath we may not write. How then, as the books of life and death sit before You, can You write? There is only one cause that permits us to write on the Sabbath: to save a life. Write us, therefore, in the book of life.”
Where did they come from, these daring intercessions so close to being in contempt of court? From an ancient Jewish tradition, namely prophesy itself. For the greatest of the prophets pleaded on behalf of humanity. Abraham prayed for the cities of the plain. Moses, after the sin of the golden calf, said, “Please forgive them now their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book You have written.” The prophet was one who loved his people more than he reprimanded them. He knew their faults. But he pleaded their cause, and stood his ground even before the throne of glory. Levi Yitzchak gave fresh voice to one of the great themes of the Jewish spiritual drama, the triumph of forgiveness over justice.
His most daring prayer? Once, on Kol Nidre night, as the Day of Atonement was beginning, he looked around the synagogue and saw a man whose face was filled with tears. He went up to him. “Why are you crying?” he asked.
“I cannot help it. Once I was a pious Jew. I had a good livelihood, a comfortable home. My wife was devout. Our home was always open to strangers. Then suddenly He intervened. I lost my wife. My business collapsed. I had to sell my home. And I am left poor and homeless with six children to look after. I do not know how to pray any more. All I can do is come to the synagogue and weep.”
Levi Yitzchak comforted the man and brought him a prayer book. “Will you pray now?”
“Yes,” said the man.
“Do you forgive God now?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Today is the Day of Atonement; I must forgive.”
Then Levi Yitzchak turned his eyes upward towards heaven and said, “You too must do the same, Master of the Universe. You too must forgive.”
* * *
Caught up in this drama of sin and repentance, justice and forgiveness, estrangement and reconciliation, I begin to realize that being a Jew – being a human being – is not a matter of the here-and-now only. My life is more than this place, this time, these anxieties, those hopes. We are characters in a long and continuing narrative. We carry with us the pain and faith of our ancestors. Our acts will affect our children and those not yet born. We neither live our lives nor come before God alone. In us, the past and future have resided their trust. The battle of good against evil, faith against indifference is not won in a single generation. Never in earthly time is it finally won, and must be fought each year anew. In each of us the faith of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac still echoes. The pleas of Levi Yitzchak still resonate. The question is: Will we hear them? On Rosh Hashanah we ask God to remember. But on Rosh Hashanah God also asks us to remember. Before God lie two books; one of them is the book of life. It was many years before I understood that before us also lie the same two books. In one is written all the things to which human beings have instinctively turned: appetite and will, self-assertion and power. It was Judaism’s most fateful claim that this is not the book of life.