It was no ordinary walk home on Yom Kippur night a year ago. The clear air was the kind lungs get high on. The moon’s bright essence in a star-studded sky lit my path along the familiar yet now deserted winding country road. Even the crickets’ rhythmic chirping seemed muted in the surrounding stillness.
Not a soul could be seen and no human sound heard – this was too sacred a time for people to be lingering about in animated conversation. Following the somber Kol Nidrei and Maariv prayers, families had gone home to their respective abodes and called it an early night. The day ahead, to be spent in fasting and prayer, would prove fatiguing enough.
The neighborhood shuls had concluded their services a while ago; ours was usually the last to empty out. In fact, I had left my husband behind with the small group of men who stayed on to recite Tehillim with their rebbe.
As I made my leisurely way, I communicated with my Maker. I thanked Him for having brought me thus far and beseeched Him to stay with us for the rest of our journey through life.
About halfway home and in deep introspection, I suddenly felt I had company. Instinctively I glanced to my right and came face to face with a deer that stood transfixed less than two feet away. Startled, to put it mildly, I managed an even-toned “Oh! Good Yom Tov!” and resumed my relaxed pace, leaving the animal looking more bewildered than I did.
In the past, those deer I had occasion to glimpse were the kind that gracefully sprinted away just as soon as they caught on that they were being watched. I also knew of the animal’s tendency to freeze when caught in a car’s headlights, but other than my white jacket and headdress, there were no bright lights on my person to mesmerize it – and yet it stood unmoving, eyeing me as I sauntered by.
Apart from my split-second twitch of panic, I was unruffled. After having put some safe distance between us, I glanced back and was quite surprised to find the deer had moved to the center of the road to get a better view of my receding form; you’d have thought that it had never before encountered a human being.
It dawned on me how often we believe we are alone and nobody is watching – and how we would feel and behave if we could discern eyes focused on our every move. The thought made me shudder, as though a cool wind had rippled through me.
* * * * *
What is there to say before You Who dwells in the heavens, and all that is hidden and unseen are to You known .”
The impact of these words (that precede the Al Cheit prayer in the Machzor) came to bear heavily upon a community in old Europe some 100 years ago
It was a rainy Erev Yom Kippur when the servant of the affluent and well-connected merchandiser Reb Mordechai came to the synagogue to drop off a massive white yahrzeit candle to burn for the duration of the somber day.
Without hesitation, Isaac the sexton gave it prominent placement in one of the copper candelabras that embellished the cantor’s lectern.
Soon an emissary of R. Sender, a well-to-do industrialist, arrived with a delivery of a smaller but still impressive yahrzeit candle, which the sexton placed on the other side of the cantor’s pulpit.
Before long, the door of the shul opened to reveal Zelda the almanah. The poor woman who was raising five young children alone also bore a yahrzeit candle, albeit one that was miniscule next to the two that had been brought earlier.
The weary-looking widow excused her lateness, explaining she had waited to sell her wares (a few shriveled onions) at the marketplace in order to afford the purchase of her own candle.
After briefly scanning the shul’s premises, Reb Isaac finally settled on a small, sand-filled wooden container in an unobtrusive corner, in which he inserted the small candle.
The Kol Nidrei service was conducted without incident, the town’s two illustrious residents flanking the Aron Kodesh as the sea of white clad figures swayed back and forth to the melodic chant of Reb Moshe the chazzan.
The following day brought a relentless driving rainfall, with intermittent bursts of thunder discernible through the walls of the old shul.
The sweet voice of Reb Moshe intoned the Unesaneh Tokef prayer (the soul-stirring supplication intrinsic to the High Holy Days). As he sang the words “It is true that You alone are the One who judges and remembers,” R. Mordechai’s yahrzeit candle inexplicably slid from the massive candelabra and hurtled wick first into the spit-kettle below.
A discomforting quietness overtook the bais medrash. When Reb Moshe resumed the haunting liturgy, his voice quivered with emotion. At the precise moment he concluded the words, “You inscribe their verdict,” a boom of thunder shook the rafters and an accompanying gust of wind wrenched loose the base of a window frame; the glass pane shattered and the wind whizzing through the interior of the bais medrash extinguished the flame of R. Sender’s yahrzeit candle.
Terror struck at the hearts of every congregant. By the end of the Mincha service, the darkness prevailing in the synagogue fostered even deeper feelings of remorse for past transgressions. The rav permitted a young child to carry the small unassuming wooden box that held the widow’s candle and to position it on the pulpit.
As per the congregation’s longstanding tradition, R. Mordechai was proffered the honor of leading the Neilah (closing) prayer. His hands shook as he wrapped himself in his tallis. The words emanating from his chalky lips were barely audible, his inexplicable demeanor plunging the congregants even further into the harrowing depths of despair and mystery.
The bone-chilling moment was still to come.
“Ashamnu” (we have been guilty), murmured R. Mordechai; “Bagadnu” (we have betrayed), he uttered; and hardly did he muster “Gazalnu” (we have stolen) when he raised glazed eyes to focus on the candle of Zelda the almanah and promptly collapsed, with the words “zei mir mochel ” (forgive me) on his lips – the last thought he would verbalize in this world.
Later that same night, motzei Yom Kippur, the sound of wailing sirens interrupted the sleep of the town’s citizens who ran into the streets in their nightclothes. The shocking news spread quickly: R. Sender’s house was burning and all of his property, comprising three lavish dwellings, was in danger of being consumed in the inferno. Thick black pillars of smoke covered the horizon as onlookers gasped and spoke in hushed whispers about the occurrences of that terrible night.
In the morning, the rav had a visitor. A barely coherent, disheveled figure asked that Zelda the almanah be sent for; he wished to ask her for mechila – forgiveness.
Mystified, the rav slowly extracted the details of what had precipitated the previous night’s baffling – and frightening – events.
R. Mendel, Zelda’s late husband, had been overseeing the welfare of his brother’s daughter, an orphan. The 300 rubles in his personal effects were earmarked for the purpose of marrying off his niece. When R. Mendel, a plasterer and painter by trade, had received an offer from the ministry to repair and paint the military barracks, he had turned to R. Sender for a loan of 500 rubles in order to secure the required labor and materials. R. Sender agreed to advance him this sum.
R. Mendel – taking R. Sender at his word – handed over the 300 rubles (belonging to his niece) to the general in charge of the job as a goodwill deposit. When R. Mordechai got wind of the profit-making deal, he convinced R. Sender to renege on his offer to R. Mendel, whereupon the two – R. Mordechai and R. Sender – would move to take over the lucrative transaction in a partnership that would net them substantial gain.
A dumbfounded and desperate R. Mendel spent three frenzied days in a futile attempt to find someone else to lend him the amount he had counted on. He subsequently lost the job (the general rescinded the offer when R. Mendel had no funds to properly carry out the assignment), as well as the 300 rubles. Devastated, R. Mendel had succumbed to a heart attack on Yom Kippur eve the previous year.
* * * * *
A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream” (Unesaneh Tokef prayer).
Reb Mordchele Nadvorner was a saintly man, one known to effectuate miracles. His many followers flocked to him in Nadvorna from all over Hungary and Romania for guidance and blessings. The tzaddik often traveled to distant places where he would meet with people he may have otherwise been unlikely to encounter.
On one such excursion, he found himself spending Yom Kippur in the city of Skole in Galicia. The enthralled chassidim held out hope that their honored personage would grace them with his presence for Sukkos.
To their dismay, Reb Mordchele hardly had a bite to eat after the fast before asking that his horses be readied for his departure. Despite their disappointment, the chassidim escorted the esteemed rebbe to the outskirts of town with exuberant song and dance.
The horses galloped along their way, the driver oblivious as to where they were headed. In fact, their destination would elude him all the way; whenever they reached some form of settlement, Reb Mordchele would stop to greet his welcoming admirers, surveying each of them intently.
Thus they journeyed from town to town, until the morning of Erev Sukkos when they arrived at yet another development. A sizable crowd of people surrounded their wagon and again Reb Mordchele scrutinized each individual who approached him – until A.Z., a smartly attired fellow, caught his fancy.
“Reb Yid,” inquired Reb Mordchele, “would it be possible for you to host us for Sukkos?”
A.Z. was taken by surprise but answered in the affirmative. As Reb Mordchele and his entourage followed their host, the young man wondered how the rebbe could have known about his large, newly erected home.
While happy to indulge Reb Mordchele’s request for a sukkah, the homeowner was bewildered at the rebbe’s choice of a particular room.
How would that work, A.Z. wondered. Reb Mordchele’s solution entailed “mere removal” of the ceiling and roof overhead, to be replaced with the appropriate schach (covering). When A.Z. suggested that a conventional sukkah be built outdoors in the yard, the revered guest simply reiterated his yen for a nice sukkah.
A flummoxed A.Z. reasoned to himself that this was no ordinary visitor and that in all probability there was good reason for all of this.
The messy and laborious task of dismantling the newly constructed quarters began forthwith.
Once the sukkah was erected, the rebbe expressed his desire to decorate it – at a cost of 100 reinish. To A.Z., known to be frugal in nature, this was quite a hefty sum. He almost regretted accepting the offer to host the rabbi. With some reluctance, A.Z. handed Reb Mordchele the amount he had asked for.
To A.Z.’s surprise, the rebbe asked his gabbai to round up some of the town’s needy inhabitants, among whom he then dispensed the entire sum.
Before long, Reb Mordchele asked to borrow yet another 100 reinish. The penny-pinching chassid vacillated until the rebbe assured him he would be repaid in full. Difficult as it was for him to reach into his pocket, A.Z. withdrew his second 100 reinish.
Accepting the handout with great flourish, Reb Mordchele blessed his benefactor profusely. Shortly thereafter, the gabbai approached A.Z. with the message that the rebbe was requesting his presence on an urgent matter. The frustrated homeowner obliged, only to have Reb Mordchele plead his case once more.
“Would you be so kind as to lend me another 100 reinish for decorating the sukkah?”
A.Z. lost his cool.
“The rebbe should forgive me but I am unaccustomed to such impositions. My roof has already been wrecked and I am already out 200 reinish. Regretfully, I am no longer able to accommodate the rebbe’s requests ”
After an uneasy moment of silence, Reb Mordchele spoke.
“You’ve been open with me, so I’ll be perfectly candid with you. I spent this past Yom Kippur in a faraway place in Galicia. Right before the Neilah prayer, I had a vision of one who had just recently finished construction of a new dwelling and upon whom there hovered a kitrug [an evil or satanic claim].
“Your house was to be destroyed by a devastating fire which would leave you and your family to wander from place to place in search for your daily sustenance. I was so overcome with pity that I made up my mind to locate you and help you avert this terrible decree. But I was given no indication of your whereabouts; all that was revealed to me was your physical appearance.
“Nonetheless I would not be deterred. As soon as the holy day ended I initiated my search for you and journeyed from town to town. I recognized you instantly.”
A.Z. was visibly mortified. Reb Morchele continued, “I asked you to break the roof over your head in hopes of removing the kitrug. When that didn’t work, I requested 100 reinish to allocate for tzedakah. When that didn’t do it, I figured that another hundred for charity would surely accomplish my goal but I soon realized that yet another hundred was necessary in order for you to accumulate sufficient merit to cancel the edict against you.
“I have been straightforward with you; now it is entirely up to you.”
A.Z. trembled as he handed Reb Mordchele his third donation of 100 reinish and wept with remorse at having been obstinate in his refusal to give in to the well-meaning tzaddik who reassured the chassid that he held no grievance against him.
The money was doled out to the poor and a relieved Reb Mordchele declared the decree against A.Z. finally expunged.
The town had a joyful Yom Tov with its esteemed guest, and A.Z. could not adequately express his gratitude to God for sending him the tzaddik to save him from catastrophe.
“Your Name signifies Your praise . You are hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live” (Unesaneh Tokef prayer).
Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.