It seems that, aside for the wave of penitent emotions, the High Holy Days also arouse a certain level of nostalgia.
I mentioned last week that during my formative years, my family lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We davened in the legendary Polisher Shteible, where not only my father and grandfather davened, but where even my great-grandfather davened during the years he was living in New York.
The atmosphere of the Shteible is impossible to describe to one who has never experienced it. Antique seforim lined the shelves, and aged wooden tables and benches sat atop the dusty tiled floor. The distinct smell of herring, kichel, and “bromphen” was ever palpable. I remember the two elderly kohanim who duchaned – both sang different tunes, equally off key.
Everyone who davened in the Shtieble was a personality in his own right, with his own idiosyncrasies – each worthy of his own musings.
One particular memory that I often think of at this time of year was from the middle of mussaf on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The gabbai, R’ Ezra, would open a cubby and remove a stack of old copies of the New York Times. Then he would hastily distribute one page to every person in shul. I was quite surprised and confused – a page of old newspaper in the middle of davening?
But soon enough it became clear what the newspapers were for. The Gemara states that when one kneels and prostrates before G-d during the mussaf of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, he is not allowed to do so on the ground itself, as that was the practice of idolaters. Rather he must place something between himself and the floor. The Shteible used old newspapers to serve that purpose.
Rav Shimshon Pincus, zt”l, related that he had the same experience in his shul during his youth. They too would hand out newspapers during mussaf on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. He also related that one year, after everyone stood up following their prostration, there was one fellow who remained down, with his face remaining pressed to the ground. At first, they feared that he had passed out. But upon closer analyzation, they realized that he was reading the newspaper beneath him.
Rav Pincus commented that there may not be anything wrong with reading a newspaper article, but not at that moment! At that lofty awesome moment when we demonstrate our complete submission before G-d in a manner unparalleled during the rest of the year, it’s not a time to be focusing on anything other than one’s complete commitment and devotion to G-d.
Rav Pincus added that Shabbos each week, as well as every Yom Tov throughout the year, are times of spiritual connection with G-d, on an unparalleled level. We have to ensure that our behavior during those holy days is befitting their sanctity. Things which may be perfectly acceptable, and even necessary, on regular weekdays, may not be fitting during those elite times.
As the great day of Yom Kippur is upon us, and we seek ways to elevate our service to Hashem, perhaps we can give thought to a matter that is a particular challenge for all of us:
There is much good that we do with our cell phones, and they help us in so many ways. But how often do we take them out to look at them during davening in shul, during family meal times, or at any time when we are conversing with another person. It has become so commonplace that we hardly even realize that we do it.
During moments of spiritual, or even personal connection, let’s not be the guy who is proverbially “busy reading the paper.”
May we all have a G’mar Chasima Tova – a year of growth, blessing, health, shidduchim, parnasa, nachas, etc. But above all, may we all have the wisdom and insight to appreciate those gifts we are granted by giving them our full attention, and by not allowing ourselves to be distracted by the phony (got that pun?) cyber world.