As of Saturday night, everyone – including Ashkenazic communities – is now saying selichot (communal prayers for Divine forgiveness) and will continue doing so until Yom Kippur. Motzei Shabbos, I participated in selichot prayers led by my brother-in-law, Yitzchak Meir. We were joined across Jerusalem by thousands of others. Suddenly, I noticed something: The selichot text speaks about all our misdeeds of the past year, yet the congregation recites the words with singing, dancing, and much excitement. This is not a contradiction; it’s the essence of these days.
Those who participate in selichot will see for themselves: Rather than despair, there is hope. Selichot prayers are attended by optimistic people, people who believe that it’s possible to change ourselves and the world around us. This is exactly what is said in this week’s Torah portion: “Because this matter is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.” (Deuteronomy 30:14)
We have been given an annual opportunity to deal with what is wrong, with what is in need of repair, with what is completely broken. But to fix things properly and to improve, we need to recognize our mistakes. It’s not pleasant to admit that “we have transgressed, we have acted treacherously.” It’s much easier to ignore our errors and to go about our business as usual, rather than to stop and think about how we failed ourselves, others, and God during the past year, yet this is the way of getting back on the right track.
Was it just my imagination, or was the Jerusalem air really clearer when we went outside after saying selichot?
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Why Did They All Come?
What were they all doing there? Why did thousands of people who did not know each other come from all over Israel to gather together on the lawn outside Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva? Why did they say selichot with such fervor for the recovery of Barel Shmueli, a soldier who was hospitalized there after being critically wounded on the Gaza border?
In the book Shefa Chaim, the Rebbe of Sanz writes:
All souls in Israel are considered as one since within every Jew a soul resides that is a part of God from above. As a physical body, each Jew is separate from his fellow, while as a soul, the concept of separation does not exist and all souls in Israel are one unit.
This is an innermost truth of the holy Torah. And since all of Israel are considered one spiritual body, it must be that each person feels the pain of his fellow. And just as everyone understands that when a person hurts his hand, his foot, or any other limb, his entire body is in distress, so too every soul in Israel feels the pains of all the other souls. It’s as if so-and-so is my hand and my neighbor is my foot and when either of them is in pain so am I. This matter is among our most fundamental principles.
For the recovery of Barel Achiya Ben Nitza.
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It Does Not Matter How Far Away You Go
If I had not heard this story with the names of actual people, I would never have believed it. But Franny Weissman shared with me the following tale that, in fact, began more than 100 years ago and ended yesterday:
I came on aliyah from the United States and got married to Evyatar, a native Israeli whose grandmother’s parents, along with two of her siblings, were murdered at Auschwitz. Ten of her siblings survived and nine of them decided to make aliyah together, but one sister settled in the United States, never telling anyone there she was Jewish. She married a gentile, did not even reveal to him her identity, and announced that after the Holocaust she would not bring children into the world. When her family tried to connect with her, she ignored them. She and her husband also left instructions to cremate their bodies after their death. Over and over again I heard the story of Aunt Adelle. There are more than 350 family members now in Israel, four generations, but she has always been the one piece missing from the puzzle.
Two years ago I was asked to go to the United States to find girls for an educational program in Israel. I agreed after my husband said to me: “Even if you bring just one soul to Israel, it will be a great success.” They scheduled a lecture tour for me throughout the United States, and one of the lectures was five minutes from the home of Adelle in Florida. I could not believe it.
I arrived at her home, knocked on the door, and asked for Adelle Schwartz. The housekeeper said that there was no one there by that name, but then I understood that she had changed her name. I entered and saw someone who looked a lot like her siblings. I connected them through a video chat and they began to cry in Hungarian. Even the housekeeper cried.
Before we parted, I clasped her hand and said: “Adelle, Hitler is finished. The war is over, you have a huge family, you are not alone. It’s not important how far away you are. You can always return. Don’t allow Hitler to win. Come to Israel to be buried there, at least.” We parted emotionally and kept in touch. She who was born into a family from which she went far away, and I who joined this family after being born far away from it.
Two weeks ago we received notification from an American attorney that Adelle had passed away at the age of 102. It turned out that she changed her mind and instead of being cremated, wanted to have a Jewish funeral. We exerted ourselves to bring her to Israel from which she had distanced herself her entire life.
Yesterday at five o’clock in the evening at Moshav Nir Etzion, her funeral took place and she was buried in the family plot. All of us were there and it was one of the most formidable experiences of my life. We saw with our own eyes the meaning of the following verse: “Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, the Lord, your God, will gather you from there, and He will take you from there.” (Deuteronomy 30:4)
What had my husband said to me? “If you travel to the United States and bring just one soul to Israel, it will be a great success.”
(Translation by Yehoshua Siskin)