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Yom Kippur 5769-2008

“Difficult Transitions”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

On the last day of his life, Moses seals the new covenant with the People of Israel. According to the Midrash, the people then return to their homes, and Moses proceeds to walk through the camps of each of the twelve tribes to bid farewell to his beloved people and to console them over his impending death. Moses encourages the people, urging them to trust in G-d, assuring them that they will triumph with Joshua as their leader, as they had with him.

Moses summons Joshua, and in the presence of all the people, designates him as the new leader. He urges Joshua to be courageous and informs Joshua that it will be his great privilege to bring the people to the land of Israel and to apportion the tribal lands to the people. In Deuteronomy 31:23, Moses charges Joshua the son of Nun with the following words of encouragement, “Chazak veh’eh’matz, kee ah’tah tah’vee et Bnai Yisrael el Ha’aretz ah’sher nish’bah’tee la’hem, v’ah’no’chee eh’yeh ee’mach,” Be strong and courageous, for you shall bring the children of Israel to the land that I [G-d] have sworn to them, and I shall be with you.

Although the Torah describes the passing of the mantle of leadership from Moses to Joshua as a seemingly uneventful event, the Midrash goes into great detail regarding the transference of power from teacher to disciple.

The Midrash states that a heavenly voice rang out announcing that Moses had only a few hours to live. Moses began to implore G-d once again, “I know that Joshua must assume the leadership, but must I die for my disciple’s sake?! I am willing to conduct myself as his pupil. He shall be the High Priest, and I shall be a common priest. Let him be King, and I his servant.”

“L-rd of the world!” begs Moses, “Allow me to be like a bird in the air so that I may fly swiftly fly over the land of Israel to merely glimpse at it. Transform my two arms into fins and my hair into scales, that I might leap over the Jordan river like a fish and see the land of Israel.”

Alas, Moses is allowed only to gaze at the land of Israel from afar, from atop Mount Nebo.

The Midrashic rendition of the transference of power from Moses to Joshua, and the portrayal of the reluctance with which Moses approaches his demise, painfully underscores the difficulty of transitions.

Although Yom Kippur is regarded as a day of joy and is observed with much optimism due to the assurance that G-d is certain to forgive His people, it is by no means an easy day. It is not only a day in which we afflict our souls with fasting and other restrictions, it is also a day in which we try mightily to transform ourselves, to give up the things that we most love, in order to return to a pattern of life that is ultimately better for us and more rewarding, but appears to be restrictive and limiting.

The story is told of the great and pious Tzaddik, Rabbi Leib Soros, who would wander from city to city and from town to town, hardly ever remaining in the same place for a single day. Where he visited during the day, he did not stay at night. And yet, with all the wandering it never happened that Reb Leib ever missed praying with a minyan, a quorum of ten men. Wherever he was, village, forest, field, even barren wilderness, when the time for prayer arrived, the Al-mighty would arrange for a minyan of ten Jews to appear so that Reb Leib could pray properly.

To achieve that feat, the Al-mighty employed many messengers. One bright, sunny day a wagonload of Jews stopped unexpectedly due to suddenly stormy skies, great rains and winds, all because Reb Leib needed a minyan.

However, one Yom Kippur eve, Reb Leib felt strongly that it was not proper for him to rely on miracles. Consequently, he was always careful to set out early for a Jewishly populated city, so that he could pray the Yom Kippur prayers properly with a suitable congregation in a formal house of worship.

However, one Yom Kippur eve, while on his way to the city where he expected to stay, the weather suddenly turned stormy, and the roads became impassable. With great difficulty, Reb Leib succeeded by noon of Yom Kippur eve to reach a very small village.

Because it was not unusual for him to travel in a “supernatural” manner, Reb Leib realized that it was decreed from Heaven that he spend Yom Kippur in that particular village. When he confirmed that there were eight Jewish men residing in the village, and that there were two more Jews from the nearby forest who always came for the Yom Kippur service, he decided to stay and worship with them.

After immersing his body in a lake before the holiday, he hurried to be the first to arrive at the house of prayer. After donning his white kittel, he wrapped himself in his tallit, and began to recite the preliminary prayers that precede Kol Nidre.

In anticipation of the Kol Nidre service, the local Jews all arrived early to the house of prayer. However, in total, there were only nine Jews–Reb Leib and the eight village Jews. For some reason, neither of the two Jewish residents of the forest had arrived.

Suddenly, a messenger arrived and delivered the unfortunate news that both Jews who lived in the forest had been falsely accused of some crime. They were now under arrest and would not be coming. The village Jews reacted with shock. Would they now have to pray on Yom Kippur without a minyan?!

“Is there no other Jew who lives nearby?” moaned Reb Leib. “There is no one!” “Perhaps there is a Jew who converted to Christianity?” asked Reb Leib. “A convert?!” the people responded with astonishment. “Yes, there is one convert,” one of the men whispered softly. “He is the Poritz, the owner of the entire village, but he converted more than forty years ago…” “Does he wear a cross? Does he go to church?” asked Reb Leib. “No,” confided the village Jews. “Where is his house?” demanded Reb Leib. The Jews feared that the Poritz, if confronted by Reb Leib, would be angry and confiscate their property. Reb Leib quickly took off his tallit and kittel and ran toward the Poritz‘s house.

Not long after, the synagogue door opened and Reb Leib entered, followed by the feudal lord, the owner of the village. Reb Leib gestured to the Poritz, who then took off his outer coat and stood next to the holy Reib Leib, who was now wrapped in his kittel and tallit. After motioning to the cantor to begin Kol Nidre, Reb Leib approached the ark, took out the Torah scrolls, placing one of the scrolls in the hands of the Poritz. Reb Leib put his tallit over his head. The Poritz then covered his head as well, and together they cried out together with the cantor, “By the authority of the Heavenly court…and with the consent of the congregation…we declare it lawful to pray with sinners!”

The entire congregation burst into tears, wailing and crying erupting from the depths of their hearts. Later, when the congregation recited the Amidah prayer, the convert read it even more slowly than the great rabbi and with greater intensity.

All that night and the next day, from early dawn, the elderly convert stood bent over, wrapped in his tallit, not stopping for a moment, as he cried and moaned. The prayer book in his hand as well as the corners of his tallit were soaked; evidence of his constantly flowing tears.

When the final prayer of Yom Kippur, “Neilah,” was chanted, the convert began to pray with renewed vigor. When he reached the words of “Shema Yisrael,” the Poritz proceeded to place his head into the ark and with trembling hands touched the Torah scroll, crying out, “Hear O Israel the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.” He then pulled his body out of the ark, stood up erect and cried out with all his might “Hashem hoo ha’Eh’lo’kim” The L-rd is G-d! With an increasingly powerful voice and his face radiating a divine glow, the Poritz repeated the phrase again and again. When he had completed the declaration seven times, he collapsed on the floor, and his soul departed from his body with the word “Eh’lo’kim” on his lips.

For Maariv, the evening prayer, the congregation was, once again, lacking a tenth man for a minyan. Reb Leib, bereft, declared, “Praised be the one whose soul departs this world with the word Eh’lo’kim on his lips. He must be one of the truly righteous! And since the truly righteous are considered by the rabbis to always be alive, even in death, he shall be counted in the minyan.” He began to pray as the congregation answered.

That very night, the body of the Poritz was brought to the Jewish burial ground in a nearby village. Reb Leib himself prepared the body for burial. The grave was located in the most distinguished section of the cemetery among the rabbis and the righteous.

Transitions are never easy.

May you be blessed.

This year, Yom Kippur will be observed from late afternoon on Wednesday, October 8th, through nightfall on Thursday, October 9th.