There are various collections of vignettes that Rabbis utilize to prepare themselves for the High Holidays.
Like all the good rabbi stories, the one that I’d like to share with you has layers of meaning.
As you read this, and digest it, see if you can get below the surface.
‘In the old country (where all these stories seem to take place), the synagogue was packed for Kol Nidre, the night that begins Yom Kippur. When the pews were filled, and the sun had set, the congregation was ready to begin. But there was a problem. The Rabbi was not there.
“Can you believe the Rabbi is late,” said one woman.
“I hope that he is ok, and that nothing has gone wrong,” said another.
Ten minutes, twenty minutes…an hour went by with the congregation waiting, and getting more and more concerned about his well-being.
Finally, two of the teenagers who had been sent out to find him came into the shul, brushing winter snow from their coats. “We found him!” they announced.
“Nu?” the congregation asked, “and where is he?”
“Chopping wood!” the teens exclaimed. “He is over at old widow Cohen’s house, chopping wood. We asked him about it, and he told us that he was on the way to start Kol Nidre prayers, but when he walked by Ms. Cohen’s house, he saw that her chimney had no smoke. He checked on her, and saw that she had no firewood for a fire. He told us that as sorry as he was to start late, he would not feel good about his Yom Kippur if he did not take care of this one thing. He will be here, he promised, as soon as he was done.”
Moments later, the rabbi came into the shul, shutting the door quickly against the bitter winter wind. He brushed the snow from his long coat, ascended the bima, and then with a smile for his beloved congregation, he quietly said, “ok, I’m ready. Let us begin.”
At the surface this vignette is one that lionizes the prophet Isaiah’s words (Isaiah 58-1-14) that we read on Yom Kippur (haftarah), letting us know that while there are still people in need at our doorstep, our prayers are meaningless. We Jews are commanded ‘to try’, and only then will our prayers be heard. This is worthwhile in itself, for sure.
But below the surface, there is a message that is both spiritual and intensely personal. Are there things (even one thing) that you need to do in order to enter your High Holiday experience feeling ready? It could be something important you’ve been putting off since last year… or a relationship that you need to mend…or a promise that you have made but have not yet kept. Is there something that you feel ‘called on’ to do before you arrive at Temple Emanu-El in order to walk into our sanctuary with integrity?
The sun is setting but the gates have opened.