HomeSeptember 2012The Cantor in Berdichev

The Cantor in Berdichev

It was just a few weeks before the High Holy Days in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev. The famed Chassidic leader, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, was searching for a Chazzan, a cantor to lead the services.  Many flocked to be interviewed for this prestigious position.  Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was one of the greatest rabbis of his time.  To be the Chazzan in his shul would be a distinct honor.
They lined up to meet Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.  When asked about his qualifications, the first candidate told the rabbi, “I have meditated on the esoteric meanings of the prayers as taught in the mystical Kabbalah.”  The second had a sweet, beautiful voice. The next was an expert in Talmudic Law.  None seemed to find favor in the rabbi’s eyes.
Finally, a quiet man from a nearby village stepped forward.  His voice was not impressive, nor was he a great scholar.  When Rabbi Levi Yitzchak asked him why he wanted the position, he replied, “I must find matches for my two daughters.  I hope by leading the prayers, it will give me the merit to help them find husbands in the coming year.”
“You have the position,” said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak.  Later he told some of his students, “His prayers will be filled with honesty and sincerity.”
The High Holy Days are moments of spiritual opportunity.  Jewish mysticism teaches us that G-d’s attributes of mercy shine down from above.  It’s a time for us to start again.  All we have to do is to seize the opportunity.  The services and traditions of the holiday are the framework to inspire us. The heavy lifting must be done by each person.
Jewish tradition teaches that there are two kinds of mitzvahs, spiritual obligations.  One is focused on our friends, family and community.  The second is on the relationships between man and G-d.  The High Holy Days are the time when we focus on needed improvements in both areas.
When it comes to other people, we need to ask ourselves: Have we done anything that has offended?  Is there a kindness we could have done that we withheld?  Could we have acted differently, with greater sensitivity and care?  It’s not enough to have remorse in our heart.  We need to change our actions.
In many situations, it’s crucial that we ask forgiveness.  Three years ago an old acquaintance told my wife of an incident close to three decades earlier where I had deeply offended him.  Looking back over the years, I had deep regret for my actions.  Just before Yom Kippur, I called him and asked his forgiveness.  He was deeply touched.  This summer, for the first time in years, we spent a few wonderful hours together. Over the years I never had understood the strain in our relationship that I had caused.  Now we were free to renew our friendship.
The second area is our connection with Hashem – G-d.  As Jews, we have been entrusted with many mitzvahs.  Each of these is essential to our spiritual metabolism.  They infuse our lives with purpose and meaning.  The High Holy Days are a time for us to take an accounting of our observance and improve those weak areas.
The key to all of this is the sincerity that we need to find in our hearts.  Just as the simple villager prayed to find matches for his daughters, when we reach deep into our hearts, there is no question that our prayers will be answered.

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