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Meditation Before Ne’ilah

October 15, 2015

Before we begin Ne’ilah I want  to offer some brief words to help focus.  I want to talk about fasting – two very different stories and understandings of fasting.

The first story comes from the Kedushat Levy, R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov, the great Chasidic rebbe.  There are many versions of this story.  This is the one that I remember.

On one Yom Kippur the Kedushat Levy was the Chazan for ne’ilah.  His davening was unbelievable.  His Chasidim had never experienced such an inspiring davening and it was clear that he was at the highest spiritual.  Afterward, one of the Chasidim mustered up the courage to ask him about it.  The Chasid approached Reb Levi Yitzchak and said, “Rebbe.  That was the most amazing davening ever!  Please, tell me what you were thinking as you led us.”

The Kedushat Levy looked at the Chasid and said, all I could think about was “I am hungry.”

The Chasid was clearly confused.  R. Levi Yitzchak explained himself.  “As I got up to begin davening nei’ilah, all of a sudden I got hungry.  I tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t.  And then I thought, if I – the great Kedushat Levy – am hungry, think of how the poor yid sitting in the back row of shul feels.  The Jew who doesn’t own a machzor and if he did, he can’t read the words in it.  And I kept thinking about those poor, hungry Jews who can’t even say the words of ne’ilah but are in shul pouring their hearts out to Hashem.  And that’s what I thought about.”

The second story about fasting has a very different take.  I actually saw this last night.  I’ve been reading Rabbi Avi Weiss’s memoir on his role in the Soviet Jewry movement, Open the Iron Door: Memoirs of a Soviet Jewry Activist.  Last night, I was reading a little bit before going to bed.  Well, when you are reading a book by your Rebbe on Yom Kippur and he writes a story about fasting, that is a sign that you are supposed to share it.  So here it goes.

Rabbi Weiss was the Rabbi of Natan and Avital Sharansky during Sharansky’s imprisonment.  At one point, in solidarity with Sharansky who went through several hunger strikes during his incarceration Rabbi Weiss went on a week-long hunger strike.  He writes:

By the fifth day of the hunger strike, I was feeling a kind of high, a sense of almost exaltation.  It was generated from within me, the energy normally used to eat and digest food deflecting elsewhere.  Despite my weakness and exhaustion, my intellectual and spiritual powers expanded rather than diminished.  For the person who fasts, I learned, inner masks are removed.  Not food clogs the bod.  One becomes more honest, more open, more expressive of feelings. (Open Up the Iron Door, p. 118)

I’m not sure if any of us is having a similar experience in our fast, but it is something to aspire to.

I want to end with one more quote, this one made famous by Nelson Mandela during his inauguration speech as president of South Africa.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that frightens us. Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

When we think of ne’ilah we think of it as our last chance.  The gates of heaven are being locked and we have one more chance to try to gain entry and plea our case.  But many of the Chasidic masters understand it differently.  Yes, the gates are being locked, but they are not being locked to keep us out.  They are being locked to keep us in. During Ne’ilah we push past our physical discomfort – we are all tired and hungry and could use a hot shower.  But we go beyond that and we put forward our very best.  The best person that we can be.  Hashem likes who we are at this moment and wants to keep that version of us locked up and preserved forever.  Hashem wants to keep us as we are right now.  Because the promises that we make to ourselves and to Hashem in this moment are real.  The commitments that we make to become even better people are real.  Our desire to do the right thing and to be better people is real.  Hashem locks the gates to keep those memories forever.

With that let us begin nei’lah.

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From → Chagim, Yamim Noraim

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