by Rabbi Sholom Dovber Avtzon
As I begin the fourth year of writing the Weekly Story Column, I once again request of you to please share with me a story you feel is special so I can share it with the community at large. Indeed, the feedback I receive on some of the stories spans the globe, and may that be a merit for me and my family. However, continuing this column is only possible if I obtain stories that are not well-known. That is what keeps the interest strong, to learn something new.
I would like to begin this week’s story by noting that this Shabbos is Vov Tishrei, the day the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana, was niftar late Shabbos afternoon, fifty-four years ago. The Rebbetzin told someone, “Stories are the feet of our people. They hold us up and help us get to where we need to go.” Perhaps that is why a mashpia says a story during a farbrengen, to help us stand strong and proceed towards the next level. In this light, I am honored to be considered “a storyteller.”
With that in mind, this week I decided to post a translation of an article that the Rebbe included in the booklet HaTomim (booklet 2), which describes a certain person’s experience on a Rosh Hashanah, in Lubavitch together with the Rebbe Rashab. It is a perspective on the Yomim Noraim (the High Holidays) that the Rebbe saw fit to present to the booklet’s readers.
It is evident from the writer’s description that although he was a chossid, he was somewhat of an outsider.
* * *
The day has come to an end, as the shadows of evening have already spread throughout the sky. The townspeople, together with the multitudes of guests, the hundreds of students, and their teachers and mentors, gather in the big room to daven the first tefillah (prayer) of the new year — Maariv of Rosh Hashanah.
The room is completely packed with chassidim and temimim, who have come to daven to Hashem. An expression of seriousness and fear of the solemnity of the day is seen on their faces. All as one, they stand with tremendous kabbolas ol (self-subjugation), ready to usher in the holiness of the day — the day the universe was created.
The Rebbe [Rashab] enters. His holy face is aflame like fire. One immediately notices an expression of deep merirus (bitterness), but within that radiates an inner vitality and a hidden joy. One is immediately struck by this paradox of seeing two totally opposing expressions simultaneously, as it is stated, “You shall rejoice with trepidation.”
The chazzan begins. The davening is charged with emotion and is unrushed. The sound of the tefillos and supplications go upwards, penetrating the heavens.
I decide to move closer to where the Rebbe was davening. As soon as I approach, I hear terrifying cries and deep sighs. The Rebbe is davening and crying. He does not utter a word without it being accompanied by a torrent of tears.
I am overcome with awe and move away. While I have seen many people cry on these solemn days, I have never heard such heartfelt cries. This is not just a cry; it is a soul pouring out its feelings in the truest sense of the word. The soul of the tzaddik is embracing the bosom of its Father in heaven.
The minyan concludes davening, but no one leaves the room to go home. Everyone without exception stands around the Rebbe, concentrating with all their senses to absorb every nuance of his awesome tefillos.
The Rebbe is davening the prayers of tonight with the tune of one of the Alter Rebbe’s ten songs. The song’s stirring notes ascend and descend, demand and plead [for Hashem’s compassion]. A deep cry comes forth from the Rebbe’s heart, shattering the body and creating an upheaval in the soul.
There are many types of cries: a cry of pain; a cry resulting from something that happened; a cry of deep desire; a cry of joy. Yet this cry of the Rebbe is none of the above, or perhaps it encompasses them all. One cannot fathom its cause nor limit its breadth.
The Rebbe stands within the crowd and cries. He davens and breaks out in tears.
“And You, Hashem, shall rule alone over all of Your creations….”
“May each created being recognize that You are its Creator….”
I look intently at the faces of the chassidim standing throughout the room. Not a sound is being made, and they are listening and paying attention to the Rebbe’s every utterance. I notice tears dripping from the eyes of many of them. They stand crowded together, making no movement whatsoever, and cry.
Their eyes are focused on only one thing. Their ears are like sponges to hear and pay attention, not missing even one movement or sound. With inspiration and deep excitement, they swallow their tears and remain silent.
A quiet repentance, a deep personal repentance from the depths of the heart. It is evident that they are in the mode of regretting the past and resolving to improve in the future.
I said to myself:
“Even if the only accomplishment of the tzaddik’s tefillah is to arouse the hearts of thousands of Jews to regret their improper conduct and resolve to improve, that is enough!
“A person who is so exalted in his virtues, a man of spirit who totally despises haughtiness, someone who is completely humble, not because he worked on himself to be humble, but rather because that is who he truly is — it is such a person for whom it is fit and proper to stand in the midst of thousands of Jews, may Hashem multiply them, to openly pour out his heart and prayers with such deep cries and anguish.
“I don’t believe a regular person has the ability to pour out his innermost soul for four to five hours amid rivers of tears without rest. It is only possible with a truly exalted person!
“A pure stream emits from the depths of his heart, revealing a torrent of tears, yet one recognizes that in its essence there is a sense of longing and hope, bitterness and rejoicing as one. This is only possible with a lofty person!
“Yes,” I explained to myself. “The tzaddik is a messenger on behalf of the entire Jewish people. He stands in supplication before Hashem at the onset of the year. He gives an accounting to the Creator on our actions of the past year, and requests and pleads that Hashem bestow an abundance of spiritual and material blessings upon the entire Jewish nation for the upcoming year.”
When the Rebbe concluded his prayers, it was already very late into the night [around 11 p.m.]. He turned to the congregants to bless them with a good year. The countenance of his face was radiant like an angel of the Almighty, and his eyes emitted light and were full of unlimited positive anticipation f.
The Rebbe walks through the crowd, giving his blessing to each and every individual: “Leshanah tovah tikaseiv viseichaseim — May you be written and inscribed for a good year.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. I was extremely inspired and overwhelmed from this holy scene I personally witnessed. Thoughts rushed through my mind the entire night, without me being able to stop them.
I must admit that while I did not comprehend all this fully, I lost grip of my senses, and my previous views on the purpose of man and how one can achieve perfection began to weaken. I began to understand — or better said, to feel — that there is a higher purpose and mission for a person to accomplish on this earth. I came to recognize that it is impossible to reach conclusions based merely on cold intellect. I understood that there are indeed things that, although a person cannot grasp them intellectually, nonetheless you can feel with all your senses that they exist.
Today I heard the way a tzaddik davens. I felt in my soul the judgment procedures in the Heavenly Court, as if they were actually taking place in front of me!
I then took to heart the words of the liturgy: “Today is the birth of the world. Today all creations stand in judgment.” These words are not a metaphor or an idiom; they mean exactly as they are written. During the tzaddik’s prayers, my soul trembled as I felt that a great and terrifying thing was presently occurring in the world, and it all depends upon man and his actions.
I said to myself: “If there is some purpose to a person’s life, here is the place to find the path toward it.”
It was then that I resolved to remain with the Rebbe in Lubavitch.
A gmar chasima tova
Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He is available to farbreng or speak in your community and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org