The story is told of a young man who for many years had strayed from Yiddishkeit, but out of respect for his parents would attend their shul on the Yamim Nora’im.
One year he approached the Rabbi and told him, “That’s it. I’m not coming to daven anymore.” The Rabbi understood that the man’s presence in shul had not been a sign of his religious commitment in the first place and searched for a way to persuade him to return for the coming year’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“Maybe we can get you a better seat,” offered the Rabbi.
“No, that’s not it,” said the man. “This year I decided to buy myself a siddur with a translation. And now that I understand what I’m saying, I have no interest in davening for this.”
Somewhat befuddled, the Rabbi pressed for an explanation of exactly what bothered this fellow so much about the liturgy that generations of Jews have found so beautiful and so uplifting.
“It says here that we ask G-d to ‘place His fear on all of His creations,’” said the man. “Fear is not something that I’m lacking in my life. I’m afraid of my wife, I’m afraid of my boss, I’m afraid of some random terror attack, of sicknesses. The last thing that I need is more fear in the world — and asking for it is not something that I want to be a part of.”
Most believing Jews understand that the tefillah of “uv’chein tein pachdecha” is a way of beseeching Hashem for yemos haMoshiach, when all of creation will live with an awareness of the Divinity that fills the world. Yet, the Rabbi’s response to this misguided fellow is one that can bring the lofty message of this sublime request down to our daily lives.
The Rabbi told the young man that, as a child, he had suffered from terrible toothaches, about which he would constantly complain to his parents. His parents decided to take him to an oral surgeon. After a brief exam, the doctor told them that he saw the problem and that he would have to operate to correct it.
His father sighed when told the cost of the surgery, and he and his son settled into the waiting room.
“After about 20 minutes, I turned to my father and said, ‘Ta, we can leave now, It doesn’t hurt anymore,’” said the Rabbi, quoting his young self.
The father looked at his son incredulously and asked, “What do you mean, ‘We can leave now’? You’ve been complaining about this for months already.”
“Yes,” said the boy, “but do you hear that drill? I’ve been sitting here thinking about having that drill in my mouth, and now my teeth don’t feel so bad anymore.”
The one ingredient that is truly missing in our lives is pachad, real awe of the presence of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and awareness of His omnipotence. That is what we are davening for. And if we could only live with such a reality, all our worldly fears would melt away.
When we look at the way we use language, we begin to see how far removed we are from the Torah’s view of what yiras Hashem truly is. One term that we use to describe Hashem is norah, “awesome,” the same term that we use to describe the lofty set of days that is now coming to a close.
Yet if we flip through a newspaper or magazine, even a “kosher” one, we see the word “awesome” applied to meat-packed sandwiches and the latest soft drink flavor — things that are anything but what a Torah-true Jew should ever associate with such a word. This is hardly something we can help, and most of us throw around terms like this in the same way ourselves, but it dulls our hearts and our minds to the feelings that norah should really elicit from within us.
That is the very least of what we can ask for when we daven “u’vchein tein pachdecha”— Ribbono shel Olam, give us some concept of reverence and awe for You.
The Mishnah in Maseches Taanis says that there were no greater Yamim Tovim for Klal Yisrael like 15 Av and Yom Kippur. Most of us appreciate the holiness of Yom Kippur and the role it plays in the teshuvah process, but how it fits into our concept of a Yom Tov — and the greatest of them at that — eludes many of us.
It is not a question about which we need be ashamed. Even in Halachah there is much discussion as to how we fulfill the mitzvah of simchas Yom Tov on a day when the most basic physical pleasures are forbidden to us.
Indeed, Yom Kippur lacks the festive seudos that mark our other Yamim Tovim, but its experience is one that should bring every Jew to the greatest inner simchah. Yom Kippur is a day that cuts away everything else in our lives and focuses purely and intensely on every Jew’s relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. In that close encounter with the Creator our aveiros can be wiped away, we can do teshuvah with a full heart, and plant thoughts that can bring us to real change.
Amid the awe of Yom Kippur, we can begin to feel what teshuvah really is: not just penitence, but a turn back towards the Ribbono shel Olam.
The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his talmidim, “What is the distance between east and west?” Not grasping what their master meant by such a question, each suggested different distances, hoping to draw out the lesson the Rebbe was trying to teach. The Kotzker dismissed all the answers and said simply that the distance between east and west is “ein klein drei,” one little turn. A man can be facing east at one moment and with a 180-degree turn, he is facing west.
My father used to say that this vort is what Chazal meant when they said that a man can be “kanei es olamo b’shah achas,” acquire his whole Olam Haba in one moment.
That is the goal of Yom Kippur. It is the one day of the year when a Jew can spin around towards Hashem, realize what is truly lacking in his life, and begin to feel the sense of connection and reverence, which is the first step in filling the hole in his neshamah.