“Yidden, a fire is burning,” the Yetev Lev of Sighet cried out on the night of Kol Nidrei. “Extinguish it with your tears,” he pleaded.
After a year of much suffering, when so many in our community continue to grapple with extraordinarily difficult challenges, there will be no shortage of tears this Yom Kippur.
But as we prepare to drench our machzorim with our tears — or watch with envy as our elders do so — let us also take a moment to recognize the source of our emotions.
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Chazal (Chagigah 15) tell us the heartbreaking tale of Acher. Born Elisha ben Avuya, he reached enormous heights in Torah knowledge and was the teacher of the great Tanna Rabi Meir. But tragically, he lost his bearings and plummeted to the deepest levels of sin and evil. He was known from then on as “Acher” — the “other” one.
When Rabi Meir pleaded with him to return to the true path, he repeatedly declined. The reason he gave was striking. He did not attempt to deny that this would be the right thing to do. Rather, he claimed that for him it was too late. For he had heard a voice from Up High: Shuvu banim shovavim, “Return, my wayward children — except for Acher.” Since all avenues for his return were closed, his repentance would not be accepted in any case.
The Apta Rav and other Chassidic masters assure us that it is inconceivable to think that Acher’s teshuvah would not have been accepted. Lo yidach mimenu nidach — every single Jewish soul, regardless of how far it has strayed or how low it has sunk, can return to Hashem.
So what then was the message that Acher heard?
It actually was more what he didn’t hear.
On each day a bas kol emanates from Shamayim saying “Shuvu banim shovavim.” The Ribbono shel Olam, our beloved Father and benevolent King, calls to us to return. Each of us “hears” this call in a different way and at a different time. For some it is a conscious urge to change our direction. For others it lurks deep under the surface, and we hardly realize that we have been inspired. It might be through a powerful drashah of a Rav or a casual comment of a friend.
All of us are constantly getting these calls and signals. Acher — because of his enormous sins — no longer merited to “hear” this call. Certainly he could have returned if he would have done so on his own, but he was no longer being reached out to.
Yom Kippur is a day filled with the call of the bas kol. It is a day in which the evil inclination does not have sway, a day in which the barriers between us and our Creator come tumbling down.
That is the real cause for our emotions and our tears. And in a way, this thought should also bring us great joy.
After all, doing teshuvah on Yom Kippur is a mitvzah, and a mitzvah has to be performed with joy.
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Among the many tales told of the Berditchever Rav on the night of Kol Nidrei is the time he inexplicably waited to approach the amud. The set time to begin had long passed, night had fallen and then some, but the Rebbe of Berditchev did not begin the ancient, powerful chant of Kol Nidrei.
Then a woman slipped quietly into the ezras nashim. Well aware of the lateness of the hour, she was certain that she had already missed most if not all the tefillah, and this thought was devastating to her.
Moments later, the Berditchever began Kol Nidrei. Realizing that she had not missed it after all, the woman was filled with an indescribable joy and deep gratitude to Hashem.
At the conclusion of Kol Nidrei the woman turned to the Ribbono shel Olam and said, “What shall I wish You in return for the good You did for me? I wish You to have nachas from Your children the way You gave me nachas from hearing Kol Nidrei.”
It was this heartfelt tefillah that the Rebbe had waited for. Her tefillah evoked enormous compassion in Heaven, and remains a lesson to all generations regarding our relationship to Hashem.
Let us make the most of these days of awe. As we prepare to usher in Shabbos Shuvah, let us listen carefully to the calls of return emanating from within our souls and from all around us, and rededicate ourselves to our personal relationship with our Creator.