Sermon for Yom Kippur 2017 | Lenny Levin


Gemar chatima tova—may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

On Rosh Hashanah I promised you a story on a prayer in the early part of the service. Today I want to make good on that promise. The prayer is on page 444 of the prayer book. If you want to follow it, find page 444 now and put it away until I get to it.

The story is from the Yiddish writer Yehuda Leib Peretz. But first I want to say who Yehuda Leib Peretz was, who we are, and why I think he is an appropriate guide for us.

Who are we? We are all Jews of modernity, confronting the Jewish tradition from an existential place in the modern world. Whether we call ourselves modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, secular, just-Jews, or fellow travelers of the Jewish people, we are children of the modern world. When I say, “may you be inscribed for a good year,” you don’t believe there is an actual book in Heaven in which our fates for the next year are inscribed. It is a symbolic figure of speech. The same applies more or less to the greater part of the religious vocabulary we employ. As moderns, we view religious traditions as symbolic structures that speak in coded language about our hopes and aspirations and the values we live by. We live in the real world. Politics is part of that real world. Our religious values have implications for how we will act in that real world. But the religious framework is meta-political. It is midway between heaven and earth, and as such, one step removed from these messy problems. If we are properly grounded with the right values imbibed from that tradition, we will hopefully go down into the real world and achieve change. But the message from the tradition about how to achieve that is indirect. If you want more direct advice from me, look me up on Facebook.

Yehuda Leib Peretz (1852–1915) belonged to the generation that made the transition from the world of traditional Jewish life to the world of modernity. He grew up in the Polish shtetl of Zamośź in the second half of the 19th century, and he died in 1915. He was a younger member of the first generation of modern Yiddish literary writers, who addressed the east-European Jewish community on how to manage that transition into the modern world. He identified as secular-Jewish. He had three political identifications: (1) As a young man, he campaigned for Poland to regain its independence from Russia (which it did not achieve until after his death, in 1919). (2) As a socialist, he campaigned for the advancement of the working classes and a world in which greater economic justice would prevail. And (3) as a Diaspora Jewish nationalist, he advocated for a European regime where small nations like the Jews would be able to maintain their cultures and national identities based on their own languages and cultural traditions. He paid a price for these causes; he lost his job as a lawyer in Zamośź for political activity and later spent three months in jail for his socialist activity.

As a secularist, Peretz did not believe in the literal reality of heaven and hell, of angels and demons, and of a book in which our deeds are written. But he was steeped in the cultural background of Hasidism, which was based on the living faith in these realities. He believed that to be a modern Jew, one could draw on these traditions as speaking symbolically about living a life committed to moral values and the redemption of society in the real world.

As a writer, Peretz used the resources of the modern literary craft to rework the personalities, themes and motifs culled from the Jewish tradition into parables that spoke simply and elegantly to the timeless issues of good and evil, alienation and redemption, for the benefit of an audience with roots in the Jewish people but living in the modern world. Maybe you have come across his most famous story, “Bontshe Shveig,” about a poor man, who eked out a meager living as a porter, until he died in the street. He was greeted in Heaven with the highest pomp and circumstance and told he could have whatever he wanted as a reward for his righteous life on earth. But all that he could think to ask for was a hot roll with butter every morning. I believe that this was Peretz’s plaintive protest against a society so rife with injustice and inequality that it crushed the spirit out of people, and once that happened, no remedy could help.  All the more so, then, that we need to correct the injustice here on earth, so the human spirit can be saved.

The story I am about to tell speaks mostly for itself. But there is one detail that can benefit from some explanation. That is the figure of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was a real personality (1740–1809), a Hasidic rabbi of the second generation of Hasidic leaders, who served as a charismatic leader after the death of the Baal Shem Tov. But he comes across in stories as a unique personality, a trifle bit crazy in a good way, resourceful and inventive of off-the-wall solutions to vexing problems. He is kind of a cross between Elijah the Prophet, Don Quixote, and Chagall’s fiddler on the roof. His hallmarks were compassion, forgiveness, a sense of humor, and chutzpah in dealing with God and human beings alike.

One of my favorite stories about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak tells of when he met a Jew who was smoking on Shabbat on the streets of Berditchev. He said to the Jew, “Reb Yid, perhaps you forgot that it is Shabbos today.”

“No Rebbe, I know that it is Shabbos,” the Jew replied.

“Perhaps you did not realize that you are smoking,” the rebbe asked.

“Rebbe, how could a person not know that he was smoking?”

“Perhaps you forgot, or perhaps you never learned, that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbos.”

“Of course I know that it is forbidden to smoke on Shabbos,” the Jew said, cutting off the last possible defense.

At that point, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev turned his gaze upwards and called out, “Ribbono shel Olam, who is like Your people Israel? Even when I gave this Jew every opportunity to lie and mitigate his offense, he refused to do so. Where is such scrupulous honesty to be found? Such a level of honesty is not for this world; it belongs in the World of Truth.”

So now that you have been introduced to Peretz and to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, let me proceed to the main story. It may not provide us with an operative solution to our present problems, but I believe that it offers hope on a deep level. (Story is adapted from Maurice Samuel, Prince of the Ghetto, JPS, 1948, pp. 181–88.)

* * * * * *

It was Rosh Hashana, and the rebbe was leading the congregation in prayer. All day long his voice poured out supplication and praise. As he stood there, serving as messenger between the Jewish people and God’s throne, his voice was like a pathway from earth to heaven.

And then, suddenly, a dreadful pause, a break. He had reached the prayer on page 444, L’eil orekh din — to God who sits in judgment. The words rang out clearly. But those that followed —  He probes all hearts on the day of judgment; he reveals the concealed in judgment — he uttered with hesitancy. And when he came to the verses toward the end — He is aware of all mysteries on the day of judgment, and l’koneh avadav badin (whatever that means) — his voice broke completely, and a frightful silence followed.

Parenthetically, you will see that the translator of this Machzor evades the issue on that last key phrase. “He accepts those who serve Him, in judgment” is a halfhearted translation. L’koneh avadav badin means literally, “To him who buys his slaves in judgment.” God buying slaves! That is what had the rabbi so mystified. What could that possibly mean?

One second, two seconds, three — and every second an eternity. Terror spreads through the congregation; people faint from shock.

And then the Rabbi wakes up. He comes to. A shudder passes through his body, and he resumes joyously, He has mercy for His people on the day of judgment. And he concludes the Shaharit service, up through the Torah reading, with renewed strength.

After the Torah service, before Musaf, during the break, he explained what had happened.

When he got to the words, l’koneh avadav badin, it occurred to him that the words made no sense. “To him who buys his slaves in judgment?” What could it possibly mean? And so he stopped his prayer until he could figure it out.

As you may well imagine, the rabbi’s sudden silence was noted at once up in heaven. Our rabbi’s prayer suspended! Couldn’t happen. Immediately, they decided to reveal to him, in a vision, the meaning of his words, so that he could continue.

And so the rabbi went into a trance, while the heavens opened up. And this is what he saw:

The heavenly courtroom. It is still empty. The prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the judges have not yet arrived. There are five doors: On the extreme right, one with the sign, “Counsel for the Defense”; on the extreme left, “Prosecuting Attorney”; three doors along the back wall; and in front of them, a table with a huge brass scale.

The closed middle door in back bears a plaque, which reads: “The Heavenly Hosts.” The other two back doors are open. Through the right-of-center doorway the rabbi sees paradise. The righteous sit at long tables, their faces radiant, studying Torah. No judgment day for them. Through the left-of-center doorway, the rabbi sees the fires of hell burning, but the souls of the damned have a day off from punishment. The demons, who usually torture them, have a special assignment for the day.

Now the extreme rightmost door opens, and the counsel for the defense enters, carrying under his arm the records of the good deeds of mankind for the past year. Alas, a very small sheaf. It has been a terrible year.

The extreme leftmost door is still closed. An ominous sign. It is taking them too long to collect their records. The harvest of mankind’s misdeeds fills the granaries of hell. The counsel for the defense drops into a seat and closes his eyes sadly.

Finally the extreme leftmost door opens, and two demons enter, staggering under the load of their first bundle. They throw it on the left balance of the scale and one of them says, “That isn’t even a tenth of the harvest. Wait for the rest!”

The defense counsel groans. He feels all alone, forsaken.  Nobody hears his plight — or so it seems. But he is mistaken. One person cares — Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. He hears the groan of anguish from the defense counsel’s lips. He leaves his cozy seat in paradise to join in the action. He has not forgotten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; he remembers that for them, on earth below, there is still a judgment day, and so much is at stake.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak creeps into the courtroom and sizes up the situation. On the right, such a slender sheaf; on the left, heaps upon heaps. It takes him just an instant to decide. He bends down and, straining himself to the utmost, he picks up the bundle of accusing records and flings it through the left-of-center doorway, down into the flames of hell.

Again, two demons enter, bent double under a load of records for the prosecution. The moment they leave, Reb Levi Yitzchak deals with this bundle as he dealt with the first, And so with the third, and the fourth, and all the others.

Finally, it is the Devil himself who enters, a broad grin on his face. What is this? Help! The records! Not a sign of them. He looks around, and sees the last bundle burning in hell. He looks around again, and sees Rabbi Levi Yitzchak sneaking back toward paradise. He runs over, grabs him by the arm, and yells:

“Stop, thief!”

The cry resounds through all the seven heavens. Patriarchs and saints interrupt their studies and rush into the courtroom. The center door at the back opens and the members of the court file in. Counsel for the defense stands up. Pandemonium reigns.

The chief justice calls for order. Suddenly, all is silent.

“Will you please tell us what has happened?”

The Devil declares how he has caught Reb Levi Yitzchak red-handed. He points to the fires of hell where the last bundle is still smoldering.

Truth is truth! Rabbi Levi Yitzchak confesses.

Justice is justice! The Devil is asked what he demands. He quotes Scripture (he would!) “The thief shall be sold for his theft.” Let Reb Levi Yitzchak be sold as a slave, in public auction, to the highest bidder! The Devil will of course join in the bidding. It will be worth his while, no matter how much it costs, to own Rabbi Levi Yitzchak as a slave!

Father Abraham makes his offer, with his merit for brit milah, the covenant of circumcision, and hospitality for wayfarers. Isaac offers his pain and suffering for nearly being sacrificed on the altar.  Jacob weighs in with the long years of labor he endured. The matriarchs register their tza’ar giddul banim, the fortitude and patience they exhibited while raising the whole household of Israel, without which none of us would be here. Row upon row, the merits of the saints pile up on the right side of the huge scale.

But they are bidding against the Devil, and he has treasures beyond measure. He ransacks porcelain vases from China, and gold, silver, and diamonds from the deepest mines, not to mention oil rigs and tanks from the ends of the earth. The left side of the scale sinks lower and lower. Finally, he throws his crown on the bundle to top it off. The scale hits bottom.

A crooked and vindictive grin spreads over Satan’s lips. Oh, what a catch! Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, to be a captive in hell! As the left side of the scale touches the ground, the Devil puts his hand on Reb Levi Yitzchak’s shoulder, points to the left doorway, and says: “This way, please.”

A gasp of horror runs through the ranks of the blessed. What! Reb Levi Yitzchak damned for eternity? It cannot be! But what is to be done?

Finally, a voice thunders from God’s Throne of Glory:

I buy him. For Mine is the earth and all its fullness, and I give the whole world for Reb Levi Yitzchak.”

The Devil’s face blazes fiery red, and he turns away, defeated.

Gleefully, the Hasid finished the story:

“That’s what the Rabbi told us in the pause between the Torah reading and Musaf. Do you non-Hasidim understand what a tremendous joy that was for us? First, there was the destruction of all our sins, burned to ashes. That’s a good-as-gold guarantee of a happy and prosperous New Year, like money in the bank. Second, Reb Levi Yitzchak saved from the schemes of the Devil. And third, best of all, we all learned the meaning of that baffling text, ‘To Him who buys His slaves on the day of judgment!’ ”

Who could ask for more?

Gemar chatima tova.