Wednesday, September 30, 2015

If Not Higher

If Not Higher  Rosh Hashanah First Night 2015

Opening Paragraph of If  Not Higher

            For all that we Jews have, over the course of centuries, prided ourselves on our love of learning and our respect for scholars, the truth is that the good story teller always drew the larger crowd than the greatest Talmid Hacham, even at the time that our sages were in their heyday.
            So, one Rabbi, the story goes, drew huge crowds with his tales, while his colleague drew only a few with his scholarly lectures. The former saw that his colleague was upset at the turnout, so he comforted him with a story.
            “ Let me tell you a story of two men who go to market. You sell the finest diamonds and emeralds and rubies, and I sell knickknacks: buttons, threads, odds and ends of cloth. Which one of us will have more buyers?  Why I will of course, because everyone can afford to buy a cheap needle and thread, but very few can afford your precious stones."
            So while Talmudic arguments and pilpul were the highlights of Jewish genius, a story well told was worth a thousand arguments.
            "Do you want to know the One who spoke and the world came into being? " The Sages  advised,’ Study the Aggadah, the legends and tales, for through them you will know him and cling to his ways and qualities’.” (Sifre ).
            Throughout the ages, Jews spun tales and stories that embedded values. The short story, the tale, the legend, the parable reached a. peak in the mouths of the Hasidic Rebbes, who found that they could break through the black clouds in a person's soul fastest by a quick epigram, a parable, or a short story, faster and with greater effect than with  a long disquisition or a fiery sermon.
            Hence, with your permission, tonight, instead of a sermon, I will serve up a story, one not of my own doing, but by the Yiddish master, Yitzhak Leib Peretz. It is one of the masterpieces of modern Yiddish literature in which he took classical Jewish beliefs and presented them to an audience that was no longer “frum,” no longer pious.
He  was a master of the gothic tale, who wrote in Hebrew and Yiddish, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th  century. Although himself a secular Jew, he loved to delve into Hasidic and mystic lore.
            The tale I will tell you tonight takes place during the High Holy Days period, just during the time of Slichot.
In the milieu of the story, in East Europe, it was the custom to go to Slichot,  for several  nights just before the first crack of dawn before Rosh Hashanah,  .
            It is a story of what makes for a true prayer for forgiveness of sins. It is, as well, the classic story of true believer, the Hasid, and the sceptic, the Misnagid. Chasidim tended to come from Poland and the western Ukraine, Poylnish or Galicianer, people of emotion and intensity; Misnagdim tended to come from Lithuania, hence  the idea of  Litvak, a cold harsh critical scholar.
            This is the translation by Marie Syrkin:

EARLY every Friday morning, at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the Rabbi of Nemirov would vanish.
     He was nowhere to be seen—neither in the synagogue nor in the two Houses of Study nor at a minyan.  And he was certainly not at home.  His door stood open; whoever wished could go in and out; no one would steal from the rabbi.  But not a living creature was within.
                Where could the rabbi be?  Where should he be?  In heaven, no doubt.  A rabbi has plenty of business to take care of just before the Days of Awe.  Jews, God bless them, need livelihood, peace, health, and good matches.  They want to be pious and good, but our sins are so great, and Satan of the thousand eyes watches the whole earth from one end to the other.  What he sees he reports; he denounces, informs.  Who can help us if not the rabbi!
      That is what the people thought.
      But once a Litvak came, and he laughed.  You know the Litvaks.  They think little of the Holy Books but stuff themselves with Talmud and law.  So this Litvak points to a passage in the Gemarah—it sticks in your eyes—where it is written that even Moses, our Teacher, did not ascend to heaven during his lifetime but remained suspended two and a half feet below.  Go argue with a Litvak!
      So where can the rabbi be?
      “That’s not my business,” said the Litvak, shrugging.  Yet all the while—what a Litvak can do!—he is scheming to find out.
      That same night, right after the evening prayers, the Litvak steals into the rabbi’s room, slides under the rabbi’s bed, and waits.  He’ll watch all night and discover where the rabbi vanishes and what he does during the Penitential Prayers.
      Someone else might have got drowsy and fallen asleep, but a Litvak is never at a loss; he recites a whole tractate of the Talmud by heart.
      At dawn he hears the call to prayers.
      The rabbi has already been awake for a long time.  The Litvak has heard him groaning for a whole hour. 
      Whoever has heard the Rabbi of Nemirov groan knows how much sorrow for all Israel, how much suffering, lies in each groan.  A man’s heart might break, hearing it.  But a Litvak is made of iron; he listens and remains where he is.  The rabbi, long life to him, lies on the bed, and the Litvak under the bed.
      Then the Litvak hears the beds in the house begin to creak; he hears people jumping out of their beds, mumbling a few Jewish words, pouring water on their fingernails, banging doors.  Everyone has left.  It is again quiet and dark; a bit of light from the moon shines through the shutters.
      (Afterward the Litvak admitted that when he found himself alone with the rabbi a great fear took hold of him.  Goose pimples spread across his skin, and the roots of his earlocks pricked him like needles.  A trifle:  to be alone with the rabbi at the time of the Penitential Prayers!  But a Litvak is stubborn.  So he quivered like a fish in water and remained where he was.)
      Finally the rabbi, long life to him, arises.  First he does what befits a Jew.  Then he goes to the clothes closet and takes out a bundle of peasant clothes:  linen trousers, high boots, a coat, a big felt hat, and a long wide leather belt studded with brass nails.  The rabbi gets dressed.  From his coat pocket dangles the end of a heavy peasant rope.
      The rabbi goes out, and the Litvak follows him.
      On the way the rabbi stops in the kitchen, bends down, takes an ax from under the bed, puts it in his belt, and leaves the house.  The Litvak trembles but continues to follow.
      The hushed dread of the Days of Awe hangs over the dark streets.  Every once in a while a cry rises from some minyan reciting the Penitential Prayers, or from a sickbed.  The rabbi hugs the sides of the streets, keeping to the shade of the houses.  He glides from house to house, and the Litvak after him.  The Litvak hears the sound of his heartbeats mingling with the sound of the rabbi’s heavy steps.  But he keeps on going and follows the rabbi to the outskirts of the town.
      A small wood stands behind the town.
      The rabbi, long life to him, enters the wood.  He takes thirty or forty steps stops by a small tree.  The Litvak, overcome with amazement, watches the rabbi take the ax out of his belt and strike the tree.  He hears the tree creak and fall.  The rabbi chops the tree into logs and the logs into sticks.  Then he makes a bundle of the wood and ties it with the rope in his pocket.  He puts the bundle of wood on his back, shoves the ax back into his belt, and returns to the town.
      He stops at a back street beside a small broken-down shack and knocks at the window.
      “Who is there?” asks a frightened voice.  The Litvak recognizes it as the voice of a sick Jewish woman.
      “I,” answers the rabbi in the accent of a peasant.
      “Who is I?”
      Again the rabbi answers in Russian.  “Vassil.”
      “Who is Vassil, and what do you want?”
      “I have wood to sell, very cheap.” And, not waiting for the woman’s reply, he goes into the house.
      The Litvak steals in after him.  In the gray light of the early morning he sees a poor room with broken, miserable furnishings.  A sick woman, wrapped in rags, lies on the bed.  She complains bitterly, “Buy?  How can I buy?  Where will a poor widow get money?”
      “I’ll lend it to you,” answers the supposed Vassil.  “It’s only six cents.”
      “And how will I ever pay you back?” said the poor woman, groaning.
      “Foolish one,” says the rabbi reproachfully.  “See, you are a poor sick Jew, and I am ready to trust you with a little wood.  And I am sure you’ll pay.  While you, you have such a great and mighty God and you don’t trust him for six cents.”
      “And who will kindle the fire?” said the widow.  “Have I the strength to get up?  My son is at work.”
      “I’ll kindle the fire,” answers the rabbi.
      As the rabbi put the wood into the oven he recited, in a groan, the first portion of the Penitential Prayers.
      As he kindled the fire and the wood burned brightly, he recited, a bit more joyously, the second portion of the Penitential Prayers.  When the fire was set he recited the third portion, and then he shut the stove.
      The Litvak who saw all this became a disciple of the rabbi.
     And ever after, when another disciple tells how the Rabbi of Nemirov ascends to heaven at the time of the Penitential Prayers, the Litvak does not laugh.  He only adds quietly, “If not higher.”!


What message does the Rabbi of Nemirov have for us today?.
            Actions are more than words. To sit in the house of worship alone does not lead to heaven.
Our Rabbi is showing the true Jewish path- Maasim Tovim, the doing of good deeds, and Gmilut Chasadim, acts of lovingkindness, of which one can never do enough.
In the course of the good deed there must menschlichkeit, a sense of basic decency, to it. It cannot be done automatically, impersonally. The Rabbi uses the occasion to teach that sick woman a vital lesson-not to give up, not to lose hope, even though she lies alone, weak, helpless. She must remember to have faith—that is the lesson he gives her.
We must set aside our cynicism, our disparagement of those things we can not measure, count, or quantify. The Talmid Chacham needs the Chasid, the mind needs the heart.
He reminds us that the good deed does not replace the religious deed, rather it goes hand in hand. Therefore, as he lights the fire, he recites the prayer!
Finally, we realize that we are great when we lower ourselves. By lowering himself to the service of a power woman, in the guise of a simple wood cutter, the Rabbi elevated himself to the highest levels of heaven, if not higher.

I pray that all of you will, in the course of the following days, take the tale to heart. Go out of your way to give someone who needs it a helping hand; at the same time, give someone who needs it the courage, the faith to keep on going. Do so as Jews of faith. Then perhaps , we 'll meet at some point, Oyb Nisht Nokh Hekher, If not higher than heaven!

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