I entered Yom Kippur this year in an emotional state of despair. It was not so much that in two weeks I am going to have my right foot amputated, I have reconciled myself with that, it was the overwhelming pain. For seven years I have been struggling in a down-hill battle with infections, diabetic wounds and minor amputations on my foot and throughout this time the occasional bout with pain was manageable. Recently, as the infections began spinning out of control, the pain and swelling also increased to unbearable proportions. On top of all this I had to move from Kitchener to Toronto, ON. a distance of only 100 kilometers but a distance of light years vis-à-vis the spiritual, religious and sociological make-up of the Jewish community.
One of my life-long mentors is Rabbi Shne’ur Weinberg, my first Rebbe (grade 3) at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Detroit. Over the years he and his family were very influential in my life and the different directions that my life took during this period. After a complete physical breakdown culminating with the death of my mother A”H, Rav Shne’ur arranged for me to move into a home purchased by a wonderful couple who are Bobover Chassidim, for the purpose of housing out of town Jews and their families in need of medical treatment in Toronto – a Jewish version of a “Ronald McDonald house.”
Since I am an “Avel – mourner” and obligated to say daily prayers for my mother, I have been Davening – praying at a small storefront synagogue just two blocks away. This “Shul” is very functional but is not very inspirational but it certainly served my needs on a daily basis. However, I was restricted from attending other synagogues due to my lack of mobility especially on the Sabbath. As Yom Kippur approached and my emotional state deteriorated, I asked my landlord if he could push me, in my wheelchair, to the Bobover Shul – noted for the intensity of the prayers of their Chassidim.
Bobov is a Chassidic sect that stemmed from Bobowa, Galicia in southern Poland. They are associated with the Sanzer/Klozenberg sect founded by the famous Grand Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz, a.k.a the Divrei Chaim. The Divrei Chaim’s grandson Rav Shlomo Halberstam began this new sect centered in Bobov in 1881. Today, like other Chassidic sects, they have a worldwide organization that focuses on spiritual purity, acts of kindness and the perfection of self. While studying in Yeshiva in New York city as a teenager I spent the occasional Shabbat and attended weddings and Bobover gatherings led by one of the great Chassidic Tzaddikim, Rav Shloimeh Halberstam (1907 – 2000) ZTz”L, the fourth Rebbe, who re-established the sect after the holocaust (my son Benji had a private audience with the Grand Rabbi prior to his passing in 2000).
For the last 30 odd years I have been a congregational Rabbi in small Jewish communities in North America. I was the pro, I usually led the service, provided explanations and background, read the Torah, blew the Shofar, and gave sermons while for the most part the congregation consisted of spectators. Now I was entering into a world of literate, committed Jews whose goal during these High Holiday services was to reach a level of “Deveikus – attachment” to the Master of the Universe.
The Chassidim appear to the untrained eye as being made of the same mold, their outer garments are long black satin frocks known as Kapotes; the married men wear fur covered round hats called Shtriemels; the unmarried “Bochurs” wear beaver hats with a large flat brims. Over the Kapotes, married men also wear a Kittle, a white shroud-like garment. Some wear long black pants, while others wear knickers with long white stockings. Due to the mourning nature of Yom Kippur, religious Jews are accustomed to wearing sneakers on Yom Kippur because leather shoes are a sign of wealth and Yom Kippur is the great equalizer. But this year I witnessed a new fashion statement, though the die-hard sneaker-wearers were in abundance, a new, more modern and comfortable form was being introduced, “Crocks,” every shape, size and color was visible in Bobov, much to my surprise and amusement.
I was wheeled into the main sanctuary by my host and every congregant I passed, bent over and wished me “G’mar Tov – that my fate should be sealed for the better.” Each face wore a big smile and I truly felt welcome on this new planet. Young and old alike came over to me and offered their wishes for a Refu’ah Sheleimah – a complete recovery. The “Rav” Rabbi Yehoshu’a Furer, is the head of the Toronto community and “Rosh Kollel – dean of their adult academy” took a seat next to me and with tears in his eyes blessed me that this New Year will see an end to my suffering. I was a stranger in a strange land, and most people are suspicious of strangers. I didn’t fit in, I dressed differently, my Yiddish had a different accent and yet in no uncertain terms, I was accepted as part of the community. How strange!
Services began with a meditation from the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) known as “Tefillat Zakah – the prayer for purity.” It focuses one’s attention on how God’s commandments should be expressed with the entire body: hands, feet, eyes, mouth, etc., all of one’s limbs and organs had a role in expressing God’s will and could serve as a catalyst to transform oneself into becoming an example of His image. As their focus became more concentrated, so did their expressions. Chassidim began moving, “Shokeling” back and forth, the volume of their prayers increased, many began clapping their hands and beseeching the Holy One for His aid in accomplishing this goal.
Suddenly the Rav and a few select Chassidim began removing all the Torah scrolls from the Ark. Everyone stood up as the procession circled the room with the Torah scrolls, congregants approached the Torah bearers and leaned over to kiss the Torah. As the procession came my way a gentleman who I did not know, pointed down to me so the Torah bearer could see that I didn’t have the maneuverability to approach the Torah. Each bearer leaned downwards so that I too could take hold a section of the velvet Torah cover and bring it to my lips.
Rabbi Furer began Kol Nidrei – a prayer nullifying all unfulfilled oaths, the traditional beginning to the evening service. As a cantor, he left much to be desired. In my synagogues, the cantorial emphasis was placed on performance, we chose the Chazzan solely on the merits of his voice. We wanted a good tenor or baritone, someone who we could listen to and appreciate the musical quality of the service. The Rav’s voice (as well as all the other cantor’s voices) was mediocre, but his expressions were very profound and inspired a passion in the prayers of the congregation. While many of the melodies were traditional, there was a unique quality to the prayers that transcended the melodies. During his execution of the service, a number of Chassidim came forward and formed an impromptu choir adding to his role as congregational guide. I found myself in a symbiotic melding of the form of the prayers and “Kavanah – intent” like never before. Before I knew it, the service had ended and after many wishes for a year of health and happiness, my host pushed my wheelchair back home.
The next morning after I had taken my medication and eaten the required food along with it (this is not considered “breaking the fast”) my host again wheeled me to Shul. Again, I was greeted like a long-standing member of the community and the morning service began.
While most morning services on the Sabbath and holidays are short, Yom Kippur’s morning service is quite long. I began to realize that we were praying at a much slower pace than usual. Again the emphasis was on Kavanah rather than speed. Interspersed in the morning service are many Piyutim – poems, some very long (in non-Chassidic congregations many of these beautiful poems are passed over). A very popular musical form used for these Piyutim is the march, and the Bobover marches are spectacular. Again, an impromptu choir formed around the Chazzan, but suddenly, the Rav started pulling young boys into the choir. The melodies became very intricate, yet everyone had a part to play in the harmonies accompanying the basic march. I was spell-bound.
While joining in, I also began to notice subtle differences among the Bobovers. We often perceive that each sect is fashioned from the same mold they all seem to look the same. First I noticed that each of the Bocherim (unmarried “boys”) whore a black hat and under the hat they wore a black velvet Kipa that stuck out the back of their heads, how strange. Then I noticed two brothers each wearing a different style hat – again very strange. While gazing at the choir that now consisted of some 30 boys and men, I noticed one Chassid whose intensity had come to my attention the night before. Today, he wore his Tallis – prayer shawl over his head and underneath his Tallis, he wore a black velvet Kipa and over that he had on a white Jerusalem style Kipa – a triple covering, this blew my mind. I tried to recall some reference to such attire to no avail. Over the course of the morning prayers I began to notice more and more subtle differences among what I thought to be an identical group.
During the Torah reading (the next part of the service) I leaned over to the Chassid sitting next to me who led the morning service and asked him why a certain Chassid wore a double Kipa? He looked at me as if he never noticed this before and astonishingly replied in Yiddish, “Mistameh Ehr Iz a Tzaddik – he’s probably a holy man” as if that was an appropriate assumption to make. It turned out the Chassid in question was the son-in-law of the Chassid who led the morning service.
The reader at the Torah service had a gravelly voice, but read the Torah perfectly. He too “Shukeled” passionately, yet his body language was almost an interpretation of the words he was reading.
After the memorial service for our departed loved ones, we began the Mussaf service which include among its many themes a review the ancient Temple service performed on Yom Kippur by the High Priest. During the silent part of Mussaf, I began experiencing a lot of pain and fatigue and needed to return home. Knowing that on Yom Kippur people are always looking to perform extra Mitzvot, I asked my host if he could arrange for one of the Bocherim to wheel me home. He arranged for two of his grandsons to take me home and pick me up later in the day. These two delightful young men showed an abundance of graciousness in fulfilling this request.
On our way home, my curiosity got the best of me and I asked them about the Chassid who wore two Kippot under his Tallis. Before I could even finish my question one of them replied, “In Bobov we don’t ask questions about people.” In most societies, quirks and idiosyncrasies are signs of not conforming to the whole, but here, it’s nobody’s business. Why should I care if he wears two Kippot? What difference does it make to my life if members of the same sect and same family wear different hats? Unbelievable!
A few hours later the young men returned to wheel me back to Shul. After Mincha – the afternoon prayers, we began the final stage of the prayer service, Ne’ilah, literally the locking of the doors to the Gate of Prayer. In this series of prayers and poems we beseech God to accept our repentance and we show our loyalty to Him thereby sealing our destiny for the better (it is important to realize that Yom Kippur is the anniversary of God’s revelation of His 13 attributes of mercy described in Exodus 34:6, 7, by giving Moses the second set of the 10 commandments. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses shattered the first tablets, and now after another 40 days and nights, on the 10th day of the seventh month, God set aside His attribute of justice and forgave the Israelites for their heinous transgressions by giving Moses a new set of tablets that he brought down from Mt. Sinai). Ne’ilah is that last chance that we have to replace hard judgment with God’s mercy.
The Rav again led the service and again his soulful adaptation of the prayers was very moving. Throughout the services I experienced a blend of communication through Kavanah and spiritual expression. But something was changing in me and I lost control of my emotions. Suddenly I was no longer reciting prayers in a book, I was speaking to God from that place of despair knowing that only He could change my sorrow and allow me to find solace and comfort through a direct exchange with Him. My heart opened up and tears that I had held back for so long began to flow down my cheeks. Words that I recited so many times when I conducted services for others, suddenly became gateways from my heart directly to Him. Don’t get misunderstand me, all of those years as a Rabbi I really wanted to aid my community in the experience of prayer. But I was sidetracked by style, melody, by gauging the congregation’s level of tolerance and by watching the clock. Now as a middle aged man I could pray for my sake and personalize every word, every syllable and every sound that I uttered. I was experiencing a transcendence of body and soul aided by the energy of this community of pious and righteous people who were not judging each other because of our differences.
We concluded our services with our declaration of faith: Shema Yisra’el HaShem Eloheinu, HaShem Echad – Hear O Israel, HaShem is our God, HaShem is a Oneness.
This was followed by: Baruch Sheim K’vod Malchuto L’Olam VaEd – Blessed is His glorious Name, His majesty reigns on forever – this repeated three times.
Finally: HaShem Hu HaElohim – HaShem He is God – repeated seven times (this last phrase originated with the Israelites when Eliyahu – Elijah the prophet, defeated the 450 priests of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel – I Kings 18:39).
Here I was among these Bobover Chassidim, in the city of Toronto, making this very same declaration as the very knowledge of the revelation of God’s presence swept over me. Then the Rav, came over to me, placed my two hands in his and with tears in his eyes told me that I was not alone and that with God’s blessing I should have a complete healing of body and soul.
It has been years since I had such an experience. I left the Shul with plans to return, knowing that I will not have a right foot in a few weeks but that through His grace I will heal. I still have terrible pain that I can and will endure until He brings an end to my suffering. I know that as a community, we are all the same, our differences are insignificant, after all, Jews are from Jew-piter.