“Striving to Reach Heaven During the Days of Awe”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This past Saturday night, September 8, or early Sunday morning to be more exact, Ashkenazic Jews the world over began reciting selichot–the penitential prayers–in preparation for the High Holy Days. The imminent arrival of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is palpable.

On this coming Shabbat, parashat Nitzavim will be read. The parasha is one of the final four parashiot of the Book of Deuteronomy in which Moshe, on the last day of his life, talks with the People of Israel concerning the renewal of the Covenant. It is a stirring and moving speech, the tenor of which corresponds perfectly with that of the High Holidays and the Days of Awe.

Moshe gathers all the people of Israel, young and old, men and women, from the lowest to the most exalted, and, for the last time, initiates them into the covenant of G-d. Moshe predicts (Deuteronomy 30:3) that eventually the Jewish people will return to G-d: “V’shav Hashem Eloh’keh’chah et sh’vut’cha v’ree’chah’meh’cha,” And the Lord, your G-d, will bring back from your captivity, and have mercy on you. “V’ki’betz’cha mee’kol ha’am’im asher hay’fitz’cha Hashem Eloh’keh’chah sha’mah,” And G-d will gather you in from all the peoples to which He, the Lord, your G-d has scattered you. No matter how far you’ve strayed, says Moshe, G-d will gather you in. Even though your dispersed be in the far corners of heaven, from there G-d will gather you, and from there He will take you.

So just how do the people of Israel qualify for redemption and regathering? Simple! The formula is clear. Just keep G-d’s Torah. And, you know, it’s not that difficult! Deuteronomy 30:12: “Lo va’shah’mayim hee lay’mor, mee ya’aleh lah’nu ha’sha’mayma v’yee’ka’cheh’ha lah’nu, v’yash’mee’ay’nu oh’tah v’na’ah’seh’nah,” The Torah is not in Heaven for you to say, ‘Who can ascend to the Heaven for us and take it for us so that we can listen to it and perform it?’ Nor is it across the sea for you to say, ‘Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us to take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?” Rather the matter is very near to you, in your mouth, and your heart, to perform it.

With so little time left before the High Holidays, how can we hope to transform ourselves into a people who deserve redemption? We have so much to do, and so little time to do what needs to be done!

The story is told that in the town of Nemirov there lived a great Tzaddik. Although he was renowned for his righteousness throughout the Jewish world, there are always skeptics, and there were some skeptics to be found even in the town of Nemirov.

Before the High Holidays, the Jews of Nemirov would awaken well before the earliest signs of dawn to recite the selichot prayers, the penitential prayers, petitioning G-d for forgiveness, so that the Jews may be found worthy of redemption. Even those Jews who did not normally come to synagogue would show up for selichot prayers.

For some unknown reason, the Tzaddik of Nemirov never attended the early morning selichot prayers, giving his critics reason to claim that, after all, he was not so righteous if he couldn’t get up early enough to say selichot! When the Tzaddik’s followers heard the demeaning words of his critics who demanded to know where the Tzaddik of Nemirov was, they would half-heartedly say, “The Tzaddik of Nemirov is in heaven, petitioning G-d to grant forgiveness to the people of Israel.”

One of the skeptics decided that he was going to put an end to these absurd claims and prove that the Tzaddik was a fraud.

One night, he audaciously slipped into the rabbi’s house and lay under the rabbi’s bed to find out exactly what the Tzaddik of Nemirov did during the time he was absent from the selichot prayers. Before the crack of dawn, the Tzaddik awoke and rose from his bed. But he didn’t dress in his rabbinic garb. He dressed in the clothes of a lumberjack, and went out into the thick woods, with an ax over his shoulder, to cut firewood. After he completed chopping, the Tzaddik dragged the load to a little isolated house in the forest. He knocked on the door, which was answered by a little old lady. Announcing himself as the wood chopper, he said that he had a delivery of wood. The old lady protested that she had no money to pay for the wood. The wood chopper-Tzaddik ignored her protests, setting the wood in the fireplace and lighting a fire, all the while assuring the little old lady that she could pay later. Only then did the Tzaddik change his clothes and set off for the synagogue–late, of course, for the early selichot services.

When the skeptics asked their friend who had hidden under the rabbi’s bed whether it was true that the rabbi had indeed gone to heaven, all he could say was, “Heaven? Perhaps even higher!”

During this period of selichot, the Jewish people have a unique opportunity to ascend, to grow morally and religiously, to improve our attitudes and our behaviors, to work on our relationships with humans and with G-d. We surely cannot expect to reach higher than heaven, but we can certainly strive to reach heaven. And as long as we strive to reach heaven, we can rest assured that will be blessed, because we are on the right track.

May you be blessed.