By Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
Yom Kippur, the ultimate day of repentance, has the Jewish nation simultaneously praying, fasting and asking for forgiveness. It begins with the somber, quiet, and melodious intonation of Kol Nidrei and ends with the entire congregation shouting Hashem hu HaElokim (G-d is the Al-Mighty) seven times after various requests of forgiveness. It seems that at the time when our strength is waning our greatest and loudest pleas are spent. Shouldn’t we begin the day with the strong requests for forgiveness and save the subdued prayers for when our bodies are weak from hunger and our lips parched from lack of water?
Rav Eichenstein, the Ziditchover Rebbe, tells the following story:
One Friday, a man entered the study of the Tchortkover Rebbe with a request that was very common in those days.
“My son was drafted into the army,” the man began. “However, we have a way out. On Sunday, we are going to a doctor who will falsely declare him unfit for service. This way he will be spared certain misery, perhaps even death in that terrible army. Rebbe,” he asked, “I need your blessing that he evade the draft.”
The Rebbe quietly told him that Shabbos was nearing and he could not concentrate on blessings. The man should return to him on Friday evening after his tisch (ceremonious chasidic table).
The man did so. After most of the chasidim had left, the man repeated his request, almost verbatim. Again the Rebbe was non-committal. “Return to me after the morning service.”
Unperturbed, the man noted that he would really like to resolve this matter before Sunday morning.
Shabbos morning, after services, the man approached the Rebbe again. Calmly he repeated the predicament. “Sunday morning I am going to a doctor who will falsely declare my son unfit for military service. Please pray that we will evade conscription.” The Rebbe was not moved. Again, he deferred until the afternoon.
At the third Shabbos meal, the scene repeated again, precisely the way it had the previous three times. “I understand that you are leaving Sunday morning. Come back to me late Saturday night,” said the Rebbe. “By then I will have an answer for you.”
By this time, his Chasidim’s curiosity was piqued. They had never seen their Rebbe so reluctant to mete a blessing, especially when it was one that would save a Jewish soul from the frightful Polish army.
Saturday night a large crowd gathered as the man approached with his request. Frustrated and disgruntled, the man, once again, repeated his story, almost verbatim, for the fifth time.
Immediately, the Rebbe sprung from his chair and began to shout. “What are you asking me? Why would one even try to evade the service of our wonderful country? How dare you ask me for a blessing of that sort? Your son would make a fine soldier for our country. I wish him the best of luck in the army!”
The man quickly scurried from the room and left town. The Chasidim stood shocked and bewildered. Never had they heard such an uncharacteristic outcry from the Rebbe.
“I will explain,” said the Rebbe. “The man was a fraud. He had no son, and if he did, he wanted him in the army. He was sent by the government to test our loyalty. Thank G-d we passed the test.”
“But, Rebbe!” cried the chasidim, “how did you know?”
“Simple,” explained the Rebbe. “I watched the level of intensity. From the moment he met me until tonight there was no increase in intensity nor feeling of desperation with each request. The moment I heard his request tonight and it contained no more passion or desperation than his first request on Friday night, I knew he was a fraud.”
We stand a whole entire day in prayer, and end with a ne’ilah prayer, after nearly 24 hours of pleading. The litmus test of our sincerity comes as the heavenly gates are being closed. As the sun begins to set, our pleas should intensify. That crescendo assures our sincerity. It also should assure us a happy and healthy sweet new year.