The Satan saw our heilige Yid, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, doing mysim toivim, good deeds, and resolved to overwhelm the Besht. There are many angels, the Satan called upon some to assist, saying “Shlekht molakhim, evil angels, will guard the way to Shomayim.” The Satan intended that every prayer, no matter when, no matter where, no matter who, would rise only so far before it fell back. These prayers would never reach schaaray Shomayim, Heaven’s gates, and the Satan intended that no tefilos at all would come before kisay shel Rachamim, the Throne of Mercy.
“Many days will come and go, no prayers will reach the Throne,” the Satan said. “I will meet with Hashem Yisboirekh and say that the Yidn have deserted, that not even the sainted Rebbe Israel has stayed faithful, and that the Toira should depart from the Yidn forever.”
The dark angels were stationed, no highway or byway was unguarded, silent and invisible they were as they waited, and before the very Gates of heaven? A great army assembled and allowed no prayer entry.
The prayers flew upward, as Yiddishe prayers do, and the Satan’s agents halted them, leapt upon them, choked them, flung them into toihu und voihu, emptiness and chaos. The groans and wails of these bruised prayers filled all of space. The oilum was heavy with the weight of these orphaned prayers, except on erev Shabbes, when the tefilos of the Yidn burst forth like water escaping a blocked hose. Satan’s army of evil, encamped at the Gates of heaven, stopped them, for not even Satan’s foul minyons were numerous enough to stop their ascent.
Time passed, no tefilos reached the Throne, and Satan said to Hashem Yisboirekh “Take Toirah from the Yidn.”
“After Yoim Kipper,” God replied, but the Satan was impatient.
“Send out the command now,” he said, “but give them until the Day of Atonement,” and Hashem agreed.
How did Hashem’s will become manifest? The bishop Dembowski, yemach shmoi, his name be erased, proclaimed to his priests “Seize every book in Hebrew, take their Torah scrolls, and burn them,” and this is how he intended his Jews to observe Yoim Kipper. In our year it was 5518, in his 1757. All his priests did as asked but in Komenets and Lviv they were especially zealous.
And our heilige Yid? The Besht knew the Satan’s work when he saw it, he did not know how to overcome this evil, and every day the Yidn suffered more and more: the holy scrolls were wrenched from their arms as they carried them from the aron koidish. The Yidn cried, bereaved mothers whose babes were snatched from their breasts, and vowed “On Yoim Kipper we will burn with our Toirah!”
Deprived of sleep, deprived of food, the Besht sent the strongest prayers he had to Heaven, tefilos so might and majestic that only the Satan could stop them. A storm raged in our heilige Yid’s heart.
The Besht entered the shul with the saintly rabbi, Yakoiv Yoisef of Polnoye, by his side. No one present could miss the struggle etched into the Besht’s face. “We are saved,” they said.
“Koil Nidro”, the Besht sang, and his strong voice belied his weak heart. Sorrow and fear accompanied all who listened. Yakoiv Yoisef called each verse of the Ahl Chét aloud, the Besht responded aloud to each call, for this was the custom, but not this time, for the Besht did not reply when Yakoiv Yoisef called “Open the Gates of Heaven!”
The shteibl’s silence sounded like the death groan of a dying people. Yakoiv Yoisef repeatedly called “Open the Gates of Heaven,” the Besht said nothing, and then the silent fever broke: silent no more, the Baal Shem Toiv fell forward to lay prone upon the floor, screaming like nothing human ever heard, and it seemed like all day passed as we shared our silence and watched. Slowly he raised himself from the floor, his face full of sorrow and grief now a face of radiant wonder.
“The Gates of Heaven,” he said, “are open.” And that’s how we concluded Koil Nidro.
What he had done as he lay prone on the floor took time to circulate. Perhaps it is still not known, perhaps it will never be known, but this is the story we heard.
The grandest of Heaven’s Gates guards the road that leads directly to the kisay shel Malchus, the very seat of Hashem. Our heilige Yid lay down to go up, and as he approached the Mikdosh Melech, the Palace of the Monarch, he saw the hundreds of thousands of prayers panting their life away just outside the grounds.
“Heaven is waiting,” the Baal Shem Toiv called to them, “why do you linger?” Satan’s minyons fled, and the tefilos now had a way to enter but were too weak to move.
“Heaven awaits us,” the Besht called, and he pushed the prayers forward.
Satan’s army remained at the Gate, though, and the Satan personally came forth to lock the Gate. The Besht saw the lock was solid, that the Throne was inaccessible, and he sought another way in.
There dwells in Heaven an avatar for each of us on Earth, it was to this place in Heaven that the Besht journeyed while he lay prone on the floor of our shul, and it was his own avatar that he sought. “I seek your advice,” he asked. “How do I bring our blocked prayers forward?”
“Perhaps the moshiach knows,” our heilige Yid in Heaven answered, and so they went to where the moshiach awaits the time Heaven calls him to descend.
“Be laibadik,” moshiach told our Besht. “Be of loving heart. Use this token.”
Our Besht took the token, went back to the locked Gate, the lock fell apart, and the tefilos were a flame that consumed the Satan’s army.
At that moment, in Komenets, the bishop Dembowski, yemach shmoi, stood by the fire kindled to consume our sifré koidish, the siddurs, the machzors, the Talmud, the Toirah itself. He began by burning the Talmud, volume after volume he hurled into the fire, but suddenly he stopped. A seizure of some sort overtook him, he fell, no one else was brave enough to stoke the flame, which died down and went out.
Good news travels fast, and the less zealous priests, perhaps fearing that this curse would befall them also, left our holy books alone. Thus it was that in 1757 our holy books were saved. It was the Yoim Kipper of 5518.
Blessing Authors Creation
בָּרוּךְ שְׁמוֹ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם הָאֵל אָב הָרַחֲמָן הַמְהֻלָּל בְּפֶה עַמּוֹ מְשֻׁבָּח וּמְפֹאָר בִּלְשׁוֹן חֲסִידָיו וַעֲבָדָיו וּבְשִׁירֵי דָוִד עַבְדֶּךָ
…Blessing authored creation. A blessing: You Are G!d. Our G!d. My G!d. Universal Monarch. The G!d. Source of mercy, your people speak praise, your pious servants use glorious language and the songs of Your Servant David. (Morning Meditations)
The Hebrew pi’yut (hymn) barukh sh’amar begins with a series of phrases which poetically use barukh “bless” to establish precisely how each day is created. The py’tan (liturgical poet) ends these assertions with the phrase barukh shmo, literally “His Name: Blessing”. The poetic theme relates directly to the opening words of Torah bréshit bara elo’him “it began when G!d Created”, thus “Blessing authored creation”, and the Siddur immediately continues with the formal blessing which begins each day. In doing so, however, the Siddur leads us to understand that human language continues the work of creation. The Hebrew
וּמְפֹאָר בִּלְשׁוֹן חֲסִידָיו וַעֲבָדָיו
um’fo’ar bil’shon hasid’ahv v’ahv’adahv
can be understood to mean “glory from upon my tongue, piety is kindness (hesed) and service”. King David’s songs in Tehilim (Psalms) begin mizmor shir , and each of the six songs deal with kindness as a specific devotion and service. Blessing creates loving interpersonal relationships based on devotion and service. Creation continues on account of this, not in spite of it.
Forgiveness is compassion
סְלַח לָֽנוּ, אָבִֽינוּ, כִּי חָטָֽאנוּ, מְחַל לָֽנוּ, מַלְכֵּֽנוּ, כִּי פָשָֽׁעְנוּ, כִּי אֵל טוֹב וְסַלָּח אָֽתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, חַנּוּן הַמַּרְבֶּה לִסְלֹֽחַ
Pardon us, dear G!d: we transgress. Forgive us, our Monarch: with intent we offend. But You Forgive and we benefit. A blessing: You Are G!d. Forgivess is an act of Your Compassion. (Amida)
Every bracha (benediction) begins with the same three Hebrew words:
barukh atah yhvh
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ
Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) demonstrated that barukh is a noun rather than the past tense of a verb; “blessing” is correct. The common translation of “blessed are You” is absurd: G!d Blesses me, and surely I am not to bless G!d. When barukh is a noun I am lead to know that You Are G!d, for even (or especially) among the pious it is common to enter prayer as ish daht (mindful) rather than ish torah (soulful). Every bracha is less a cognitive experience than a spiritual one, and this blessing especially.
Return vs Settle
וְאָשוּב אֵלֶיךָ בִּתְשוּבָה שְלֵמָה
I will return to You completely. (Rabénu Bachya’s personal prayer)
Rabénu Bachya’s poetry doubles the use of the verb shuv — שוּב — which expresses the idea of both “return” and “settle” (shav). The Hebrew word t’shuva — תּשוּבה — is correctly interpreted as “repent”, but more precisely it means “return to a settled state”. Rabénu Bachya was medieval Jewry’s foremost ethicist. His ethical insight requires complete return; returning to G!d is one thing, returning completely another. How does one return completely? By returning also to people we affect: in the Image of G!d were they created…
וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם
Gratitude & Confession
אוֹדֶה לאֵל לֵבַב חוֹקֵר בְּדָן יַחַד כּוֹכְבֵי בֹקֵר — מבּוֹא לסידוּר קוֹל המקוֹם
Gratitude to G!d, Who Searches (and Judges) the heart once the stars rise each morning.
The Hebrew word oe’deh — אוֹדֶה — poetically connotes thankfulness, from the verb le’hit’va’deh — לְהִתְוַדֶה — “to confess” or “to give thanks”; the verb le’hit’ahd’ut — לְהִתְאַדוֹת — is quite similar, it means “to vaporize”, and I marvel at how Hebrew teaches me.
Telling someone I am grateful requires me to subdue — to “vaporize” — my ego. A confession? Do I not vaporize a resentment, perhaps, or any pesha or chet? I think I do.
Jacob or Israel?
יז וַיַּעֲמִידֶ֤הָ לְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ לְחֹ֔ק ׀׀ לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם: — דברי הימים א: טז, יז
It stands for Ya’aqov as law | For Israel it is an eternal covenant.
The version of Divré Ha’Yamim (Chronicles) on the Mechon-Mamre website — http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt25a16.htm — presents this section of Chronicles as liturgical poetry written in parallel columns. Jacob and Israel are the same person. Yet for Ya’aqov “it” stands as law while for Israel “it” is an eternal covenant? What does this mean?
The call —
וַיַּעֲמִידֶ֤הָ לְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ לְחֹ֔ק
It stands for Ya’aqov as law
The response —
לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם
For Israel it is an eternal covenant
Jewish tradition assigns Chronicles to Ketuvim “scripture” rather than to Navi’im “the prophets”. Were Chronicles sought for historical perspective it would be assigned to the library of prophetic books, for historical perspective is the special province of the prophetic books. Chronicles is a liturgy of Israel, as indeed are all of the books listed in the library of 11 scriptural books:
|Poetic (3)||Tehilim, Mishlé — משלי — and I’yov — איוֹב|
|Lectional (5)||Shir Ha’Shirim — שִיר הַשִירִים ; Rut — רוּת ; É’kha — איכה ; Qohelet — קהלת; and Estér — אסתר|
|Theological (3)||Dani’él — דניאל; Ezra — עזרא; and Divré Ha’Yamim — דברי הימים|
Finding the right words
אוֹדֶה לאֵל לֵבַב חוֹקֵר בְּרָן יַחַד כּוֹכְבֵי בֹקֵר
I thank G!d, the Searcher of all hearts and praise G!d together with the stars of the dawn.
This remarkable prayer is collected by Rabbi Abraham Twersky in his book Living Each Day. The Rav cites it as “introduction to morning service”, but I have never seen such an introduction. The prayer is not found in my Nusakh Sfard siddurim, but there are many versions of Nusakh Sfard.
Something fascinating happened to me because of this prayer: I read it incorrectly. In copying and interpreting the prayer I transcribed b’dahn — בְּדָן — rather than b’rahn — בְּרָן — and I was thus interpreting the wrong word, something I was completely unaware of until I showed Living Each Day to my wife, who told me I had read it incorrectly.
I thought Rav Twersky interpreted “praise” for b’dahn and I was forced into an investigation of Hebrew such that I have rarely encountered before: neither my grammars nor my lexicons or dictionaries list “praise” as an interpretation of b’dahn; the interpretation “praise” is, however, sensible for b’rahn. Interpreting the wrong word forced me to learn better Hebrew!
The Hebrew ahv’dahn — אבדן — means “loss”. Praise requires a loss of ego, and thus the interpretation of praise is cogent ivrit ruchanit “spiritual Hebrew”. I stand on the shoulders of giants: Rav Hutner, ahlahv ha’shalom, was once asked why modeh — מוֹדה — meant both “grateful” and “confess”. He replied “gratitude is a confession that I couldn’t do it without you”.
Rav Hutner’s logic applies perfectly in this context. Why does b’dahn mean both “in judgement” and “praise”? Because praise is a judgement that I couldn’t do it without you.
I’m grateful to Rav Twersky for improving my ivrit ruchanit. I could not have done it without him.
עֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ צְדָקָה וָחֶֽסֶד וְהוֹשִׁיעֵֽנוּ — תפילות יומיות, נוּסח ספרד
As for us? Rescue us! Act charitably and kindly. (Daily Siddur, Nusakh Sfard)
Astounding. Do we actually need to remind G!d to be charitable and kind? Ridiculous! It is easier, however, to remind G!d than to remind ourselves. Perhaps we will remind ourselves because we remind G!d.
A dove in the wilderness
יוֹנָתִ֞י בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֗לַע בְּסֵ֨תֶר֙ הַמַּדְרֵגָ֔ה הַרְאִ֨ינִי֙ אֶת־מַרְאַ֔יִךְ הַשְׁמִיעִ֖ינִי אֶת־קוֹלֵ֑ךְ כִּי־קוֹלֵ֥ךְ עָרֵ֖ב וּמַרְאֵ֥יךְ נָאוֶֽה: — שיר השירים ב, יד
My dove? A circle within the boulder, a secret within the step, my vision from the mirror, what I hear of your voice — your voice? A wilderness, when dawn is a multitude and the mirror is desire.
The Hebrew for dove — יוֹן — within Shir Ha’Shirim refers to G!d, not to love. In its natural habitat everywhere on the known Earth, the dove is a simile for Ha’Shem. The Hebrew ah’rév — ערב — literally means “wilderness”, but here I decode it as when dawn (ער) is a multitude (רב): it is always dawn somewhere on Earth. Mystics understand cirlce within the stone to refer to Moshe, whom G!d Placed in the cleft of a rock when passing by —
וְהָיָה בַּעֲבֹר כְּבֹדִי, וְשַׂמְתִּיךָ בְּנִקְרַת הַצּוּר; וְשַׂכֹּתִי כַפִּי עָלֶיךָ, עַד-עָבְרִי
And as My Glory passes I Will place you within a gouge of
the rock. It will be as if My Hand covers you until I Pass by.
Every step is a mystery, for one does not know what’s around the corner, though ma’dréga — מדרגה — refers less to footsteps — צעדים — than it does to advancing along a stairwell — חדר מדרגות — e.g., it defines moving up a level rather than moving across the same level. One can walk down a stairwell, of course, but I do not understand there to be any such thing as a “lower madréga”.
Crime or Sin?
כ וּבָ֤א לְצִיּוֹן֙ גּוֹאֵ֔ל וּלְשָׁבֵ֥י פֶ֖שַׁע בְּיַֽעֲקֹ֑ב נְאֻ֖ם יְהֹוָֽה: — ישעיה נט, כ
To Tzion comes a redeemer. Repent from crime, Jacob, is G!d’s Word. (Isaiah 59:20)
Jacob is a poetic description of Israel’s kingdom, and our prophetic storyteller is unhappy with Jacob. Isaiah has said that a redeemer will emerge, not that the redeemer will. This makes a pun: a redeemer (go’él) will emerge — or profanity will pollute (go’ahl).
It is not clear, whether in standard interpretation or mine, to whom a redeemer will come. Most interpretations suggest “to those in Jacob who turn from transgression”, to paraphrase (and modernise) the old Jewish Publication Society translation. I’m less definite: “Repent from crime, Jacob”. It’s not clear to me that Jacob will be redeemed: perhaps it is those affected by Jacob’s go’ahl.
What is clear to me, though, is that the choice is Jacob’s only until such time as it is G!d’s.