(Courtesy: North Western Reform Synagogue)
Rabbis come in all shapes and sizes! Let’s ignore physical stature as I really don’t want to talk about it today, when we should to be talking about higher matters. Some Rabbis are quiet, some are outspoken. Some are subtle and some are chutzpadik – audacious. This afternoon, I want to introduce you to a particularly chutzpadik Rabbi.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak lived in Berdichev in the Ukraine in the late 18th Century. Levi Yitzchak was famous throughout the Ukraine for interceding with God on behalf of the Jewish people, so much so that the Jews called him their “defence advocate”. This intercession did not take the place of individual repentance. Each person has to do that for themselves, but he felt the situation was urgent enough to demand the mustering of additional pressure. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak interceded at Neilah, the section of Yom Kippur which we are here just about to begin.
This intervention took a startling form: true to his nickname “the Advocate” – at Neilah, the Chutzpah of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak reached its zenith: he put God on trial. 150 years before Elie Wiesel wrote about Jewish prisoners putting God on trial in Auschwitz for abandoning the Jewish people, Levi Yitzchak put God on trial in the Ukraine. His charge? That God failed to prevent the persecution and economic deprivation of his fellow Jews of the 18th century. And the verdict? Guilty on all the charges.
At Neilah, the distance between heaven and earth seems more permeable. It is the time for final, desperate acts. The Neilah service got its name, meaning “locking” or “closure”, during the days of the Temple, when the final service of Yom Kippur was performed as the physical gates of the temple were clanging shut. Now Neilah no longer refers to the closing of the Temple gates, but instead has become a metaphor for the closing of the Gates of Mercy at the end of Yom Kippur.
As he went up onto the Bimah, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was absolutely determined to wrestle a promise from God to give Jewish communities a year of blessing and happiness, instead of the suffering they had endured in the previous year. He was so desperate on behalf of his people, that he challenged God in moral combat. This bout went to three rounds: Supplication, Confession – and a decisive turnaround in the third.
First, supplication – he pleaded with God.
“Look, God, an ordinary person who drops a treasure on the floor, will stoop down and pick it up without thinking about it. But You, dear God, You called us your treasure, yet you let us fall from Your hands to the earth and don’t pick us up.” The legend has it that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak saw his words rise towards heaven and the Gates of Mercy stopped closing and began to open – just slightly.
So Levi Yitzchak shifted his focus to his second tactic – the Viddui, the confession prayer, the same prayers as we have said here many times over this past day – Al chet… We have sinned; we have cheated in our day to day lives.
Ashamnu, bagadnu, we have abused others and betrayed them. We have insulted and jeered, we have lied, we were obstinate, we were unkind…
Remorse spread throughout the congregation. Levi Yitzchak saw the sigh of penitence rise towards heaven, and its sound opened the Gates of Mercy slightly wider – yet still not far enough.
Desperate to prise the gates open further, Levi Yitzchak steeled himself for a final bout: war on God. He had one more force at his side, the strongest earthly force of all: the righteousness of his community. The Rabbi’s arsenal was his community’s good deeds.
So Rabbi Levi Yitzhak raised his voice. He pointed to the community: “let them speak, not me”.
So at this tender time of Neilah, we can muster our well honed chutzpah muscles and petition together that the Gates of Mercy should open, to let us inhabit the Book of Life for another year.
Like my Ukrainian predecessor, I too can point to this community and its spirit. As I mentioned at Rosh Hashanah, at Alyth, we have upheld the Talmudic instruction of how we should act to each other. I know that between us, we honoured our elders, supported each other, gave hospitality to strangers, visited the sick, assisted the bride, escorted the dead, engaged in prayer and tried to make peace between people. Many have studied Torah and donated time and money to those who needed it. We brought food and comfort to those who were bereaved.
In the words of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak “let the actions of this community speak for themselves, “let them speak, not me”.
As he listed their acts of loving-kindness, g’milut hasadim, the congregation felt their prayers rise towards the Gates of Mercy – the gates that were now wide open. In the end it was the weight of their actions that finally pushed open those gates.
The longer that I am privileged to be a Rabbi of Alyth, the more I appreciate so many people’s bravery in the face of hardship. As I look around, I know that all of us carry on day by day, despite anxieties and pressures and different forms of pain and loss. We continue to hope and to comfort. We continue to have the courage to get out of bed, to go to work, to take our kids to school, to do the very mundane which is often so hard.
I know that I would go into battle with God with you alongside me any day, any week, but most of all today.
Today I turn to the source of life, with the full force of this community’s spiritual weaponry and use the words of Neilah, I say “Shema koleinu”, hear our voice; listen to us, do not cast us away. Do not abandon us, shema koleinu, hear our voice, show us compassion, hear what we say, understand that which we cannot even express. Do not send us away when we grow old, when our spirit fails, do not forsake us, do not leave us. Answer us!
We are calling to You now to keep the Gates of Mercy open. In the great chutzpadik tradition of Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev we are turning to you, “Give us one more year. Give us one more year of life, one more year of rain and wind and sun, one more year to work and one more year to love. At least one more year.”
Source of healing and sustenance; give me one more year to cherish my family and to love seeing my children growing up. Give me one more year to relish being amongst this exceptional community – and may we return, to our tent of gathering next year, together.
Promise us this before Neilah, before the gates clang shut.
Shema Koleynu – hear our voice.