(Courtesy: Doug Lipman)

It was the holiest day of the year in Berdichev. All the hasidic Jews were gathered in one synagogue, waiting for their rabbi to finish praying.

They were patient, though, because they were so proud of their rabbi. He was such a holy man. He often became so absorbed in the holy prayers that he would cry and shake. Sometimes he would say things that they did not understand, but they knew he was their steadfast advocate before the Heavenly Judge. If anyone could get their souls inscribed in the Book of Life for the next year, he could.

But as the pause went on – as he cried, muttered, and paced in front of them – they began to think, “He is asking a lot of us. We are fasting! How long will he keep us?” Still, they waited quietly for him to settle this divine matter.

Then he stopped and faced them. At last he would pray! They straightened up to listen. “At this moment,” he said, “I cannot continue. Today, this prayer must be sung by one who is so committed to it…that he is willing to die while he prays.”

To be sure, they were grateful for the efforts he went through, week after week, on their behalf. But this was something different altogether. He had never insisted that one of them do the same thing!

So they waited.

After a while, he spoke again. “One of you must sing this prayer. In this holy moment, it must be sung by one who is willing to die in the act.”

They looked around at each other. Most of them had ideas about who it should be. But no one spoke.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak said, “There must be someone who is willing to sing this prayer now, knowing it may be your last words in this lifetime.”

They heard a bench scraping. Slowly, someone was standing up. Strangely, the sound was not coming from the side of the synagogue where the important people sat. Even so, they were relieved to hear the sound of someone rising.

Turning to see, they saw an old man, rising slowly from the bench against the rear wall of the synagogue. They were aghast. Him? Once, this man had a gorgeous voice. Long ago, in fact, he had been Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s cantor. But he was so unsparing of his voice in the service of God that he had begun to lose it. By the time he more croaked than sang, he was asked to stop his attempts at music. There had been an awkward period when he nevertheless insisted on singing the service, but the townspeople had resolved it by simply hiring a new cantor. After one service in which the old cantor and his old-style melodies could not be heard above the new cantor’s powerful voice, the old cantor had finally stopped singing. For years now, no one had given him a thought.

But this day, he toddled slowly toward the bima. When Rabbi Levi Yitzchak saw him, he smiled and stood aside. At last, the old man reached the bima, turned around to face the congregants, and opened his mouth. What came out was more growl than song. Instinctively, people covered their ears. Yet the old man went on, cawing like a tormented crow.

This man was to represent them to heaven? People in the prestigious seats began to exchange glances. Yet now they were distracted by other sounds – from their beloved Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. He was bent over in pain. He moaned. He cried.

As the old man went on with the prayer, his rough voice cracked completely, and for a moment no sound came out at all, except his labored breathing. His voice cracked again and again. The silences became longer than the periods of “singing.”

By now, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was writhing on the floor. He trembled. His legs began to twitch.

The congregants were stunned. The old man’s singing was painful, but none of them found the need to throw themselves on the ground and hold their sides. To be sure, they were used to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak falling into ecstasies during the services, and they had learned not to interrupt him. Yet his agonies seemed to continue, even as his moaning became fainter. Was he in danger? Should they intervene?

At last, three respectable villagers approached the bima and knelt down beside Rabbi Levi Yitzchak. One of them touched Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s cheek. “Holy rabbi, are you all right?”

After a time, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak opened his eyes. “It is just as well that you roused me. If you had not, I would have died.” Now he slowly stood up. “But I dearly wish that you never had. You see, in the silences in that man’s song, I heard the music of God.”

Once again, he faced the congregation. As he prayed, their voices joined his, in equal fervor.