(Courtesy: Temple Sinai, Newport News VA)
This story happened, not on Yom Kippur Eve, but instead it happened late one Yom Kippur afternoon in the synagogue of Berdichev. The famous Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, who was known for his great love and compassion, fell asleep on the pulpit just as he was about begin the day’s concluding service. Actually, he didn’t really fall asleep.
Those who knew, well realized that this great Rabby would never really go to sleep in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Rather, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak did what every wonder-working Rabbi does on Yom Kippur. He ascended to the highest heaven to stand before the throne of judgement in order to find out what the destiny of his beloved community would be for the coming year. Levin Yitzhak stood in the presence of the great judge sitting on a grand throne — with the scales of judgement before the Creator of All.
The Rabbi eagerly searched the scales of his little town of Berdichev. When he finally did find it, he was shaken. He was terrified. The side of the scale with good deeds was high up in the air with a few pitiful items on it, while the side of the scale with the sins was so full, so heavily weighted that it was as low as it could go, strained to the breaking point. In desperation, Levi Yitzhak turned to the good Lord and with panic and fear welling up inside he said to God, Master of the Universe, I know that the record of my people in Berdichev is dismal, but what do you expect,dear Lord?
If you would have put us into a Garden of Eden, you could expect us to act like angels, but, dear Lord, You placed us into a harsh and difficult setting. What alternative do my poor downtrodden, miserable people have? Sometimes, we must teka extreme measures, just to survive.
Levi Yitzhak was overjoyed to find the good Lord in a very receptive mood. With a benign, parental smile, God said to him, “Levi Yitzhak, you have a point. I haven’t been fair. I promise that the Jews of Berdichev are going to have a fine year.” As a matter of fact, Levi Yitzhak found God in such good humor that he suspected that this might be the moment to convince God to save not only the Jews of Berdichev, but to save all of humankind — to send the messiah, the redeemer, to save the world.
And so, Levi Yitzhak turned to the good Lord and said: “Master of the Universe, Merciful Parent, how long? Haven Your poor children suffered long enough? They’re drowning dear God. They’re on the very edge of desperation. Before it is too late, show us Your grace and mercy and send us Your redeemer.”
Lo and behold, God was willing to discuss the matter with Levi Yitzhak. He said to him: “Levi Yitzhak, you put forth a very cogent argument. There is much merit in it. Please sit down. Convince me.”
And so Levi Yitzhak was about to sit down to convince the Lord to save the world. When, out of the corner of his eye, he glanced down at his little town of Berdichev, and he noticed that Hayyim, the laundry man, (Hayyim) who was as old as time and as ugly as sin, to whom no one paid any attention — neglected, isolated, lonely Hayyim — [Hayyim] had fainted.
Hayyim had been fasting from the previous day; it was getting very late; he could not hold out any long and so he fainted. Levi Yitzhak knew well that he had to rush down to his synagogue and conclude the service so that Hayyim would eat — otherwise Hayyim would die.
So, here was his dilemma: Whom shall he save? Shall he convince the good Lord to save the world, or shall he save the life of Hayyim, the laundry man?
Actually, the choice was an easy one… Levi Yitzhak turned to God and said, “I would love to site here dear Merciful Father and convince You to save the world, — but where is it written that the price of saving the world is the life of Hayyim the laundry man?” And with that, he turned to rush down and conclude the service.
(And) as he was descending from the heights, rushing to save the life of Hayyim, the story concluded, he heard a chorus of angels calling after him: “Levi Yitzhak, you are saving the world!”
There are worlds to be saved for every one of us. You and I, by what we do and what we say, can actually save the world. Meaningful prayer must be in concert with our world-saving choices. Meaningful prayer must be, for us, a source of motivation and inspiration. Meaningful prayer should rise up to the heavens — Just like Levi Yitzhak. It must also bring about earthly change — in us, and in our world.