Rav Levi Yitzchak's Lessons on Prayer
(Courtesy: Rabbi Yehudah Prero)
The prayers on Rosh Hashanah differ from the rest of the year. Some passages appear unfamiliar, with words and sentences we are not accustomed to. While it is incumbent upon us to properly prepare for this holy day, we all know that each of us has some limitations. The following lessons from Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev shed some light on how we can make the most of our prayers.
Everyone assembled in the synagogue was awaiting this moment. Their spiritual leader, the sainted Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was going to sound the Shofar himself this year. They knew of his dedication to G-d. They knew of his piety. They knew that there was no more worthy person to lead the congregation in this special Mitzvah on this holy day.
Rav Levi Yitzchak readied himself for this task of utmost importance. He immersed in the Mikvah, purifying himself in preparation for this hallowed duty. When the time came for him to blow the Shofar, he looked angelic, garbed in his white Kittel, enveloped in his Tallis. He recited the introductory prayers with utmost concentration, inspiring the entire congregation to do so with him. He then read a prefatory portion of the Zohar with heartfelt emotion. Now was the time for the blowing of the Shofar. The entire congregation stood with anticipation and trepidation, awaiting the blessings and the first sounds of the Shofar. But they did not come.
Rav Levi Yitzchak did not recite the blessings. Instead, he placed the Shofar back down on the table before him. A few moments passed, and he again picked up the Shofar. He readied himself to recite the blessing. He hesitated, and then placed the Shofar down once again. After some time had passed, Rav Levi Yitzchak turned to the confused assembled.
"My friends," he said, "there is seated here today a man. This man is not like you or me. He was separated from his family in his youth, and has no background or familiarity with his religion. He does not know how to read Hebrew, let alone pray. He knows that today is Rosh Hashanah, a day to pray to G-d, and he therefore joined us. Standing here, he saw the entire congregation immersed in meaningful and earnest prayer. He felt a jealousy, a burning feeling of envy, because he could not participate with the congregation. This man turned his head towards heaven, and cried his heart out.
'Our merciful Father, You know all the sincere prayers, the depths of the feelings with which they are uttered, the meanings and implications of each and every word. The only thing I know are the 22 letters of the Alef-Bet. My prayer to You, on this holiest of days, is all that I know: Alef, Bet, Gimel, etc.. Please G-d, in Your abundant kindness, join together these letters to formulate a prayer for me.'"
"You should know," Rav Levi Yitzchak said, "that this is the reason for my hesitation. G-d is in the midst of assembling this purest of pure prayers. While G-d joins together the letters uttered from the mouth of this righteous man, we must wait."
G-d values all pure prayer. Our Sages formulated prayers in a specific fashion, with a precise composition, as they were aware of the deep implications and spiritual ramifications of the words. Yet, prayer without heart is prayer without soul.
The word was out: Rav Levi Yitzchak was looking for an individual to blow the Shofar for Rav Levi Yitzchak and his followers on this Rosh HaShana. Many people were thrilled to be presented with this opportunity. They made appointments to "interview" with Rav Levi Yitzchak for this esteemed position.
The day of the interview came. All the candidates gathered together in a room, and were called in one by one by Rav Levi Yitzchak. With each one, he asked a similar question: What are you thinking about while you blow the Shofar? Each aspirant answered similarly, displaying his vast knowledge of the deep concentrations and metaphysical meanings upon which to focus during the blowing. Rav Levi Yitzchak, however, was not satisfied with any of the responses.
Rav Levi Yitzchak noticed a man who was standing silently in the corner of the room, shifting uncomfortably, with a nervous look on his face. Rav Levi Yitzchak called him over, and asked him the same question. "Rebbe," he responded, "I am merely a simple Jew. I have daughters to marry off. I am a poor man with no money for their dowries. When the time comes for the sounding of the Shofar, I mentally utter the following prayer: Father in Heaven, I have done Your will, and I am blowing before You the Shofar. Please, if You could, do for me the same - please send me fitting husbands for my daughters!' "
A large smile broke across the face of Rav Levi Yitzchak. "Excellent!" he said. "You have the correct and true feelings in mind when you blow the Shofar. You are the type of person I am looking for to blow the Shofar!"