Weekly Chasidic Story #824 (s5774-02 / 7 Tishrei 5774)
The Knock Before ‘Kol Nidre’
“Please! Amshinover Rebbe,” begged the desparate couple; “ask the priest, who respects you greatly, to delay until after Yom Kippur.”
Connection: Seasonal — Yom Kippur
It was the last moments before Yom Kippur began. The Jews of Amshinov were all busy with their final preparations for the holiest of days. The centrally located synagogue of the Amshinover Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Kalish, was packed wall to wall and then some. Many were reciting Psalms in broken-hearted tones, while others were chanting the “Al Heit” confessional as part of their “soul accounting” process. All assembled were hurrying in anticipation of the Rebbe’s imminent arrival and the cantor dramatically intoning the first words of the opening Kol Nidre prayer.
But the Rebbe, for some mysterious reason, delayed. Only his immediate family was aware of the reason why, and they weren’t able to explain until much later. It began when they were all gathered in the Rebbe’s room, his wife, children, and grandchildren, to receive his blessing, when suddenly they heard vigorous knocking on their front door.
For a moment, the family members were frightened. Who could it be at such a time? The Rebbetzin (Rebbe’s wife) walked quickly to the door and opened it. In the doorway, crying bitterly, stood the village blacksmith and his wife. The Rebbetzin urged them to enter and sit down, and as they stumbled in through their tears, they already began to pour forth their sad story.
Their son, a young man, for several years already had been doing whatever he felt like, ignoring all their attempts at parental guidance. He spent much of the time with non-Jewish youths his age, and behaving like them. Now matters had deteriorated drastically: he announced to them his interest to convert.
At first the parents assumed that he was just joking with them, trying to “get their goat.” But now he told them that tomorrow morning – on Yom Kippur itself! – was scheduled the baptism immersion ceremony to finalize his conversion. It happened that that year Yom Kippur coincided with an annual holiday in their religion, so the local priest had decided that would be the perfect date to baptize the Jewish boy, thereby giving the ceremony an expanded significance, and adding to the joy of the holiday celebrators.
“We came to beg the Rebbe to save us from this horror. At least request from the priest, who is known to have great respect for you, to delay their disgusting ceremony until after Yom Kippur. How can it be that on this holiest of days, when the entire Jewish people is seeking atonement for their sins, that our son, our very flesh and blood, will be converted away from being Jewish. What a disgrace! What a tragedy! G-d forbid!” exclaimed the distraught parents, as they completed their plea and burst into tears again.
The Amshinover had listened carefully to every word. Without saying anything to the frantic couple, he turned to his aging mother, the Rebbetzin Chaya-Leah, and asked her to have his daughter-in-law, Sara’leh, the wife of his son Yosef, write a letter in his name to the head priest of the town in fluent and flowery Polish, requesting that the conversion ceremony be delayed for a few days.
Sara’leh succeeded in penning the letter surprisingly quickly. The Rebbe asked his main attendant, Reb Yudel, to deliver the letter as fast as possible directly into the hand of the priest. Reb Yudel was an energetic man and quick on his feet. He sped off with alacrity to fulfill his mission from the Rebbe. The Rebbe took out his pocket watch and began to count off the seconds. “One, two, three, four…”
Everyone present thought this behavior of the Rebbe remarkably strange. Till what number would he count? How long was he prepared to wait for Yudel’s return? What about getting to shul for Yom Kippur before sunset?
In the end, not that many minutes elapsed and Yudel was already back, and with an answer. A positive one! The priest agreed to delay the ceremony.
The parents of the young man thanked the Rebbe profusely and returned home, somewhat encouraged. At least Yom Kippur would be Yom Kippur.
Meanwhile, the congregation in shul was becoming nervous; the sun was already setting. In the last moments before it dipped below the horizon, the Rebbe finally entered, awe-inspiringly dressed in his white robe and tallit, with hisspodek (tall fur hat for special occasions) adding majesty to his appearance. As soon as the Rebbe reached his place, the cantor, Rabbi Yisrael-Yitzchak, the rabbinical judge in Shidlowvitza, began in a trembling yet powerful voice to chant with the traditional sweet melody, the awesome introductory phrase to the opening prayer of Yom Kippur evening, Kol Nidre.
The Yom Kippur prayers in the synagogue with the Amshinover Rebbe were always a thrilling event, but this year it seemed more powerful than ever to those who participated regularly. Even the simplest Jew was able to feel the holiness of the day and the fearsomeness of the ensuing judgment descending on them. Those with deeper understanding sensed that every word of prayer emerging from the Rebbe’s mouth and soul was instrumental in the battle to overcome the accusations of the prosecuting angel and secure Heaven’s blessings for a good and sweet year for every Jewish home and community.
The sun set, the final “locking” prayers were completed and the fast ended. The Rebbe sat at the head of the large table set up in the shul for the celebratory post-Yom Kippur meal; surrounded by his chasidim. The Rebbe’s face was radiant with happiness and pleasure, like a king returning victorious from a difficult, exhausting war. In the eyes of the chasidim this was a clear sign that the Rebbe knew that his prayers had been accepted on High. An elevating spirit of joy and satisfaction filled the room.
Suddenly everyone startled as the doors to the shul slammed open and banged against the wall. In burst a young man with bushy hair and a wrinkled, ragged yarmulke perched precariously on his head. He ran directly to the Rebbe’s table, threw himself outstretched on the floor, and screamed, “Rebbe! Help! Save me!”
It was the son of the blacksmith. He continued, in a voice choked with burning tears, “I’m completely torn up inside. I regret so much what I almost did Rebbe, I promise – I’ll never go back to them again.”
Most of those present did not know the identity of this strange young man or his story. A handful of the chasidim, however, had managed to uncover the background to what had caused the Rebbe’s delayed arrival to the Kol Nidre prayer, and they were aggravated. “After all the trouble and anguish he caused before Yom Kippur started last evening–to his parents, to the Rebbe and to the entire congregation–he still has the nerve to come here and cause a disturbance as soon as Yom Kippur ends too?” they murmured among themselves.
The Rebbe sensed immediately what they were whispering about. He turned towards the lad with a look that emanated pure affection. Then he stood up from his chair, walked towards the young man, and extended his hand for a welcoming shake. He then brought him back with him to his place and the table and poured him a cup of wine. “Say the blessing for wine,’ he ordered him, “and say L’Chayim.”
The astonished boy did as told and the Rebbe responded with a hearty “Amen!”
This first encounter with the Amshinover Rebbe became a sharp turning point in the young man’s life. From that Yom Kippur on, he became firmly attached to the Amshinover Rebbe with all his heart and soul. And he acted accordingly. He studied assiduously day and night, with great energy and concentration. It seemed as if he was determined to compensate for all those wasted years. He prayed with fervor and forged positive relationships with the other chasidim in the Rebbe’s court.
The Amshinover chasidim liked to say that due to the Rebbe’s reputation and efforts just before Yom Kippur he was successful in delaying the conversion ceremony, but that this mistaken and distant soul could be returned to its source and correct path, that could only be with the help of the Rebbe’s prayers and tears on Yom Kippur itself.
Source: Translated-adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from Sichat HaShavua #1342.
Rabbi Menachem Kalish of Amshinov [of blessed memory: 5620 – 16 Kislev 5578 (1860 – Dec. 1917 C.E.)], succeeded his father, Rav Yaakov Dovid Kalish, the first in the Amshinov dynasty, in 1878, at the young age of 18. Highly active and effective in deeds of kindness on behalf of the Jewish community, he was referred to by the Sefas Emmes Rebbe of Gur as “a remainder from the greatest supreme rabbinical court” (in the early years of the Second Temple–see Avot 1:2). His great-great-grandson, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Milikowski, is the current Amshinover Rebbe in Jerusalem (his father is a former Rosh Yeshiva in Tsfat!).
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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