Parshat Vayeilech – The Shabbat of Return by Rabbi Zalman Lent

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This Shabbat, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, has a special name; it is called Shabbat Shuva – The Shabbat of Return. Two reasons are given for this; one is simply that it is in the “Ten Days of Teshuvah,” the other is that the haftarah reading this week begins with the words Shuvah Yisrael – Return O Israel, from the prophecy of Hoshea.

This is the last stop before Yom Kippur, and we try to pay a little more attention than usual to the tefillot (prayers) on this Shabbat. We pay special attention to the correct pronunciation of the words we are reading, and to their meaning. During the year as we read the same prayers over and over, it is easy to fall into the trap of either praying without thinking of the meaning, or of repeating the same reading errors over and over without ever noticing. On this Shabbat we try to focus on those things, amongst the other preparations for Yom Kippur.

In his book Keeping In Touch, Rabbi Touger shares a beautiful story about a time when members of a shul, instead of praying without meaning, offered meaning without (proper) prayer:

When “perestroika” became a reality in the former Soviet Union, Jews after many decades of forced assimilation were finally able to live openly as Jews again. In 1987, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent many rabbis to run Yomtov services for these people. One such young rabbi was leading the Kol Nidrei services in the main synagogue of Kiev on Yom Kippur night.

Announcements of the services had been posted all over the city and Jews responded eagerly. Old men who remembered accompanying their parents to shul as children, young families who wanted a taste of their heritage after more than a half-century of Soviet persecution, and youth in their teens who barely knew they were Jewish, flocked to the synagogue.

The cantor chanted Kol Nidrei. The moving melody stirred the hearts of all those who had come. But as the service proceeded, the rabbi sensed feelings of disappointment beginning to surface. After all, most of the people had never been in a synagogue in their lives; none of them knew how to pray together with the cantor. Despite the best intentions, Hebrew-Russian siddurim, and explanations in Russian, he could see that the people were not participating. Their lack of familiarity with the prayers, and with the Hebrew the Cantor was singing, was not allowing them fully into the service. He could sense them thinking, “Were these the prayers that they had yearned for so many years to be allowed to say?”

In the middle of the services, after the silent prayer known as the Amida or Shemona Esrei, the young rabbi decided to make one more attempt to strengthen their involvement in the proceedings, so he ascended to the lectern and began to tell a story:

One Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov was praying together with his students in a small Polish village. Through his spiritual vision, the Baal Shem Tov had detected that harsh heavenly judgments had been decreed against the Jewish people, and he and his students were trying with all the sincerity they could muster to cry out to G-d and implore Him to rescind these decrees and grant the Jews a year of blessing.

This deep feeling took hold of all the inhabitants of the village and everyone opened his heart in deep-felt prayer.

Among the inhabitants of the village was a simple shepherd boy. He did not know how to read; indeed, he could barely read the letters of the Alef-Bet, the Hebrew alphabet. As the intensity of feeling in the synagogue began to mount, he decided that he also wanted to pray. But he did not know how. He could not read the words of the prayer book or mimic the prayers of the other congregants.

He opened the prayer book to the first page and began to recite the letters: Alef, Bet, Gimmel – reading the entire alphabet. He then called out to G-d: “This is all I can do. G-d, You know how the prayers should be pronounced. Please, take the letters and arrange them into the correct prayers.”

This simple, genuine prayer resounded powerfully within the Heavenly court. G-d rescinded all the harsh decrees and granted the Jews blessing and good fortune.

The Rabbi paused for a moment to let the story impact his listeners. Suddenly a voice called out, “Alef,” and thousands of voices thundered back “Alef.” The voice continued: “Bet,” and the thousands responded “Bet.” They continued to pronounce every letter in the Hebrew alphabet. And then they began to file out of the synagogue.

They had recited their prayers.

Let us hope that this Yom Kippur, all or prayers, whether individual or collective, whether fluent or halting, should all ascend to the Heavenly Court, and may we be granted a year of life, good health and happiness. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


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