One year, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov said to Rabbi Ze’ev Kitzes, one of his senior disciples: “You will blow the shofar for us this Rosh Hashanah. I want you to study all the kavanot (Kabbalistic meditations) that pertain to the shofar, so that you should meditate upon them when you do the blowing.”
Rabbi Ze’ev applied himself to the task with joy and trepidation: joy over the great privilege that had been accorded him, and trepidation over the immensity of the responsibility. He studied the Kabbalistic writings that discuss the multifaceted significance of the shofar and what its sounds achieve on the various levels of reality and in the various chambers of the soul. He also prepared a sheet of paper on which he noted the main points of each kavanah, so that he could refer to them when he blew the shofar.
Finally, the great moment arrived. It was the morning of Rosh Hashanah, and Rabbi Ze’ev stood on the reading platform in the center of the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue amidst the Torah scrolls, surrounded by a sea of tallit-draped bodies. At his table in the southeast corner of the room stood his master, the Baal Shem Tov, his face aflame. An awed silence filled the room in anticipation of the climax of the day—the piercing blasts and sobs of the shofar.
Rabbi Ze’ev reached into his pocket, and his heart froze: the paper had disappeared! He distinctly remembered placing it there that morning, but now it was gone. Furiously, he searched his memory for what he had learned, but his distress over the lost notes seemed to have incapacitated his brain: his mind was a total blank. Tears of frustration filled his eyes. He had disappointed his master, who had entrusted him with this most sacred task. Now he must blow the shofar like a simple horn, without any kavanot. With a despairing heart, Rabbi Ze’ev blew the litany of sounds required by law and, avoiding his master’s eye, resumed his place.
At the conclusion of the day’s prayers, the Baal Shem Tov made his way to the corner where Rabbi Ze’ev sat sobbing under his tallit. “Gut Yom Tov, Reb Ze’ev!” he called. “That was a most extraordinary shofar-blowing we heard today!”
“But Rebbe . . . I . . .”
“In the king’s palace,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “there are many gates and doors, leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. But there is one key that fits all the locks, a master key that opens all the doors.
“The kavanot are keys, each unlocking another door in our souls, each accessing another chamber in the supernal worlds. But there is one key that unlocks all doors, that opens up for us the innermost chambers of the divine palace. That master key is a broken heart.”
I struggled this year to prepare for the holidays. I tried to write and nothing made sense. I tried to study and could not concentrate. As the days of Elul passed, I knew I had to do something. One morning I sat down and let the tears flow. Only after writing what I am going to share with you now, was I able to return the over the following day to write the more joyous sermons you heard on Rosh Hashanah and that you will hear tomorrow, but I want to share the process with you.
It’s been a year since last I stood before the open book.
Into your hands, I cast my lot, but found there no safe nook.
Instead it opened every door that ever I had closed
And made me open wide the gates to things I never chose.
What is a human being if not a working piece of art?
What is a soul if not the depth of heaven when it parts?
To look inside the melding body only leads astray
the final outcome we each reach when it’s the close of day.
I thought I had it figured out, I thought if I believed
Then fate would deal a hand of kindness on all that I perceived.
I thought that prayers and pledges, pleading, promises and tears
would safely guard the future from the ‘lions, tigers and bears’.
Love came, and I did not grasp it hard enough, to gather it forever.
It passed away and with it went the best of my endeavor.
How can you ask of me to stand again before your open book?
How can you dare to say to me that life still brightly looks
ahead to beauty, to wonder, to fulfillment, to all the world can hold?
You surely should have warned me of the losses to unfold.
You did! You say.
Well, I reject the notion that you did.
My heart was breaking every day, and I believe you hid.
Who by fire? Who by water? Who by agony?
Who from age? Who alone? Who with family?
Why this day? Why this hour? Why that one and not this?
Who can justify the meaning of the latest kiss
of death that moves the soul beyond this land to its next hallowed sphere?
I don’t care what I am told, I want my loved one here.
To have and hold and share another day another year…
This grief I cannot bear.
Yet.. I will.
I will continue for God, that is the way
That You tell us You are with us, each and every day.
In our thoughts and in our hearts and even in our tears.
You let me rail against the dark, against the black, against the coming years
Of memories that will grow deep and stories to be told
Of feelings bearable someday and even humor trolled.
Who am I to question You?
Not Job or Abraham.
Not Hillel, not Lincoln or even Sam I am.
Yet question You is what we do, each and every day.
Because it lets us know that You are never going away.
You’re here, right here, by my side.
And, I, as mad as I may be,
I know that You will never go too far away from me.
Like all good friends, You’re there to let me give a primal scream.
And when I’m at my lowest, it’s upon You I can lean.
I may not always understand, it’s not for me to agree.
The sun has once again revolved,
A year has passed by Your decree.
Who remembered? Who forgotten? By woman or by man?
Each held in love, caressed by grace in Adonai’s grand plan.
From off the earth each one has touched Shechinah’s wings and flown.
Belonging now to eternity,
Divine and Thine alone.
Life is a journey, my friends. What I want to impart to you most is that all relationships require work but you need never journey alone.
May your journeys this year be sweet and fulfilling.