I have a confession to make (it was that time of year just last week): During the holidays I bring a book to shul. This year at Rosh Hashanah I brought a new book by Shimon Apisdorf titled “Beyond Survival: A Journey to the Heart of Rosh Hashanah, Its Prayers, and Life.” It is filled with so much to think about and truly enhanced my prayer experience. Prayer is something that takes practice but it is well worth the time and effort. Jewish educator Joel Lurie Grishaver says, “I learned to make brachot at the dinner table and I learned to pray on the ball field.” There are times when it is natural and necessary for us to reach out to G-d. It is best to build the relationship before we need it!
There were so many things that touched me in my reading, but this final story gives all of us direction for the coming year. It is a story told about Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov. He was the founder of the Chassidic movement.
Once, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, a student came to the Baal Shem Tov and said that he wanted to meet Elijah the prophet. The Baal Shem Tov instructed him to travel to a small, ramshackle cottage deep in a faraway forest. After an arduous three-day journey, he finally arrived. There, the student found only a poor widow and her children. A kind woman, she invited the man to spend Rosh Hashanah with them, though she had barely a piece of bread to offer for the holiday meal. Fortunately, the man had brought food for his journey, and this he shared with the family. For two days, the student anxiously awaited the appearance of Elijah; it never came to be.
Disappointed, the student traveled back to the Baal Shem Tov, who assured his student that Elijah had been there, and that if he would go back for Yom Kippur, he would meet him. Again, the student made the long, difficult journey. This time, he arrived shortly before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur. From inside the home he could hear the children crying bitterly: “Mother, we have nothing at all to eat. How will we prepare for Yom Kippur? We’re starving.” “Be calm, my children,” she said, “Just like G-d sent Elijah the prophet to visit us for Rosh Hashanah, surely he will do so again.” Hearing that, the student knew why the Baal Shem Tov had sent him on the journey.
May you do your part to make the world a better place this year!
Laura Seymour is director of camping services and Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas.