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Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev / the Gaon of Vilna and other Yom Kippur Stories

[EDITOR’S NOTE: We never grow tired of repeating the wonderful stories of our gaonim and their pious deeds. It is our hope that we will be inspired by their devout and holy behavior. In the zechus (merit) of repeating these stories (V'Shinantam L'Vanecha) we pray that we will all enjoy a year of peace, good health and happiness.]

Is There A Drunk In Here?

One Yom Kippur Eve, as the sun began to set and the congregation prepared to say Kol Nidrei, everyone was astonished to behold Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev leave his seat and walk down the aisle.

He bent down and began looking under each bench; he looked in every corner, all to the amazement of the congregation.

"I know that you are wondering at my actions. I am looking for a drunk Jew," said Reb Levi Yitzchok. "I have searched all over the synagogue and I have been unable to find one."

The congregants looked at each other, completely at a loss to understand their rav. Reb Levi Yitzchok then strode to the lectern and announced in a loud voice: "Master of the Universe! Behold Your people Israel whom You have chosen from all people and made holy with Your mitzvos.

"You gave us a commandment to fast on Yom Kippur and also one to eat and drink on the eve of Yom Kippur. "Had You commanded the nations of the world to feast, consider what would have happened! They would have eaten with gusto and drunk till their bellies were filled and their minds fogged. Would there have been many people sitting sober for prayers?

"Yet Your people Israel have fulfilled Your Commandment and to eat and drink, and yet there is not one person here who is drunk. What a holy people are they! And what do they ask? Only that you say a few small words: 'For good life all the Children of the Covenant.'"

A Prayer In Vain

Reb Levi Yitzchok once asked: "How is it possible for us on Yom Kippur to utter the blessing, 'Blessed art Thou... the King who forgives our sins?' After all, what if the Almighty on this year refuses to forgive us? We will then be guilty of uttering a benediction in vain!

"The answer is, however, that it is similar to when young child sees a piece of candy and eats it. He is not sure, however, if his father wants him to.

"What does he do? He takes the candy and says a blessing over it. He knows that he can now eat it since his father will not want him to have made a blessing in vain.

"It is the same with us. We quickly say the benediction, 'The king who forgives our sins,’ and having done this, the Almighty will do so as to prevent a benediction in vain."


The Gaon Of Vilna

The diligence of the Gaon of Vilna and his ability to study Torah without a pause was unbelievable. He was almost never seen without a sefer (book) that he was diligently looking into.

He would never sleep more than four hours at a time and would spend all of his other hours devoted to study and scholarship.

If he ever accidentally paused in his learning to do something seemingly unnecessary, he would mark it his little notebook:

"On such and such a day I wasted X number of minutes from my studies."

Every Yom Kippur Eve, he would then take the little notebook; add up the time he had wasted and with bitter tears, confess:

"For the sins I have sinned in wasting the study of Torah."

One time a very close student of his glanced at the notebook to see how much time had been "wasted". He counted up the minutes and they came to a grand total of three hours. Three hours of "wasted" time over the course of an entire year.


Mother and Child

One Yom Kippur eve, when the Chassidic master Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael of Kriminitz was granting the traditional blessing to his children, he noticed that one of his daughters was overcome by the emotion of the moment, and was weeping softly. The young child in her arms was also crying.

"Why are you crying, my child," asked the Rebbe of the child.

"My mother is crying," answered the child, "so I am also crying."

In the synagogue that evening, the Rebbe ascended the podium and related what his young grandchild had said to him. Bursting into tears, he then said:

"A child who sees his mother weeping weeps as well, even if he cannot comprehend the reason for her tears. Our mother, too, is weeping. Our sages tell us that the Shechinah keens like a dove and cries:

"Woe is to My children, that because of their sins I have destroyed My home, set fire to My sanctuary, and have exiled them among the nations."'

"So even if we ourselves have become inured to the pain of the exile," wept Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael, "at least we should cry because the Shechinah, our mother is crying."


Prayer By Example

In a small village in the backwoods of Eastern Europe, many hours' journey from the nearest Jewish community, lived a Jewish family. Once a year, for the holy day of Yom Kippur, they would make the long trip to town in order to pray together with their fellow Jews.

One year, the villager woke bright and early on the day before Yom Kippur and readied himself for the journey. His sons, however, not quite as industrious as he, had slept in. Impatient to get on his way, he said to his family: "Listen, I'm going to set out on foot while you get yourselves together. I'll wait for you at the large oak at the crossroads."

Walking swiftly, the villager soon reached the tree and lay down in its shade to wait for the family wagon. Exhausted from several days of backbreaking labor, he fell asleep. Meanwhile, his family loaded up the wagon and set out. But in the excitement of the journey, they forgot all about their old father and drove right by the sleeping figure at the crossroads.

When the villager woke, evening had already fallen. Many miles away, the Kol Nidrei prayers were getting underway in the town's synagogue. Lifting his eyes to the heavens, the old man cried:

"Master of the Universe! My children have forgotten me. But they are my children, so I forgive them. You, too, should do the same for those of Your children who have abandoned You…”


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