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Rosh Hashanah's Hopes and Prayers

A Hasidic story.

There was once was a villager who, on the High Holidays, would pray in the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue. His son was not the most intelligent of children and had not yet mastered reading, much less the words in the prayer book. So his father never took him to synagogue. But then the boy reached the age of bar mitzvah and so his father decided to take him to synagogue on Yom Kippur. He was nervous about what the boy might do so he kept a watchful eye on the boy lest he, for example, eat on the fast day.

The boy had a little flute, which he would often play. He would bring the instrument everywhere. The father did not realize that the boy had brought the flute to synagogue—on Yom Kippur. At services boy sat in silence while people prayed around him. During the Musaf service, the boy whispered to his father: “Father, I want to play my flute.” The father then became terrified and reprimanded his son saying, “Not here! Not now!”

This happened again and again. As the concluding hours of Yom Kippur approaches the boy’s pleas became more animated. Each time the boy would make the same request and each time the father restrained him, sometimes grabbing hold of the boy’s arm. Finally, as the Baal Shem Tov began to chant the Neilah prayers the boy forced the flute out of his pocket. He then blew a blast so loud that everyone was taken aback. The Baal Shem Tov abruptly concluded his prayers.

The Baal Shem Tov turned to the congregation and said: This child’s flute lifted up all our prayers. Through the strength of his yearning he played his heart’s note perfectly. And this is most dear to God. All our prayers were only accepted for his sake.

On the High Holidays we spend countless hours fixated on the words of our prayerbooks. We sing, we chant, we read. We recite page after page of our prayers. Some find their way into our hearts. Others feel more distant. And so we must recall, they are but means to an end.

It is the yearning of our prayers that is most dear. It is the desire to reach upward toward heaven and outward toward others that God most desires. These remain the secret ingredient of prayer. The Baal Shem Tov reminds us: if a little boy can discover this secret then perhaps we can as well. That is our hope as we enter the High Holidays.

Five years ago, Shimon Peres said: "I didn’t go after cynicism and skepticism. I think it’s a waste of time. And after 88 years of my life, I don’t regret it. I saw all the great criticizers, all the great skeptics and all the great cynics. They lived in sorrow and they died in sorrow…. I, though, have lived in hope. And I shall die in hope.” May the memory of Shimon Peres serve as a blessing. May his hope help to carry us into this new year.