Yom Kippur 5778, Neilah

The Talmud (TB Berachos 5b) tells a story about how during Rabbi Eliezer’s final illness Rav Yochanan came to visit him.  Rav Yochanan was a strikingly beautiful person, who literally lit up the room.  But in the light, Rav Yochanan saw that Rav Eliezer was crying, and he asked him why.

Rav Yochanan suggested the obvious possible reasons: unfulfilled goals, financial frustration or familial disappointment.  Rav Eliezer was not crying over any of these things.

להאי שופרא דבלי בעפרא קא בכינא.  “I am crying over your beauty, your Shufra, that will be swallowed up by the dust.”  Rav Yochanan joined him, and they cried together.  על דא ודאי קא בכית.

It is a strange story.  Rav Eliezer is dying and he is crying over the death of Rav Yochanan?!

I heard this question asked more than thirty years ago, on a street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on a rainy Taanis Esther, during the funeral of Rav Moshe Feinstein z”l.  The question was posed by Rav Nissan Alpert z”l, a student of Rav Moshe, who was himself deathly ill as he delivered this eulogy of his beloved teacher.

Talking through tears, he explained the passage beautifully and personally.  Rav Eliezer was a student of Rav Yochanan.  He had dedicated so much of his life to learning from Rav Yochanan, to learning the beautiful ways of Rav Yochanan, Shufra d’Rav Yochanan.  He had hoped all along that he would be able to carry on Rav Yochanan’s legacy, and that in that way Rav Yochanan’s beauty would never be swallowed up by the dust.

But that was not the way things were turning out.  Rav Eliezer was dying.  And he looked at Rav Yochanan, at his beauty, at his Shufra, and he was so sad and so afraid that it was going to be lost forever.  He was not crying over his own family, over his possessions or his failed ambitions.  Yes, it is possible that before Rav Yochanan came to visit, before he basked for one last time in his glow, he shed tears over those disappointments.  But now in the presence of Rav Yochanan, there was only one thing he could think about, one thing he could cry about.

He cried over the beauty of Rav Yochanan.  The beauty that he had always hoped to preserve and to spread in the world, and that was now fundamentally at risk of being lost forever.

As we approach Neilah, the closing prayers of Yom Kippur, we may feel a bit like Rav Eliezer on his deathbed.  This is the moment of the sealing of our fate for the coming year.  There are many things we can cry over: unfulfilled goals, financial frustration or familial disappointment.  And it is entirely fitting for us to cry over these things.

But in the middle of Neilah, our perspective will shift as we will have our own version of Rav Yochanan’s visit.  The beauty of G-d Himself will enter the room and illuminate it.  That beauty will be seen and felt as we call out, over and over again, the י”ג מדות הרחמים, the Thirteen Attributes of G-d’s mercy, describing G-d’s overwhelming kindness and goodness.  We will see and absorb within ourselves the incomparable beauty of G-d, and that light will change our tears.

We will feel how dark the world we live in is, how far it is from reflecting G-d’s kindness, goodness and truth; that the beauty of G-d is – so to speak – liable to be swallowed up by the dust and the darkness.  And we will understand that our ultimate wish, our ultimate goal in life, is that we who were created in His image may live our lives in a way that reflects His attributes, יעשו לפני כסדר הזה.  And we will cry for a further opportunity to preserve that light for the world, למענך אלקים חיים.

Shofar.  Shapru Maaseichem.  Make yourselves, your actions, more beautiful.  Our goal, our mission in life, is to preserve the ultimate beauty of our maker, the ultimate Shufra, that we can uphold through enhancing our own Tzelem Elokim, our own divine image.

We, like Rav Eliezer, are afraid.  Our own future is uncertain.  Each of us has good reason to cry: unfulfilled goals, financial frustration or familial disappointment.  But this is the moment where we can draw ourselves to our full height, the height that these days and that this moment asks of us:  למענך אלקים חיים.  Our tradition teaches us that the most powerful tears we can shed at this moment are those we shed for G-d’s sake, for the fulfillment of the wish and the prayer of all these Days of Awe, that G-d’s presence be known and felt in the entire world, that the darkness be replaced by His light.  Let us cry for the beauty of G-d, for His truth and His way of life, that it is our mission and our greatest dream to preserve and to build.

We must cry, hope and pray that we – the Jewish people, the students of His Torah, G-d’s children – will preserve and uphold the beauty of G-d in the world, ישראל אשר בך אתפאר.

May G-d hear our prayers, and may each of us and all of us be sealed in the Book of Life, in a world that will soon be filled with His light.