Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – Passaic Torah Institute – Yom Kippur – The Opportunity Of Neila

This Shabbos there will be no Kiddush, no challah and no cholent.   For many, there will be no Shabbos nap either. This Shabbos is Yom Kippur.  And because it’s Shabbos, we will also be omitting a tefillah that is normally a hallmark of our Yom Kippur davening:  Avinu Malkeinu, our Father our King, since we do not make personal requests on Shabbos.

However, during the final tefillah of the day, during “Neilah,” we will nonetheless recite Avinu Malkeinu.   Why does Neilah trump the power of Shabbos, which silences us from reciting Avinu Malkeinu all the other times in the Yom Kippur davening?

The following moving story suggests an answer.  Yoni often visited the Jewish patients in the local nursing home, helping the elderly men attend the minyan and don their tefillin. There was one Jewish man, Mr. Neumann, who refused to attend the minyan. Yoni always greeted him with a cheerful, “Good Morning,” only to receive a curt reply.  One day, the minyan was short one man, and Yoni decided he had no choice but to ask Mr. Neumann.  “Mr. Neumann, we need a tenth man for the minyan; can you please come?   You don’t need to do anything, just be there,” said Yoni.   Mr. Neumann hesitated, but finally agreed.  “I’ll just sit in the back.  And don’t ask me to put on tefillin!” he said emphatically.

While wheeling out of his room with Yoni, Mr. Neumann suddenly said, “Wait!  Please take that bag along for me.” “Ok” replied Yoni, grabbing the bag.  They reached the back of the minyan room, and everyone came over to thank Mr. Neumann for joining them. Half way through davening, Mr. Neumann motioned to Yoni to come over.  Yoni was taken aback as he saw Mr. Neumann pulling up his sleeve and removing a pair of tefillin from the bag he had taken.  “Can you help me put this on?” he said. Yoni helped Mr. Neumann, and soon, both had tears in their eyes.  Mr. Neumann was now a full participant in the minyan.

Back in his room, Mr. Neumann’s demeanor had clearly improved. You could tell he wanted to talk.  “I made my father very happy today,” said the 83-year-old Mr. Neumann to Yoni.  “When I was 12 years old, my father and I were captured by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz.  My Bar Mitzvah was approaching and my father told me he was going to find me tefillin to wear.  The night before my Bar Mitzvah, my father told me he found tefillin, but they were across the camp.  It was dangerous, but there was no stopping him. He silently snuck to other side of the camp and I waited nervously for his return. He loved me and wanted me to wear tefillin on my Bar Mitzvah.  I caught sight of him across the yard, holding a bag and making his way back. I was hoping and praying he would be safe. Suddenly, lights went on, a guard yelled out, and there was the sound of gunfire.  My father was gone.  I cried my eyes out.  When the guards left, I ran over. My father was still clutching the bag of tefillin. With tears still in my eyes, I took the bag and went back to my barracks.  The next morning was my Bar Mitzvah day.  I looked at the tefillin, but I couldn’t put them on.  All I could think about was the tragedy that I experienced on the previous day.

It has now been 70 years.  These are the tefillin my father gave his life to obtain for me.  Today I took the tefillin just in case, and after I came to the minyan, I was inspired to put them on.  Today I made my father happy,” said Mr. Neumann.

We are concluding a 40-day time period, spanning Elul, Selichos, Rosh Hashanah, and the Aseres Yemei Teshuva (ten days of repentance).   The last prayer of Yom Kippur is Neilah, when Hashem, our Father, is waiting for us to return to him.  He has been waiting patiently for us, just like Mr. Neumann’s father was waiting. Like Mr. Neumann, we also have certain circumstances and personal issues holding us back.  But Hashem, our Father, is still waiting for us to do what we know is right and thereby be close to Him.  That’s why we say Avinu Malkeinu at the close of Yom Kippur, even on Shabbos, calling out to our Father to take us back. We can no longer restrain ourselves. That is the time He awaits us with outstretched arms.  Let’s make our Father, and ourselves, happy.

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