This evening I will tell you the tale called "The Prayer Book," as recorded by the great teacher and philosopher Martin Buber.
It was a custom of the Rabbi of Dynow, when he stood before the Ark on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to open the large Siddur of the great master of mysticism, Rabbi Luria of Safed, and put it on his lectern. It lay open before him all the while he prayed, though he neither looked into it or turned its pages.
The Chassidim hesitated to speak to him about it. However, one took heart and asked him one day, "Master and teacher, if you pray from the book of the saintly Luria, why do you not look into its pages and follow the order of its prayers? And if you do not, why does it lie open before you all the time?" And the Rabbi replied, "I will tell you something that happened in the days of the holy Baal Shem, blessed be his memory:
In a certain village, there lived a Jewish tenant farmer and his wife and their little son, Nachum. The lord of the manor--the poritz--was extremely fond of this tenant farmer; but eveil days came, and the tenant farmer died.
His wife, who shared with him the good and evil days of his fortune, soon followed him into eternity. Thus, little Nachum was three years old when both his parents died. They came from a far-away country, and no one knew of their kinsmen. The kind lord of the manor took Nachum into his house, and soon came to love him even more than his own children. He was reared in luxury and joy. He was taught the arts and the sciences--but about the faith and people of his natural parents, he was not taught.
Not that the poritz kept from him the knowledge of his Jewish father and mother, but he would always add, "But I have taken you, and you are now my son, and all that is mine will be yours." So, the years went by, and Nachum grew up as a protege of the lord of the manor.
One day, he suddenly came upon a deserted room in the palace where lay a heap of things. Strange and unknown were these to him. He saw a curious, loose white tunic with long black stripes and fringes on the four corners; a large, many-branched candelabra of faded splendor; a richly filigreed, crown-shaped spice box about which there still lingered a faint aroma; finally, there was a large, thick book bound in dark brown velvet, with silver-trimmed edges and a silver clasp. Nachum stood and gazed at these curios until, shyly and carefully, grasping the book with both hands, he carried it to his own room.
There, he unfastened the clasp and opened the pages musty with age. Strange dark letters stared up at him--strange, yet familiar, as if cognition was in a long distant past. They flew up to him from the pages, whirled before his eyes, and -- lo, the letters vanished, the book was like a dark sea, and two eyes gazed at him from the depth of its pages: compassionate eyes, tearless, yet full of eternal sadness.
He sensed that this must have been his mother's old prayer book from which she had prayed. During the day, he kept the book hidden, but every night he would open it, and the strange letters would dance before him, flowing into the sea from which his mother's eyes gazed at him.
One year at the season of the Days of Awe, Days of Grace, Days of Judgment, when Jews came to the city from many villages to stand humbly before God, Nachum stood at the door of his house and saw wagons hurry by -- he saw men and women in festive garments, a spirit of expectancy over all of them. He stopped one of them and asked, "Where are you going, and what day is this to you?" "This is the Day of Beginnings, Rosh Ha-Shanah, the beginning of a new year when our deeds are counted, and we beg forgiveness for our transgressions and all is recorded in a Book."
The Rabbi of Dynow continued: "The boy heard the words, but stronger than these was another word that flew at him--a greater call that came to him out of eternity. From this hour, the Call was always with him, roaring in the silence like a mighty storm-wind. His fear lost itself in longing and yearning, for he knew not what. So passed the Ten Days of Repentance, and once again Nachum saw the Jews from the villages wending their way to the city. The Day of Atonement was at hand!
Still and hushed, their faces taut and pale, they sat in their carts. "Where and why are you going?", Nachum asked one of them. "This is the day we were anticipating, the Day of Atonement, when our sins melt away in the light of the Lord, as He welcomes His children to the House of Grace."
The boy flew to his room, and took the silver-trimmed book in his little arm and hurried from the house. He ran and ran until he came to the city, to the building to which all the people seemed to be going. He entered. It was the hour of Kol Nidre. He heard people around him crying--crying to God from the depths of their hearts, crying from the hidden recesses of their souls--begging, beseeching forgiveness for their transgressions, pleading with the Supreme Judge to forgive their sins. He heard 'round about him the sound of words in a foreign tongue he could not understand, nor could he speak it.
He was heartbroken, for he felt he could not pray as the others did. He surmised that these were the sounds of the strange letters in that big silver-edged book, his mother's old prayer book. He placed the book on the lectern before him and opened it to a page at random. "Lord of the Universe," he cried out, "I do not know how to pray. I do not know what to say. I do not KNOW! Here lies before you the whole prayer-book--You surely know what is in it! O Lord of the Universe, answer my prayers!"
He put his head on the prayer-book and wept bitter tears as he spoke to God.
Such was the tale the Rabbi of Dynow told his pious followers, and then he added, "I, too, do not know what to do, how much to do, and how to achieve the purpose of the holy men who first uttered these prayers. That is why I take this book of our blessed Master Luria and keep it open before me while I pray: That I may offer it to God with all fervor, ecstacy, and mystic symbolism, for "He knows the innermost thoughts of man."
My friends, I have repeated this story in great detail because it is gripping in its simple beauty and human interest. Furthermore, I believe it has a very meaningful message for al of us this evening, when we gather to begin the order of penitent prayers in our beautiful synagogue.
Our prayer book is saturated with the tears and sighs of the ages, of saintly people who knew the ecstasy and exhilaration of prayer: simple folk by modern standards, meek and humble, who saw the deepest mystic meaning in the words they uttered. They may have been a "Teviah der Milchiger," a character out of Sholom Aleichem, made popular in "Fiddler on the Roof"--unlearned and untutored--engaged in unskilled labor--but they carried on a personal, intimate dialogue with God.
We moderns are lost in the palace of sophistication of the twentieth century. We wander into its hidden chambers to find "the old musty prayer book." Many of us cannot recognize "the strange letters that look up to us" from the right-hand pages of our own prayer books. All of us have lost the art of devotional prayer, whereby--in chassidic terminology--one "loses himself in a union with God." We are too embarrassed to carry on a dialogue with our Father in heaven.
How often is the demand made to update the old Siddur, to make it speak for man in the Space Age! Let us be mindful that the liturgy mirrors the experience of our People. The prayer book is a 2000-year record of the concerns, the beliefs, and the reach of the collective Jewish conscience. The prayer book reveals to us more than a fluctuating response to a changing environment. In it, we find the affirmation of the potential goodness of creation, the reach for unity of all mankind, the distinctiveness of Israel as a Holy People, the passionate "no" to every form of paganism, the hopes, the aspirations, as well as the frustrations of an eternal People. These enable us to "step into the same rivers" a thousand times, to "draw waters from the wells of salvation," and to discover new life-giving springs.
Rabbi Balfour Brickner, in a letter published in "The Spectator," wrote "When it comes to worship, let's stop writing...To hell with more articles about worship. You want to pray? Come with me! Start 'davening'! Move, man, move! Sing, man, sing! You'll understand it all later."
Like little Nachum, on this day of "At-Onement" with our Creator, whether we know how to read the prayers or not, let us keep these pages open--let us, in humility, turn to God, for he understands what is in our hearts, hearts burdened with sorrow and grief; hearts weighted with concern for ourselves and our children in this war-torn world. "Though we do not know what to say or how to say it, He will read the distres in our minds as we seek His guidance and His protection. "He is a faithful God, Habochen u'vodek ginzei nistarot--who knoweth and readeth our innermost thoughts."
Surely, He will hearken even to our unspoken prayers. Let us humble our spirit before our Maker, and pray.