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Sunday, October 09, 2005

When You Least Expect It

by Rabbi Shimon Posner
October 09, 2005

Kon-Tiki
is the story of brave Scandinavian seamen who crossed the Pacific, from Peru to Hawaii, on nothing more than a wooden raft. They believed that the original Hawaiians first arrived from America, and they set out to prove that, with the rudimentary provisions of that time, trans-Pacific travel was possible.


While sailing, the seamen came across marine life that scientists had believed extinct for thousands of years -- and discovered species that scientists had never known existed. The seafarers said they found all this because instead of rushing through the water, they allowed the water to rush over them.

The Machzor has secrets and tales that fill the heart with passion and fill the mind with breathless wonder. Drama: When the Jew Amnon had to be carried to shul for Yom Tov. His body was limbless; the duke had chopped off each knuckle, asking him after each severance if he was ready yet to convert. This wealthy, handsome scholar delivered the Unesane Tokef and died there in shul that Rosh Hashanah.

A neighbor of ours remembers his shtetl shul in Poland: they met in each other's homes. Everyone cried such bitter tears at Unesane Tokef. How come, he asks, does his congregation sit in their pews throughout the whole Unesane Tokef so impassively?

Napoleon, unlike the dukes who preceded him, never demanded the Jews convert; he demanded that Judaism convert. He convened a "Sanhedrin" to redefine the faith to his liking. "The people need religion," he professed, "and religion needs to be in the hands of the state." Napoleon minted a coin of himself holding the Ten Commandments with Moses bowing down to him to accept them.

Dramatically, Napoleon broke down the walls of the ghetto. Subtly, he broke down the walls of Jewish life. The Jews hailed the emancipation and largely overlooked the threat of government-controlled religion. How distant and abstract it seemed compared to the bloody reality of pogroms, beatings, severed limbs. Except to one person.

The Alter Rebbe, although having been twice jailed by the Czar, threw his support behind anyone-but-Napoleon. He died escaping Napoleon. But before he died, he heard La Marche de Napoleone. He remarked, "It is a stirring march, a march of victory. But the victory will be ours."

After a day of fasting, marathon davening and heart-searching introspection, an emotionally draining Yom Kippur comes to a close. For many years, as a finale to Yom Kippur, in the shul of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, our Rebbe, the throngs would sing Napoleon's March. Beginning at a stately tempo, the tune quickly energized the crowd. The Rebbe, normally reserved, would majestically climb upon his chair to the singing of La Marche de Napoleone. Gusto gave way to crescendo as the suddenly very-non-fasting thousands greeted the Rebbe's energy with all of their own. The victory stolen from the little emperor.

Most of the words in the Machzor, the prayer book for the High Holidays, are not printed on the pages; they are engraved on the soul. But you only feel the engraving if you listen to the words on the page. You can't rush through it; you have to ride the tide, letting gallons flow across your deck. When you least expect it, you will discover something within you. Something that everyone thought had left you long ago. Something that you never knew was there.

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