A tale is told of the Baal Shem Tov and an illiterate villager’s son. For the first thirteen years of the boy’s life, his father never once took him to shul, but on Yom Kippur of his thirteenth year he did so for fear that otherwise his son would eat on this holy fast day and thus bring sin upon himself. (Note: Until age thirteen, one’s sins fall upon one’s parents. After age thirteen, one is responsible for oneself.)
All around him the men of the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue davvened with great fervor, but not knowing anything about what they were doing, the boy grew bored. Feeling his herder’s whistle (Note: Shepherds used whistles to call their sheep) in his pocket, he asked his father if he could blow on it. Naturally, his father refused. Another hour passed, and again the boy asked for permission to play his whistle. Again his father refused, and he took the whistle from his son and placed it in his own pocket. As the Neilah service began, the boy noticed the whistle sticking out of his father’s pocket. He grabbed his whistle, took in a great gulp of air, and blew a long and loud blast.
Shocked and frightened by the sudden sound, the congregation fell silent. Only the Baal Shem Tov continued to davven, this time more joyously than before.
When the service concluded, the man took his son to apologize to the Baal Shem Tov for disrupting the service.
“On the contrary,” the Baal Shem Tov said, “there was no disruption. The simplicity of the boy’s blowing made my praying all the more easy for me.”
What is true prayer? Is it the recitation of sanctioned words and hymns? Is it the emotional outpouring of the heart? Is it the surrender of self to Self? It can be any of these, or none. The deciding factor is not so much what you do but the state of your heart as you do it. If you are half-hearted in your prayer, there is no praying. If you are wholehearted in your prayer, there is praying even if that praying is nothing more than the loud blowing of a whistle.
Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760): Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer was the founder of Hasidism. He began his public teaching in 1734 and soon earned the title Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name (of God). He was an authentic healer of hearts, minds, and souls.
Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement, when Jews confess and seek forgiveness before God.
Neilah: The closing service of Yom Kippur. It is thought that at this time the Gates of Heaven are closing and we have one last chance to confess and ask for forgiveness. The service is marked by intense emotion.