In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos
It was Erev Yom Kippur in Vaysechvoos and Duvid, son of Chayim-Meyer the bookbinder, was excited. And why shouldn’t he be excited? For the first time in his young life, he would be allowed to daven with his father in the front of the synagogue. No more sitting in the back behind the scrim, listening to the chatter of women and the whining of little ones. Duvid would be able to take part in the service, just as he was being taught to do in cheder.
Duvid thought it would take much more than a simple question to convince his father that he was old enough to sit with the men in shul. But when he shyly asked after the Rosh Hashanah holiday, his father only nodded and said, You’ve been going to cheder for four years now, you should be able to understand.” Duvid felt like he was becoming a man, though it would be almost another four years until he was bar mitzvah. “Soon,” he thought, “responsibility will be mine, and on Yom Kippur I will be held accountable for my own sins.”
The sun was low in the western sky, and Duvid’s family was finishing the food before the fast. As delicious as the chicken soup was, Duvid couldn’t help but remember that it was made from one of the kaporohs. “Was it made from the rooster that was killed on my account?” he wondered. “How those chickens squawked.”
Duvid recalled how his father had let him go to the butcher carrying his own rooster-kaporoh. He remembered how proud the rooster had stood in his brown-red feathers with his tall, red comb. He remembered how the poor bird had squirmed and cowered in his arms. “Do we have to slaughter him?” Duvid had asked pleadingly. His father had simply nodded. Duvid understood, but he felt guilty.
Duvid’s thoughts shifted to the present as Chayim-Meyer gathered his large woolen prayer shawl and two prayer books then beckoned for Duvid to come with him to shul. His mother would stay home with his infant sister.
Duvid always walked to the right and half a pace behind his father. Chayim-Meyer was a quiet man, lean, with a sloped, balding forehead, straight gray-black hair and peppered beard. When Duvid looked into his father’s large, deep, sad brown eyes, he thought there wasn’t a thing his father didn’t know. Duvid, however, was slight and a bit stoop shouldered, with sand- colored hair and gray eyes that were either sad or inquisitive.
Duvid was very inquisitive that evening, but he never dared ask his father more than one question at a time.
“Papa,” he said, “if I hadn’t sinned this past year, would the rooster have been killed?”
“Duvidel,” his father said affectionately, “there’s not a man alive who doesn’t sin.”
The sun had not quite set when they arrived at the little wooden shul. They entered and Chayim-Meyer took his accustomed spot on the left side near the center. He wrapped himself in his prayer shawl but didn’t sit down. Then, he leaned over to his son. “You can sit when you feel tired; you’re not bar mitzvah yet.”
Duvid listened closely as the cantor chanted the Kol Nidre prayer. He was pleased that he was able to follow the service; he could even understand most of the prayers. His father would be proud of him.
“Did you understand it?” Chayim-Meyer asked on the way home.
“Do you understand now how there isn’t a man alive who doesn’t sin?” asked Chayim-Meyer gently.
Duvid shook his head. In his joy at being able to follow the service, he forgot to pay attention to what the prayers were saying. He would try harder tomorrow.
The morning dawned, sunny and balmy for early October. Duvid decided that he would try to fast, so he refused the breakfast his mother offered him. His father made him bring the chicken wing, apple and cookies that she packed for him.
“You’ll get hungry, and you’ll want to eat,” he said. “Only be sure you leave the shul when you eat for the sake of those fasting.”
Duvid followed the service as closely as he could. He found that many of the prayers depicted God as King and Judge, sealing the fate for the coming year of each person according to his deeds. Duvid hoped that God would hear his attempts at prayer and would inscribe him for a good year.
But the boy’s mind soon began to wander, partly from the length of the service and partly from standing and fasting. He was thinking about his rooster, “Will my kaporoh have anything to do with me having a good year, a year of God’s favor?”
It was early afternoon before Duvid could bring his full attention back to the service. The cantor was beginning the Amitz Ko’ach, the long narrative that describes in detail the Temple ritual for the Day of Atonement.
Duvid followed in his machzor. He tried to visualize every last detail. He imagined the high priest, dressed all in white and trembling because he was about to stand before God. He imagined two identical goats, large, beautiful ones, “snow white, like Reb Zvi Yossel’s milk goat.” The priest cast golden lots for the goats, one as a sacrifice for the Lord; “Like a kaporoh,” Duvid thought. The other would be a scapegoat, a scarlet thread tied about its neck.
The high priest would go into the Holy of Holies, before the very presence of God, and sprinkle the blood of the goat before the Ark of the Covenant. A vast throng, the entire nation of Israel, assembled in the Temple courtyard, and when the priest prayed for atonement, he pronounced the unpronounceable name of God. When the people heard the Name, they fell on their faces and cried, “Blessed is his glorious name, whose kingdom is forever!”
As the service continued, Duvid imagined the priest laying his hands on the scapegoat and confessing the nations’ sins.
Then the scapegoat would be driven over a cliff to its death. And when the people next saw the high priest, his face would be shining like the sun, and when they heard the report that the scarlet thread miraculously had turned white, they would rejoice with a great shout.
“Why did they shout so loud?” Duvid thought. Then he realized the thread changed color from scarlet to white, which is the color of purity. They knew that they were forgiven and pure before God! As the congregation recited Viddui, the prayers of confession, Duvid remembered his father’s words: “There isn’t a man alive who doesn’t sin.” He paid close attention and, as he recited the Al Chet, he realized that he was guilty of many of the sins he was confessing. “And for the sin which we have committed before thee by idle talk,” he was guilty of that; “For the sin . . . of evil thoughts, foolish talk,” and the list went on. Duvid wanted to be pure before God, but with no Temple, no sacrifice and no scarlet thread, how could he know that God had forgiven him?
He thought that next Yom Kippur he’d bring a goat–not a chicken–as a kaporoh, “big and snow white, with a scarlet thread tied around its neck.” “Then,” Duvid thought, “maybe the thread will turn from scarlet to white, and I’ll know that God will forgive my sins.”
“For all these sins,” he prayed from the bottom of his heart, “God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”
Duvid wanted desperately to talk to his father, but as he looked out of the corner of his eyes, he saw his father deep in prayer. His questions would have to wait.
Stars were shining in the evening sky and the waxing moon was well above the horizon. Soon the moon would be full, and it would be time to celebrate Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. Father and son were walking home from shul together; dinner would be waiting for them.
“Papa,” Duvid asked his father, who seemed even more thoughtful than usual, “how do we know that our sins have been forgiven this year?”
Chayim-Meyer sighed, “We don’t really know, my son, we don’t really know.”
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.