With the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the late Rabbi Meir Chodosh, spiritual head of Chevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, would address his disciples.
"Sometimes," he told them, "a stray thought of despondency finds its way into our hearts. We recall the Yom Kippur of last year, or two years ago, and how determined we were to improve our ways. Then we take stock of what we actually accomplished over the past twelve months. The comparison between what we wanted to accomplish, and what we actually achieved, might not be so encouraging, and we suffer pangs of remorse.
"What happened to all our good intentions? Why did we arrive at the last days of the year with the feeling that we accomplished so little? Was there any purpose in our prayers and our resolutions last Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Were our intentions valid, when we promised ourselves that this year, we would do better?"
"The older we are, the greater the risk of feeling empty. We have lived through so many New Years, so many Yom Kippurs! Have we changed? Have we improved?
"So many times, we felt we had reached new heights, only to slide gradually back downhill. Is there any hope for us? Is there anything to be gained by observing yet another Yom Kippur, and yet another?"
Rav Meir paused, and scanned the young faces. All eyes were upon him, waiting for him to continue.
He drew a deep breath, and proceeded to answer his own question:
"We must realize, and always remember, that this attitude arises from the yetzer hara, the evil inclination which lies in every human heart so that he will be free to choose between good and bad. Of course there is hope, and surely, there is much to be gained each year by observing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
"In fact, were it not so, our Creator would not have commanded us to keep these special days. He has no need of our prayers and our shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, of our fasting and our confessions on Yom Kippur. The Manufacturer knows how best to care for His products. G-d knows what is good for us, and what will best help us to achieve the purpose for which He created us. The very fact that He gave us these commandments is in itself the proof that there is much to be accomplished by keeping them.
"Each year's observance of Yom Kippur leaves an indelible impression. Nothing is lost, although it may be pushed to a corner of the heart and remain there, unnoticed, for some time.
"I know this from my own, personal experience," Rabbi Meir told his listeners.
To prove his point, he recounted a fascinating tale from his own life:
During World War One, I was once arrested in the streets of my hometown, Paritsch (near Minsk). No one needed an excuse to shed Jewish blood in those days. A soldier shoved me into a nearby backyard, and ordered me to stand against the wall. Then he raised his rifle, took aim at me, but for some reason, didn't shoot. I could see that the wall was riddled with bullet holes, with ample stains of blood among them.
"Move more to the right!" he yelled at me.
I was too petrified to react.
"Move over! To the right!" screamed the would-be executioner.
I was far to terrified to move a finger, much less my whole body.
"Stand in the middle of the wall!" screeched the soldier in exasperation.
I was young, and would have obeyed him if I had been physically able to, but my dread of my impending fate had turned me into a block of stone. My limbs were no longer under my control.
"Get over to the middle!" the firing squad of one continued to screech.
Just then, one of the windows that opened onto the courtyard was raised. A head appeared, and someone asked in annoyance: "What's all the noise about?"
The soldier calmed down enough to answer: "I'm just getting rid of a worthless Jew."
The neighbor was less enthusiastic about the shooting. "Forget it," he said. "Let him go!"
Amazingly, the soldier lowered his rifle, turned around, and disappeared into a doorway off the yard. Heaven had saved my life at the very last minute. I was on the verge of collapse. I walked away in a trance, thanking Heaven, and promising to recite Hagomeil (the blessing of thanksgiving recited by someone whose life has been spared).
I assured myself that, in gratitude, I would devote my entire life to Torah. I would do mitzvahs without end, and devote myself to helping others. My heart sang with words of praise and thanks to the Master of the World.
But such is the nature of man that time dulls even the most sublime and intense emotional experience. The memories of that momentous day faded; eventually, they were all but forgotten.
I made aliyah to the Land of Israel, and joined the yeshiva in the city of our Forefathers, Hebron. Then, in the year 1929, the Arab population – who had been outwardly friendly to the Jewish community – staged a pogrom. Sixty-seven Jews were cruelly butchered, and another sixty wounded. Synagogues and Jewish homes were ransacked.
I was in the main study hall of the yeshivah, with about sixty others, when the Arabs suddenly burst in, with hatchets and knives. A friend and I threw ourselves onto the floor, as though we were already dead, and hid under the bloody bodies of the victims who had been butchered. The attackers were worse than wild beasts, who kill only in order to eat and stay alive. They hacked away at their victims, removing limbs and torturing them. We could feel the bodies piling up on top of us.
My friend whispered to me: "They will make a search and make sure that everyone is dead. When they find us, they'll torture us brutally! Come, let's give ourselves up and plead with them to murder us outright instead of torturing us slowly to death, piece by piece!"
I answered him: "Just remain silent, and we will be saved!"
And so it was. The bloodthirsty murders finished their work and moved on, leaving us for dead. When we were certain that they had all left, we crawled out from under the heap of victims, and escaped.
Some time later, my friend turned to me and said: "I never knew that you were such a sublime believer and had such strong faith that Heaven would help you! Here wild beasts are on the rampage, butchering our comrades all around us, and you promised me that we would be safe! How did you come to have such great faith that G-d would spare us?"
I explained that he was making a mistake. I wasn't such an inspired personality. My stalwart faith was due to the fact that I had already experienced one such miraculous rescue. As the blood flowed around us, I had relived the moments of my previous release from imminent death.
It all came back to me – those moments when I stood by the wall of death, the soldier screaming at me to move, my body frozen stiff with dread, the window that opened, and the neighbor who saved my life by saying, "let him go.". I thought I had forgotten it all, but now, in a flash, it all came back to me.
I remembered, and my heart knew the truth. Just as our Sages teach us, one should never give up hope that Heaven will have mercy on him. And, indeed, you see that G-d had mercy on us and saved us.
"That was what I told my friend, years ago," Rabbi Meir said to the young men gathered around him. "There is something else I learned from these events, which is important to us now that Yom Kippur has come and gone.
"Today we dedicated an entire day exclusively to matters of the heart. In another few days, weeks, or months, some of you might recall this day of sublime spirituality, and sigh with regret: 'What is left of it? Was it all in vain?'
"Know that nothing is lost. Just as my memories remained in a hidden corner of my heart, so, too, does each person's experience of Yom Kippur make an indelible impression on him. It may be buried deep within him for some time, it may appear to be lost, but it is always there, waiting to be recalled and revitalized, to deliver its message, and to guide us in life.
"The same is true of every Rosh Hashanah, every Pesach, every Sukkos, every holiday we celebrate. The more we prepare in advance, the deeper the experience, the more profound the impression on our hearts.
"The cycle of Jewish holidays is comparable not to a circle which we traverse again and again, but to the thread of a screw, which goes deeper and deeper into the heart each time it revolves. With each cycle, the holidays and their message become more firmly implanted in our hearts, just as the screw is driven deeper into the wood.
"This Yom Kippur will penetrate more than last year's, even though its memory seems to fade with time. Next year's Yom Kippur will make an even stronger impression, and so forth… so that each year, with the help of Heaven, we will be inscribed for a New Year of good health, happiness, and blessing!"