A Jacket and a Riddle

This had never happened to me before. It was but a small matter, and now I can laugh about it, but at the time, it didn’t seem so trivial. I can be absentminded from time to time, which makes for some interesting situations. Last Erev Shabbos, we were rushing to Lakewood to stay at my son’s house for Shabbos. We were in a hurry to beat the traffic on the Garden State Parkway, so one can understand how I forgot something. I packed up all the nosh and snacks for our ainiklach, in addition to all of our personal items. I got dressed for Shabbos and we were off.

While we were waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I looked back to get something from my Shabbos jacket, but it was nowhere to be found. Then it dawned upon me that I had meant to fold up my jacket and put it in the back seat, but in the rush, I left it at home. We were far along on our trip, and turning back, especially in this traffic, was not an option. What was I going to do? I wasn’t going to shul in pants and shirtsleeves.

My wife, seeing my angst, tried calming me down. Surely I could borrow one of my son’s Shabbos jackets. His suits, though, are a couple of sizes smaller than mine and undoubtedly would not fit. Furthermore, his taste in clothing is drastically different than mine. While I prefer the most conservative suits, he favors bright colors. No, the situation didn’t seem too promising.

We finally arrived to a special surprise that my brother and sister-in-law would also be spending the Shabbos there with us. But all I was thinking about was a jacketless Shabbos. How would I go to shul? My son fished out an old suit from his closet, and indeed it matched my pants almost to the tee, but would it fit? I tried it on and it was wearable, but the two sides refused to get near each other, leaving a recognizable gap in between. I just couldn’t go to shul wearing it, especially since I efficiently left my tie in my Shabbos jacket at home and my midsection would not be covered up.

“No problem,” says my son. “You can borrow one of my wide ties.”

But his ties are so loud that you need ear plugs to wear them. He gave me a bright light blue tie and I had no choice but to wear it, thankful that I didn’t have to borrow his socks. My wife, brother and sister-in-law assured me that I looked good and there was nothing to worry about, but I felt like a clown. We went to shul and I tried being as unobtrusive as possible. In the back of my mind was the fear that I may be asked to speak, as has been the case in the past. Thankfully, that did not happen. The next morning, at Shacharis, I was very comfortable, as I was covered by my tallis. By the time we went to shul for Mincha, I had forgotten about the whole thing.

There must be some lesson in this, I thought to myself, and then it came to me. Here I was so self-conscious about the possibility of embarrassment if someone were to notice my ill-fitting attire even after I was assured by my family that it looked fine. Am I at all concerned about the embarrassment I will feel standing in front of Hakadosh Boruch Hu in just a couple of weeks as I’m being judged on Rosh Hashanah?

And what will I be wearing at the time? Will I be fully clothed in Torah and mitzvos or will I be missing some clothing and part of my essence will remain uncovered? What color will that clothing be? Will it be fully colored with the proper kavanah and zerizus that energize the mitzvah or will it be bland and dull, not expressing any vitality at all?

In shul, I tried to remain unnoticed, but this is impossible when standing before Hakadosh Boruch Hu. If only…if only I could sense that embarrassment and have that angst the way I did when I was missing my jacket.

This coming Motzoei Shabbos, Yidden everywhere will gather to say Selichos, beseeching Hashem with their tefillos to be forgiven for their wrongdoing and to merit a sweet new year. Here is a riddle to lead us into Selichos: How is it possible that ten adult Yidden, all fine shomrei Torah umitzvos, gather together and still won’t have a minyan? The answer will be found in the following incredible story that should serve as chizuk to all of us.

It was the second night of Selichos in Monsey at 3:10 in the morning. Reb Pinchas got up early to be part of a minyan in the bais medrash of his holy rebbi, Rav Chaim Zanvil Abramowitz, renowned as the Ribnitzer Rebbe. He knew that the rebbe first said Tikkun Chatzos for hours and immediately afterwards would say Selichos if there was a minyan. Understandably, at that time of night, it was hard to find a minyan. Therefore, on the way to the Ribnitzer Bais Medrash, Reb Pinchas stopped off in another shul in the neighborhood to see if perhaps he could find other Yidden to come with him to the rebbe’s minyan.

Sure enough, he found another Yid sitting alone in the back of the shul holding a Selichos at the first page. He rushed happily toward the man, saying, “Reb Yid, why say Selichos by yourself? Come with me to the rebbe, where we will say Selichos with a minyan. I will drive you there and back home.” Immediately, the man stood up, got into the car, and they were off to the rebbe’s bais medrash. They entered, and as it turned out, they completed the minyan.

Now the rebbe could approach the amud to lead Selichos. As soon as the tzaddik noticed that they had a minyan, he wrapped himself in a tallis. With his face aflame, he opened his Selichos and then…nothing! Something was stopping them from starting the Selichos. He looked here and there, then focused his stare at the Yidden around him. Again he tried to begin “Ashrei yoshvei veisecha,” but there was some problem.

There was silence in the bais medrash and one could feel nervousness in the air. No one understood the reason for the delay. Again, the rebbe approached the amud and tried to commence with Ashrei, but he immediately stopped. He walked around, scrutinizing everyone there with his piercing look. Now there was fear in the eyes of the mispallelim. Which one of them was responsible for this delay? Minute after minute passed in silence, with all of them looking at the tzaddik in wonder and confusion. Again he tried Ashrei but stopped.

Finally, he turned to the tzibbur and asked, “Is there anyone here who already said Selichos?” All of them answered that they didn’t.

Again the rebbe tried to begin, but when he couldn’t, he turned to them and asked once again, “Is there anyone who already said Selichos?” Again they all answered a definite no.

Suddenly, the guest who Reb Pinchas brought from the other shul thought to himself, “Maybe the rebbe means me. I already said a few pesukim of Selichos by myself.” Seeing that the rebbe remained silent, he walked over and whispered, “I already started before. I just said the first few pesukim.” The rebbe said, “Indeed, now I know. Now I understand everything. We don’t have a minyan to say Selichos.”

“We don’t have a minyan?” they all wondered. “We have ten Yidden standing here who did not yet recite Selichos.”

Here the rebbe revealed to them a mysterious secret: “Yes, there are ten Yidden here, but one of them already started saying Selichos. Therefore, he is standing in a different realm than the rest of us and is isolated from the rest of the group. Because when a Yid just begins to say Selichos, even with a few random pesukim, he is already welcomed by Hashem into a special sphere and is no longer together with us in the same situation.”

This is astonishing. How great is the power of just a few pesukim in Selichos and how high they can elevate us! The tzaddik, with his keen spiritual senses, was able to feel this. He saw that there was someone there who had already jumped to a higher level and had already advanced towards our Father in Shomayim due to just a few pesukim that he said.

How heartening it is to know what power we have in our hands. How encouraging it is to know that every small step we take forward, every posuk, every tefillah, every tear shed, can help lift us up to such great heights, to such closeness to Hashem, beyond anything that we could imagine (Likras Shabbos Malkisa).

While we lack the trepidation of these days found in previous generations, deep down inside we are worried. How can I, so small, and so far away from what I could have accomplished, now rectify a year’s worth of opportunities that I didn’t utilize? This is human logic speaking. But Hashem’s love for us and the power of just a few words goes far beyond what our minds can comprehend.

Come, let us step forward together. Let us use this tremendous power and infuse it with our thoughts and emotions. Together we can rise and get close to Hashem in a way that is unfathomable.