526: Welcome to Yom Kippur! Share a traditional story of hope and community

19th Century views of Hebron

This is Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year, and we know that our Jewish readers won’t be joining us today. But it’s such an important occasion that we’re going to share a traditional story often told and retold through the centuries, concerning a Yom Kippur many years ago in the region south of Jerusalem.
    Hebron now is a city of more than 160,000 people. Based on its population today, it’s primarily a Palestinian city, but it is world famous as the traditional burial place of Abraham—revered as a great patriarch and prophet by Jews, Christians and Muslims as well.
    Something else that unites all three faiths is a timeless tradition of spiritual storytelling. And, one of the great themes in these traditions—whether you are Jewish, Christian or Muslim—concerns the unexpected stranger. These strangers often appear to be outcasts and the wisdom of the story only is unlocked when the stranger is treated properly—hospitably and compassionately.
    That’s what happens in this centuries-old story of Yom Kippur in a tiny village somewhere near Hebron.
    There are many, many versions of this story. Here is one …

YOM KIPPUR
IN HEBRON and HARD TIMES

19th century Yom Kippur painting

    Centuries ago in Hebron, south of Jerusalem, near the burial place of Abraham and Sarah, a little Jewish settlement had fallen on hard times. Some families had been decimated by a plague, others scattered in a famine that followed—until there were fewer and fewer men left to form the essential minyan, the circle of 10 men needed for proper communal prayers.
   
As these few surviving families came closer and closer to Yom Kippur, anxiety rose higher and higher over whether a minyan could be found for this—the holiest day of the year. A careful count was taken, the total came up short, then the count was repeated—but no one could find more than nine men to gather for prayer on Yom Kippur.
   
For weeks, everyone watched for travelers, hoping that a visiting Jew might be convinced to stay in the little settlement through Yom Kippur. As was always the case in that region, a few Jewish travelers did pass through the community—but no one stayed.
   
Finally, it was time for the fast and the Day of Atonement to begin and spirits sank from anxiety to despair. In one home after another, prayers were voiced over this dire situation.

A Road south of Jerusalem

   
At the last possible moment, a cry went through the village: One last traveler was coming! Sure enough, a road-weary old man made his way slowly down the road. His clothes were worn, his back was bent, his beard was long and white—and, over his shoulder, he carried a traveler’s knapsack.
   
The villagers were overjoyed when they found that not only was he coming at precisely the right moment—but he was willing to come and pray with them in the synagogue. They finally had 10 men! A minyan! This would be a wonderful Yom Kippur after all!
The services were full of humble thankfulness for this 10th man—everyone feeling the joy of a proper community in the midst of such hard times.
   
Spirits ran so high that, as they reached the end of the fast and the sun had set on Yom Kippur, all of the men were eager to extend the good feelings by hosting the poor old traveler for a meal. They all called out their invitations. An argument broke out—and nearly a fight, as well!
   
Finally, reason prevailed and one man was chosen as the official host. It was dark outside and the man proudly began to lead the bearded old guest toward his home. In fact, the host was so overjoyed that he began walking a little faster than his guest. When he discovered his error, he quickly whirled around to find—the old man was gone.
   
The appointed host felt absolutely crushed. He cried out for his guest in the darkness! He ran back and forth between his home and the synagogue. But the traveler was gone.
   
That night, falling into a troubled sleep, the host finally began to dream. Into his dreams came a radiantly dressed figure who he quickly recognized as the great Patriarch Abraham!
   
The sleeping man remained speechless at the appearance of this great figure in the midst of his dream. Then, Abraham said, “Quit worrying, my friend. I am all right. Don’t worry, please!”
Then, through the haze of his dream, the sleeping man recognized the long white beard, the aged face—of the old man who had completed the Yom Kippur minyan!
   
“You see,” said Abraham kindly, “your prayers reached me in my burial place and moved me to come in person to help you in your time of need. Peace be with you and with your village this year.”
   
With that, the dream ended.
    The man awoke and rushed to the synagogue to share his story with all the others. The Almighty G-d had helped them through this visit by the great patriarch Abraham. Their hope—and, with it, their community—was restored for another year.

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