- Rabbi Nanus
- Rosh Hashanah
September 27, 2022
Rabbi Susan Nanus
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles
NE’ILAH IN GEHENNA
A musical folktale by Rabbi Susan Nanus
Based on the story by I.L. Peretz
A clarinet plays as the Cantor sings a Hasidic niggun. When the music stops, the Narrator begins.
It’s a typical day in Gehenna – or should I say night, since the sun never shines in the Underworld. Fires are blazing. Caldrons are boiling. Pitchforks are prodding. Inmates are weeping and wailing, paying for their sins.
The place is packed and more tenants are arriving every day. A large crowd stands at the gates, waiting to be processed and admitted, delivered by the Imps of Dispatch, who snatch up the delinquent souls from their graves the moment they are buried.
The Cantor and clarinet continue the niggun for a few moments, and then stop.
Fiend of Reception: The Fiend of Reception sits at her desk filling out the usual forms. It is she who keeps Hell’s register of admission and discharge. The files of Gehenna are her domain, but after five thousand seven hundred and seventy-three years, you’ve got to feel sorry for her. Every decade, every century, she hears the same thing. The same whining, the same pathetic excuses. Now that it’s too late, everybody is sorry, everyone wants another chance. The poor demon is ready to tear her horns out from the monotony!
Wearily, she pulls out another questionnaire, raises her quill, and glares at the next inductee.
Fiend of Reception: Name?
Moishe: Moishe Kapor, your honor.
Fiend of Reception: (mutters to herself as she writes) Moishe Kapor….. Place of birth?
Fiend of Reception: (mutters as she writes) Warsaw again….Your sin?
Moishe: Well, uh… actually…
Fiend of Reception: Don’t bother lying. It’ll only make things worse.
Moishe: I was an informer, your darkness. I spied on my neighbors and reported them to the authorities.
Fiend of Reception: (mutters and writes) Snitch…..Location of your demise?
Moishe: A wagon accident in the town of Ladam.
Narrator: At the mention of this name, the Fiend of Reception pricks up her ears.
Fiend of Reception: What was the name?
Fiend of Reception: Ladam? Never heard of it!
Moishe: It’s a small town in Poland.
Fiend of Reception: Contemporary or historical?
Moishe: Founded twenty years ago. The Baron built it up. It has a synagogue, a house of study, a bathhouse, and two taverns.
Fiend of Reception: Somebody get me the file on Ladam!
The Cantor and clarinet resume the niggun.
Narrator: Now in the records of Gehenna every community has its own file, and these files are alphabetically arranged, and every letter has its own filing cabinet. So a careful search is made through L – Lublin, Lemberg, Leipzeig, but no Ladam!
Fiend of Reception: This is impossible! We’ve never had a single person from Ladam. Don’t they ever die in this town of yours?
Moishe: Of course they die! There’s a huge cemetery on the outskirts, not to mention that they had a big epidemic last spring. People were dropping like flies.
Fiend of Reception: This calls for an investigation. Send me the Imp of Inquiry!
Narrator: A town twenty years old and not one soul landed in Gehenna! How can this be? The Imp of Inquiry is sent forth to find out.
The Cantor softly chants a few lines of Shma Kolenu, then stops.
Narrator: He arrives on Yom Kippur afternoon. The streets are deserted. All the shops are closed. The Imp of Inquiry makes his way towards the synagogue where he hears something strange and powerful.
The Cantor continues the prayer.
Imp of Inquiry: The Imp is stunned. That sound! What is it? Shaking, the Imp peers into the synagogue. There he sees the entire Jewish population of Ladam, moaning and beating their breasts in atonement, filled with whole-hearted repentance.
The Cantor stops singing.
Narrator: Up front on the bimah, stands the Cantor, a simple man, modest, unassuming. A man you’d pass on the street and never notice. Lifting his voice in prayer like an angel. No, purer than an angel. More beautiful, more heart-breaking. Singing in a voice so poignant and sweet that it can penetrate into a heart of iron and melt it to wax.
The Cantor softly begins to sing “Ritzay.”
Imp of Inquiry: Above him, the Imp can see the Gates of Paradise open, and the one shining angel, so moved by the Cantor’s voice, begins to sing with him in a celestial duet.
The sweet-voiced Angel sings with the Cantor.
Narrator: The sins of the congregation nullified. Their souls are cleansed. Their transgressions erased.
The Cantor and the Angel’s magnificent voices sing the prayer and finish.
Narrator No wonder that Gehenna has never heard of Ladam. Because of the depth and sincerity of this cantor’s prayers, all sins are forgiven. Horrified, the Imp hurries home to report. The entire netherworld is outraged.
Fiend of Reception: This is a disaster! A disgrace! With such a cantor in the vicinity, Gehenna is operating in Ladam at a loss. This is a matter for That Certain Party himself! The Head of Hell must deal with this cantor personally.
Clarinet plays music that evokes Satan.
Satan: I’ll wipe him off the face of the earth! I’ll crush him like an ant. How dare he interfere with the business of sinning! Mankind is weak and selfish. They belong in Hell. They belong to me!
Narrator: Suddenly in the midst of this raving, an ominous rumbling is heard from Up There.
The Holy One, blessed be He, will not allow the destruction of the Cantor.
Satan: (petulantly) Well all right! If that’s the way you feel about it, I’ll spare him. But you can’t stop me from cursing the little upstart. Maybe I can’t have his soul, but I can have his voice!
The Cantor chants the niggun softly, getting louder at the very end.
Satan: Bring me a crowing rooster with a comb of fiery red.
Lay him on the satanic altar that I may see his head.
I circle him seven times
As I perform the spell.
The red crest blanches, turns to white
As my curse ascends from Hell.
Singing voice begone!
I take away his breath!
Never will he sing again
Until the hour of his death!
The Cantor abruptly stops singing.
Narrator: At that moment, the Cantor loses his voice. Smitten in the throat, hoarse and croaking, he cannot bring out a single note. Panic-stricken, he
runs to the Rabbi seeking an explanation. Mystified, the Rabbi sends him to a holy man, who sends him to an even holier man. Soon the Cantor is knocking at the door of every great Rabbi in Poland, soliciting their help, begging for an explanation.
Clarinet plays the niggun.
Narrator: At last he reaches the court of the Tzaddik of Apt, the holiest of them all, with a soul so pure that he immediately understands the source of the poor Cantor’s affliction.
Tzaddik of Apt: A curse. Irrevocable and unchangeable. You will never sing on Yom Kippur again.
Narrator: The Cantor bursts into tears. He refuses to accept the decree. He implores the Tzaddik to intervene before the Heavenly Throne. To bring his case before the angels. He begs, he clings, and he sobs, vowing not to budge from the court until he is helped.
Tzaddik of Apt: It is out of my hands. There is nothing I can do. But let me give you a small piece of consolation. Your hoarseness will persist until the hour of your death, at which time you will come to say the Prayer of Repentance. You will sing it in a voice so clear, so full of devotion and truth, that it will resound through all the corridors of Heaven.
Narrator: The Cantor looks at him hopefully.
Cantor: But until then?
Tzaddik of Apt: Lost!
Cantor: In that case….If that’s the case, I WILL HAVE MY REVENGE!
Tzaddik of Apt: Revenge? How and from whom?
Narrator: But the Cantor is gone.
The clarinet mournfully plays the niggun.
Tzaddik of Apt: That was on a Tuesday, some say Wednesday; and that Thursday, in the evening, when the fisherman of Apt drew up their nets, they drew forth the drowned body of the Cantor of Ladam! A suicide! Strictly forbidden by the Torah. A priority sin, a one way trip to the Underworld.
And no sooner is the Cantor buried than the imps are at his soul and he is brought to Gehenna.
Narrator: At the gates, the questions are put to him but he refuses to answer. He is prodded with a pitchfork, stimulated with glowing coals. Still, he keeps silent.
Fiend of Reception: Forget the questions. Take him as he is!
Imp of Inquiry: The cantor is led to his proper place. A caldron seethes and boils before him. Suddenly the Boss himself appears, gloating, filled with glee.
Satan: Well, well, look who’s here. The great saintly cantor himself! Only you’re not so great anymore, are you, you miserable worm? You couldn’t even manage to save yourself. Admit it, you pathetic son of Adam, evil will always triumph over good. You have lost and I have won, isn’t that so? Answer me, you piece of dust. Answer me!
Narrator: And here the Cantor at last permits himself the privilege of his voice. Clear and ringing he sings forth…
Cantor: Hashkivenu Adonoi Elohenu l’shalom….
Narrator: The prayer of Repentance! “Help us, O God, to lie down and peace and awaken us again to life.”
The Cantor sings as the Narrator continues.
Narrator: He intones it, he sings it, and in singing his voice grows bolder, stronger….rapturous…glorious…..from the very depths of his heart. And this time, not just one, but all the angels in heaven, sing with him.
Angelic choir sings with the Cantor.
Moishe Kapor : Hushed are the boiling cauldrons from which there issued the sound of weeping. Hushed until after a while, the cauldron lids are lifted, heads peer out, and burned lips murmur accompaniment.
The fiends of Gehenna stand there as if lost, bewildered and abashed. Their faces twisted, mouths agape, eyes bulging as the Cantor sings. Satan stares at him in horror.
The Cantor sings on. The fires under our cauldrons diminish and go out. The dead begin to crawl from their cauldrons, praying with the Cantor, rendering our hearts up to God. As we pray, our hurt bodies are healed, our torn flesh unites, all the condemned become pure.
Cantor (sings): Shield us from our enemies, from pestilence, from starvation, sword and sorrow. Remove the Evil One, the Dark One, the one we call Satan – HaSatan –who surrounds us, and shelter us in the shadow of Your wings! You, who watches over us and delivers us, our Gracious and Merciful Ruler.
Entire Cast: Awmayn, awmayn!
The Cantor and the Angels hum the prayer.
Narrator: At this passage, all of Hell’s poor souls respond with such fervor, such sincerity that the Heavens above are opened to them. The repentance of the wicked reaches to the Heaven of Heavens, to the Seventh Heaven before the Throne itself! And in this moment of grace and favor, the sinners become saints and suddenly grow wings! One after the other, they fly out of Gehenna to the very gates of Paradise.
Until all of hell is emptied out, except for the fiends, rolling in their convulsions….
The Cantor and the Angels sing on to the last note of the prayer.
Narrator: Then the Cantor himself sprouts wings and flies off. Here in Gehenna, as on earth, he brought his congregation to repentance and purified their souls. For one small moment, Satan and his minions are have lost their power. The Darkness has been defeated by the Light.
Clarinet plays the niggun for a few moments, then stops.
The Devil: Of course, in time, Gehenna filled up again.
Fiend of Reception: And although additional suburbs were built, it still remains crowded.
Narrator: But that, I suppose, is to be expected.