Sacred Steps

By: Rabbi Yaakov Wolff
September 21, 2023

Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik, a respected scholar, teacher, and community leader in both Chicago and New York, faced a significant challenge towards the end of his life. He suffered a debilitating stroke that made walking nearly impossible. Determined to regain his mobility, he embarked on a journey of physical therapy. As he painstakingly placed one foot in front of the other, a student caring for him noticed something intriguing. Rabbi Soloveichik was quietly murmuring something under his breath, prompting the student to lean in closer, eager to catch his teacher’s words during these trying moments.

What was Rabbi Soloveichik whispering to himself as he painstakingly re-learned how to walk?

The Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) observance we know today is markedly different from the practices in the time of the Temple. Presently, we gather in synagogues to recite lengthy prayers while fasting. In ancient times, the entire nation would assemble at the Temple, anxiously awaiting the High Priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies. Inside, he conducted a unique and meticulously detailed service, called the avodah (literally “work”), requiring immense inspiration and concentration. Part of this service involved sprinkling sacrificial blood on the ark in the Holy of Holies. He would sprinkle the blood once at the top and then seven times at the bottom, counting aloud to ensure accuracy: “Achat (one), achat v’achat (one on top and one on the bottom), achat ushtayim (One on top and two on the bottom)…

During the moments when Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik’s student listened closely to his revered teacher’s struggle to take even a few steps, he heard these very words “achat, achat v’achat, achat ushtayim…”. Why was he borrowing the words of the High Priest during his physical therapy sessions?

Human beings are inherently flawed; we all grapple with shortcomings, failures, and regrets. Some individuals evade confronting these struggles altogether. This avoidance can be attributed to the demanding nature of self-improvement. Success is not guaranteed, and it necessitates unwavering effort and hard “work.”

Rabbi Soloveichik’s actions convey a powerful message — that slow and steady progress possesses a sanctity and significance similar to the sacred rituals performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. In the eyes of God, our efforts hold greater significance than the outcomes we achieve. This perspective underscores the idea that even a few modest steps taken during physical therapy sessions can, in a certain sense, be likened to the holiest Temple service.

The lesson for our lives is clear: whatever inner battles we may face, our earnest intentions, coupled with sincere efforts and gradual advancements, are cherished by the Divine.

Rabbi Yaakov Wolff

Rabbi Yaakov Wolff

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