One of the famous hymns sung as part of the Musaf prayer service on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Ve-khol Ma’aminim (“And All Believe”), in which we pronounce a long series of praises of God which we declare to be universally accepted beliefs. We find in this hymn the passage, “Ve-khol ma’aminim she-hu oneh lachash” – “And all believe that He answers whispers.” The simple meaning of this passage, of course, is that God answers our prayers, which are called “lachash” (“whispers”) because they are normally recited quietly, in a whisper.
However, Rav David Hager of Zablatov, in Tzemach David, offers a creative reading of this pronouncement, noting that the word “lachash” can also be used in reference to ordinary conversation among people. The Rebbe of Zablatov suggests that “oneh lachash” means that God accepts even the simple but heartfelt wishes that people extend to one another. He lovingly cherishes not only our formal prayers, but also our well wishes to our fellow. These, too, are valuable and precious “prayers” which God warmly accepts.
This chassidic teaching brings to mind one of the most famous Talmudic stories relevant to Yom Kippur – the story of Rabbi Yishmael Kohen Gadol’s vision as he entered the kodesh ha-kodashim (inner sanctum of the Beit Ha-mikdash) one year on Yom Kippur. As the Gemara relates in Masekhet Berakhot (7a), God appeared to Rabbi Yishmael and requested, “Yishmael, My son, bless Me.” Rabbi Yishmael wished upon God, as it were, that “Your compassion shall restrain Your anger…and You shall treat Your children with the attribute of compassion, and deal with them beyond the strict letter of the law.” God then “nodded,” as though answering “amen” to Rabbi Yishmael’s blessing. The Gemara concludes that the practical lesson of this revelation is “she-lo tiheyeh birkat hedyot kala be-einekha” – we should not belittle the importance of the blessings and wishes of even a hedyot, a simple, ordinary person. Just as God welcomed the blessing of a mortal, we, too, should welcome the good wishes of any person, simple and lowly as he or she might appear.
It is not coincidental that this encounter occurred specifically on Yom Kippur. One of the themes of Yom Kippur is the inherent greatness of each individual, how we are cherished and beloved by the Almighty despite our limitations, our faults, our shortcomings, and the complexities of human life. In the section of the Torah which we read in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, which discusses the special rituals which were performed in the Beit Ha-mikdash on this day, the Torah speaks of the Mikdash as the site “ha-shokhein itam be-tokh tum’otam” – “which resides among them amidst their impurity” (Vayikra 16:16). Many have noted that this verse encapsulates the essence of the Yom Kippur observance – the belief that God is prepared to reside among us despite our “impurities,” even though we err and fall far short of pristine purity, as long as we make an effort to grow and advance. Yom Kippur is the only day when a human being enters the kodesh ha-kodashim – signifying that God welcomes us, embraces us, and seeks a relationship with us despite our “impurities,” provided that we repent and strive to improve. And thus on this day, Rabbi Yishmael was shown that “lo tiheyeh birkat hedyot kala be-einekha,” that God values the simple, sincere prayers of each and every Jew. The Yom Kippur observance assures us that God is “oneh lachash,” that He lovingly accepts every word of prayer we genuinely recite and every good deed we genuinely perform, despite our flaws and imperfections, provided that we do the work we need to do to elevate ourselves and serve Him to the best of our ability.