This story is told in various versions, but this is how I remember hearing it from one of my heroes, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y. When Chasidic master Reb Yitzhak Yakov, the Seer of Lublin, died, his disciples divided his worldly goods. One received his books and his notes; another his schtender, or study lectern; one his Kiddush cup; another his tallit and tefillin.
When it was all distributed, there remained one humble Chasid who had not asked for anything. He was given the rebbe's clock.
On his way home, this man stopped at an inn. He planned to stay just a single night, but the weather turned nasty; it rained and rained for days on end. The roads were flooded, and he was forced to stay over for nearly two weeks. Much to his dismay and embarrassment, he didn't have enough money to pay the innkeeper. So he offered the rebbe's clock as payment. And thus it came to pass that the innkeeper owned the clock; he hung it up on the center of the wall in the parlor room.
Years later, another one of the rebbe's Chasidim passed by, and stayed the night at the same inn. All night, he could not sleep. All night, the innkeeper heard the footsteps of the restless Chasid pacing back and forth.
In the morning, the innkeeper confronted the religious man. "Master, why did you not sleep last night?"
"Sir, where did you get that clock?" asked the Chasid. The innkeeper related the story.
"I knew it," responded the Chasid. "This clock belonged to the Seer of Lublin. It is holy. All other clocks in the world mark time from the past, from where we've come. This clock ticks toward the future, toward redemption. When it tells us the time, it proclaims, 'only so many more minutes to redemption.' Every time I lay down to rest, the clock reminds me how much more there is for me to do before the future can come, before redemption can be realized. And when I think about that, how can I possibly sleep?"
Note This Special Time
This is a special Shabbat in our liturgical calendar. It's the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is called Shabbat Shuva, its name coming from the opening verses of the Haftorah reading from the prophet Hosea: "Return, O Israel, to the Eternal Your God."
In these opening words, we hear the awesome theme of these days – return, shuv, teshuvah.
These days of returning (often translated as "repentance") offer us an awesome challenge: the opportunity to ask where we are on this journey we call life, and to look at who we are and what we are – to take stock.
Our tradition calls it cheshbon hanefesh, "the cleansing of the soul." But it's not enough to ask ourselves who and where we are; our tradition boldly proclaims that we can grow and change, that we can return to our highest dreams and ideals, to what our God demands of us.
"The gates to Your forgiveness are open wide, and all who seek to enter may be at one with You," says our prayerbooks.
At this time of year, I hear the Seer of Lublin's clock ticking away. One moment closer to redemption, one moment closer to redemption, it proclaims. And as I hear this clock, I ask myself: What am I doing to bring our world one moment closer to redemption? The awesome power of teshuvah offers me the chance to make certain that I'm doing all I can to bring our world one moment closer to redemption.
Rabbi David Straus is rabbi of Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim and president of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.