Excerpt from This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l:
Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba-al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, held a competition to see who would blow the shofar for him on Rosh Hashanah. Now if you wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba-al Shem Tov, not only did you have to blow the shofar like a virtuoso, but you also had to learn an elaborate system of kavanot — secret prayers that were said just before you blew the shofar to direct the shofar blasts and to see that they had the proper effect in the supernal realms.
All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavanot for months. They were difficult and complex. There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba-al Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavanot for years. But when his time came to audition before the Ba-al Shem, he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man, and he choked. His mind froze completely. He couldn’t remember one of the kavanot he had practiced for all those years. He couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. He just stood before the Ba-al Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how egregiously — how utterly — he had failed this great test, his heart just broke in two and he began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept.
All right, you’re hired, the Ba-al Shem said.
But I don’t understand, the man said. I failed the test completely. I couldn’t even remember one kavanah.
So the Ba-al Shem explained with the following parable: In the palace of the King, there are many secret chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax. The King is the Lord of the Universe, the Ba-al Shem explained. The palace is the House of God. The secret chambers are the sefirot, the ascending spiritual realms that bring us closer and closer to God when we perform commandments such as blowing the shofar with the proper intention, and the secret keys are the kavanot. And the ax — the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the presence of the King, where he may be — the ax is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” [*]
I first encountered Rabbi Lew’s telling of this story maybe five years ago. More or less by accident, I found his sermons on his congregation’s website and read through them all. I was still in university, the last year of an obscenely long B.A., and due to depression I was failing hard. I couldn’t afford another year. I loved being at Queen’s, loved learning, loved my professors, loved Latin and loved philosophy. In fact, I had three of my favourite courses ever that year: philosophy of medicine with Jacalyn Duffin, Judaism in its Classical period with Herbert Basser, and an amazing, intimate lecture on Vergil and Cicero with the late Ross Kilpatrick (do I z”l for gentiles too?) and Michael Cummings. All my professors were sympathetic and eager to give me accommodation when I explained that I was having emotional problems, and I still couldn’t get it together to meet those standards. I blew it. And I was crushed when I realised I would have to leave school and go back home in order to fully recover. This is the story that came back to me then, the line from Psalm 34: The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
When I was a teenager, I tried to use my knowledge of religion to feel superior. I was a messed-up kid who’d been bullied a lot for being the bookish type, and I happened to be pretty good at learning theology and Church history–my family background gave me a leg up there, and the rest was natural proclivity for that sort of thing. When I like something I get obsessive and zealous, and at the same time I was dealing with family health crises (my dad had a severe stroke and was disabled), so you can imagine how that worked out. I was obnoxious. And that unhealthy interest couldn’t sustain itself, so for a year or two I just stopped.
When I was in university, another terrible incident in my life knocked me down hard. I went back to church, but I wanted something different from it now. I wanted meaty, bony strength. I wanted something that would make sense of suffering. And by that I mean (paradoxically) something that wouldn’t make sense of it. Explanations, arguments, and apologetics weren’t enough anymore, and what I wanted was just the beating, bloody heart, the presence of God that exists in suffering. The ax that chops open the door of the king.
I don’t thank God for the things that have happened, but I’m intensely grateful to have learned from them. I’m grateful for the books I found, the teachers I was given, the art and music that came into my life. Having that story and that snippet of Scripture in my head helped me feel less alone. Without the story I would never have given that line much thought, but with it the Psalm has an anchor. Now I’ll never forget it.