The Satan saw our heilige Yid, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, doing mysim toivim, good deeds, and resolved to overwhelm the Besht. There are many angels, the Satan called upon some to assist, saying “Shlekht molakhim, evil angels, will guard the way to Shomayim.” The Satan intended that every prayer, no matter when, no matter where, no matter who, would rise only so far before it fell back. These prayers would never reach schaaray Shomayim, Heaven’s gates, and the Satan intended that no tefilos at all would come before kisay shel Rachamim, the Throne of Mercy.
“Many days will come and go, no prayers will reach the Throne,” the Satan said. “I will meet with Hashem Yisboirekh and say that the Yidn have deserted, that not even the sainted Rebbe Israel has stayed faithful, and that the Toira should depart from the Yidn forever.”
The dark angels were stationed, no highway or byway was unguarded, silent and invisible they were as they waited, and before the very Gates of heaven? A great army assembled and allowed no prayer entry.
The prayers flew upward, as Yiddishe prayers do, and the Satan’s agents halted them, leapt upon them, choked them, flung them into toihu und voihu, emptiness and chaos. The groans and wails of these bruised prayers filled all of space. The oilum was heavy with the weight of these orphaned prayers, except on erev Shabbes, when the tefilos of the Yidn burst forth like water escaping a blocked hose. Satan’s army of evil, encamped at the Gates of heaven, stopped them, for not even Satan’s foul minyons were numerous enough to stop their ascent.
Time passed, no tefilos reached the Throne, and Satan said to Hashem Yisboirekh “Take Toirah from the Yidn.”
“After Yoim Kipper,” God replied, but the Satan was impatient.
“Send out the command now,” he said, “but give them until the Day of Atonement,” and Hashem agreed.
How did Hashem’s will become manifest? The bishop Dembowski, yemach shmoi, his name be erased, proclaimed to his priests “Seize every book in Hebrew, take their Torah scrolls, and burn them,” and this is how he intended his Jews to observe Yoim Kipper. In our year it was 5518, in his 1757. All his priests did as asked but in Komenets and Lviv they were especially zealous.
And our heilige Yid? The Besht knew the Satan’s work when he saw it, he did not know how to overcome this evil, and every day the Yidn suffered more and more: the holy scrolls were wrenched from their arms as they carried them from the aron koidish. The Yidn cried, bereaved mothers whose babes were snatched from their breasts, and vowed “On Yoim Kipper we will burn with our Toirah!”
Deprived of sleep, deprived of food, the Besht sent the strongest prayers he had to Heaven, tefilos so might and majestic that only the Satan could stop them. A storm raged in our heilige Yid’s heart.
The Besht entered the shul with the saintly rabbi, Yakoiv Yoisef of Polnoye, by his side. No one present could miss the struggle etched into the Besht’s face. “We are saved,” they said.
“Koil Nidro”, the Besht sang, and his strong voice belied his weak heart. Sorrow and fear accompanied all who listened. Yakoiv Yoisef called each verse of the Ahl Chét aloud, the Besht responded aloud to each call, for this was the custom, but not this time, for the Besht did not reply when Yakoiv Yoisef called “Open the Gates of Heaven!”
The shteibl’s silence sounded like the death groan of a dying people. Yakoiv Yoisef repeatedly called “Open the Gates of Heaven,” the Besht said nothing, and then the silent fever broke: silent no more, the Baal Shem Toiv fell forward to lay prone upon the floor, screaming like nothing human ever heard, and it seemed like all day passed as we shared our silence and watched. Slowly he raised himself from the floor, his face full of sorrow and grief now a face of radiant wonder.
“The Gates of Heaven,” he said, “are open.” And that’s how we concluded Koil Nidro.
What he had done as he lay prone on the floor took time to circulate. Perhaps it is still not known, perhaps it will never be known, but this is the story we heard.
The grandest of Heaven’s Gates guards the road that leads directly to the kisay shel Malchus, the very seat of Hashem. Our heilige Yid lay down to go up, and as he approached the Mikdosh Melech, the Palace of the Monarch, he saw the hundreds of thousands of prayers panting their life away just outside the grounds.
“Heaven is waiting,” the Baal Shem Toiv called to them, “why do you linger?” Satan’s minyons fled, and the tefilos now had a way to enter but were too weak to move.
“Heaven awaits us,” the Besht called, and he pushed the prayers forward.
Satan’s army remained at the Gate, though, and the Satan personally came forth to lock the Gate. The Besht saw the lock was solid, that the Throne was inaccessible, and he sought another way in.
There dwells in Heaven an avatar for each of us on Earth, it was to this place in Heaven that the Besht journeyed while he lay prone on the floor of our shul, and it was his own avatar that he sought. “I seek your advice,” he asked. “How do I bring our blocked prayers forward?”
“Perhaps the moshiach knows,” our heilige Yid in Heaven answered, and so they went to where the moshiach awaits the time Heaven calls him to descend.
“Be laibadik,” moshiach told our Besht. “Be of loving heart. Use this token.”
Our Besht took the token, went back to the locked Gate, the lock fell apart, and the tefilos were a flame that consumed the Satan’s army.
At that moment, in Komenets, the bishop Dembowski, yemach shmoi, stood by the fire kindled to consume our sifré koidish, the siddurs, the machzors, the Talmud, the Toirah itself. He began by burning the Talmud, volume after volume he hurled into the fire, but suddenly he stopped. A seizure of some sort overtook him, he fell, no one else was brave enough to stoke the flame, which died down and went out.
Good news travels fast, and the less zealous priests, perhaps fearing that this curse would befall them also, left our holy books alone. Thus it was that in 1757 our holy books were saved. It was the Yoim Kipper of 5518.