Aaron and my mysterious Yom Kippur

Sometimes we all have to admit that there are more things than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

A depiction of Aaron the High Priest by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1914. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A depiction of Aaron the High Priest by Ephraim Moses Lilien, 1914. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Michael W. Schwartz
Michael W. Schwartz

My Yom Kippur this year was a unique mixture of familiar elements and a completely unfamiliar one that remains a mystery to me. All I know for sure is that Aaron figured in both.

First, the familiar: This year, as I have done for decades, I entered services at nine in the morning and didn’t leave until shortly after seven in the evening when the shofar was blown. I ate and drank nothing. I participated in four different services, or five counting Kol Nidre the night before. I repeated prayers over and over again from service to service. I chanted and read and reflected and mourned and regretted and apologized and vowed to do better. I heard two readings from the Torah—one describing how the high priest Aaron conducted Yom Kippur observances in biblical times.

This regimen of total immersion produced, as it always does, deep feelings of gratitude and closeness to the divine that are otherwise elusive at best. Afterwards, I was tired and a little hungry—and very thirsty—but spiritually sated and slaked. I was ready to break the fast and get a good night’s sleep.

But my Yom Kippur wasn’t over. I left services and went outside to look for a taxi to take me to Grand Central Station. My companion, C., was to meet me there to catch the train to our upstate New York home. We had moved there some time ago, but I still davened on Yom Kippur with my New York City congregation.

And what luck! There was no need to hunt down a cab. One was waiting right outside the building. As we arrived at Grand Central, I opened my overnight bag, took out my wallet, got my credit card and paid the fare. I rushed into the station, stopping only to wolf down a pretzel and bottle of water, and boarded the train with C. There, something prompted me to check my bag, and I found that my wallet was gone. I rummaged through the bag once, twice, three times, but it wasn’t there. I raced back to where I’d bought the pretzel, but—no surprise—no one had found a wallet.

Back on the train, I made a mental inventory of all the documents I’d have to replace—driver’s license, credit cards, medical IDs and so on. What an incredible nuisance! And worse—far, far worse—the wallet contained a picture of me and my son, taken when he was perhaps two, sitting on my rear end while I lay on the grass in my parents’ backyard. I had never been without that photo. But I was surprisingly calm. C. remarked, “Knowing you, I’d expect you to be furious, in a rage.” As usual, she wasn’t wrong.

In bed, probably because I was dehydrated, I experienced intensely painful leg cramps. All in all, I remarked to C. through clenched teeth, it was some reward for a day of fasting, prayer and religious devotion.

But when I got up, I found an email that had arrived just as our train was leaving Grand Central. Headed “Lost wallet,” the unsigned message read, “Call me ASAP.” But there was no phone number. I responded by thanking the sender and asking how I could get the wallet back. No response. And none to a second message.

Then I got a call from my pharmacy in a neighboring Connecticut town. “Have you lost a wallet?” “Yes.” “Well, someone just called and he has it and he was waiting to hear from you. He wants you to call him.” She read me a cellphone number, which I noted on a yellow Post-it.

When I called, the man who answered said he was the cab driver who had taken me to Grand Central and wanted to return the wallet. I asked him his name. “Aaron,” he replied.

We set a meeting place in the city and I drove down to get the wallet. On the way, I was delayed in terrible traffic, but when I called Aaron, he said he would wait. Finally, I reached our rendezvous and met Aaron face-to-face. He was an elderly black man with a placid expression and a scraggly white beard.

“Aaron,” I said, as he handed me the wallet and I handed him a large sum of cash, “Aaron, you picked me up outside a house of prayer yesterday, where I had spent the day praying. You have the name of the high priest whom we read about during services. You have done a blessed thing. You are a holy person.” He looked stunned. I felt stunned. I drove home.

Needless to say, nothing was missing from the wallet. Aaron had obviously gone through the cards and other contents to find a way to make contact with its owner, and found a receipt from the pharmacy I had forgotten was there. That was how he had been able to reach out to the pharmacy when I didn’t call him in response to his original email.

That’s my Yom Kippur story. Except that, the next day, I couldn’t let it end. I called Aaron again. “Is that you, Michael?” he asked. I thanked him again. I said how fortunate I felt for having met him.

“Oh no, I thank you,” he said. “No one has ever done that for me.” He was referring, maybe, to the money I’d given him; maybe to my telling him the significance of the biblical source of his name; maybe to something else.

And I still can’t let it end. Why did this happen? What does it mean? Because, of course, it means something. The whole encounter with Aaron coming in the aftermath of the most rigorous day of religious observance in the Jewish calendar can’t mean nothing. There is no lack of possible explanations. The only one I reject root and branch is random coincidence.

The first explanation that comes to mind is that my encounter with Aaron was a gift. I met a truly honest, decent man. Aaron not only did not discard the wallet, but searched me out so that he could return it. He interrupted a day of work to wait for me in order to do so. I believe he was genuinely surprised when I gave him money.

But what did I do to deserve such a gift? Observe a holiday? I don’t believe that entitles you to compensation. You’re supposed to observe the regimen. And as I said before, observance brings its own reward.

Moreover, that explanation leaves out the first half of the event, the loss of the wallet with no expectation of recovering it. In fact, all I expected was the arduous and inconvenient process of replacing all its contents. And then there was the possibility that I had lost forever the precious photo of my son and me.

The actual sequence of events—certainty of loss followed by the happy surprise of recovery—puts me in mind of a biblical reading we hear on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, nine days before Yom Kippur. It describes Abraham’s ordeal of being told to sacrifice Isaac and his ultimate relief from that dreadful fate.

Obviously, there is a huge difference in scale between that ordeal and what had happened to me, but the pattern of threatened loss—including of an irreplaceable picture of my son—and the ultimate avoidance of loss is there.

As it happens, this year I played hooky on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and didn’t hear that story told. Was my wallet experience—far from being some sort of a reward—a reproach for having skipped the earlier service?

Each of these possible explanations leaves out the fact that the man who gave me back my wallet bore the name of the priest we read about on the morning of Yom Kippur. Interestingly, that account is entirely devoted to ceremonial actions taken by Aaron: The sacrifices he offers, his bringing of incense into the Holy of Holies, his dispatch into the wilderness of a goat symbolically bearing the sins of Israel and his bathing and clothing himself. He does not speak, much less urge the people to express remorse for past sins or remind them of the need to repent and reform.

But that Torah reading is immediately followed by a reading from the book of Isaiah in which the prophet proclaims that ritual observance is not what God desires. “The fast you perform today will not make your voice heard on high. … No, this is the fast I choose … break your bread for the starving and bring dispossessed wanderers home.”

On the day of ritualistic rigor par excellence, the prophetic reading dismisses the importance of ritual and instead says that what the day really means is that we must “act lovingly to one’s fellow humans,” as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it. And, of course, the Aaron with whom I dealt face-to-face did exactly that.

In a sense, my ritual experience was completed by my encounter with a stranger who acted lovingly towards me.

But all of these possible explanations are, so to speak, me-centric. They assume that the significance of the encounter related to my experience of Yom Kippur. Maybe this is looking at things the wrong way round. Maybe the true significance of our encounter was that it gave Aaron a choice between acting selfishly—as, let’s face it, many people might have done in the circumstances—and acting selflessly.

It strikes me as noteworthy that his cab was standing outside when I left services. Why was he there in just that place at just that time? Was he there so that he could pick up someone whose carelessness would give him a chance to perform a mitzvah? And was his surprise at my giving him money—hardly a peculiar or unexpected action by someone in my position—a reflection of his understanding that, for him too, virtue was its own reward?

Maybe that’s why, in our last conversation, he thanked me. And maybe the reason for my uncharacteristic calm when I believed the wallet was gone for good was that, somehow, I knew I’d get it back, because the whole point of my losing it was to give Aaron the opportunity to return it.

Or maybe the meaning of this story is not about either Aaron or me. Maybe the story—which has visibly moved everyone to whom I’ve told it—is meant to inspire reflection by anyone who hears it about something in his or her own experience that is mysterious and resists easy understanding. Including you, dear reader.

Who hasn’t had a similar experience, in which what seems a nearly impossible series of events occurs and challenges our everyday sense of how the world works? For a moment, the curtain lifts a little, and we get a vivid awareness of the deep truth of Hamlet’s famous line, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

That rings truest to me. It’s not really possible to know what my Aaron story means. While recognizing that, as I said before, it is impossible to believe that it doesn’t mean anything, to the question of what it does mean, the only honest answer is “I don’t know.”

After all, the great lesson that the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services teach, in the words of the greatest hymn that we chant, is that we do not know “who shall live, and who shall die, who shall be at rest and who shall wander, who shall enjoy well-being and who shall suffer tribulation.”

God knows. We don’t. That is also the lesson, at its simplest level, of the last biblical reading on Yom Kippur, the book of Jonah: God knows. We, even the prophets among us, do not.

So, about the meaning of my mysterious Yom Kippur, I don’t know. But I keep that yellow Post-it with Aaron’s name and number in my wallet right next to the photo of me and my two-year-old son.

Michael W. Schwartz is of counsel to Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz and writes on a variety of subjects.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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