During Kol Nidrei: The Awesomeness and Incredibility of Us Jews
During Musaf: WhoShallLive
During Neilah: The Cantonists' Minyan
Reb Mordechai, a follower of the third Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866) had been dispatched by his Rebbe to wander the countryside of Russia, journeying from town to town, and inspire the Jews scattered there with the teachings of Chassidism.
But one day -- it was the day before Yom Kippur -- he arrived at some town in the middle of nowhere, only to hear that all its Jews, about one hundred altogether, had left the day before to the city of Vitebsk to pray in the large synagogue there on the Day of Atonement. Suddenly he found himself, but a few hours away from the holiest day of the year, without a minyan -- the quorum of ten Jews required for communal prayer.
"You won't find any Jews here, Rabbi" one of the townspeople told him. "But about two hours away there's a small village of Cantonists. They're a strange bunch, but that's the closest thing to Jews you'll find around here now".
(The Cantonists were Jews who, by decree of Czar Nicholas I, had been snatched from their families when they were young children for a 25-year term of "service" in the Czar's army, where every cruel means had been employed to force them to abandon Judaism. The few that survived were so emotionally and psychologically destroyed when they left the army decades later, that they were never able to live normal lives. So they lived together in little villages, apart from the rest of the world.)
Immediately Reb Mordechai started walking, but after over an hour he still saw nothing. No... wait! There seemed to be something on the horizon.
Sure enough, there it was. There were only a few old wooden houses, but this must be the village he was looking for.
The first resident that saw that the rabbi enter the village called everyone else, and in no time they were all lined up with shining faces, taking turns shaking the newcomer's hand.
They were overjoyed. Such an honor to have a real rabbi as their guest!
Suddenly they stepped back, formed a sort of huddle, and began whispering to one another. Then they fell silent, looked again at the rabbi, and one of them stepped forward in great humility, cleared his throat and announced:
"Excuse me, Rabbi, but we would be very honored if his excellency the Rabbi would please honor us with leading the prayers of Yom Kippur."
All the others stood staring at the Rabbi with wide pleading eyes nodding their heads beseechingly.
Reb Mordechai nodded in agreement, and the joyous hand-shaking ritual was repeated once again.
"We only have one stipulation," the man continued. "That one of us leads the closing prayer of the holy day, Ne'ilah".
An hour later they were all seated in the solemn atmosphere of Yom Kippur in their little shul (synagogue) listening to the beautiful heartfelt prayers of the Chassidic rabbi, Reb Mordechai.
A very special feeling overcame Reb Mordechai. He had never quite experienced a Yom Kippur like this. He had never been in such a minyan; comprised of Jews each of whom had been through hell, things that he could never even dream of experiencing, only for the sake of G-d. And although he knew all the books and they knew nothing, he felt dwarfed by these simple folk.
His soul flowed into the prayers, and it seemed to him that he had never sung so beautifully in his life. First Kol Nidrei, then the evening prayer, then on the following day he prayed the other three prayers, and read twice from the Torah.
But finally at the end of the day came their turn; it was time for Ne'ilah.
Reb Mordechai stepped back, took a seat in the small shul with everyone else, and waited to see what was going to happen. Why did they want this prayer for themselves?
One of the Cantonists rose from his chair, took a few steps forward and stood at the podium, his back to the crowd.
Suddenly, before he began to lead the prayers, he started unbuttoning and then removing his shirt.
Reb Mordechai was about to say something, to protest: You can't take your shirt off in the synagogue!
But as the shirt fell from the man's shoulders, it revealed hundreds of scars; years upon years of deep scars.... each one because the man refused to forsake the G-d of Israel.
Reb Mordechai gasped and tears ran from his eyes.
The Cantonist then raised his hands to G-d and said in a loud voice.
"G-d...Send us Moshiach! Redeem the Jewish people now!
"I'm not asking for the sake of our families, because we don't have any families.
"I'm not asking for the sake of our futures, because we have no futures.
"I'm not asking for the sake of our livelihoods or our comfort, or our children, or our reputations, because we don't have any of those things either.
"We're just asking: Assey l'maan shemecha -- Do it for Your sake!"
And then he put on his shirt and began the prayer.