The Capitol Dome in Washington, DC?

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017 - 9:40 am

An old man was interviewed by a newspaper reporter on his 100th birthday. He was asked: “To what do you attribute your longevity?”

The man thought for a moment and began ticking off items on his fingers: “I never smoke, I never drink liquor, I never overeat, and I always go to bed early and get up early.”

“You know,” said the reporter, “I had an uncle who did all those things, but he only lived to be 90. How do you explain that?”

“Simple,” said the old man. “He just didn't keep it up long enough.”

One of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sights in Washington DC is the United States Capitol building.

150 years ago, though, most of the nation opposed its completion. In 1861, at the onset of the Civil War, the Capitol dome was a half-built eyesore. The capital of the USA became the headquarters for the Union Army. Parks became campgrounds; schools and federal buildings, including the Capitol, became hospitals. The population grew from 60,000 to 200,000. The streets were filled with the dying and wounded. Conventional wisdom was that the Dome should be left unfinished until the war ended, given the turmoil and financial crisis of the times.

However, President Abraham Lincoln saw the importance of completing the building. Lincoln said, “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”

And, so, despite the conflict that engulfed the nation and surrounded the city, the dome continued to rise. Today, 150 years later, the dome dominates the Washington skyline, and serves as an enduring symbol of freedom, unity and hope.

More than 2,500 years earlier, long before the Civil War, the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, was under siege by the powerful Babylonian armies. The destruction of the city and the exile of its inhabitants was imminent. Everyone knew it.

In the midst of these perilous conditions, the prophet Jeremiah undertook one of history's most risky real estate deals. He did it not in spite of the conditions, but because of them, to make a point. Conventional wisdom was that for the Jews, the real estate market in Israel was dead forever. But Jeremiah bought a field in Jerusalem, publicly expressing his unshakable confidence that the Jews would return from exile. As he did so, he declared, “For this is what G-d says...that after exile there will be return, and the houses, fields and vineyards shall once again be valued property.”

His words proved true. The Jews did return—and today Israel is a thriving land packed with lovely homes, vineyards, synagogues, and fields. If Jeremiah returned now, he would not  be able to afford real estate in Jerusalem. Perhaps he would have just enough silver to purchase a shawarma!

Lincoln was able to quote much of the Hebrew bible by heart. All of his biographers agree that he read and studied it diligently throughout his life. He knew the story of how Jeremiah purchased land to express his faith in the future of his people. I suspect Lincoln was moved by that example, and had it in mind when he decided to move forward with the construction of the Capitol Dome.

So let all of us learn from Jeremiah’s example too.

Jewish history shows that no matter how steep the climb, how difficult the problems, how desolate the Promised Land, Jews always rise to the occasion. The Torah prevails and Judaism prospers. Those who bet against the Jewish people have inevitably been on the wrong side of history.

Therefore, on Shavuot, we raise the Torah and dance and celebrate.

There is another important lesson that we can glean from Jeremiah’s bold transaction, too.

How did Jeremiah influence the people not to despair? By acting on his conviction; by buying a field; by risking silver. Jeremiah's faith in the future would have been of little consequence unless he acted on that faith. The value of our faith is reflected in the way we behave. Our convictions become concrete when they are converted into conduct. Our beliefs become vital when they shape our deeds.

And this Shavuot, as we receive the Torah again, we determine that it will shape our deeds. Today we join an unbroken chain that connects us and all of our ancestors through the millennia. It is a good moment to rejoice, and to renew the faith in our soul and in the future of the Jewish people.

Happy Shavuot,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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