Friday, 7 June, 2019 - 1:09 pm

A farmer and his wife were sitting on a couch when a tornado came and swept them out of the house. There they were, flying through the air together on the couch when the wife began to cry.

The farmer said to her, “This is no time to cry! We need to think of ways to land safely!”

She replied, “I can't help it! I'm so happy because this is the first time we've been out together in twenty years.”

Sometimes it takes a crisis to make us ask, who am I? What kind of spouse am I? What kind of person am I? What have I done with my capacities? It is part of the beauty of Judaism that on Shavuot we are called on to ask just that question:

Who am I?

Shortly before the famous French Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire died (1694 – 1778), he predicted that the Hebrew Bible would be a forgotten book; in one hundred years he said the Hebrew Bible would only be found in museums. 

When one hundred years were up, Voltaire’s Swiss home was occupied by the Geneva Bible Society.

A Jew would never make such a prediction. Jews have never doubted the truth of the momentous blessing we make over the Torah, in which we thank G-d who gave us the “Torah of truth and planted within us eternal life.” 

We have never doubted the longevity of the Torah, its ability to endure throughout the ages. And that truth began three thousand years ago at Sinai.

A sarcastic rabbi once told me that G-d produced thunder and lightning on Sinai because he knew that when Jews hear the words of Torah they fall asleep!

Nevertheless, the most momentous event in Jewish history took place on Shabbat, the sixth day of the month of Sivan, in the year 1313 BCE. 

On that day, the entire nation of Israel, some two million men, women, and children, gathered at Mount Sinai and received the Torah from G-d. Ever since that event, we celebrate the festival of Shavuot, 

“The time of the giving of The Torah.”

The Torah is G-d's wake up call, His way of asking us, “How have you used the life I’ve given you? What have you done with your abilities? 

Will you now develop them more fully, to make a difference, to be a blessing to the world, and especially to the people in your life?”

One of the great Jewish scholars of the nineteenth century was the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin. He was the dean of the famous Yeshivah in Volozhin and he authored many important works on the Talmud; he is best known for his monumental commentary on the Torah entitled, Ha'emek Davar,which means, “The Depth of the Word.”

At the celebration marking the completion of one of his works, he told a story of one night that changed the course of his life. As a young boy, he said, he did not apply himself to his studies. He did very badly in school. 

His teachers tried to bring him into the discussions but to no avail. They told his parents that there was little hope that their young son would ever grow up to be a scholar.

One night, he overheard his parents talking about his hopeless future. He could hear the pain in his father’s voice when they came to the conclusion that it was a waste of time sending him to a yeshiva where he was accomplishing very little.

They were sacrificing so much in order for him to have this special Jewish education but nothing was coming of it. So, they decided to pull him out of school and send him to apprentice with a carpenter; he would make a living that way.

Young Naftali was devastated when he heard this. He rushed into the room where his parents were and broke down crying, “Please don’t give up on me yet. Please give one more year to prove myself. 

I’ll try my best. I’ll give it all I’ve got. Please don’t give up on me.” Moved by his tears, they gave him another chance.

As the Netziv told it, “I probably would have been a fine carpenter. I would have been honest and served my customers well. But after 120 years I would stand before the heavenly tribunal and they would ask me, “Naftali where is the Ha’amek Davar, the commentary on the Torah? Where is, Tosefot Yeshanim, your commentary on the Talmud? Where is Davar Ha'Emek your commentary on the Prophets?

Naftali, where is Imrei Shefer, your commentary on the Hagaddah?”

I would have thought they were crazy. “What do you mean?” 

I would respond. “I’m a simple carpenter. Why are you asking me why I did not write great works of scholarship? You must have confused my heavenly IP number.”

You see, he could have been either a carpenter or a great scholar. There is nothing wrong with being a carpenter, it is a fine profession, but he had been given an enormous gift and a marvelous potential — a creative mind and a genius for Torah study. And that would have been lost. The thousands of students he taught to live an ethical and holy life would have never benefited. The hundreds and thousands who have and continue to be enlightened by his writings would be lost.

On Shavuot we turn our attention to the consideration of who we were meant to be, but have not yet become. Today we focus on new growth and possibilities that lay dormant within us but have not yet flourished.

In 1935, when Soviet oppression was at its peak, and the Communist government had ordered all Jewish clergy to cease administering to Jewish community life, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn, chief rabbi of the city of Dnepropetrovsk, defied the order and continued teaching Judaism.

One night, at 11 PM, a knock was heard on his door. An older woman entered. She looked around nervously to make sure that there was no one there besides the rabbi and his family.

“Rabbi,” she whispered. “I have come from a distant city that I cannot identify by name. In one hour, at midnight, my daughter and fiancée will be here too. They are both serving in high-level government positions; coming here is fraught with danger for them. They want a proper Jewish wedding. But they set the condition that you would be the Rabbi to officiate, no one else. I came in advance to give you time to prepare for their arrival.” (A Rabbi never needs more time than that...)

At exactly midnight, the couple arrived. They were immediately brought into a side room so that no one would see them. The rabbi needed to get ten Jews for a minyan; they needed to be reliable people who could keep a secret and not tell anyone what they had seen. Otherwise, the lives of the rabbi, the young couple, and everyone present would be endangered.

Within half an hour, nine people had gathered. Only one was missing to make the minyan.

What did Rabbi Levi Yitzchok do? In his building, a young Jewish Communist had been assigned by the government to serve as a KGB agent. It was his responsibility to spy on and track all Jewish activity in the rabbi’s home to verify that no religious ceremonies were taking place.

It was this man that the rabbi sent a messenger, asking him to come to his home, knowing full well who his employers were.

He duly arrived and asked sternly why he had been called to a Rabbi’s home in the middle of the night? Rabbi Levi Yitzchak looked him straight in the eye and said, “I am about to marry a young couple. They’ve come here because they want to get married the Jewish way, according to Jewish law. I want you to serve as the tenth man of a minyan so that we can conduct a Jewish wedding properly.”

The Communist agent was bewildered. He told the rabbi, “You’re asking me? Do you know who you are asking?”

The Rabbi said, “Yes, I am well aware of whom I am asking and I’m asking you!”

The agent rushed to the windows and closed the shutters. He stayed and became the tenth man at the wedding. The wedding proceeded. It ended at 1:30 am but the agent’s life was transformed. His Jewish heart was reignited.

In fact, sometime later, government officials put the rabbi on trial for his “crime” of spreading Judaism. A large crowd gathered in the courtroom, including many non- Jews. One key witness who was called upon by the government was this particular agent since he was the one responsible for monitoring all the activities that went on in the rabbi’s house. The agent got up, and at risk to his life, testified that nothing unusual ever went on there and that the rabbi was innocent of any counter-revolutionary activities.7 This man, selected for good reason by the ruthless KGB to help tear down Jewish life now was building Jewish life and protecting it.

You see, within the deepest recesses of this man’s self, there was a core of purity, of goodness. Beneath the cynicism lay an uncorrupted idealism. Within the hardened shell of this KGB spy, there beat a sensitive heart— a neshama waiting to emerge.

Never underestimate the Jewish heart. It is filled with a sacred idealism. Never discount the Jewish core inside each one of us.

There is so much good in each of us which remains concealed and unborn. We have alert minds and curious intellects. We know we are capable of using them to study more Torah, to attend more classes, to do more mitzvot.

We have within us a sense of loyalty to our ancestors, to our Jewish destiny. We have the knowledge that we can and should do more for our Jewish community throughout the year.

We know that we are capable of a deeper love for husband or wife, capable of being better mothers and fathers, and capable of being better Jews.

We are living at a time where the voice of our Torah is heard. Let us allow the Torah to penetrate our hearts and homes and the lives of our children. Let us live Torah, let us celebrate its values. That is how we are a blessing to the world. On this Holiday of Shavuot, we rededicate ourselves to hear G-d’s voice in our lives.

I want to take this opportunity to wish you all a happy and meaningful Shavuot.

Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Shavuot, 
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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