In the summer of 1999, I had the great merit of spending an inspiring Shabbaton in Tzefas. The sights, sounds, smells and spirit made for a moving and memorable experience. Perhaps the most self-defining moment of those three days, however, was an unplanned, unrehearsed “event” that did not appear on any tour guide’s agenda nor on any Rabbi’s schedule of events.
A friend of mine and I had been studying one of the tractates in the Talmud (Makkos) and had all of about one week’s knowledge under our belt. On Shabbos afternoon, we strolled the streets of Tzefas – the restfulness was palpable –until we sauntered into an old shul virtually deserted but for that unique and indescribable Eretz Yisrael sunlight streaming through.
When my friend asked if I was interested in reviewing what we learned that week in the Gemara, we started scouring the shelves for copies of Makkos. The copy I found was virtually torn and tattered, well-used by who-knows-how-many-centuries of my ancestors seeking Truth and wisdom and knowledge of Hashem. And then something struck me like a thunder-clap. This, my first experience in yeshiva and first venture into the “Sea of Talmud” had linked me up with that which was eternal. Not just from a theological standpoint – but rather to a recognition that I had a role to play (and a corresponding obligation to fulfill) vis-à-vis the next link in the transmission of Torah Judaism from the previous generation(s) to the future generation(s).
How many Jews had opened this very sefer over the decades? Did I have anything in common with them – did we root for the same teams? (did they even have teams back then?). Did we see eye-to-eye politically? Perhaps we didn’t speak the same language? We surely grew up under vastly different social, political and economic conditions?
One thing, however, that we could share in common and converse freely about – not just superficially but with depth and enthusiasm – were those words printed on the very first page of that volume. What did they mean? What was Rashi driving it? I could share this pursuit of wisdom with a Jew from Morocco in the 11th century or a Parisian Yid in the 13th century or a student of the Vilna Gaon in eighteenth century Lithuania and we’d all be “on the same page” so-to-speak.
“And Aaron and his sons carried out all the matters that Hashem commanded through Moshe” (8:36)
Rashi: “To tell their praise that they veered neither right nor left.”
One of the many themes that permeate these days leading up to Pesach is the awareness of our link in the chain back to Mitzrayim. Every year since Hashem liberated His beloved Nation, Jews of all types have gathered together. Same menu (even the bitter herbs didn’t go out of style). Same story (Maxwell House brand is optional). Same four sons. Same four cups. Same leaning. Same dayeinu. I could ask the four questions at my grandfather’s grandfather’s Seder and we hope and pray that generations from now, Jews will be equipped to answer those questions.
Not just dry, two-dimensional answers. But living, breathing, enthusiastic, brimming with joyfulness answers. But the future depends in large degree upon us … the present.
When we embrace and celebrate our awesome, pristine tradition…
When we endeavor to live up to our awesome obligation to pass that tradition along…
We will, with G-d’s help, kindle that fire inside us. A desire to understand more, to understand better, to re-ignite my relationship with Hashem and His People and in so doing, find that spark that just might kindle future generations of Yidden.