Shavuot (5770, 2nd Day)

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Most of us are aware of the Midrash which tells us about the moments before the Torah was given. G-d asked the Jewish people who they were offering as guarantor that they would keep and treasure the Torah. “Our holy Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will be our guarantors” replied the people.

The Al-mighty did not accept the Patriarchs as guarantors. “No,” answered the Al-mighty, “you must give Me other guarantors.”  The children of Israel considered for a while and then said to G-d: “Will You accept our children who will be born to us as guarantors, to assure You that we intend to keep Your Torah?” G-d replied: “Your children are indeed the best guarantee that you can offer!”. And this became the motif of the Jewish people through the ages: education of our children above all else!

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Shavuot is the yahrzeit of a great leader of the Jewish People – Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem, known as the Baal Shem Tov, the “owner of a good name.” This year is his 250th yahrzeit.

If we look at the life of the Baal Shem Tov,  we will see what an incredible individual he was, reviving the spirits of a downcast and broken people with love and warmth. The Jews of  Eastern Europe at that time were broken both physically and mentally:  Physically – by pogroms, libels and beatings and mentally by the dashing of their Messianic hopes. The false Messiah,  Shabbetai Tzvi, had been a blaze of hope and inspiration for a nation decimated and broken by pogroms and violence.  Jews followed him in their droves, hoping against all hope that he was the righteous Messiah (Moshiach) Jews had prayed so fervently for since time immemorial. Tragically it was not to be, and when he was captured and converted to Islam in 1666 he lost not only his own hopes of glory, but also the last vestiges of Jewish hope. Those who had believed in him were crushed and desolate, and the morale of the Jewish people fell to a new low.

It was at this juncture that the Baal Shem Tov arrived on the scene to heal and revive the Jewish spirit. He comforted and inspired, and broke down the divides within the Jewish people – between the learned and ignorant, the scholar and the farmer. He travelled throughout the region, village by village and town by town, instilling in the hearts of the simple villagers a love of G-d and His Torah, and a deep and heartfelt understanding that G-d loves all of Creation, illiterate and ignorant or educated and scholarly.

With an understanding who the Baal Shem Tov was, it is interesting now to look back at what his day job was before he began travelling from town to town inspiring the masses. He was a “bahelfer,” which is the Yiddish term for a kindergarten assistant, and his role was to help educate Jewish youngsters how to say the Modeh AniShema Yisrael etc and how to read the AlephBet. This choice of occupation by a scholar and mystic who was versed in all the depths of the Torah gives us a new understanding of the importance we must place on the education of our children – because after all, they are the guarantors of the Torah. Education begins at birth and we as parents, older siblings and teachers must do all we can to ensure that like a young sapling, those tender roots are able to grow strong and wide, bedded in the deep and fertile soil of our heritage and traditions.

There was a humorous anecdote this week as David Laws, the new Chief Secretary to the UK Treasury entered his new office and found a letter waiting for him. Expecting a message of goodwill or a few vital management tips he opened the envelope (left by the former Chief Secretary) and read as follows: “Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid to tell you … there’s no money left.

Honest, but slightly less helpful advice than I had been expecting,” was his comment.

On Shavuot we must remember that we too hold the keys to a Treasury. A treasury filled with Jewish law and lore, halacha and minhag, traditions and tales. We must ensure that the next generation – the guarantors – receive a full treasury and not just an envelope.

We are about to say the Yizkor prayers in memory of our loved ones, parents, grandparents, close relatives etc. Let us take some time, as we focus on the childhood memories of those we loved, to think about what we hand over to the next generation, our children and grandchildren.

For there is an incredible power granted to each and every one of us: The power that the things we say or do can have a lifelong effect (whether we know it or not) on the next generation. Teach something to your child when he is young, and “Gam ki yazkin lo yassur mimenuEven when he is older, he will not turn away from it.” The memories we create in the minds of young children stay with them forever.

I will close with a beautiful story illustrating the influence an adult can have on the next generation, even with just a small gesture.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the famous Chasidic singer, used to travel around the world to give concerts. Once he visited a small town in Eastern Europe, after the collapse of the Former Soviet Union. Unlike most people he met, the people of this town wanted nothing to do with him. They were cold, distant and bitter. All except for one man who was loving, open and accepting.

Reb Shlomo spent some time with this man, and finally asked him the question that had been burning inside him. “There is something I need to know. I understand the people of this town. I realize why they want nothing to do with a singing Chassidic Rabbi. After all, they were devastated by the Holocaust and then suffered under the jackboot of Communism. I understand their anger. What I don’t understand is you. Why are you so different?

The man smiled. “Let me tell you a story,” he replied. “I am an old man, and I have lived in this town my entire life. One night, when I was a young child a rumour swept through the town that there would be a pogrom imminently. We were told that the Cossacks were coming, and they would loot, pillage, steal and destroy. So all the parents from the entire town gathered up all the children and brought us to the safest place they could think of – the Rabbi’s house. It was the dead of winter and bitterly cold. All the children of the village lay scattered throughout the Rabbi’s house, on the floor, in the kitchen, the living room and the study. The Rabbi and Rebbetzin paced up and down all night looking out for the children as we slept.

I was curled up in a small corner of the Rabbi’s study and he thought I was sleeping. But I couldn’t sleep because it was so bitterly cold. The Rabbi paused next to me for a moment and then slipped his cloak off his shoulders and placed it gently over mine. As he laid it over me he whispered, ‘Shlof gezunt, mein zisse kind – sleep well my sweet child.’”

You know,” said the man to Reb Shlomo, “It has been seventy-five years since that rabbi spread his cloak over me – but it still keeps me warm to this day …

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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