Published in the RCA Sermon Manual of 1973

Essay by Rabbi Bernard Poupko

 

He sat next to me in the plane which brought us back from New York to Pittsburgh. Although we were flying above the clouds, we could see the fields, the mountains, the rivers and the roads below. The buildings looked like small dots on a huge map. Ae I looked through the window I realized that however thick and foreboding the clouds may be, there is still some opening left through which we can see a semblance of life and the magic carpet of the green fields. My neighbor from India, a consulting engineer, started the conversation. “Rabbi, I was very much impressed with the article in Newsweek Magazine which revealed interesting facts about the Jews of America. I was very much intrigued with the statistics regarding the very high percentage of Jewish students on the campus, three times as many as that of the general population. What, in your opinion, is responsible for this out-of-proportion Jewish enthusiasm for education? Some of your people told me that the persecutions imposed upon your people coupled with their constant wanderings from land to land and from civilization to civilization made it absolutely imperative for them to educate themselves in order to survive. What is your opinion?” My answer to my neighbor from India was that it is quite possible that the hardships of life and homelessness might have played some role of inducement in as far as education is concerned. Yet it was Jewiah law, more than any other factor, which molded us into a Great Society of students and scholars. And I quoted tohim from Maimonides that :Every Israelite is obligated to study Torah, be he rich or poor, be he of good health or ill, be he young or be he old…Even a beggar who must seek his food at the doorposts is so obligated, and even a married man with children, must set a time fixed time to study Torah as it is written, ‘and thou shalt meditate in them day and night.’ man ent among all of the commandment8 which portance to that of the commandment of is the study of the Torah the equal of all the other commandments for study brings a man to practice, observance, therefore study has precedence over all other mitzvot.” Thus, many many centuries before federal government and states legislated regarding universal compulsory education, Jewish law, clearly and emphatically, provided for the education of the young and old. I even mentioned to my neighbor that, to us Jewish learning is also a mode of orshiping Gd, as part of the Sabbath Festival and eventheweek

man ent among all of the commandment which importance to that of the commandment of is the study of the Torah the equal of all the other commandments for study brings a man to practice, observance, therefore study has precedence over all other mitzvot.” Thus, many many centuries before federal government and states legislated regarding universal compulsory education, Jewish law, clearly and emphatically, provided for the education of the young and old. I even mentioned to my neighbor that, to us Jewish learning is also a mode of worshiping Gd, as part of the Sabbath Festival and even the weekday

man ent among all of the commandment8 which importance to that of the commandment of is the study of the Torah the equal of all the other commandments for study brings a man to practice, observance, therefore study has precedence over all other mitzvot.” Thus, many many centuries before federal government and states legislated regarding universal compulsory education, Jewish law, clearly and emphatically, provided for the education of the young and old. I even mentioned to my neighbor that, to us Jewish learning is also a mode of worshiping Gd, as part of the Sabbath Festival and even the week \ day c

n ent among all of the commandment8 which portance to that of the commandment of is the study of the Torah the equal of all the other commandments for study brings a man to practice, observance, therefore study has precedence over all other mitzvot.” Thus, many many centuries before federal government and states legislated regarding universal compulsory education, Jewish law, clearly and emphatically, provided for the education of the young and old. I even mentioned to my neighbor that, to us Jewish learning is also a mode of orshiping Gd, as part of the Sabbath Festival and eventheweek  day  (Monday and – Thursday) includes reading the text of the Torah. ? Then I related to him an experience of Nahum Sokolov which he recorded in one of his autobiographical writings. This great Zionist, linguist and 8tatesman came to Wilno, the Jerusalem of reach> one of the market place of this incredible city he noticed some 40 or 50 horses with their carriages standing near a long wall with a younger boy watching them. Sokolov came over to the boy and said to him: “Pmgele, tell me, where are the wagoners?” And the boy replied: “Sir, come with me and I will show you.” He followed the youngster as he led him through a narrow street and then to a very old rundown house, the fragile staircase of which brought them to a large room on the second floor. And there Nahum Sokolov saw something which left an indelible impression upon him for many many yearn to come. These wagoners in their ungaudily attire sat around a table with their books of the M. open. A rabbi at the head of the table led them in the study of Miahnayt. What moved Sokolov was that here was a group of people -g very %a h o provide for their fam,ilies with sub-standard conditions of life, people who worked – 16 how a day and 8ufEered the promotion of poverty* poor bowing and

 

 

exposed themselves to an occupation which was not among the most respected in the community. Yet, this baa1 hagolah felt the need to study, to invest his life with meaning and purpose. And Sokolov concludes his brief but memorable tale by saying: :’Here I – met the real aristocracy of my people.” – me this remarkable scene was possible onl challenging not only geography and time also -. The 6rm zm mzworry us, but it does not frighten us. As long as the minority constitutes the majority of those who ‘open the Book’, our future is assured.” There is still another factor which must be considered in order to understand the vital role and the unique popularity of learning and education in Jewish life. This factor is the relevance of the biblical verse, the Mishna and the Talmudic discourse to life. The Jew never studied merely for the exercise of mental gymnastics or the attainment of intellectual embellishment. He studied because he knew that “the ignorant cannot be pious.” He also knew that there is always a relationship, immediate or remote, between the word of the book and the actual deed. Occasionally, this relationship was not obvious and may even be experienced in mystical categories as the following authentic tale which comes to us from the great Israeli General and archaeologist, Yigal Yadin indicates. There seem Gd to be evidence that one of the Parshiyot of the Qumran Tefillin had been inserted in them at a date later than the other three, and that it was not the original passage. And for that purpose General Yadin travelled by train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, in order to submit in person his precious discovery to the Fingerprint and Identification Department of the Israeli Police, so that they should subject them to a detailed and microscopic examination in their laboratories and determine whether there had been an “illegal substitution.” (There had ! ) . When the train stopped at , a group of young Chabadnicks mounted the train, and the youngest of them came up to Yigal Yadin and invited him to put on Tefillin, but Yadin refused. They invited the passengers with a smile to put on the Tefillin and when they refused they passed on without a word of cajoling or remonstrance. According to Yadin, that was not the case here. “When, however, he continued to press me, I noticed that his Hebrew accent was somewhat strange. I asked him which country he came from, and he answered, from Russia, and recently.” I asked him, “And did you lay Te in Russia?” to which he answered: “From the day I became Bar Mitzvah and until I came

 

to Israel I never failed once to lay Tefillin meticulously.” To which I replied: “In that case I will comply with your request, and I there and then put on my Tefillin.” “As the journey proceeded,” -at=, “one of the lady passengers approached me and said to me: “That youngster does not know who you are, but I recognize you, and I derived great satisfaction from the fact that you put on Tefillin. I want you to know that my son was the only Chabadnick in his paratrooper unit, and he lost hie life in the Six Day War near Suez. As he was dying from his wounds they asked him what his dying request was, and he answered with his last breath: “t on Tefillin.” And from that time, continued the lady, all the members of that unit put them on regularly. No doubt you also did so out of respect for his memory.” “The story told by this bereaved mother, who even showed me a photograph of her son, told to me just when in my pocket were the oldest Tefillin in the world which have hitherto been discovered moved me greatly. The only way that I could give expression to my feelings was to show her the Tefillin, although at that time their discovery was still in the nature of a secret. Tears entered both her eyes and mine.” “Who can deny the romantic aspect of that story? The Tefillin discovered in the caves of the Dead Sea after 2,000 years, the distinguished archaeologist whose passionate interest in them was purely historical, as a record of a bye-gone past, the encounter with those to whom it waa a matter of vital present day application, the Chabadnick who in Russia had d&ed the might of soulless communism by insisting on donning them daily; his fellow Chassid who had worn them as a parachutist and died with the request that his comrades continue to do so in him memory.” Thus, as the authentic realities of life indicate, the Jew has really never left Sinai. Instead, Sinai went along with him and accompanied him throughout his long, agonizing and triumphant journey throughout the centuries. Sinai, more than any other experience molded and shaped the distinctive Jewish image and invested our life with that precious dimension of spiritual pathos and intellectual ecstasy which among others has also imbued w with a higher level of morality.

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