Friday, October 2, 2009


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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“We danced round and round in circles

As if the world had done no wrong

From evening until morning

Filling up the shul with song

Though we had no Sifrei Torah

To clutch close to our hearts

In their place we held the future

Of a past so torn apart”

It is a classic Abie Rotengerg composition and very inspiring. “The Man from Vilna” from the album “Journeys, Volume IV” tells the story of a man that Abie met on a plane, who related to him the following personal incident:

Shortly after the conclusion of the Holocaust, he found himself in Vilna. On Simchas Torah evening there was an assemblage of Jews gathered in a shul. But there were no Sifrei Torah. Alas! They had all been destroyed by the Nazis. Suddenly, he had an epiphany. He grabbed a child and began to dance with him. Others followed suit, as they danced with ‘living sifrei Torah’.

In the album’s jacket where the lyrics are recorded, it says, “Inspired by a true-life story, experienced and related by Rabbi Leo Goldman of Detroit Michigan.

This week, I was informed of some additional fascinating details about the story:

Rabbi Leo Goldman is now ninety-one years old (ka’h) and still in Detroit, Michigan. His son, R’ Yossi, recently became a member of our shul this past summer1.

R’ Yossi related that his father was a yeshiva student and had already received his rabbinical ordination at the age of nineteen. He had grown up, and was living, in the Ukraine, which was constantly under contention between the Poles and the Russians. When the war broke out, he was conscripted into the Russian army as an artillery officer.

Through many acts of Divine Providence, he met his wife in Uzbekistan where they married.

When the war was over, he returned with his wife to Lithuania to see if any of her relatives had survived. That is how he ended up in Vilna on that Simchas Torah evening when the famous story occurred.

R’ Yossi noted that his family grew up hearing the touching story. But, a few weeks ago, a postscript to the story has emerged.

On the day after his wedding (August 9, 2009), R’ Yossi’s sister, Mrs. Vivian Aronson, received a call from Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the ADL (Anti Defamation League). Mr. Foxman said that he wanted to get in touch with her father. She asked him why, noting that she was pretty sure her father had not been involved in anything anti-Semitic. He replied by telling her his story2:

He was born in 1940, while his parents were escaping the approaching Nazis. In 1941, they were in Vilna when the Nazis caught up with them. With no other viable option, they placed him in the care of his Polish-catholic nanny. He was baptized and, for the next four years, he grew up as a devout Catholic with the name, Henryk Stanislas Kurpi. Somehow his parents both survived and came to take him back after the war. A custody battle ensued and thankfully his parents won. However, he felt very estranged and uncomfortable with Judaism.

On Simchas Torah evening his father felt that he would enjoy a happy and upbeat celebration so he brought him to shul. When they arrived, a Soviet Jewish soldier lifted him onto his shoulders and began to dance saying, “This is our Jewish flag!” He came home and told his mother that he liked “the Jewish church”.

He had found out that the soldier who had lifted him up those years ago and made such a deep impression on him was Rabbi Leo Goldman.

Mr. Foxman mentioned that he would like to meet Rabbi Goldman and is prepared to travel to Detroit for the reunion. That meeting has not yet happened, but perhaps will in the near future.

“But now you now…. the rest of the story!”

Although there is no dearth of holidays on the Jewish calendar, which include an obligation for one to be in a state of joy, there is only one holiday that is termed, “the time of our joy”, i.e. the holiday of Succos. What is it about this unique holiday that, not only warrants joy, but merits the title “the time of our joy”?

In regards to the holiday of Succos the Torah states3, “And you will celebrate it, a holiday for G-d, for seven days of the year...” What does it mean that Succos is “a holiday for G-d”; isn’t it a holiday for us?

The Alshich hakodosh4 offers a unique perspective about the holiday of Succos5:

From the moment when G-d created man, the angels questioned the validity and purpose of mankind. They proposed that G-d should allow the angels to care for His world with purity, and not create a being that is wont to sin and will denigrate all of creation.

G-d, in His infinite wisdom did not pay heed to their arguments and created man. Shortly thereafter, Man sinned and indeed caused irrevocable damage to his descendants and all of creation. Ten generations after creation, G-d ‘regretted’ creating man6, and He brought a flood to obliterate all of creation, with the exception of Noach and the inhabitants of the ark.

At the time of the exodus from Egypt, the angel of Egypt questioned G-d’s decision to save the Jews, noting, that “these (the Egyptians) are idolaters and these (the Jews) are idolaters.” He countered that the Jews were no more deserving of salvation than the Egyptians.

When the Jews stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, the angels again questioned G-d7. “What is a mortal that you should remember him, and the son of man that you should recall him. Hashem, our Master, how Mighty is Your Name in the whole earth that You should place Your Glory (i.e. the Torah) on the heavens”?

Even after the Jews selflessly accepted the Torah and reached an incredible level of unity and holiness, they again failed egregiously when they committed the sin of the Golden Calf.

Thus, from the moment Man was created, he was a walking desecration of G-d’s Name. Time and again Man proved the veracity of the angel’s assertion that Man was unworthy of existence. That all changed however, when the Mishkan was erected.

After the nation committed the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d removed His Divine Presence from them, and was ready to destroy them. Moshe implored G-d to forgive the nation and to allow them to repent. On the tenth day of Tishrei – Yom Kippur – G-d acceded to Moshe’s request and8 “reconsidered the evil that He declared He would do unto His People.” On that day Moshe descended from Sinai with the second Luchos, symbolizing a new covenant.

The Vilna Gaon notes that for the next four days the nation busied themselves amassing materials for the construction of the Mishkan, as a place where G-d’s Holy Presence could return. By the time the fourth day arrived, there was a tremendous surplus of materials, which demonstrated their sincere remorse and desire to repair the spiritual damage they had caused. On the fifteenth of Tishrei, construction began on the Mishkan, and the Divine Presence returned. That day was the first day of Succos!

The Alshich explains that when G-d’s Presence returned, it demonstrated that the nation had achieved complete repentance and were able to reassume the lofty levels they had forfeited when they sinned. When the Mishkan was erected, it was the completion of the third, and final, pillar on which the world stands9.

At that moment, the angels were silenced and their centuries-long complaint was refuted. Their argument was that man should never have been created, for man is by definition vulnerable and an unworthy liability. But now that Klal Yisroel had demonstrated that they could repent and triumph over iniquity and their mortal failings, they had achieved a level of greatness beyond the angels. In a sense, G-d Himself was vindicated at that moment!

The atonement of Yom Kippur, and the great gift of repentance that G-d granted Klal Yisroel, served as the conduit which stopped Man’s perpetual desecration of G-d’s Name. Therefore, the holiday of Succos is the celebration of what was accomplished on Yom Kippur as well as all of our efforts to return to G-d. It is a celebration of G-d’s vindication for creating Mankind, as it were.

Thus, while Pesach and Shavuos are holidays of celebration for what G-d granted us and for what we became, Succos is a celebration for what G-d achieved, as it were10. It is for that reason that the Torah writes that Succos is “a holiday for G-d”. In the beautiful words of the Alshich, ואנחנו נחוג ונשמח ונעלוז על שמחת חג ה'" – And we celebrate, rejoice, and exult for the joy of the holiday of G-d.”

This is also the reason why it is specifically the holiday of Succos that is termed the ‘time of our joy’. As a general rule, all Jewish celebrations revolve around the added perpetuation of sanctification of G-d‘s Name11. Succos, which is our participation in G-d’s celebration, therefore contains the greatest level of joy12.

During the celebration of the vindication of man, it is appropriate that we put our lives into perspective and take inventory of Man’s accomplishments and failures. The joy of Succos forces us to ponder our place in the universe. If our purpose is to bring glory to G-d’s Name, then we must contemplate whether we have fulfilled our mission, and we must maintain proper perspective of our goals.

This is symbolized by the succah. We leave the security and comfort of our homes, and live under the sole protection of G-d. It is a reminder to how life in this world should be viewed.

The Alshich adds that the seven days of succos each represent a decade of life13. On Succos our life must ‘flash before our eyes’ - how we have lived until now, as well as our goals for the future.

It is also appropriate that we read Megillas Kohelles on Succos. Kohelles14 - the wisest of men – explains in vivid detail, that all of the temporal pleasures and enjoyments of this world are vanity and futility. When all is said and done, it is only Fear of G-d and fulfillment of His Will that grants a sense of inner joy and purpose. And therein lies the message of Succos.

With the idea of the Alshich in mind, we can understand why the celebration of the completion of the annual cycle of Torah reading transpires immediately after Succos15. After rejoicing for seven days with the Almighty - Who Himself is celebrating our success and ability to reconnect with Him even after sinning and failing - we truly appreciate the beauty and greatness of the Torah.

How are we able to be close to G-d? Through living and studying His holy Torah! “For it is your life and the length of your days.” Our ability to maintain our steadfast connection with Him is inextricably bound to our passionate and zealous love for the Torah.

On Simchas Torah we clutch our pride and joy close to our hearts, and we rejoice – the previous generation with the future generation. We celebrate the silencing of the angel’s complaint by hoisting our holy Torah in the air and pronouncing, “אנא עבדא דקודשא בריך הוא - I am the servant of the Holy One, blessed is He!” That no matter how low we fall, we always have the ability to pick ourselves up, by rededicating ourselves to the Torah and pledging to live its life of holiness and transcendence.

“Though we had no Sifrei Torah

To clutch close to our hearts

In their place we held those children

The Jewish People would live on

Am Yisroel Chai”


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