I’m sitting in a garden, a lush garden where a kaleidoscope of yarmulkes and colors swirls before me: black velvet with white shirts, crocheted and leather with colored shirts, shiny gartels and bekishes…Young and old, Sephardi and Chassidish, Young Israel and Yeshivish- everyone holds hands and dances together in one of the most magnificent dances I have ever seen. It is the Siyum HaTorah in Atlanta, and my eyes fill as I watch our differences melt away. My community unites around the banner of Toras Hashem. It is a week after Shavuos, and I am struck by the sense of experiencing a microcosm of ma’mad Har Sinai.
I see Mr. Blass, a widower for twenty years who raised his children singlehandedly. His Avi gave him the run around when he went through a wild, unruly stage, craving the mother’s love that he never had. Yet now Avi is back on the straight and narrow, bringing nachas to both of his parents. And there stomps Dr. Kruger, a middle aged fellow who goes for dialysis three times a week, working and smiling while waiting and hoping for a kidney. I see rabbanim from several shuls, the Rosh Kollel, and the Rosh Yeshivah; they are all beaming rays of sunshine, circling rapturously as they hold hands with ba’alei batim, rebbeyim and yungeleit. I see older singles together with recent divorcees. I see people who’ve lost their jobs. And there are the children: the skeptical teens, wavering on the brink, together with the sure footed bachurim, and the younger children, their faces still fresh with excitement and innocent expectation. For this shining moment, all struggles are forgotten. Pure joy shines from every face as their feet move in sync for this dance of Torah.
Rabbi B. from Toronto approaches the podium, and I am eager to fill my heart with some desperately needed chizuk.
“I learned a Gemara that made me laugh when I was young,” he begins. “What is one of the merits the goyim have that prevents a mabul from coming to the world? Refraining from legalizing homosexual marriages. I thought this was amusing, but I grew up in a different world, a world that still held fast to basic values and decency. Now there is so much darkness in the world; the very institution of marriage is being challenged. Since the darkness has increased, so has our responsibility. Every piece of Torah that we learn creates light. Today, in our siyum HaTorah, a great light has been kindled to combat the overwhelming darkness that surrounds us.
“We are all part of the collective tree, the neshamah of Klal Yisroel,” he continues. “Our Avos are the roots, the rest of us are the trunk and branches. It doesn’t matter who learns which Mesechta or Mishnah, or if someone supports the endeavor; all of our efforts join together. We are only separated physically; spiritually we’re one. It is this achdus that we are zoche to see here tonight.”
I wonder which branch my family is on and hope that our blossoms are blooming and beautiful.
“What is a chillul Hashem?” he thunders. “We usually think it’s something big, a deed that will make the front headlines. We read about someone known as a frum Jew indicted for embezzlement. We shake our heads when we read this and feel sadness that he slipped and fell. But we’re not motivated to follow his example. Therefore, this does not define a real chillul Hashem. Rather, it’s the little things that matter. If we, frum Jews, walk around stressed and depressed by all of the restrictions and rules of a Torah lifestyle, then why would someone on the fringes want to join our ranks? Everyone wants to be happy- why would someone choose a lifestyle that will bring him unhappiness? But if someone comes and sees tonight’s siyum, the pure joy that comes from growing and learning Torah, from working and striving as one collective neshamah, then why wouldn’t he want to join?”
I watch in awe as people sign up to learn their chelek in preparation for next year’s siyum. Each person is determined to do his part in fulfilling his commitment to the tzibbur. Some will rise while the sky is yet dark while others will learn late into the night. So many bodies separated by a myriad of responsibilities and external differences. Yet all are part of one neshamah, planted in rich, verdant soil, determined to grow. May our garden continue to produce a glorious assortment of flowers and trees, each attached firmly to its roots. Our diverse southern vegetation flourishes and grows into different trees, flowers, and fruits, and a rainbow of glorious shades and hues appears. Yet each shoot is rooted in the same soil, stretching its branches and blossoms heavenward in an endless pursuit of growth and connection to the One above.
Earlier in the afternoon, my kindergartner came to me with tears in her eyes, holding the head of a glowing orange marigold in her hands. She had brought it home from school excitedly in honor of Shavuos, dutifully watering it before and after Yom Tov.
“Look,” she whispered, “it’s broken. Will my flower still grow?”
I gazed at the small plant that she had lovingly transplanted in our front yard, its stem immersed in a spot of rich, dark soil.
“Tehila,” I said gently, “this flower won’t live much longer because it’s not attached to the roots anymore. But hopefully the rest of it that you replanted will be okay.”
“Will it grow a new flower, Mommy?”
“Im yirtzeh Hashem, sweetie. Hopefully a new flower will grow soon.”
A mere fifty years ago, Atlanta was a spiritual desert, a place that did not know the meaning of religious Judaism. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, changed the face of our southern city, planting seeds so a verdant orchard would grow. Now, under the capable leadership of Rabbi Ilan Feldman, other rabbanim, and the Atlanta Scholars Kollel, day school, high school, and adult Torah education is flourishing. Im Yirtzeh Hashem, my child, new flowers will continue to grow soon. This was a night to remember, a night where I could almost hear Mashiach’s footsteps. I will always remember this spectacular dance in the beautiful garden where Klal Yisroel, Hashem, and Torah united as one.
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