Remembering Har Sinai’s Lightning Through Amalek’s Storm Clouds

Moshe commanded the Torah to us, an inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov. (Devarim 33:4) Do not read the word morashah — an inheritance; but me’orasah — a betrothed bride (for the congregation of Yaakov). (Pesachim 49B)

According to some shittos, there is a positive mitzvah to remember the event of maamad Har Sinai — the smoking mountain, the sound of the shofar, the dense, impenetrable cloud, the thunder and lightning. Remembering these helps us to fulfill the prerequisite of limudah k’nesinasah — learning Torah as it was given and as we first received it, with awe, anxiety, quaking and perspiration.

Yet, as our generation still lives in the long, dark shadows cast by Churban Europa, our collective memories produce different associations.

The color of the mountain is not verdant green but the lifeless pallor of emaciated cadavers stacked in peaks. The smoke is not that of near-volcanic ash but the incinerated fatty-ash wisps spewed by the crematoria… the wind-borne remains of the martyrs’ mortal coils.

The lightning is not the concentrated fire of celestial pyrotechnics but the blitzkrieg of the Wehrmacht’s overwhelming firepower. The thunder is not the clap issuing from clashing clouds but the cadenced klop on the door orchestrated by the gloved fists of the dreaded Gestapo. The otherworldly sounds reverberating in our ears are not the tekios and teruos of the Shofar Gadol but the yelalos — the howling and wailing of the tortured and the dying. The arafel — the dense, impenetrable cloud — is not the royal cloak that behooved an unprecedented and unrepeated giluy Shechinah but the imponderable hester Panim of Churban Europa.

With these kind of fresh zichronos, whence our generation’s tenacious, dogged fidelity to limud haTorah and kiyum hamitzvos? What is the secret of the miraculous postwar renaissance in limud haTorah?

Following Chazal’s insight, we maintain a dual relationship to the Torah. An inheritance comes to the heirs effortlessly but, as any shadchan or relationship counselor will tell you, finding one’s basherte and getting engaged, making it to the chuppah and attaining and maintaining the shalom bayis essential to a productive and rewarding marriage, all require hard work. Paradoxically, the Torah is both our betrothed and our inheritance.

Lest anyone feel that the effortlessness of legacies and the exertions of marriages are mutually exclusive, when it comes to Klal Yisrael and Torah they form two sides of one coin. The herculean efforts that we invest to save the marriage, to make it work, to force it to be fruitful and multiply, flow from the deep-seated awareness that Torah was ours before we were born, that it is the legacy that our parents bequeathed us and that we will leave to our own children. Torah is indeed our bride, our wife — but divorce is not an option. We are viscerally aware that we could no sooner separate ourselves from Torah than we could excise our own beating hearts.

How else can we understand and celebrate Jewish history over the last 70 years since the liberation of the camps after WWII?

Even a cursory look around today reveals a Jewry that has, arguably, shared the legacy and worked on the marriage as perhaps no other.

The ArtScroll revolution, i.e., all the many translated and/or annotated updates of a huge number of classics of Torah literature, including so many that had never been translated before, have opened up vistas of Torah to accomplished talmidei chachamim and rank beginners alike.

The number of regular lomdei Daf Yomi keeps increasing exponentially from siyum to siyum. As imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, many pay homage to Harav Meir Shapiro’s trailblazing idea by introducing other goal-oriented daily limudim year after year. From Kodashim to Taharos to Choshen Mishpat to klei haMikdash, to name just a few, almost every miktzoa baTorah has specialty yeshivos or kollelim in which its broad scope is covered, and its ambiguous subtleties are plumbed and clarified.

There is nary a se’if in Shulchan Aruch that has not been expanded to, and expounded upon, in full-blown sefarim by postwar talmidei chachamim. Programs such as Mifal HaShas and Dirshu have brought clarity and accountability to the limud haTorah of tens of thousands.

To increase the flavor of Torah that is learned through v’shinantam l’vanecha, Avos U’banim groups are ubiquitous, as are innovative incentive programs for talmidim of all ages to increase hasmadah among youngsters who may have once killed time and thus wounded eternity.

Chabad Houses, Aish Hatorah, Ohr Somayach and myriad independent kiruv and outreach mosdos have invited heirs that were unaware of the very existence of the estate to the reading of the will, and marriage-counseled the estranged husband that are tinokos shenishbu to get reacquainted with the long-lost wife. Everywhere one turns there are yemei iyun and yarchei kallahs turning down-time up-tempo with kedushas haTorah.

Gossipy phone lines have been transformed into oases of harbotzas haTorah. Yeshivos and kollelim have programs in place to enable their talmidim and avreichim to publish chiddushei Torah and for their alumni to remain ameilim baTorah after leaving the koslei beis medrash.

More miraculous than anything has been the rise and development of mega-yeshivos and chassidishe hoifen with unprecedented numbers, kein yirbu, of full-time lomdim and ovdim who invest their blood, sweat and tear equity into rebuilding the ruins of Torah civilization.
The architects of Torah’s postwar regeneration were the Gedolim who escaped the conflagration. To name a few, men such as the Chazon Ish, Harav Aharon Kotler, Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, Harav Chatzkel Sarna, Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Harav Yitzchok Hutner, the Ponovezher Rav, Chacham Ovadiah, the Admorim of Ger, Satmar, Vizhnitz, Klausenburg, Bobov and Lubavitch, zecher kulam livrachah and, ybl”c, their spiritual heirs, up to and including the Rabbanim, Admorim and Roshei Yeshivah of today, were and are the visionary leaders who, proverbially, were dreaming but not sleeping. But the great “followership” qualities of Klal Yisrael these past 70 years cannot be overstated.

We have so much to celebrate this Shavuos because we have seized our legacy organically and naturally and have toiled mightily — leaving no stone unturned in getting reacquainted with our bride and working on our marriage.

The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh taught that Shavuos (weeks) can be pronounced as the plural for vows as well: Shevuos. The Yom Tov embodies the oath that Hashem made to never choose another nation to serve Him after choosing us — as well as the vow that Klal Yisrael made never to substitute, chalilah, another “god” or cause to serve after we said naaseh v’nishma.

Taking stock of the state of Torah 70 years after Torah’s infrastructure was annihilated, we can proudly and honestly say that, against impossibly long odds, we have maintained fidelity to Hashem through limud haTorah. We have kept our vow and not broken our promise. Let us hope and pray for a new giluy Shechinah that will supplant our Churban Europa memories with everlasting ones that resonate of maamad Har Sinai and that will make manifest to us, and all the world, that Hashem has kept His vow.


Rabbi Schwartz is the Mara d’Asra of Congregation Sfard of Midwood and a contributor to Hamodia.