Defying history, transcending time

The story takes place in the years immediately after the Second World War.

WWII airplanes (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
WWII airplanes (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
My rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein, once told me a story he heard directly from Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, under whom he learned as a devoted student.
The story takes place in the years immediately after the Second World War. Rav Gifter is in New York City with Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch, the co-founding rosh yeshiva of Telz in Cleveland, Ohio, and they happen to be in a bookstore.
Rav Elya Meir turns to the storekeeper and asks for a copy of the Ketzot HaChoshen – a classic commentary and analysis of the Talmud’s civil law. The storekeeper climbs up to the attic and comes down with a dusty old copy of the Ketzot. As he hands the book over to Rav Elya Meir, he says it is one of only a handful in the United States of America, in all probability the very last to be sold – never to be printed again. The very last Ketzot. The end of Torah learning, he says.
Rav Elya Meir doesn’t respond.
As they leave the store, he turns to Rav Gifter and tells him that the storekeeper is right. He says that in accordance with the normal laws and social forces of history, there is no chance that Torah will be rebuilt in America, or anywhere else. And that this dusty, old Ketzot HaChoshen in his hand will never be published again.
But, he says, Torah does not subscribe to convention or laws of probability. Torah, he says, comes from somewhere else. A place that is above convention, above this world, unfettered by its laws and patterns. Torah, authored by God, comes from a higher place, and – no matter how unlikely it may seem – ultimately, it will triumph and be the force of vitality, vision, purpose, wisdom and energy for the Jewish people.
How right he was.
We stand today on the eve of perhaps the greatest public celebration of Torah learning that has ever taken place. The siyum celebration of the 13th complete cycle of Daf Yomi, a seven-and-a-half-year program in which all 2,711 double-sided pages of the Talmud are learned in unison, one page at a time.
The first Siyum HaShas took place on February 2, 1931. The celebrations were confined to Jerusalem and to a few cities in Europe. A couple of thousand people took part. Seven-and-a-half years later there was another. And the Daf Yomi program, almost inconceivably, continued throughout the Holocaust. A Siyum HaShas took place in 1945 in a displaced persons camp called Feldafing, 30 miles south of Dachau, with broken survivors of the death camps gathering to mark the occasion.
Fast forward to today.
An estimated half a million Jews will celebrate finishing the Talmud together. More than 100,000 are expected at a headline event in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium alone – one of many such events all over the world.
HOW DID we get here?
Just 75 years ago, a crippled people staggered out of the ruins of the Holocaust, intent on starting life in a new world completely transformed by revolutions in science, technology, medicine, communication and social values and norms. It seemed Torah would not find its place in our hearts and minds.
In the intervening years, the world hasn’t become any more hospitable to the ancient practice of Torah learning. Dramatic advances in science and technology, radical changes in social norms and values, quantum leaps in the way we communicate, have fundamentally altered the fabric of our society. So complete is the transformation and modernization that the world we inhabit is simply unrecognizable from that of just a few decades ago.
The pace of change has threatened to relegate Torah living and Torah learning to a relic displayed in museums, to render an ancient system of knowledge and ideas obsolete and irrelevant.
But God formulated the Torah to be the blueprint of our lives, eternally relevant and fresh for all times and places. And so here we are, learning our ancient holy texts in the same Hebrew and Aramaic, holding on to each and every precious word.
We are more vibrant than ever, with more people learning Torah than at any point in history. Rav Elya Meir and his generation of Holocaust survivors and heroes established yeshivot all over the world, which are today bursting with countless young and eager students. More Torah books are being published than at any other time in history.
When that storekeeper climbed down from the ladder and handed over that dusty old copy of the Ketzot HaChoshen to Rav Elya Meir – “the last Ketzot to be sold in America,” who would have imagined in their wildest dreams that its holy words would reverberate in the corridors of schools, in the halls of batei midrash and yeshivot, and around dining room tables in every corner of the modern world? Who would have thought that that “last Ketzot to be sold in America” would be published once more – and republished, over and over again?
Our generation has lived through the greatest darkness, but now we have been privileged to see the great light of Divine miracles. As hundreds of thousands of Jews unite across the globe to celebrate the bar mitzvah of the Daf Yomi program, we should know – and we should make sure that our children know – the awesome miracles of the rebirth of Torah life and learning that we have witnessed. Let us pause, appreciate and give thanks to God for the ever-fresh and pulsating Divine energy and light that He infuses into Jewish life through His Torah.
The Torah belongs to each and every one of us. Let us learn it and live it. And let us go forward together, as partners with God, filled with gratitude, deeply aware that we live in times of miracles and wonder, and inspired to reach even greater heights.
The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa.