As a yungerman learning in the Chicago Community Kollel, I had the “zechus” to sit near the entrance to the beis medrash. My chavrusa dubbed me the “shalom aleichem guy” because I was usually the first one to greet any visitor.
One day, a gentleman walked in clutching a small briefcase and sat down at my table. True to my moniker, I welcomed him with a warm “shalom aleichem.” He informed me that he was writing a kuntress on Krias Shema al Hamittah, and was seeking an approbation from our esteemed rosh kollel. In the meantime, he pulled out a pile of papers, which he held very close to his eyes.
My curiosity got the better of me, and I couldn’t help but ask him if he suffered from severe myopia. Although myopia is hardly uncommon in in our circles, the severity of his condition seemed extreme even for a yeshivahman. He confirmed that he indeed had very weak eyesight, and I could tell that this was a real struggle. I tried to commiserate with him, as my own vision is nothing to write home about, and I then proceeded to ask our guest if I could share a story I had heard, with the hope that I could give him a little chizuk. He took me up on my offer. And so I began:
A yungerman in New York was told by his eye doctor that he had only six months left to see — a veritable death sentence, as Chazal teach us, “Suma chashuv k’meis.” Seeking advice, he made his way to Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l and asked him what to do with his last precious moments of eyesight. He was stunned by the response: “Finish Shas!” Knowing full well that no one could possibly accomplish such a feat, save for perhaps the gadol hador, he assumed that Rav Moshe hadn’t heard him clearly, but he didn’t have the chutzpah to repeat his sh’eilah. He then made his way to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky ztz”l and presented his question again. Sure enough, the great sage told him the same thing: “Finish Shas!” They couldn’t both be hard of hearing, our friend surmised, so he undertook the task of methodically going though Shas. And, I added, I heard that he never lost his eyesight!
My newfound friend seemed intrigued, so I continued. I had understood the eitzah of these gedolei Yisrael to be based on the words of Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah, Shaar 2, Derech 3, as well as in his commentary to Pirkei Avos 3:9), who writes that when Klal Yisrael exclaimed “Naaseh v’nishma” at Har Sinai, they were making an absolute kabbalah to keep whatever Hashem demanded from them, no matter how difficult or challenging. As a result, they received credit at that very moment for all the mitzvos they would ever fulfill, even at a later time. Rabbeinu Yonah uses this concept to explain the mishnah that teaches, “One whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will last forever.” How is it possible for one’s deeds to surpass what he knows? The answer is that if one resolves sincerely to do whatever is asked of him, even when he is totally ignorant of what that is — as was the case at Har Sinai — he will already receive credit as if he performed those deeds… right now!
It follows, I humbly suggested, that what the gedolim were advising was to make a sincere kabbalah to finish Shas, which would be a zechus akin to having learned all 2,711 blatt that would then protect this young man from going blind.
When I detected a faint smile crossing my acquaintance’s face, I couldn’t help but ask if my vort had given him any chizuk.
“You know who that person was?” he asked. “It was me!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. It was one of the most incredible things I had ever heard. “So, did you ever finish Shas?” I asked him.
With a touch of dry humor, he replied, “I am going v-e-e-ery slowly!” Years after his visits to these two gedolim, he could still see, albeit with great difficulty. He was now putting his gift of sight to use to benefit the klal by publishing a pamphlet on a subject not normally delved into with much depth, if any.
Although we do not need proof to bolster the words of the Rishonim, this exchange solidified my emunas chachamim — both the chachmei hador of our own generation as well as the giants of yesteryear — in a way that nothing else could have. My friend was living proof.
Rav Shach ztz”l said in a shmuess that the reason people break their kabbalos is not because the temptation is too strong, but rather because the resolution was not absolute in the first place. As an example, he related that upon hearing from his physician, in his mid-50s, that cigarette smoking was newly recognized as a health hazard, he pulled his pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and flung it away, declaring that he was through with smoking. He never looked back, and merited another half-century of life.
The story of a close family friend and paragon of chesed in our community, Mrs. Rashi Schnell a”h, provides a vivid example of the power of a sincere kabbalah. She was diagnosed with an advanced stage of the dreaded machalah back in 1983. Most doctors were not willing to even attempt treatment; only one shaliach ne’eman held out hope. Upon the advice of Rav Chaim Kreisworth ztz”l, Mrs. Schnell undertook a hachnassas kallah project, providing for needy brides in a most bekavodig fashion.
The strength of her kabbalah was demonstrated by her lifelong dedication to the organization, Ginat Shoshana, that blossomed from her efforts. She literally lived and breathed hachnassas kallah, until her passing only a few years ago. Countless couples were able to start their lives feeling like kings and queens due to her resolve and sincere commitment to see this mitzvah through. Those zechuyos were all there for her at her time of need, sustaining her for over 30 years after her diagnosis.
Imagine what incredible zechusim we can generate through resolutions big and small in the area of limud haTorah or dikduk b’mitzvos. And we need not wait years to reap the benefits of these kabbalos, for we receive the credit immediately.
Typically, we save our kabbalos for the season of teshuvah — or, chalilah, for times when we need yeshuos. Shavuos is the anniversary of the most significant kabbalah of all time, the one that set our trajectory to become the Am HaTorah that we still are, thousands of years later. Despite the challenges of modern life and millennia of pressure from the world around us, we are resolute as ever.
It is quite remarkable that the date of the fundamental kabbalah marking the watershed event that forged us into who we are is not recorded in the Torah, and is actually the subject of a machlokes in the Gemara. Especially in light of the Ramban’s statement that there is a mitzvah to remember “yom asher amadeta lifnei Hashem Elokecha b’Choreiv,” how is it that we have no unambiguous mesorah regarding the date of most important event in history? Furthermore, the Torah never even refers to Shavuos as “Zeman Matan Toraseinu.” It seems to have been left to Chazal to acknowledge the significance of the day.
What are we to make of this?
Perhaps the answer lies in a story that appears in Talmud Yerushalmi and is quoted by Tosafos in Maseches Chagigah. At the bris of Elisha ben Avuya — also known as Acher, the infamous rebbi of Rav Meir who abandoned the life of Torah despite his proficiency in Torah and devotion to it in his earlier years — the great Tannaim Rabi Eliezer and Rabi Yehoshua were conversing in Torah while the rest of the guests were enjoying the festivities. A fire suddenly appeared, and Avuya, the father of the baby, approached the two Tannaim and questioned if they had come to destroy his house! They responded that they were learning Torah, and the words were as gladdening as the moment they were given at Sinai. And just as there was a fire then, there was a fire now. Avuya’s response was that if learning Torah is so powerful, he wants to devote his newborn son, Elisha, to that holy calling.
We see in this gemara that engaging in Torah has the power to recreate Maamad Har Sinai, fire and all!
Lest we think that this phenomenon is reserved for Torah giants exclusively, Tosafos in Maseches Berachos informs us that during the Yarchei Kallah, when laymen would take a break from work to devote themselves to Torah study, there was a also a fire blazing as a result of their rigorous resolve to learn. Even we, on our much more mundane level, are capable of recreating the original Maamad Har Sinai, as the seforim point out (see Nefesh HaChaim Shaar 4).
Perhaps the reason the Torah does not mention Zeman Matan Toraseinu is that if the day of Matan Torah were recorded as such, we would get the impression that it was a one-time event somewhere in the annals of history. But it is not! Every time a Yid sits down and learns, he is reliving the original maamad. Every day is a new anniversary of Matan Torah and an opportunity to recreate it. Therefore, it is left to Chazal to calculate the actual calendar date.
We have an incredible opportunity to relive the original naaseh v’nishma not only on Shavuos when the feeling is intense, but every single day. A sincere kabbalah to conquer more blatt, learn an extra seder, or strengthen our resolve to perform mitzvos will yield many incalculable zechusim. We don’t have to wait — they are here now.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 710. Rabbi Henoch Plotnik, a talmid of the yeshivos of Philadelphia and Ponevezh, has been active in rabbanus and chinuch for 25 years and is currently a ram in Yeshivas Me’or HaTorah in Chicago and a sought-after speaker.
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