By William Kolbrener – First Published at OpenMindedTorah.blogspot.com
I re-connected with an old friend last week. We had been in high school together (though not in the same class), and when a mutual friend let me know that Justin (not his real name) was going to be in town, the two of us set up a meeting. Justin recognized my name (‘I knew a Billy Kolbrener when I was in high school!’; yes, that is how I was known back then), but when we met, he couldn’t link my name to my face. Over cafe hafouch at David’s Citadel in Jerusalem, we shared the pleasure of discovering similar paths taken. Though many of our fellow-classmate in Roslyn High School all strongly identified as Jewish (though it didn’t stop many of them from intermarrying), only Justin and I (with just a handful of others of whom I know) overcame the suburban prejudices against orthodoxy to discover what Justin described as the “treasures” of Judaism. And he was not talking about the tunnel tour in the Old City or the laser show on the City’s Walls…
In the process of catching up, Justin asked if among my books and articles, I had anything that I might want to pass on–mentioning that he had an interest in stories providing inspiration, of people who had overcome challenges as they maintained and strengthened their faith. I’ve admittedly never written in that mode, and I wondered if I could come up with anything. Certainly, there are no shortage of such stories. In Jerusalem, you hear about them all the time. A friend of mine had just the previous day recounted a hesped (or eulogy) from a funeral service he had attended. In this case the eulogy was simple, a sparse recounting of the facts of a life: from a birth in Austro-Hungary, to a loss of parents in Auschwitz, to the beginnings of a life in France, to an eventual re-settlement in the US and then Israel–the story of a woman’s life (or what seemed to be different lives) interspersed with the challenges and tragedies that someone from my background (and Justin’s) can hardly even begin to imagine. My mind turned also to the pair of men who sit in front of me in shul–‘regulars’ (always precisely on time; “early is also not on time,” one of them often tells me). Over sixty years ago, they had been among the children of the kinder transport–German Jewish children who were sent away from their homes by their parents who sensed the horrors to come. Brought on one of the special trains from Germany which carried children during the period that began shortly after kristelnacht and ended with the blitzkrieg), they were ‘re-located’ with British families–many of them not even Jewish. The two bonded as young refugees in England while the war spread and the fate of their parents was sealed. At war’s end, they were separated (one remained in England, the other to the US) until they were reunited in a little synagogue in Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem, my neighborhood shul. In Bayit Vegan alone, there must be hundreds of such stories, of enormous spiritual resilience in the face of adversity.
These are stories which can’t fail to make an impression, but I was struck, by the end of our meeting by another story–Justin’s. By any possible measure, Justin was wildly successful, having risen to the top of his field, with access to all of the accoutrements of luxury, wealth and privilege which his position afforded. But here he was in Jerusalem. Although I did not hear all of the details, I know that the path which brought him to the Holy City was also not without sacrifice–not the sacrifice of the previous generations, but sacrifice nonetheless. For Justin (to the mixed admiration and disbelief of friends and relatives) had made his own sacrifices, given up many of the benefits and entitlements that the fast track has to offer–moving his family to a community with a shul, placing his children in Jewish day school, and committing himself to a life of connection and service to G-d and others.
Our tradition teaches us that there are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah–one for each of the six hundred thousand who gathered on the foot of Mount Sinai at the time of matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. So every Jew has his or her corresponding letter in the Torah, and it’s the task of a lifetime to discover that letter. No letter is the same; there is no ‘objective’ Torah template of how Torah observance should look. Achitophel, our sages tell us, wore all of the outward trappings of a frummer yid, a religious Jew, but G-d rejected his service, because the service was not his own. G-d wants the whole person–that is, he wants our subjectivity to express itself in and through our service. Achitophel did not search for and write his own letter, he merely imitated the service of others. Again, G-d wants our letter, not someone else’s. As we write that letter–carving it’s shape, adorning it with embellishments, deepening it’s hues–we may gain strength and inspiration from the letters of others, but we should also own up to both the challenges and pleasures of writing ourselves. Making too much out of ourselves leads to egotistic self-satisfaction and stagnation; but making too much out of the stories of others may lead us to a resigned humility preventing us from finding and writing our own letters. (A friend relates to me that his Rebbe tells his students to avoid reading too many stories of great contemporary figures, lest they fail to develop their own distinctive avodas Hashem, service of God).
In Jewish practice, the absence of only one single letter from a Torah renders it invalid: for the Torah to show itself fully in this world, each Jew needs to find his or her own letter. Once found, we spend a lifetime crafting that letter, writing our letters for all to see. Sometimes, it’s true, it takes someone else to see the beauty of the letters we have already begun to craft, to feel the inspiration of the stories we have begun to write.
On our way out, as Justin and I walked through the revolving doors of David’s Citadel, he turned to me with a sudden realization and said, “you are the Billy Kolbrener I once knew; when you smiled, I recognize you; it is you!” So surely, people like Justin and I find inspiration in the stories of gedolim and tzaddikim–great and righteous people. Though sometimes we may also find evidence of letters in unanticipated places, and in recognizing them, discover how those letters are shaping us and others in ways we did not expect.