The previous Guinness World Record for the longest hug had stood at 24 hours and 33 minutes. This past week, two Iowa State University students shattered that record and maintained a hug for 31 straight hours. When asked what motivated them they explained, “There wasn’t really anything that inspired us; we were just kind of bored during the summer.”
Each morning, when I wrap myself in my tallis before davening, I try to pause for a few breaths and experience the feeling of being wrapped in the loving embrace of the Almighty. In the prayer immediately preceding our donning the tallis, we say, oteh or ka’salma, Hashem spreads out light like a garment. If focused on what we are doing instead of going through a mindless daily ritual, when paused while wrapped in the tallis one can palpably sense the warmth of Hashem’s light and can feel the security of being under His protection. There is no better way to start the day.
Boca Raton Synagogue also set a Guinness World Record this year for a very different type of hug. BRS proudly boasts the world’s largest tallis, measuring forty feet by forty feet. The tallis is made of 49 extra-large, 100-percent wool talleisim sewn together into one huge tallis with tzitzis hanging from all four corners. The tallis will be used once again on Simchas Torah morning during Kol HaNearim, when hundreds and hundreds of children will stand or sit or be held beneath it, and have an aliyah recited on their behalf.
Watching the Kol HaNarim aliyah each year and seeing so many babies, toddlers, and young kids sitting together reminds me how our community is so incredibly blessed, individually and collectively, to boast close to a thousand children and benefit from the vibrancy, youthfulness, enthusiasm, and nachas they bring. Our hope and prayer on Simchas Torah morning is that sitting under our world-record tallis that contains many of their names, they feel the warm hug of Hashem and the loving embrace of their community.
As we get ready to spread our enormous tallis once again, it occurs to me that during Kol HaNearim we should be thinking about not only the children sitting under the tallis, but also about those absent from that special moment.
Looking at the large gathering of children, one would never know how much intervention was necessary to bring some of them into this world, the level of incredible expenses involved, and the indescribable amounts of pain experienced. While many mistakenly assume that once a decision is made to have a child, a pregnancy and childbirth will then follow easily, the story is often not so simple. There are more than seven million people of childbearing age in the United States currently struggling with infertility. Up to twenty percent of those who do become pregnant experience a miscarriage. Eighty percent of those miscarriages occur within the first trimester, when the couple is unlikely to have told anyone they were expecting and before the woman begins to show. Friends and family members thus might not even know that someone close to them went through this difficult and heartbreaking experience.
BRS has an incredible support group for those struggling with infertility or secondary infertility called Tikvateinu. It is open to the entire Jewish community, meets regularly, and often brings in speakers with either expertise or personal experience. Those with unmet dreams of having a child or more children endure great agony and pain. Our role at the very least is to be sensitive in how we speak and behave, and to try to be as supportive as possible. In that spirit, immediately before the Kol HaNearim aliyah this Simchas Torah we will recite a special Mi Shebeirach prayer for all who are trying to have children. The members of Tikvateinu have given their names to me so I can privately have them in mind. If you would like to submit your name (woman and/or man) or that of a loved one trying to have children, please email me at email@example.com
There is a second group who will not be present under our gigantic tallis this Simchas Torah morning. They likely have never heard of Simchas Torah, don’t know that day is Yom Tov, and will probably be in school or daycare while Kol HaNearim is taking place. There are approximately 1.2 million Jewish children in the United States. The 2013 Pew Study showed that a growing number of them are not being raised Jewish and as many as 22 percent of their parents identify themselves as having no religion at all. These children have never experienced what it is like to literally or metaphorically be under a tallis. Many are hungry for a hug from Hashem and don’t know where to get one.
We are asking everyone once again to S.O.S. – Share One Shabbos. This Shabbos Chanuka, December 11th, invite someone to your home who has never experienced a Shabbos meal. Invite a co-worker, neighbor, or someone you met at the gym. In the coming weeks we will be sharing with you videos and materials to make you feel comfortable explaining all the components of a traditional Shabbos meal. All around us are Jewish brothers and sisters longing for a hug. All that is missing is an invitation from you.
As we enjoy Kol HaNearim this year, let’s do all we can to make sure nobody is missing from under our world-record tallis. Daven for those who are dreaming of having children and reach out to Jewish families who need a spiritual hug.
A woman in her seventies had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. While on the operating table she had a near death experience. She had the opportunity to ask Hashem, “Is my time up?” Hashem answered directly, “No, you have another 23 years, 2 months and 8 days to live.”
Given that, the woman decided to stay in the hospital after her recovery so that she could obtain a face-lift and liposuction. To complete her makeover, she even had someone come in and change her hair color and brighten her teeth. After all, she thought, since she had so much more time to live, she might as well make the most of it.
After the operation, she was released from the hospital. While crossing the street on her way home, she was struck by a car. Arriving at Hashem’s door, she demanded, “I thought you said I had another 23 years? Why didn’t you pull me from out of the path of the speeding car?” Hashem answered: “I would have, but I didn’t recognize you.”
This week, Jews around the world will universally take the exact same four species. Whether of Ashkenazic or Sephardic descent, or from North America, South America, the Eastern Hemisphere or Western Hemisphere, all Jews understand the biblical command to take a pri eitz ha’dar to mean that they are obligated to take an esrog. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of citrus fruit – oranges, grapefruits, lemons, tangerines, and the list goes on. How do we know that a pri etz hadar, a beautiful citrus fruit, is specifically an esrog?
The Talmud (Sukka 25a) draws the conclusion that a pri eitz ha’dar is an esrog by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, ha’dar. The Gemara concludes it is the esrog tree, because the word “hadar” in truth has two meanings, beautiful and to dwell. They therefore interpret the pasuk to be referring to a fruit that is dar ba’ilan, “dwells continuously all year on the tree.” The esrog, alone fulfills the requirement of constant dwelling. Rabbi Joshua Shmidman explains that while most other fruits are seasonal, the esrog grows, blossoms, and produces fruit throughout all the seasons. It braves the cold, withstands the heat, remains firm and upright in the wind, and stubbornly persists in surviving the storm. The esrog is truly dar, it dwells consistently and constantly. In fact, the Hebrew word dar is very similar to the English word endure.
In other words, by having the same word, hadar, mean both beautiful and endure, the Torah is communicating the Jewish definition of beauty. Beauty is not about the superficial and purely aesthetic. Beauty is not that which is temporary and fleeting. Many other trees and their fruits fit that narrow definition. Rather, true beauty, says the Torah, is the esrog, the ability to endure and withstand the winds around us. Beauty is having an indomitable spirit, to live with determination, to not veer from the path, abandon the mission, or stray from our convictions.
Beauty is not skin deep. It is found in the spirit of endurance, the tenacity and resolve to continue with our convictions intact. The Torah mandate of V’hadarta pnei zakein is usually translated as “honor and stand up for the elderly.” The root of v’hadarta is dar. We respect the elderly for their beauty. Their skin may show the test of time, their joints may have the wear and tear of decades, they may be slow or infirm, but their strength to endure demonstrates an unsurpassed beauty, worthy of respect and admiration.
Shai Agnon, the great Israeli Nobel laureate whose image adorns the 50-shekel note, lived in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot and was a neighbor of a famous elderly rabbi from Russia. One year, prior to Sukkos, Agnon met his rabbinic neighbor at the neighborhood store selling esrogim. There Agnon noticed how meticulous his neighbor was in choosing an esrog. Even though he was a person of limited means, the rabbi insisted on purchasing the finest, and by extension most expensive, esrog available. After examining many specimens, the rabbi finally chose the one he wished and paid for it.
Walking home with Agnon, the rabbi emphasized to him how important it was to have a beautiful, flawless esrog on Sukkos, and how the beauty of the esrog was part of the fulfillment of the Divine commandment for the holiday. On Sukkos morning Agnon noticed that the rabbi was without an esrog at the synagogue services. Perplexed, Agnon asked the rabbi where his beautiful esrog was.
The rabbi answered by relating the following incident:
“I awoke early, as is my wont, and prepared to recite the blessing over the esrog in my sukkah located on my balcony. As you know, we have a neighbor with a large family, and our balconies adjoin. As you also know, our neighbor, the father of all these children next door, is a man of short temper. Many times he shouts at them or even hits them for violating his rules and wishes. I have spoken to him many times about his harshness but to little avail.
“As I stood in the sukkah on my balcony, about to recite the blessing for the esrog, I heard a child’s weeping coming from the next balcony. It was a little girl crying, one of the children of our neighbor. I walked over to find out what was wrong. She told me that she too had awakened early and had gone out on her balcony to examine her father’s esrog, whose delightful appearance and fragrance fascinated her. Against her father’s instructions, she removed the esrog from its protective box to examine it. She unfortunately dropped the esrog on the stone floor, irreparably damaging it and rendering it unacceptable for ritual use. She knew that her father would be enraged and would punish her severely, perhaps even violently. Hence the frightened tears and wails of apprehension.
“I comforted her, and I then took my esrog and placed it in her father’s box, taking the damaged esrog to my premises. I told her to tell her father that his neighbor insisted that he accept the gift of the beautiful esrog, and that he would be honoring me and the holiday by so doing.”
Agnon concludes the story by saying: “My rabbinic neighbor’s damaged, bruised, ritually unusable esrog was the most beautiful esrog I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
We often mistranslate teshuva as repentance, but that is not exactly accurate. The Alter Rebbe, R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that teshuva is not reserved for sinners. The root of the word teshuva is lashuv, to return. Teshuva is about returning our souls to the pure, pristine state in which we receieved them. Even the righteous need to go back to their roots and return home.
This Sunday, the seventh of the Ten Days of Teshuva, BRS will have the incredible privelege of returning precious stolen items to their roots, bringing them home to the Jewish people, and beginning the process of restoring them to their pure and pristine state.
Under the Nazi regime, thousands of Jewish communities and synagogues were ransacked and their valuables stolen. Sifrei Torah, Judaica, candelabras, kiddush cups, artwork, gold, and other valuables that were transported from the communities from which they were seized were collected in storage depots in Germany. In 1944, as the war was winding down, the Nazis expedited their deportation of the Hungarian Jewish community to death camps and simultaneosly stole their Judaica and treasures.
By early 1945, the Americans, British, and Russians were all advancing on Berlin. As depicted in the film “The Monuments Men” the U.S. and British Forces had special units that searched for stolen assets and sought to return them. The Russians, however, had what were referred to as “Trophy Units” that would seek out, seize and return to Mother Russia whatever valuables they could find.
Towards the end of the war, the Nazis were moving the stolen items from the Hungarian Jews on transports that were headed to Berlin. However, in the face of the advancing Russian troops they fled and left the train. Russian generals captured the train and took it from Germany to Russia.
Once in Russia, the train was taken to Nizhny Novgorod – which was then called Gorky – and which is 258 miles east of Moscow. Why there? Nizhny Novgorod was a “closed city” – meaing it was a military city and was carefully guarded (no one got into or out of the city without express permission). Once in Nizhny Novgorod, the train was unloaded. Over 1,000 Impressonist masterpieces were offloaded and stored in the Art Museum warehouses. Torahs were stored in the Library warehouse. There they sat for more than 40 years.
For decades after the War, Jewish communities in Eastern Europe living in countries that were part of the Soviet Union or satellite countries, such as Hungary and Czech Republic, tried without success to recover items that were stolen by the Nazis and taken to Russia. The stories of the Jewish treasures stored in Nizhny Novgorod were known but no one was ever permitted to get into Nizhny Novgorod’s Art Museum or Library to see what was really there.
In 2012, our own congregants Bob a”h Silver and his wife Sibyl first heard of the possibility of stolen Torahs in Russia. They were intrigued by the story, did research, and decided to dedicate themselves to retreive these Torahs and bring them back to the Jewish people.
They proceeded to inquire of Holocaust experts and made contact with rabbis in Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Russia, and Cyprus to learn more. In the fall of 2012, on a visit to Prague, they learned more about the Torahs from the Chabad Rabbi in Prague who put them in touch with a young Chabad Rabbi in Hungary.
A year later, that rabbi, working together with the Chabad rabbi of Nizhny Novgorod, received permission to enter the Library in Nizhny Novgorod where he found the Torahs. He lovingly embraced them, examined, them and confirmed the rumors of their existence.
After Bob’s passing, Sibyl remained determined to rescue the Torahs. Earlier this year, Sibyl led a group to Russia in an attempt to get some of the Torahs back into synagogue use. She met with officials in Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod. Through her tenacity, perseverance, and passion for this project, Sibyl was able to get two Torahs into the Aron of the Chabad Synagogue in Moscow and eight Torahs into the Chabad Synagogue in Nizhny Novgorod where they are being repaired.
Not only have these Torahs not been in use for over seventy-five years, they haven’t been in the possesion of the Jewish people. These story of these Torahs is the story of the Jewish people. Like the many of the members of the communities from which they were taken, these Torahs were ripped from the hands of those who loved them, they were held hostage, put into captivity with no hope of being released or returned. And yet, like other members of the Jewish community from Eastern Europe, they have not only survived, but are being returned to their glory.
There were a total of 118 Torahs in the library warehouse. Ten are in the hands of the Jewish communities in Russia and Hungary, and this Sunday at 10:00 am we will welcome three of them into the Aron Kodesh at Boca Raton Syangogue. This will be their first time back in an Aron in over seventy-five years. Following the celebratory welcome back to the Jewish people at our shul, these Torahs will be restored and will ultimately find a permanent home and return to full use.
I had the privelege of examining these Torahs and it sent a current through my spine. When you come in contact with these sacred scrolls, you are in contact with the the souls of the 6 million martyrs and with the story of our people.
Join us this Sunday morning at 10:00 am and let these Torahs speak to you.