When I was the Rabbi at the Sha’ar HaShamayim synagogue in Windsor, Ontario, as was our custom, I was teaching Shulchan Aruch – Code of Jewish Law in the interim between Mincha (the afternoon prayers) and Ma’ariv (the evening prayers). It was a few days before the festival of Purim that celebrated the victory of the Jews over the Persian Amalekites around 300 B.C.E., and we were reviewing the laws of Purim. Among the various laws and Mitzvot to be reviewed we were looking at the details of giving Matanot L’Evyonim – money gifts to the poor and M’Shlo’ach Manot – sending out portions of food. A gentleman who recently joined our prayer group because he was saying Kaddish – the prayers for the dead, asked why these two requirements are necessary to commemorate the ancient victory.
After a few moments of thoughts I responded that when a nation is faced with utter obliteration to which there was no solution (as was the case during the episode of Purim), and suddenly a miracle occurs and not only do we survive but our enemies are completely destroyed, then besides praising God, our only real expression of thanks is to make the world a better place. So the Rabbis enacted these two Mitzvot in order to instill in us this sense of brotherhood. The gentleman was very moved by the answered and actually joined our synagogue and became a very active member.
An aspect of the festival of Shavu’ot, the festival commemorating the giving and our receiving the Torah, and worthy of investigation is our unnatural invincibility. HaShem guarantees us that if we adhere to His commands we will experience historical longevity, we will watch history pass by and observe the rise and fall of empires and we will remain the obvious witnesses to His truth and this is the power of Torah: For they [the commandments] are our life and the length of our days (Siddur – the evening prayers).
If this is true then every day is Purim. Every day we are faced with annihilation, whether from external enemies or from our disregard for our only national lifeline, and therefore every day we should consider that He has saved us from just fading away into the encyclopedias and museums of history. How should we react? We should make this world a better place, be more mindful of others, of their differences, of their frailties and of their specialness.
Bernice Victor-Smith and special friend, who is constantly sending me snippets of inspiration and humor, sent me the following story that expresses how to put all the teachings of our Torah into action.
At a fundraising dinner for a school that serves children with learning disabilities, the father of one of the students delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he offered a question: ‘When not interfered with by outside influences, everything nature does, is done with perfection. Yet my son, Shay, cannot learn things as other children do. He cannot understand things as other children do. Where is the natural order of things in my son?’
The audience was stilled by the query.
The father continued. ‘I believe that when a child like Shay, who was mentally and physically disabled comes into the world, an opportunity to realize true human nature presents itself, and it comes in the way other people treat that child.’ Then he told the following story:
Shay and I had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, ‘Do you think they’ll let me play?’ I knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but as a father I also understood that if my son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.
I approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, ‘We’re losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning…’
Shay struggled over to the team’s bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt…I watched with a small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay’s team scored again.
Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat. At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball. However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay’s life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact.
The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed.
The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher. The game would now be over. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman’s head, out of reach of all team mates.
Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, ‘Shay, run to first! Run to first!’
Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled. Everyone yelled, ‘Run to second, run to second!’
Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball. The smallest guy on their team now had his first chance to be the hero for his team, he could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher’s intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman’s head.
Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home. All were screaming, ‘Shay, Shay, Shay, all the way Shay’
Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, ‘Run to third! Shay, run to third!’
As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, ‘Shay, run home! Run home!’ Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team.
‘That day’, said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, ‘the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world’.
Shay didn’t make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making me so happy and coming home and seeing his Mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!
Shavu’ot is just two days away and we will have completed climbing the 50 rung ladder that elevated us in the 50 days since Pesach to a state when we can receive HaShem’s Torah. Now that we are properly prepared to accept this great gift we must go into the world and make His presence felt. Those boys didn’t make Shay feel whole that day, they were following His command to love ones neighbor as oneself, therefore HaShem made Shay feel whole. That is the essence of Torah, to bring HaShem into everything we do by doing these commandments because they are His commands. Then, His goodness will be felt by every recipient of our actions and His glory will fill the entire world.