Friday, August 3, 2012

The Siyum. כמות ואיכות, History, and the Axis

I attended the Siyum at the Metlife Stadium, and it was similar to my visit to the Grand Canyon; my wife and I stood at the edge of the precipice and looked out over the canyon but we weren't emotionally moved.  What we saw was so unprecedented, so completely foreign to our experience,  that we couldn't fully process it, and saw it as if it were a large photograph, as if it were two dimensional.  I was only in retrospect that it began to acquire dimensions.

At the stadium last night, I saw the vast number of people gathered for Chavivus haTorah, but to me it seemed to be only a quantitative experience.  In other words, that there was no essential difference between one person and ten and ten thousand and ninety thousand.  It's all just more of the same.  A quantitative difference is not necessarily a qualitative difference, a difference in כמות does not mean that there is any difference in איכות.  It was nice, I was thrilled and proud that so many people braved the weather- it had poured the whole day, there was thunder and lightening, and everyone that came knew they might spend four hours sitting fully clothed in a steam-room shower.  (In fact, though, the rain stopped as if someone flipped a switch at seven o'clock, the sky cleared, and cool breezes came through the stadium.  To say the least, we did not have the experience (Sukka 28b) of an עבד שבא למזוג כוס לרבו ושפך לו קיתון על פניו, thank G-d.)

But, again, the unprecedented number certainly was a testament to the dedication of the organizers and the attendees, and certainly a Kiddush Hashem, but ultimately just a lot of individual good Jews that got together in a stadium.

Even at that time, I realized that most likely my perception bespoke insensitivity on my part.  After all, the Shechina is present with a minyan but not when there is less than a minyan, so it stands to reason that with the enormous gathering there was some kind of unique hashra'as hashechina.  It was only my failure to sense the spiritual impact of this large gathering, but no doubt there was some threshold change that I could not see.

But there was a moment when that changed.

I can identify precisely when I finally did sense the crowd becoming an organic whole, when the amazing כמות created a fantastic new איכות.  That was when after the siyum everyone began singing and dancing.  I am not skilled enough to describe the spiritual transcendence I experienced at that moment, the sense of expansion and coalescence of myself into the crowd and the crowd into myself.  All the talk of כאיש אחד בלב אחד was, until that moment, just a demagogic trope.  At that moment, it became a reality.

It happened, for me, a second time.  When Rabbi Frand was speaking, there were moments when you felt the crowd breath together- inspiration taken literally.  Ninety thousand people suddenly drawing and holding a breath was not merely an audible experience, it was, for a moment, like we were one single organic whole.

Shlomo Rechnitz, of Los Angeles, spoke last night, and said that he was struck by the contrast between two events that took place on the same date seventy six years apart.  In 1936, Hitler ימח שמו completed the construction of the enormous Olympic Stadium for the Summer Olympics held in Munich, to showcase the superiority of the German Volk, the Aryan race.  On August first of that year, he spoke at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in that stadium, which had a seating capacity of 100,000.  Exactly seventy six years later, almost 100,000 men, women, and children of the nation he almost destroyed gathered in another stadium to sing and celebrate the eternity of our people and our Torah.  לוּלֵי תוֹרָתְךָ שַׁעֲשֻׁעָי אָז אָבַדְתִּי בְעָנְיִי.  The Gematria of לוּלֵי is seventy six, and it was only our Torah that brought us back from the גֵיא צַלְמָוֶת.

Mr. Rechnitz noted the striking coincidence of the two dates- August 1, 1936, and August 1, 2012.  I would like to point out that the two Hebrew calendar dates are also the same-

August 1, 1936  י"ג אב תרצ"ו  
August 1, 2012  י"ג אב תשע"ב

Leni Riefenstahl exploited the ecstatic submersion of the individual into the mass with her torch-lit extravaganzas and marches and crowds.  Last night, we did the exact opposite.  Their Triumph of Will was of the Will to murder, their Sieg des Glaubens was of faith in blood and ugliness and darkness  Our Triumph was a triumph of life and spirituality and beauty and light.  Koheles 7:14-
ביום טובה היה בטוב וביום רעה ראה גם את זה לעומת זה עשה האלוהים

Ponovezher Rov was once in Rome, seeking support for his yeshiva, and it was raining and he had a flight to catch, but he told his driver that he wanted to see the Arch of Titus.  His driver, a frum person, was surprised.  Yes, the arch is historically interesting, it has a carving of the Menora, it's a great tourist attraction but it was really late, it was cold, they had no time.  The Rov insisted; I need to go see it.  (I have verification of this story from Mrs. Rashi Shnell, who was working in the New York office of the Ponovezher Yeshiva when it happened, and she heard it from the driver.)

Over the driver's protests, they went to the arch, the Rov got out of  the car in the rain, and he lifted his fist at the arch, and said, Titus, Titus, I am a Rosh Yeshiva.  I have a Yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael in Bnei Brak, and I have one thousand Talmidim in my yeshiva that are learning Torah right now.  You thought you could destroy my people.  Titus, look at where I am, and look where you are now.  We will live forever, and you are nothing.

Last night, for a moment, I was not myself.  I was a multitude, a multitude of Torah and eternity.  Time was compressed and I felt that I, we, were the pivot- the true Axis- of human history.


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