The Torah summarizes the very essence of our lives at the end of Parshat Nitzavim (Devarim 30:20): “…to love G-d, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…” What a magnificent statement – that requires definition. The Netziv (Rav Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) comments that to love G-d and to listen to His voice means to immerse ourselves in Torah – to toil in Torah – whereas to cleave to G-d means to support Torah – not everyone can sit and learn, but they can acquire a love and an intimate connection to G-d by supporting Torah.
And not only that – but “He is your life and the length of your days.” What’s the difference between “your life” and “the length of your days”? Many explain that “your life” means life itself in this world and “length of days” refer to one’s quality of life. But others (the Sforno, for one) explain that “your life” means eternal life, which makes sense. “And you who cleave to G-d are all alive today” (ibid 4:4) – cleaving to G-d grants us eternal life. But what then is “length of days” in reference to eternity?
Not long ago, the Jewish world marked the shloshim of Zev Wolfson a”h. When he died, I did not know much about his remarkable life except that he was a great philanthropist of Jewish causes. One of the distinguished Rabbis in Yerushalayim eulogized him as “the pillar of loving-kindness in our generation,” just like the recently-departed Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l was the “pillar of Torah in our generation.” All this I learned in a remarkable column in the Israeli weekly Besheva (August 23, 2012 edition) that had an interesting twist to it, well-written as always by their esteemed columnist Yedidya Meir. (http://www.inn.co.il/Besheva/Article.aspx/12227)
The column framed a minimized page of obituaries from the Israeli Yated Neeman, right in the middle of the page, placed in Yated by some of the yeshivot that Zev Wolfson supported – in Beer Yaakov, in Yerushalayim – yeshivot I also never heard of. Then the article described him – his simplicity, directness, utter selflessness and dedication to the Jewish people, and especially his willingness to invest in a Jewish cause or organization if there was a plan and a definable objective. Each day he would implore everyone to do something for Klal Yisrael – the most important concern in life
He supported hundreds of organizations, and was obsessed in his later years with bridging the gap between secular Israeli youth and the Jewish people, not necessarily to bring them to observance in a traditional sense but to enhance their Jewish identity and give them a connection to the Jewish people. So, about a decade ago he started funding drop-in centers in Tel Aviv, for young people, called Nefesh Yehudi. Thousands have attended – and the columnist wrote about one of them, a young woman named Keren Svistov who worked as a planner at a major advertising firm in Tel Aviv.
Apparently, there was a buzz in Israel back in February when Keren Svistov updated her Facebook page, and columnist Meir decided to save it for a column in the month Elul. In February, she wrote on her Facebook page that “the time has come to speak about this teshuva (repentance) of mine. People keep sending me worrisome emails – ‘what’s happened to you? Are you freaking out? Such an intelligent girl. Is it because you haven’t found a husband, or because your father died of cancer?”
She was raised secular, and maintained a customary Tel Avivi lifestyle. Yet, for 3½ years, she had been learning at one center in Tel Aviv – once a week, for 4½ hours at a time. I paraphrase some selections (translation mine): “I’m touching the truth, understanding it and denying it, getting close to it and then fleeing from it. I don’t want the light to close me in. I don’t want to think my whole prior life was false. Yet, slowly, Torah enters.”
“Where do I start? Sometimes I think my return was rational and logical, not spiritual. That my mind, trained to acquire degrees, to be analytical, sees that there must be logic in the universe – and Torah, science, our history, ending with the question: ‘why are we here? Why are we members of the Jewish people?’ And then I am told that such a repentance sounds like one is embarrassed about one’s Jewishness, which I am not. Repentance need not be purely logical.”
“And each morning I thank G-d, for I believe I will be able to chip away some more of the shell and return to myself and to You. I gave up my immodest dress, and the cloak of sarcasm that I also wore. And sometimes it is a struggle – how do you nurture a princess when my entire essence still cries out for materialism? Pride, beauty, shopping, money, honor, and control. The instinctual drive always leads me on a more enjoyable, comfortable path… Sometimes the sins I think I had eradicated return with a vengeance. Master of the universe, what a long road it is to You! Yet another day of repentance begins.” It was posted at 2:41 AM in February 2012.
But that’s not the end of her story. This was in February. Meir filed it away for use in Elul – and then, he noticed in Yated, on that page of obituary notices for Zev Wolfson, there were engagement announcements in the upper corner of the same page – and, lo and behold, Keren Svistov (now of Netiv Bina, a seminary in Givatayim) became engaged to be married to another Tel Avivian, Daniel Machnes, now learning at a yeshiva in Tel Aviv.
How is that for coincidence? The death of the benefactor mourned, and the lives of his beneficiaries celebrated, on the same page. Blessed is the Judge of Truth, and Mazal Tov, in the same corner.
“For He is your life and the length of your days.” G-d not only gives us eternal life but also “length of our days” What is “length of days”? The capacity to live beyond our sojourn on earth, certainly to leave behind children and families, but especially good deeds and acts of kindness that render us immortal, that continue to take effect years beyond our lifespan.
We are able to touch people in such a way that long after we are gone, they can say about us “but for him or her, my life would have been lost, or different, or unfulfilled.” We can make each day count – not only when we are alive but by doing something virtuous that will pay dividends in generations yet to come.
That we can do even if we are not multi-millionaires; and that we can try to do every day, for “He is your life and the length of your days.” Then we too will have a share in the flourishing of repentance, the national renaissance that is prophesied for the end of days; then, our enemies will tremble before us, and we will again be called “G-d’s holy nation, redeemed.”
Shana tova to all !