I arrived with my family in Chicago nineteen years ago this week.
Although the Jewish calendar and Gregorian calendar do not usually coincide (the 12 Jewish months are 29 or 30 days long and leap years have an added month), once every 19 years they coincide exactly. That means when you turn 19, your Hebrew and English birthday coincide. That also means that when we arrived nineteen years ago on May 27, it was 4 days before the holiday of Shavuot, just like this year May 27 was 4 days before Shavuot.
I confess. I’m nostalgic. I like reminiscing about the past. Because of the quirk of the calendar, this year has been especially significant.
We left Yerushalayim (I was in tears) on May 6, the 10th of Iyar, and headed to Chicago……via South Africa! I wanted to show my wife Port Elizabeth, the town where I grew up; Cape Town, where I went to university and worked; and Johannesburg, where I had moved to learn Torah at the ever growing Ohr Somayach. I reasoned that we might not get the chance to come back again so although it was a indirect route to Chicago, and we had our two young boys (Yisrael Tzvi had just turned 2 and Meir Simcha was 13 months old) and all bags in tow, we flew to South Africa. (As it turned out, we were right. We have not gone back as a family and I have only been back two more times, once with Rabbi Tatz and once for my sister’s wedding).
It was a good two and a half weeks after Pesach and since the custom is not to shave until Lag b’Omer, I arrived in South Africa with a well grown beard.
In Port Elizabeth, we stayed with our cousins who kept kosher. They have three daughters (they subsequently moved to Australia and all three girls are now married). It was great to spend time with my father. I visited my mother’s grave. We went to my school and watched little boys playing rugby; we went to the ocean. Then we drove along the beautiful Garden Route to Cape Town, stopping at one of my favorite places on earth, Victoria Bay. In Cape Town, we visited the University of Cape Town and many of the beaches along the coast, including Cape Point, where two oceans meet; we took the cable car up Table Mountain – and I met my Aunt Frieda and Chantal and heard the story about my birth and adoption and saw a photo of my biological mother for the first time (you’ll have to hear the Rugby Rabbi Story to hear the whole story). The last leg of the journey was a stop in Johannesburg. We spent Shabbos at Ohr Somayach; toured a game reserve with my Uncle Lulu (who now lives in Israel) and I even played in a soccer tournament.
At the beach in Port Elizabeth with my father, Yisrael Tzvi and Meir Simcha
At the Penguin beach in Cape Town
Seeing an ostrich close up at a game reserve near Johannesburg
Yes, that’s me playing soccer for the Ohr Somayach team at a tournament in Johannesburg
Three glorious weeks in South Africa flew by and then we flew to Chicago. I had accepted a position as the Associate Director of Outreach at the Chicago Community Kollel. Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh, my friend and teacher at Ohr Somayach in Yerushalayim, was the Director and it was great to see him again. We have remained good friends all these years. I have him and our good friends, Joel and Melinda Klein (who we also knew in Yerushalayim and who just became grandparents) to thank for encouraging us to move to Chicago.
It took us a few weeks to settle in and find an apartment in West Rogers Park. My most nerve wracking moment in those early weeks was preparing to make my first speech in front of all the Kollel Rabbis at the Shavuos party on the second day of Yomtov. I must have walked around the block a dozen times practicing. I found Andrew Bransky in the neighborhood to listen a few times. (I just called Andrew this morning to wish him happy anniversary. I told you I was nostalgic).
I look back at these memories fondly. But that’s what they are, memories. Just like Memorial Day was this past Monday. Memories, deep, important memories, with lots of reflections.
However, tonight is Shavuos, and the Jewish view of all the Jewish holidays is different. We are not just remembering that G-d gave the Jewish People the Torah 3,329 years ago on this day. That would just be a memory. Judaism believes time is a spiral. Every year, when that day returns, the same spiritual energy returns – and we are all back at Mount Sinai! Each one of our souls was at Mount Sinai and on Shavuos, each one of us is reliving accepting the Torah personally and nationally – literally.
That is why we need to prepare for Shavuos, like we did then. That is why we stay up learning Torah all night. Because we are so excited about receiving the Torah – again.
Now, we also believe the Torah is given anew each and every day. That is why the blessing we recite in the morning before we learn Torah is written in the present. Baruch Atah Hashem… hanoteyn haTorah. Blessed are you G-d who gives us the Torah. We should learn Torah with a freshness as if it is given today. However as I heard yesterday in a shiur (talk) by Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried, the Rosh Kollel of the Dallas Kollel, the beginning of that same brachas is said in the past tense… asher natan lanu et Torah-to, who gave us His Torah, to teach us that before we make this bracha we should imagine that we are at Mount Sinai.
We learn Torah every day. However, on Shavuos, that spiritual energy that we experienced at the most powerful time in world history, returns and we have the opportunity to tap into it.