It was about four years ago, at around this time of year, when many from our local Jewish community experienced what we all agreed was one of the most powerful and inspirational moments of our lives. We had gathered, along with tens of thousands from around the country and the world, in New York City to participate in an event and celebration of the culmination of the 7-1/2 year study of a daily page of Talmud — the Daf Yomi — thereby completing learning of the entire work.
This daily study program was initiated in the early 1900s by Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin, who at the time I’m sure never envisioned the packed crowds at Madison Square Garden, the Nassau Coliseum, and the Sheraton Meadowlands as well as the thousand more similar types of celebration going on simultaneously around the world (linked by satellite hookup).
I’m sure that as he looked down from heaven together with Hashem, our loving Father, he shepped much nachas from our celebration and our accomplishment, and the fulfillment of his dream to unite the Jewish people through the study of Torah.
Perhaps the most moving moments of the evening were when, upon the conclusion of the evening prayer of Maariv, which included an incredibly resounding recitation of the Shema prayer and the great kaddish by the 35,000 people gathered in the basketball stadium (a venue accustomed to having sounds of, shall we say, not the most divine nature), the crowd broke out into song and dance. Each person grasped the hand of his or her neighbor, a stranger, someone perhaps he had only met minutes before, someone who perhaps he might never meet again, but yet for that evening we were united. He was your brother. She was your sister. We were all mishpocha — family, and we were joined through song and dance in a celebration of our family. We celebrated the one bond that we all shared: that we were a people of the Torah and that 3,500 years after the momentous moment when we stood at the foot of Sinai and heard the Divine word, we were all still united in our dedication and study of that holy word and our Divine mandate as a People of the Book.
We are told that when we stood at the foot of that mountain, the Jewish people achieved a sense of holiness and unity that has never since been replicated. The Torah even refers to that moment in the singular form: vayichan ha’am neged hahar, and the people camped (utilizing the singular term rather then the plural vayachanu) opposite the mountain.
Rashi, in his commentary on the verse, explains that we stood as one, with one heart. We even note in our Pesach seder in that wonderful song “Dayenu,” a stanza that suggests that very observation: “Had we stood at Sinai and not received the Torah” — we sing, “Dayeinu, it would have been enough.”
The Kotzker Rebbe suggests that the experience of all of the Jewish people being united with one heart and soul in and of itself, even without the actual receiving of the Torah, is significant enough of an experience to praise Hashem. During that evening four years ago, I’m pretty sure all of those gathered felt the incredible significance and power of those words.
We live in an extremely partisan world today. And Jews, our family, are certainly a very opinionated people. Politics, Israel, religion, education, social issues and even sports teams, there’s not too many of us that don’t have our opinions and issues that can tend to divide us from one another. Each of us has many issues we can compromise on and, at times, we can even validate the opinions of another. There are some issues, however, like our favored sports teams, and the essence of our faith and identity, it becomes more challenging to be inclusive about.
We all have our issues, and each of us have our lines. It is perhaps one of the greatest aspects of that Jewish personality and our dedication to the preservation of our values, and our eternally significant mission, and it is also the saddest part of our role in life, when brother and sister are separated from one another and are not one. It holds us back from experiencing that one moment in time when we were all united, when we all had clarity, when we were that family that responded as one — na’asheh v’nishma — we will do and we will hear. It holds us back from that deep internal longing to return to Sinai and be united as a family together again.
Since that trip four years ago, the Seattle Kollel, our group, as well as many other outreach organizations around the country, have set our minds to trying to recapture that incredible experience. The Jewish Unity Live initiative was founded, where, rather than every 7-1/2 years, we decided we would have an annual celebration: one that could unite all Jews in the one area that we can all agree upon. One statement and mission that all Jews can come together for: the celebration of us as a people committed to the study of Torah and our heritage.
Over the past years, hundreds of men, women and children, old and young, of all affiliations and religious backgrounds from our local community, have joined with the thousands from across the country to celebrate the completion of their Jewish course of study, whether with a class or through their own personal reading and learning by our siyyum completion date.
For many of us, this commitment has been life-changing, while for others it has been stimulating and strengthening, but for all it has been a desperately needed opportunity to come together and celebrate as a family in the joyous heritage we all share.
Much has been written in recent months in this newspaper about the divisions in our community. I’m sure as the political year progresses and the situation in Israel becomes more challenging, there will be many more things that might divide our opinionated and fractured people. It is at this time, more than ever, that it behooves us as a community to find those elements that can unite us, so we may celebrate and join together in song, dance and accomplishment with one another.
l look forward to the completion of my text of study and celebrating with the rest of our family as we celebrate together in our Jewish Unity.