In one of my trips to Poland, I was privileged to see the Lancut Castle, a magnificent, spectacularly large edifice that belonged to the renowned Pototzki family. This family was devoutly Christian, yet, ironically, it produced one of the most remarkable – and inspiring – Jewish figures of all time.
Valentin Pototzki, a nobleman from this distinguished family, went to Paris to study theology in order to become a minister. It is told that at one point during his stay in Paris, he went into an inn which was owned by an elderly, pious Jew who spent all his free time studying Torah. The sight of the saintly old man poring over ancient books intrigued young Valentin, and he asked the man what he was reading about. The man explained to him that this was a text of Torah learning. Valentin asked more questions, and the more he heard, the more he felt an inner spark ignited. This began a deep relationship between him and Torah, a relationship which led young Valentin Pototzki to convert to Judaism – a move that was deemed a capital offense at the time.
Word of his conversion got back to his family, who were, understandably, shocked and incensed. His father summoned him back to Poland and berated him for bringing shame upon his devout Christian family. The father brought ministers to speak with Valentin and to plead with him to reconsider, but his mind was made up. They offered him wealth and glory if he returned to Christianity, but he refused.
“No matter what you will give me,” Valentin said, “I will not abandon Judaism. I have encountered the truth.”
They then threatened to put him to death, and he accepted the punishment. Valentin, whose name was now Avraham, was sentenced to burning at the stake.
It is told that the Gaon of Vilna heard of Avraham and his death sentence, and he offered to share with him a Kabbalistic proclamation which would protect him from all pain as he was burned. But Valentin refused, fully prepared to suffer this unspeakable torment for the sake of the Jewish religion.
On May 24th, 1749 – the second day of Shavuot, 5509 – Avraham was burned to death. Over a century later, the Hafetz Haim remarked that if ten men had been present at the execution and recited kaddish for this holy martyr, Mashiah would have come.
It is not coincidental that this tragedy occurred on the second day of Shavuot – the day when many communities read the beautiful and inspiring story of another gentile who recognized the truth of Judaism and made extraordinary sacrifices for the sake of Torah commitment.
Just as Valentin Pototzki grew up among nobility and was on a path to wealth and prestige before abandoning this path to embrace Judaism, Ruth was similarly born to royal stock. Our sages teach that she was the granddaughter of Eglon, the king of Moav. She grew up in the lap of luxury, in the king’s palace, and was all but certain to spend her life enjoying the comforts and splendor of royalty.
Indeed, she married into an aristocratic family – albeit not a family from her own nation, Moav, but a Jewish family. Her father-in-law was Elimelech, a wealthy magnate who chose to abandon his people during a period of economic hardship in the Land of Israel, hoping to enjoy a more comfortable life across the border, in Moav. After Ruth married Elimelech’s son, before she bore any children, tragedy struck. Her husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law all died, leaving behind her, her sister-in-law and her mother-in-law as penniless widows.
Elimelech’s widow, Naomi, decided to return to her homeland, and bid farewell to her daughters-in-law. One daughter-in-law left, but Ruth refused to go. She uttered the timeless proclamation, “Wherever you go, I will go” – avowing her unconditional, eternal loyalty to Naomi, to Naomi’s people, and to Naomi’s faith. Naomi reminded Ruth what this meant – that she would, in all likelihood, remain an impoverished widow for the rest of her life. The chances of anyone wishing to marry someone like Ruth – a convert from an enemy gentile nation without any money and who was completely alienated from her family – were all but zero. Ruth had the option of returning home to the palace and rejoining the Moavite aristocracy. But she surrendered it all in order to live as a pauper with her elderly mother-in-law.
Ruth did this because she recognized what we all take for granted – the unparalleled beauty, truth and majesty of Torah life. Ruth understood what most of us often find it difficult to understand – that there is nothing more precious in the world than studying and observing Gd’s law. Once a person has this keen awareness, and truly appreciates the priceless value of Torah, no sacrifice is too great. It becomes a no-brainer to forego on wealth and prestige in order to live as a Torah Jew. It was obvious to Ruth that a life of destitution and collecting gleanings of grain from the fields during the harvest was a small price to pay for the great privilege and joy of obeying the word of Gd and being part of His treasured nation. It was obvious because she recognized this privilege and joy – a recognition that is, unfortunately, often absent from our mindset and outlook.
Ruth is an ancient precedent for the inspiring story of Valentin Pototzki. Their unbridled commitment and resolute decision to sacrifice everything for Torah serve us well as a powerful reminder of what a precious treasure we have in our possession, of just how privileged we are to have the Torah as our guide.
In truth, there is even an earlier precedent – a story told already in the Humash.
Yitro, Moshe Rabbenu’s father-in-law, is described by the Torah as having been the priest of Midyan. He was the leading religious figure of his region, who undoubtedly enjoyed great honor and prestige. Like Ruth and Valentin Pototzki centuries later, Yitro abandoned his comfortable life in order to join Am Yisrael. He recognized the true faith and the beauty of Torah life, and he thus made the decision to leave everything behind in order to become part of Gd’s nation.
Not coincidentally, the story of Matan Torah, the event we celebrate on Shavuot, is told in the portion that bears Yitro’s name – Parashat Yitro – and is preceded by the story of Yitro’s joining Am Yisrael. Matan Torah is associated with Yitro’s conversion because Yitro’s conversion shows us what Matan Torah is all about. More than any other story told in the entire Torah, Yitro’s arrival at the Israelite camp demonstrates the inestimable value of Torah, the great privilege of living a Torah life. When we read of people like Yitro and Ruth, who gave up a life of comfort and nobility to become part of the Jewish Nation, we begin to appreciate how fortunate we are to belong to that nation.
Moshe’s Triumph Over the Angels
Just how precious is this commodity which we received on Shavuot? Precious enough that the angels in heaven are jealous of us because of it.
The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat tells that when Moshe Rabbenu ascended Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah, the angels couldn’t believe their eyes.
“What is this mortal creature doing among us?” they asked, incredulously. Never before did they see a human being, a physical creature, in the pristine, spiritual realm of the heavens.
Gd explained that this man – Moshe – had come to receive the Torah and bring it to earth.
The angels were now doubly astonished, and they protested. They argued that the Torah is a precious treasure which preexisted the world’s creation by many millennia. Where does such a sacred article belong – in the perfectly pure environs of the heavens, or down on earth, entrusted into the hands of flawed, deficient, fickle, unstable and unreliable human beings?!
Gd turned to Moshe and urged him to respond. Moshe valiantly defended his case and convinced the angels that to the contrary, earth is the most appropriate place for the holy Torah.
In one of several unforgettable meetings I was privileged to have with Hacham Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, he added a beautiful insight into this story, ingeniously explaining it based on a halachic precept known as dina debar matzra, or the “right of first refusal.”
Halachah requires a person looking to sell his property to first offer it for sale to his neighbor. If the neighbor desires the property and is prepared to pay the fair market price, the seller must sell it to him. Our sages derived this law from the Torah’s command, “Ve’asita hayashar vehatov be’ene Hashem – You shall do what is just and good in the eyes of Hashem.” This command obligates us to act in a generally decent, ethical manner, even in matters that are not circumscribed by strict halachic obligations. In the case of a property being put up for sale, common decency dictates that the seller should first offer the property to the neighbor, who could benefit from the property more than others since he already owns the adjacent property. He could combine the two properties into one large home or use the new property for a business conveniently situated right next door. As long as the neighbor is willing to pay a fair price, and thus the seller does not lose by offering him the property, he must offer the neighbor the right of first refusal.
Hacham Ovadia explained that this was the angels’ argument. If Gd was looking to “give away” the Torah, which had been in the heavens, then it was only fair for him to first offer it to the angels. They lived “adjacent” to the Torah. They resided alongside it in the heavens, and so they rightfully deserved the right of first refusal.
What, then, was Moshe’s response?
There is another consideration that takes precedence over a neighbor’s right of first refusal. If the seller’s son wishes to purchase the property, and is prepared to pay a fair price, then he is given the right of first refusal before the neighbor. His connection to the property is considered stronger even than that of the neighbor, and so he must be given the first opportunity to purchase it.
Hacham Ovadia explained that this is why the Torah was first offered to us, the Jewish People, before it was offered to the angels. “Banim atem le’Hashem Elokechem – You are sons of Hashem your Gd” (Devarim 14:1). The angels lived closer to the Torah than us, but our connection to it is stronger than theirs because of our close connection to its owner – the Almighty. We had first rights because we are Gd’s beloved children.
We have something that even the angels in heaven desire. And we have it because of our special status as Gd’s children. The Torah serves as an eternal testament to the unique bond between us and Gd. What could possibly be more precious?
The Lesson of Shavuot
Shavuot, when we celebrate Matan Torah, is the time for us to remind ourselves of the pricelessness of this gift, to reinforce our awareness of our great privilege, of just how fortunate we are to have been given this invaluable commodity.
Why is it so important to reinforce this awareness? Why do we need yet another holiday to remind us of how valuable Torah is?
The answer is, quite simply, that we need this reminder because we complain so much about Torah life.
On one level, the complaints are understandable. Don’t let anyone – including any rabbi – tell you that Torah life is easy. It isn’t. There are many sacrifices we need to make. Kosher food is expensive, and outside our little enclave, it is very inconvenient. Closing a business or taking off from the work every Shabbat and Yom Tov is difficult. Not too long ago we celebrated Pesach, which demands a great deal of preparation and entails considerable expense. The minutia of halachah are complicated. Regular Torah study does not fit easily into the crazy schedules of today’s hectic world. And this is before mentioning the word “tuition.” Torah life includes bringing children into the world and putting them through the religious school system, as well as supporting our communal institutions. It’s not easy. It’s a challenge.
This is why we have Shavuot. Without this annual reminder of the preciousness of Torah, without this reminder of the likes of Yitro, Ruth, and Valentin Pototzki, and the incredible sacrifices they made for the sake of Torah, we might never appreciate its beauty and value. We might just go through the motions begrudgingly or even resentfully, doing what we need to do without any excitement, joy and vitality. Torah life would become a drag, Heaven forbid. We would complain about the inconveniences of Torah observance rather than eagerly embracing them as part of the package.
A teacher of mine used to tell us that we are the winners of the “lottery of life.” We, the Jewish People, have hit the jackpot. We have the “ticket” to the greatest treasure there is.
Imagine a person who is notified that he won a $100-million-dollar prize, but in order to claim it, he needs to travel across the world and go to numerous government offices to sign the relevant papers. He has to buy an airline ticket, sit through traffic on the way to the airport, wait on the endless lines at the airport, travels for hours on a crowded flight with little legroom, and then spend a number of days waiting on lines at government offices. Can we imagine him resenting this process? In just a few days, he is going to be a multi-millionaire who is set for the rest of his life, without having ever to work another day. If he ever uttered a word of complaint while waiting on line or sitting in traffic, the person next to him just needs to remind him what this is all about, and his complaints would instantly end.
This is the purpose of Shavuot – to remind us that we’ve won the jackpot. Shavuot is like the person sitting next to our lottery winner on the plane responding to him when he complains about the food, reminding him that this is a small sacrifice to make for the enormous treasure he is about to receive.
When we hear ourselves complaining about the expenses and inconveniences of religious life, let us remember the sacrifices made by Yitro, by Ruth, and by Valentin Pototzki, and remind ourselves that these sacrifices are well worth it. We’ve won the lottery of life. Let’s enjoy it, appreciate it, and embrace Torah life with great excitement and fervor. Let us appreciate what we have and rejoice – rather than complain – about the hard work needed to care for this priceless treasure.