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Dancing With 90,000 Jews: Parchment Burning, Letters Soaring

Three men, a Frenchman, an Italian, and a Jew, were condemned to be executed. Their captors told them that they had the right to have a final meal before the execution. They asked the Frenchman what he wanted.

“Give me some good French wine and French bread,” he requested. So they gave it to him, he ate it, and then they executed him.

Next it was the Italian’s turn. Give me a big plate of pasta,” said the Italian. So they brought it to him, he ate it, and then they executed him.

Now it was the Jew’s turn. “I want a big bowl of strawberries, ” said the Jew.

“Strawberries!!! They aren’t even in season!”

“So, I’ll wait…

In MetLife

Yesterday, January 1, 2020, I attended a gathering of 90,000 fellow Jews, at MetLife Stadium, in New Jersey. They all united to celebrate the completion of a seven-year cycle of studying the 2,711 pages of the Talmud.

At the mass event I noticed Jews, men and women, of all ages. But my heart swelled with tears and pride as I noticed one Jew, close to 100, an Auschwitz survivor, who attended the celebration together with four generations of decedents. I noticed some other twenty Holocaust survivors dancing together in MetLife.

And I recalled a story recorded in the Talmud, the one about the execution of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon.,

Rabbi Chanina was a sage of the Mishna who lived in Sachnin in the Galilee during the second century CE, during the reign of Adrian who wished to decimate Judaism. In open defiance of the Roman edict, Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon publicly taught Torah. The Romans caught him and sentenced him to be burned, his wife to be killed, and his daughter to be subjected to the life of a prostitute.

The Talmud related how he was executed. The venerable sage was wrapped in a Torah scroll—perhaps the very scroll that he had held in open violation of the Roman edict—and surrounded with bundles of vine branches. Lighting the pyre was not enough for the Romans; the sage’s demise was to be slow and painful: Clumps of wool were brought, soaked in water and placed over the heart of Rabbi Chanina. His daughter—herself sentenced by the Romans to a life of disrepute—cried: “Father, must I see you thus?”

With tremendous courage, Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon calmed his daughter: “If I alone was being burned it would be difficult for me. Now that I am being burned and the Torah scroll is with me—He who will seek a reckoning for the insult to the Torah scroll will seek a reckoning for my insult.”

As their teacher was nearing his end, the students sought to garner a final lesson: “Master, what do you see?” As the flames scorched his holy body, Rabbi Chanina shared a lasting image:

“The parchment is burning, but the letters are taking flight!”

Seeing their master’s pain, the disciples urged: “You too—like the Torah whose physical shell is being destroyed—open your mouth and the fire will enter you, and your soul will ascend with the letters.” But the sage refused. “It is better that He who gave the soul should take it back, rather than a person inflicts harm on himself.”

The Roman executioner, seeing Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon’s sacred majesty, turned to the sage: “My master, if I increase the flame and remove the clumps of wet wool from over your heart in order to end your suffering, will you bring me to the life of the world-to-come?”

“Yes.”

“Swear to me.”

The sage complied and the executioner immediately increased the fire and Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon’s soul departed. Without waiting, the Roman executioner jumped into the flames and a Heavenly voice resounded: “Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon and the executioner are prepared for the world-to-come.”

The Image

The sage is burning, together with the Torah scroll in which he is wrapped. And when his students ask him what he sees, he responds: “The parchment is burning, but the letters are taking flight!”

I will dare to ask: How absurd was the question of his students. What were they thinking? Here their Rebbe is burning alive, what types of question was this: “What do you see?” What is he supposed to be seeing during such savage suffering?

And what is the meaning of this response about the parchment burning and the holy letters soaring? What was he trying to convey to them?

What of the Future?

Perhaps, the students of the holy sage stood and watched the demise of both their Rebbe and their Torah, being destroyed together. At such a moment, they asked one question: Rebbe! What do you see? “Mah Atah Roeh?” This exact term is found in Jeremiah chapter one, where G-d asks the prophet “What do you see?” referring to a prophecy about the future, and a future of destruction.

The students were asking Rabbi Chaninah “What do you see” to constitute our future? With you—the preeminent sage of Israel—and the Torah going up in flames, what does the future hold for our people and faith? Where are we to invest our “stocks?” In the portfolio of Torah, seemingly meeting its doom, or in the portfolio of Rome seemingly on top of the world? Tell us, dear Rebbe, “what do you see?”

They, of course, remembered the first vision of G-d to Moses. How did Moses encounter the presence of G-d for the first time? In a burning bush. “And he saw that the bush is aflame but it is not being consumed.” The meaning of that vision, as the Midrash explains, is that the Jewish people will burn but they will never be consumed. But how will this happen? Wondered the students of Rabbi Chaninah, as they watched their master and the Torah being consumed by a raging blaze of hate! The burning bush was not being consumed, but the Sage and the Torah scroll were going up in the flames.

Rabbi Chaninah’s response remains one of the most powerful and moving messages that has defined and sustained our people: “I see the parchment is burning, but the letters are taking flight!”

The Torah consists of two parts: the parchment and the letters; the body and the soul; the physical matter and the ideas, the spirit, the message. The people too consist of two dimensions: the physical reality and the inner soul. The parchments of Torah, as well as the “parchments” of the Jewish people may be subjected to destruction and annihilation, but the letters of Torah—and the letters of the human spirit—are soaring. They never die. They endure, and they are transplanted into new places and new times.

After Auschwitz

Seventy-five years ago, our parents and grandparents watched the parchments of 6,000,000 go up in flames. From 1933 till 1945 the Germans burnt 100 million Jewish books as well. They were determined to destroy every last fragment of Jewish parchment.

I am still amazed every day how that generation managed to rebuild life from ashes. How? Somehow, they gazed at the burnt parchment, and they said to themselves: The letters have soared! Their spiritual essence, their message, their values, dreams, loves, passions and traditions will continue to live in us.

As the flames engulfed his body, Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon saw the letters “porchot,” a Hebrew term that means not only soaring, but also blossoming, blooming, flowering and flourishing. While the parchment burned, the letters of our Tradition had already taken flight, like a seed box carrying the kernel that will grow into a new tree. This is the eternal charm of the letters of our Heritage: Out of the ashes they rise; and borne by the winds of history, they are supplanted in new fertile ground where they can once again take root and thrive.

Our generation took to heart Rabbi Chaninah’s words: The letters took flight… and they landed in the yeshivas, in the shuls, in the homes, and in the hearts and souls and communities of Jews in Jerusalem, New York, Melbourne, Los Angeles, Moscow, Brazil, London, Chicago, Toronto, and Johannesburg. Wherever there are Jews, those words continue to stir, to arouse, to inspire and to resonate.

Yesterday, I observed the miracle of the letters transplanted on the soil of the Unites States blossoming. Tens of thousands of Jews celebrated their completion of hundreds of millions letters of the sacred text of the Talmud—the letters, words and ideas which have sustained our people for four millennia and continue to give us courage, meaning and the dignity of purpose.