I often, as a way to prepare for Modim, make a Thanksgiving list of things in my life for which I am thankful, My Machberet Avodat Hashem – Service of God Notebooks – contain hundreds of such lists.
I recently reviewed many of the lists and found numerous very personal gifts that constantly change from one day to the next. I also found two experiences that consistently appear in practically every list, and although they occurred many years ago, are very real parts of my everyday life. They are the Foundation Stones of both my life and development.
My grandfather zt”l came into the room where I was having a party celebrating my 11th birthday. We were having a blast playing with, more than eating, the Carvel cake, when he entered the room, and we immediately fell silent and rose in his honor. He stood there watching us with ice cream all over our hands and faces. I imagined that he was thinking back to his 11th birthday in Russia, wistfully wishing they had a Carvel in Dolghinov. I was wrong; he wasn’t thinking about ice cream, but of something else.
“You will finish Shas (The Talmud) for your Bar Mitzvah,” he asked. “Zaidy, it’s impossible!” I protested. “I did it,” he responded. “But I’m not Zaidy,” I argued. “Neither was I when I was your age. The only difference is that I never accepted anything in learning as impossible,” he said, and he left the room.
There we were, relatively normal 11 year olds covered with ice cream and icing, absorbing the verbal beating I had just received. I say “I” because my “friends” all agreed that he was only speaking to me. Thank God, he did speak to me. I dropped the word impossible from my vocabulary and finished the Talmud long before any of those friends. I was not smarter than they, but I had been freed of limitations. That moment is a Foundation Stone in my life. I include it in every thank you to God.
The other Foundation Stone moment was on my first Friday night with my Rebbi, Rabbi Yochanan Zweig. All 15 students gathered their chairs around Rebbi’s immediately after Kabbalat Shabbat and opened their Chumashim. For the next fifteen minutes everyone asked excellent question after powerful question on the first verse of the Portion of the Week. I couldn’t believe that there could be so many excellent questions on one verse. I felt a door open in my mind, and soon found myself joining them in asking. It was one of the most magical moments of my life. We were touching eternity. When we finished our questions, Rebbi asked, “Are you finished?” He then pointed out the numerous thematic questions we missed, followed by a single idea that answered all the questions. I was breathless. My mouth was wide open in awe of my Rebbi and of the infinity of Torah.
I relive that moment every single time I open a Chumash to study a verse. That experience is my other Foundation Stone.
I have many things, past and present, for which I am grateful, but those two moments breathe life into everything I learn and teach. The Thanksgiving list is endless. I cannot mention every detail small and large, for which I am grateful, but I keep a special list of two foundations for which I can never even begin to express my gratitude.
I suggest that you, too, make two lists. Details and Foundations. You will find that your Thanks will become Giving; it will give you so much, and will help you give much more to others.
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg