Roy Neuberger - Dec. 29, 2017

"The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time." 

In the summer of 1914, on the eve of World War I, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey uttered these famous words. He was perceptive enough to understand that the coming conflict would change the world forever. 

Today, over one hundred years later, the darkness is even more oppressive.  

In two weeks we will read these words: “Hashem said to Moshe: Stretch forth your hand toward the heavens, and there shall be darkness upon the land of Egypt, and the darkness will be tangible.” (Exodus 10:21) 

As I write, I have just heard the news of the death of Hagaon Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, zt"l. 

The lights are going out. The darkness is tangible.  

I would like to point out the irony, my friends. In this week’s Torah Portion we say “goodbye” to Our Father Jacob. We say goodbye to his Twelve Sons, the Fathers of the Tribes of Israel.. We say goodbye to Sefer Baraishis (the Book of Genesis)! I am choked up. How can we survive without our Fathers? How can we survive without Rav Steinman? 

Let’s make no mistake: we do not have such people any more. We have brilliant and holy Jews; we have great rabbis, but we do not have more than a handful left whose souls were nurtured in the holiness of the Old World, the world of the shtetl, the world of grace, dignity and humility which existed before “the lights went out.” 

I once read that someone asked a rosh yeshiva why we are no longer raising great Torah leaders of the stature of those who lived in Europe before the War. He answered: “Because there are public phones in the yeshivas!” That was before cell phones! Can you imagine the situation today? How far have we strayed? And Europe was a shadow of the days before the Destruction of the Second Temple! And that was a shadow of First Temple! And that was a shadow of what it was like at Mount Sinai! 

As soon as the Patriarchs and Matriarchs leave us, we enter the Exile of Ancient Egypt. Next week we read, “A new king arose who did not know Yosef.” Where are our shepherds?  

My friends, I am going to remind you of a very dark period in my life. I have spoken about these events before, but, since that time of year is approaching, I would like to mention it again. Decades ago, when we were first married, my wife and I were students at the University of Michigan. We had not yet found Hashem. We whirled around and around on the carousel of emptiness, going nowhere. Although young, we were already “walking in the valley overshadowed by death.” (Psalm 23) 

 Early in the morning of Monday, January 10, 1966, I awoke.

“I was desperate. I saw a chasm opening in front of me, a pit from which there was no escape. … I was twenty-three years old and we had been married just over two and a half years. The tensions were terrible. I felt as if my life were a long corridor, with many doors along each side.  I had opened each door … [and] … each door … [led] nowhere Was there no door that led to truth, to freedom, no door to sunshine and happiness?  I began to cry. There was no future. I was dying. …There was nothing to live for.  No hope. 


“I was sliding: down, down, down…. falling through space.  And then, as I fell, a thought brushed by me, a little thought … like a feather floating by in the midst of the void, a crazy little idea.... No, it couldn’t be true! But then … what else was there besides death? I ‘knew’ that G-d didn’t exist.  The problem was that I felt I also didn’t exist… 


“Suddenly, I began to turn the whole question around.  I saw something I had never seen before. There was one unopened door …. Why had I never noticed that door before?  It was the door to G-d. I had been sure G-d did not exist. But now that my own life seemed to be falling apart, I began to wonder.… When I was honest about my life, I saw that I did not exist – my life was empty – and at that time I was sure that G-d did not exist.


“But what if G-d did exist?  Maybe then I could also exist!  Maybe my existence depends on G-d! … I began to have this crazy thought.  Could G-d exist?  No, it’s crazy. … No normal person believed in G-d.  And then I began to wonder if I had ever met any normal people!


“When you are drowning, you grab the life preserver; you don’t ask questions. I was drowning, and all of a sudden, out of the sky, came this life preserver. I grabbed it. What choice did I have?  I wanted to live!  G-d, do You exist?  Could You exist? Dawn was beginning to break in Ann Arbor as a new light began to glow inside me.  All of a sudden, I started to have this incredible feeling of hope, a new idea that would enable me to live!”(From Central Park to Sinai)

That day was January 10, 1966, fifty two years ago. I later found out that it corresponded to the 18th Day of the Jewish Month of Teves, which occurs next week. On that day in 1966, I feel that Hashem sent an angel to us in Ann Arbor, and saved the life of myself, my wife and our future family. Each year on that day, I make a festive meal in honor of that event.

“Min ha maitzar … from the depths I cried out to Hashem, and He answered with expansiveness.” (Psalm 118)  The Exile in Egypt began when the Patriarchs and the Sons of Jacob left us. But soon, Hashem sent a Redeemer named Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses), who took the Children of Israel to Mount Sinai.

We can also expect a Redeemer soon, on the day Hashem will rescue us forever from darkness! 


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