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Storied Lives

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

I used to have a chavrusah with whom I learned Torah annually.

Yes, annually.

Usually for about an hour or two.

In a different city each year.

The text we studied was rather complex and challenging—the exquisitely concise (and often exquisitely confounding) glosses of the 18th-century Torah luminary known as the Vilna Gaon to the Shulchan Aruch’s section on the laws of mikva’os. That complex material was a major focus of my study-partner’s analysis for many years. I was just “tagging along.” Once a year.

The reason for the infrequency of that study partnership was that my partner, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg—a formidable Torah scholar, writer, and the editor of the Intermountain Jewish News—lives in Denver, and I reside in New York. We would meet, though, each year at a gathering of Jewish journalists sponsored by an organization that held its annual get-together in one of various cities across the country.

When Reb Hillel would arrive at the convention hotel, one of the first things he would do was to contact me to arrange a good time to sit and study a bit. I well recall our study sessions in places like Washington, Philadelphia, Denver, and Los Angeles (where we discussed one of the Vilna Gaon’s glosses amid actors’ trailers at the Universal Studios lot, surely a place that had not witnessed such holiness in the past). Our chavrusah-sessions were highlights of the junkets for me.

I haven’t attended the gatherings for a number of years now (due to budget constraints and a general feeling that there wasn’t much for me to either gain or give by my attendance), and not long ago, Reb Hillel published a comprehensive and scholarly tome on the course of his Vilna Gaon glosses study over those years.

Reb Hillel is also the author of several more works, considerably more layman-accessible. And he has just published a new one, entitled The Unexpected Road: Storied Jewish Lives Around the World.

I’m not a fan of what pass for “inspirational stories”—that is to say, undocumented (if widely believed and shared) accounts of various great people’s performance of wonders or astounding mental feats. It’s not that I don’t value miracles (though I have found few than can top a starry sky, or a baby), or that I’m not impressed by eidetic memories (though, ultimately, human value lies in righteousness, not talent, mental or otherwise). It’s just that, well, there isn’t, shall we say, rigorous corroboration of most of the popular tales that make the rounds, and I’m a hopelessly critical thinker (read: cynic).

And so I tend to favor overtly fictional parables—stories that make no pretentions whatsoever to having ever actually happened, but nevertheless yield food for thought. And first-person accounts from people I actually know.

Rabbi Goldberg is one such person, and his new book is chock-full of such accounts. He describes people he knows, or has known, and lets us share in some of the inspiration and realizations he has gleaned from their lives and doings.

In the book, one meets a man who reunited two brothers separated at Auschwitz, an American congregational rabbi who cast himself to “chance” in order to personally witness Divine providence, great leaders of Jews and simple Jews, even a neo-Nazi who came to give a Jew a thankful hug. The places along Rabbi Goldberg’s “unexpected road” include Basel, Santa Fe, Boston, Minsk, Jerusalem (of course), Brooklyn (ditto, l’havdil), Frankfurt, and Atlanta.

This collection of stories will indeed, as Rabbi Berel Wein predicts in a blurb on the book jacket, help readers realize that “there is more to life and life’s events than ‘me’ and one’s plans and decisions.” Each of us, Rabbi Goldberg assures the reader, can become, like many of the people whose stories are included in his book, angels of the Divine. v

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran.

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is available from Judaica Press.

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Posted by on January 10, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.