Arts & Culture, People

My Israel Story #26- Rabbi Joel Finkelstein

by JCPConnect-

We’re marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel with a year-long celebration! Keep an eye out for “Memphis Celebrates Israel at 70” branding at your synagogue, at events around town, and online. In this series, we’re asking Memphians to tell their personal Israel stories. Do you have a story to tell? 

Rabbi Joel Finkelstein is Senior Rabbi for Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth Congregation.

When I was about 14 years old, I participated in my synagogue’s local youth minyan or service. Each week we would divide the Torah reading among us. Sometimes I took two or three portions or Aliyot to help out. One week I decided I would read the whole thing, Parashat Bo, about the Exodus. I remember that my father, of blessed memory, attended youth services that week to hear me read.

About four years later I was in Israel for my gap-year at Yeshivat Har Etzion. One Shabbat we decided to go to the holy Old City of Jerusalem to stay over and join the Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim at their yeshiva. Their yeshiva was ransacked in 1948 when Jerusalem fell to Jordan, and was now being reclaimed. It stood directly across from where the ancient Temple’s Holy of Holies stood, the holiest place on earth. When we prayed at the yeshiva, we were facing the Kotel Hakatan, the “small Kotel,” only a few hundred feet from the actual spot of the Holy of Holies. It was very moving to be there.

As we reached the part of the Shabbat morning service when we read the Torah, my teachers looked at the teachers of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim as to who was reading. The teachers of Ateret Cohanim looked at us, the visiting yeshiva, to see who was reading. Each had assumed the other would read that week’s Torah portion of Parashat Bo, from the scroll. But neither came prepared to do so. The main rabbi was about to announce that we would walk to the main Kotel, some distance away, to hear the Torah reading.

But then I remembered, four years earlier, I had learned this portion, and though I hadn’t reviewed it especially for this occasion, I could likely read it just fine. So I told the rabbi that I would be happy to read. And so I did. Everyone was so relieved.

This made me ponder the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. There I was four years earlier, 6,000 miles away, randomly picking this week to prepare the reading, and a few years later, miles away in our national homeland, a minyan was waiting for me to read that very same Torah portion. That act of volunteerism that I had performed from afar had its results miles away in a different minyan, right near the Holy of Holies. I felt that G-d had arranged that moment for me and for the group so everything would go smoothly that day. I felt the hand of G-d guiding all that had transpired to make that moment happen the way it did.

Over thirty years later, my sons have been studying in Israel the last few years, at that very same yeshiva I had attended, Yeshivat Har Eztion. Some of my rabbis have since passed on, but their students continue to teach, using their methodology and inspiration.

Frequently in the last few years, as I teach Torah here in Memphis, I am edified by teachings my sons share with me from Israel. Just recently, I was studying Talmud with my son here and we were speaking of some of the teachings that my son in Israel had shared with me. Across the divide of 7,000 miles, the Torah “comes forth from Zion and the word of the L-rd from Jerusalem” (Isaiah ii, 3).

I continue to live my life here on this side of the Atlantic, and yet, I wonder if many of my decisions, my teachings and my mitzvot on this side of the Atlantic will one day bear fruit on that side of the Atlantic as it happened with my childhood Torah reading.

A Midrash known as the Sifrei says that we should do mitzvot outside of Israel so they will not be new for us when we return. Maybe all our mitzvot, all of our Jewish life, is one big preparation for that day when we all return to Israel and on that day we can say, “We never would have gotten here if not for all the Jewish decisions we made over the last 2,000 years.” Each act of kindness, mitzvah, and Torah study we do here, could one day have its culmination, its results, in the Land of Israel, thousands of miles away, on the other side of the ocean. It’s all part of G-d’s plan but we have to do our share.


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