Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – You Were There

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Operation Inspiration

In the mid 1940’s, a radio writer and humorist named Goodman Ace showed his serious side when he developed an idea for a radio program that re-enacted historical events as if they were taking place live. It later became a television series so people were able to “witness with their own eyes” such historical events as the sail and sinking of the Titanic or the capture of Wild West outlaw Jesse James. Being part of such events helped make them more tangible to audiences.

The show ran for over a decade and was unique in that it combined modern technology and historical information to help people learn from the past as if they were experiencing it in the present. The show was entitled, “You Are There.” I think it was a fantastic idea because it enabled twentieth-century people to relate to these events which happened so long ago.

Did you guess, perhaps, that Goodman Ace was a stage name? That his real last name was the Latvian Jewish moniker Aisikowitz? I, for one, when researching for this article, was not surprised that the creator of this concept was Jewish. Though he may not have grown up religious, the fundamental Jewish idea of Mesorah undoubtedly came through. While Jews of the modern era may have different takes on ‘Tradition!’ it is something that is valued by nearly everyone.

In fact, the roots of this show may be found very clearly in Judaism. The importance of history is borne out by the fact that we have such commands as, “She’al avicha v’yageidcha,” the mitzvah to ask our parents and grandparents about past events. The fact that the Torah recounts history gives us an indication of why it’s important because the Torah is not a history book which simply recounts past events. Only prophecies applicable to future generations were canonized into the Nach, so we understand that the importance of history is as it pertains to our present-day lives.

The “You Are There” concept may have gotten another boost from the Haggadah shel Pesach, in which we learn that each person is supposed to see himself as if he were leaving Egypt now. Some even have the custom of reenacting the events by placing the matzah on their backs and walking around the table while having a conversation about how Hashem is taking them from Egypt.

As we approach Shavuos, this message takes on new meaning. The posuk in Netzavim, (Devarim 29:13-14) discusses the covenant Hashem made with us at Har Sinai. Moshe lets us know that this bris was made not only with those who were alive at the time, but with the future generations that would be born. The meforshim explain that we have an obligation to convey to our children that the Land of Israel was only given to us on condition that all future generations keep the Torah as well.

The Gemara in Shevuos (39a) discusses this posuk of “those who are not here today” and what it means for future generations of Jews and converts. The Maharsha explains that though they were not present in their physical form, as a body is not created until conception, the souls and/or the mazel of these future Jews were present when Hashem revealed Himself as our G-d Who took us from Egypt.

This was a key ingredient in Kabbolas HaTorah, that we understand that were really WERE there. It’s not a historical event that happened to others and they retell the story. Rather, this is something that happened to us, and this is how we responded, and now we’re trying to remind ourselves of this event and keep the enthusiasm of the moment alive.

Chazal tell us that Torah should be new to us each day. This does not mean that we should learn something, not review it, and then forget it so that the next time is like the first again. Rather, it means that just as on that very first day we recognized the import of what was happening; that we were forging a new connection to Hashem and His Torah, each day we are to be excited anew at the opportunities to come closer to a meeting of the minds with Him. Each day we can relive the sparks of our initial meeting and bask in the glow of Hashem’s love like a new bride.

But it’s not enough to simply have that chance. We need to be committed to doing it because we’ve already given our word and that means something to us. We made an agreement and know that it is in our best interest. We know that it was so important for us that Hashem ensured we were present so we would never feel that Hashem loved that generation more than us.

He cared enough to have each of us there, and that’s something we should remember every day. It should be enough of a reason to motivate us to get up, get moving, and get on with being the best we can be so that the fire of our relationship with Hashem never loses its heat.

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