Soon we will celebrate Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. This is the day on which we received, thousands of years ago, the Torah of Israel at Mount Sinai. Throughout its long history, the Jewish people have preserved the Torah and its commandments at all costs, even at times when it was a peril to do so.
There were many examples of preserving the Torah and its commandments during the days when the Nazis were massacring our people. Halachic [Jewish law] questions arose, for example, is one allowed to eat non-kosher meat in order to save oneself from starvation? Should one say a blessing after eating non-kosher food? Such questions were sent to rabbis at the time almost daily. The Torah and the commandments have been, and always will be, the basis for the Jewish people.
Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, known to many as "the rabbi from Ponevezh," named for the well-known yeshiva (institution of religious study) he started in Bnei Brak, went around to the generous people of the world to raise funds for his yeshiva after the Holocaust. This was similar to what people would do in Lithuania and Poland before the war, so that young people could sit and study the Torah of Israel unabated. At the time when the foundation stone for the yeshiva was laid, thousands of people were present. Kahaneman gave a speech to all those present, saying that his devotion stems purely from an act involving a pair of boots and a torn coat.
Those listening thought that the rabbi was confused, but he said the same thing again. He then told a story about an event from his childhood that influenced his life. One day, snow fell in the city where he lived with his mother and his brothers. In light of the intense poverty they lived in, neither he nor his brothers had boots or coats to go to school in. In the house, there was only one torn coat and one pair of boots, and each of the brothers wanted them for himself.
Kahaneman said that he and his brothers started to fight over the treasure. The oldest one claimed that he was starting to study Mishna in school and therefore he deserves the boots and the coat. This middle one claimed that he was starting to study the first Torah portion, Bereshit (first portion of the book of Genesis), and the youngest, Kahaneman was slated to start studying the alphabet. Their mother witnessed the battle over the boots and told everyone to go to bed, in the morning everything would be alright.
At 4:00 in the morning, the mother woke her eldest son and told him that she had chosen him to wear the clothes. The child was excited, got out of bed, put on the boots and walked out with his mother in the heavy snow. When they reached their destination, the mother took the boots and the coat from the child and promised him that she would return to take him home when he finished school. She went home, woke the second son, and told him, "I chose you." Again she began the half hour walk to school with her son. Again, she took the boots and the coat from him, returned home, and walked her youngest, Rabbi Kahaneman, to school.
In the same manner, she picked them up after school, one after the other. After so many hours trudging through the heavy snows of a small, icy European city, the mother fell sick and had to remain in bed. Kahaneman said that his mother called her sons and said that even though she was sick, she was not sorry. "I just ask that you will each give your souls for the Torah of Israel and for the education of your children."
Every parent's ambition is that his or her child be good, and well-educated. But this mother's act testifies also to the sacrifices our people have made throughout our long history. Even today, when we are in the Land of Israel, each person has struggles to face. But on the festival of the giving of the Torah, which commemorates the day we became a people, we must remember the powerful foundation within each and every one of us.