Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
I want to tell you the best Jewish story I have ever heard. I heard it from Rabbi David Wolpe who I think is the greatest rabbi in Los Angeles.
This is how he told the story: "My father Gerald Wolpe was a rabbi in Philadelphia, and one day he received a call from a dear friend who was also a rabbi. His friend spoke urgently, 'Gerry, you have to come over and you have to come over right away!' Several years before, this old friend of my father bought an old set of the Talmud because he did not want it to be destroyed and he stored it in a box in his garage. On the day he called my father there were torrential rains in Philadelphia and the roof of his garage was leaking. There was water damage inside so he ran out to the garage and, among other boxes, he opened the box with the Talmud in it to make sure that it was not damaged by the water. He took out one of the volumes and leafed through it when suddenly he saw writing in the margins of one of the pages. When my father arrived he pointed to the writing with tears in his eyes, it said, 'My name is Yankel ben Motel Greenberg from Vilna. The Nazis are coming so if this book survives, please start learning from here in my memory.' "
Wolpe's story is about what those four words mean, "start learning from here." If you can understand -- truly and deeply understand -- what it means to, "start learning from here" there is nothing else I will ever need to teach you.
The simple meaning of the story is that after the Holocaust, Jewish learning is a sacred duty. Remember that the Holocaust was not only a genocide of Jews, it was also a genocide of Judaism. Only one European yeshiva (rabbinical academy) survived the war. It was the famous Mir yeshiva near Poltava, Lithuania. It survived with help of the "Japanese Schindler," Chiune Sugihara, who was the Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, who helped the rabbis and students of Mir along with hundreds of others escape to Shanghai. Because of what happened there it is our sacred duty to study here.
"Start learning from here" also means start learning from this place and time in history. The rabbis of the first century had to start learning how to recreate a Judaism that could function in the Diaspora without a Temple, without sacrifices and without priests. Today, the needs of Jews and Judaism demand that we start learning from here how to teach people -- Jews and non-Jews -- how to love Israel or how to love Israel again.
Sadly, Zionism is losing its appeal for many young American Jews. Fewer than 25 percent of millennial Jews consider Israel to be important to them in any way. Loving the land of Israel and the State of Israel ought to be a natural instinct rather than an insurmountable burden.
On its next level "start learning from here" can mean start learning from this place in your life; from the place where you just fell in love or just had a child; from the place where you have just been diagnosed with a serious and chronic disease; from the place where a loved one has passed; from the place where you are going through a painful divorce, unexpected unemployment, forced retirement or financial setbacks. Whether it is something suddenly given or something suddenly taken away, we must all start learning from here how to manage the big transitions in our lives.
When we start learning from here we are not only learning about Judaism and Israel and our own life transitions, but we are also learning about God.
The Talmud teaches, "When two study together the Shekinah sits between them." The Shekinah is the earthly manifestation of God. This is similar to the role Jesus plays in Christianity as an earthly manifestation of God. Like prayer, learning is also a path to spiritual wisdom.
God has a plan for each one of us and we can only discover it by starting to learn from here. God's plan for you is more than a dream. It can become real for you if you will just start learning from here. I believe in God and I believe in you and I believe that the Shekinah is waiting to speak to each and every one of us. All we have to do is start learning from here and the secret will be written in the margins of our life.