by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Over the years, many imaginative stories have grown up to fill in the gaps in what the Torah tells us.  As a favorite midrash from the Song of Songs Rabbah (1:4:1) narrates:

“When Israel stood ready to receive the Torah at Sinai, God said to the people: ‘I am giving you my Torah. Bring me good guarantors that you will guard it, and I shall give it to you.’ The Israelites asked God to accept the patriarchs as their guarantors. But God refused. They then suggest that the prophets should become their guarantors. And again God refuses. Finally, they say, “Behold, our children are our guarantors.” And God responds, ‘They are certainly good guarantors. For their sake, I give the Torah to you.’’’

Personally, I have always had the utmost respect for the prophets who spoke out against the dictums of the Torah being broken. Great prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah all suffered consequences for their honesty, their outspokenness, and their dramatic actions, which, in some instances, rivaled the street theatre of activist Alan Ginsberg and his ilk in the 1960s. These ancient prophets had no television, no 21st century Internet, texting, tweets, or Instagrams to communicate their unpopular messages to the people. They had to use more primitive methods: wearing an ox yoke to symbolize commitment to the Torah, posting messages on the Temple door, or staging what we would call a hunger strike today beside the Chabar Canal. The prophets were indeed guarantors of the Torah. Keep the commandments, they preached in their various ways, and fearlessly they rebuked the Jewish people in no uncertain terms, predicting dire consequences for straying from the covenant. But they also offered hope and consolation to those who returned to the Torah.

Today each of us who identify as Jews are guarantors of the Torah, and hopefully we will have children who will want to be Jewish and to be guarantors of the Torah too. Even more hopefully, we will have sufficient children to guarantee the continuity of the Jewish people. In the final analysis, we — each of us — are what our grandchildren are.

In my most optimistic moments, I like to recall the legend of the Lamed Vavs – that if there are only thirty-six righteous people in the four corners of the world, the world will be upheld, and we will always be alright. As individuals, we can’t always affect the course of history, or uphold the world by ourselves, but we can do little things that add up to a lot. In the spirit of the Torah, we can do little acts of kindness.  

My father believed in the chain of goodness, that if you do a kind thing for someone, that person will do a kind thing for someone else, and thus the chain of goodness continues, unbroken. You are standing at Sinai. In contemporary terms, they call it “paying it forward.”

You are what your grandchildren are.

When I think of little acts of kindness, I often think of the young Hasid who drove me home in a blizzard when I lived in Toronto.  I had bought a home in a mainly modern Orthodox area because I didn’t know if I would like the more straight-laced Toronto after the elegant, exuberant, francophone culture of Montreal, but I did know that I would always be able to sell a home that was within walking distance of so many synagogues. The garden of my house backed onto a lovely park that was very quiet during the week, but on Saturday afternoons, I loved watching the Orthodox families walking together in the park.

One night I drove home from a social gathering around midnight, and, by the time I reached my area, the thickly falling snow had turned into a blizzard. And sure enough, about fifteen or twenty blocks from my street, my car conked out. No way to start it, no how! It was absolutely dead. Cell phones had not yet been invented, so I couldn’t call for help. I couldn’t walk home; it was too far to go in the blinding blizzard, and I couldn’t stay in the car. Without heat, I would freeze.  My windows were already frosted over and my car blanketed with snow.

I was loathe to knock on a stranger’s door after midnight. What to do? I decided to stand outside — in the blizzard — beside the car in the hope that someone would soon drive by on the deserted street. Smart people were inside.

Finally, as I was beginning to shiver and shake with the cold, despite my warm clothing, a black station wagon came to a halt beside me. Driving it was a young Hasid. “Do you need help?” he asked. He tried valiantly to start my car, but it was no use.

“I’ll have to leave the car here,” I said. “I just live a few blocks from here. Do you think you could drive me home?”

He looked uncomfortable, and I realized that he did not like the idea of being alone in a car with a strange woman. He scratched his ear behind his black hat. But, as the blizzard whirled around us, he swallowed his misgivings and said, “Sure. Hop in.”

Very carefully, looking straight ahead through the window and not at me, and not saying a word, he drove me home. As I got out of the car, I thanked him profusely. It was pitch dark outside, but I think he blushed. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do a mitzvah,” he replied.

As we looked at one another, two Jews whose backgrounds were so different, our eyes locked in a moment of understanding. A mitzvah.  An act of loving kindness. Of course. We knew immediately that we were witnesses. We had seen one another at Sinai. In the midst of a blizzard, a generation apart, we would be guarantors.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2015. This story first appeared in my thesis, “The Staying Power of Hope in the Aggadic Narratives of the Talmud,” 2015. I have also narrated it at various gatherings.