Shabuot- We Won the Lottery of Life
Shabuot is famously known, among other things, as the Yahrtzeit of King David. Less known is the fact that the second day of Shabuot marks the Yahrtzeit of another very important, and inspiring, Jewish figure.
A young man named Valentin belonged to the prominent Pototzki family in Poland, a fabulously wealthy family of devout Catholics who owned the spectacular Lancut Castle. Valentin traveled from Poland to Paris to study in a seminary, aspiring to become a minister. But while in Paris, he happened to come across an elderly Jew whose eyes were practically glued to the pages of a certain book. Valentin was struck by the man’s devotion to his studies, and so he approached the man, inquired about what he was reading, and discovered, for the first time, the Jewish religion. This encounter triggered a lengthy, unlikely process which culminated – remarkably – in Valentin’s conversion to Judaism.
His family, naturally, was shocked, and mortified, upon hearing the news. Valentin was summoned back to Poland, and sharply reprimanded by his family. They brought leading Catholic figures to speak to him and try to change his mind and return to Catholicism, but he refused. They offered him great wealth if he returned, and threatened to leave him with nothing if he remained a Jew.
"No matter what you offer me," Valentin said, "I am remaining a Jew. I have found the truth, and it is worth more than anything."
Finally, Valentin was threatened with death. He heroically accepted his fate, rather than give up his new belief and lifestyle.
On the second day of Shabuot, 5509 (1749), Valentin – whose name had been changed to Abraham – was tortured to death and burned.
The Hafetz Haim, who lived over a century later, reportedly said that if ten Jewish men had been present at his execution and recited Kaddish, Mashiah would have come.
It is not coincidental that Abraham’s execution occurred on Shabuot – the time when we read the story of another great person who gave up everything to become a Jew. Rut belonged to the family of the king of Moav, enjoying regal wealth, luxury and prestige, and she married into a wealthy, aristocratic Jewish family that had emigrated to Moab. After the tragic death of her husband and father-in-law, she could have very easily returned home to her life of royalty. But instead, she decided to join her mother-in-law, Naomi, and go to Eretz Yisrael and embrace Torah, even though this meant subjecting herself to abject poverty. Upon returning to Eretz Yisrael, Naomi and Rut did not even have food to eat, and Rut had to collect gleanings from Boaz’s field just so that she and her mother-in-law would not starve to death. This is what Rut endured for the sake of joining Am Yisrael and committing herself to a life of Torah observance.
On Shabuot we also recall another famous convert. The Torah reading on the first day of Shabuot comes from Parashat Yitro – which is named after the priest of Midyan who sacrificed his life of wealth and fame in order to join Beneh Yisrael in the desert. Like Rut and Valentin Pototzki, he was willing to give up everything for the sake of Torah.
As we celebrate Matan Torah on Shabuot, we must stop to reflect upon the priceless treasure which we have been privileged to receive. The stories of Yitro, Rut and Valentin remind us of just how incalculably precious the Torah is, that nothing we can possibly have in this word will ever come anywhere close to the value of Torah.
Often, we complain about the difficulties entailed in religious observance. The prices of kosher food, the cost of Torah education, the loss of profit on Shabbat and Yom Tob, the inconvenience of praying three times a day – these, among many other things, make Torah life challenging. But the stories told above should put all these challenges in perspective, and reinforce our firm belief that what we gain by learning and observing the Torah far outweighs the costs and inconveniences.
The Gemara (Shabbat 88b) relates that at the time the Torah was given, the angels in heaven protested, insisting that something as precious as the Torah must remain with them. But they were wrong. The Torah belongs to us, the Jewish People. We are so beloved by Hashem that He gave us this precious treasure – which even the heavenly angels want but cannot have.
One of my Rabbis in high school would tell the class, "Boys, you have won the lottery of life!" The Torah is more precious than anything we could ever have – and Shabuot is the time to reflect upon the great privilege we have been given, the ability to study and live by Hashem’s Torah.