After losing everyone in the Holocaust, my grandfather “Poppa,” who had grown up in a modern Hasidic family, completely abandoned his observance of mitzvos. When my father found his way to Jewish practice, it was an epic battle with his parents, who told him he was crazy. In his late sixties, however, Poppa did a 180 and by the end of his life, he was once again keeping kosher, going to minyan (synagogue services) every morning, and wearing a yarmulke all the time.
“Poppa, what happened that you decided to return to your roots?” I asked him one day.
“I was just taking care of unfinished business,” he replied and he told me the following story:
Originally from Czechoslovakia, he ended up in Auschwitz. One day, he noticed the gate open and decided to walk out. Not wanting to attract attention, he didn’t make a dash for it; he simply walked with an air of determination and sure enough nobody stopped him. But once outside the camp, he realized that the area was swarming with Nazis.
Sensing he’d been spotted, he ran over to a marshy area where he hid in the swamp, so as to avoid detection by the Nazi dogs. And there he sat waiting for the guards to disappear.
At that moment he gazed Heavenward and said, “G-d, if You deliver me from this ordeal, I promise to commit myself to being a good Jew in spite of everything I’ve seen and how angry I am with You.”
“And sure enough,” continued Poppa to me, “Hashem saved me. I eventually survived the war and came to Australia. But it wasn’t easy starting a new life, me and Nanna and our ten children. And so I kept putting off my promise to Hashem. I said to myself: Just as soon as things settle down, I will be able to be a committed Jew. But things never really seemed to settle down. Until that day you asked me to come to shul with you for Yizkor (memorial prayers) that Shavuos. At that point, everything changed. I realized I wasn’t getting any younger and either I would fulfill my promise, or I would miss my opportunity.”
The priestly service in the Holy Temple is so important that it even overrides the Sabbath. For example, ordinarily it would be forbidden to slaughter animals on the Sabbath. In the Temple, for sacrificial purposes, however, it was permitted.
Court-enforced capital punishment is even more powerful. The Torah states, “From my altar, you shall take him to die.” Rashi explains that if a cohen (priest) was convicted of murder and sentenced to capital punishment, but prior to execution he escaped to serve in the Temple, the court would nonetheless send messengers to bring him back to be executed. However, if he was actually on top of the altar performing the service already, we allow him to complete the task before taking him.
Picture this murderous cohen who has just been sentenced to death. He suddenly flees the court. Where would you run off to? South America? Russia? Not this fellow. He’s running to the Temple to carry out his priestly service!
It’s not like he’s a very pious individual; he’s been convicted of murder! This man is a lowlife, who has probably never even been to the Temple, let alone served there. And yet now that it’s time to die, he thinks: I’ve always promised myself I would do a Temple service like my family has done for generations back to great-granddaddy Aaron. I’ve just never gotten around to it.
What promise have you made to G-d that you’ve never quite gotten to? Do you keep pledging to become more committed to our heritage ‘one day’? Tomorrow never comes! Today’s the day! Make good on your promise to the Almighty! He’s sitting there in the Temple waiting for you! Don’t wait until it’s too late!
Maybe it’s your relationship with G-d or maybe it’s a relationship with a loved one that became strained at some point. You’ve kept telling yourself that one day you’ll mend the breach. But think about all those years of love you’ve lost in the interim! Let that ‘one day’ be today! Call them up and tell them how much you love them!
Don’t wait until it’s too late. Today’s the day to take care of that unfinished business. Whether it’s your relationship with the Almighty or your relationship with a fellow human being, do what you keep promising yourself you will do. Just do it today and you will be so much happier!