(As it appeared in the Hamodia)
When the Ribbono shel Olam offered the Torah to the nations of the world — and they promptly turned it down once they learned what was demanded of them — there were individual souls within those nations who disagreed with the majority of their brethren and were very eager to accept the Torah. These souls stood with Am Yisrael at the foot of Har Sinai when the Torah was given, and would later return as the numerous gerei tzedek that joined Klal Yisrael over the generations.
On Shavuos, we read Megillas Rus, in which we learn about the most famous of these lofty souls, a woman who was the epitome of selfless dedication and spiritual heroism and merited to be the ancestress of Malchus Beis Dovid and Moshiach Tzidkeinu.
Shavuos is also the yahrtzeit of Avraham ben Avraham, the famed Ger Tzedek of Vilna, to whom the aforementioned teaching is generally attributed.
His father, Graf Potocki, was an aristocrat, a landowner who was considered the wealthiest man in Poland. It is told that Potocki owned 999 villages. He declined to purchase the thousandth, saying that his wealth was more accentuated this way — since it took longer for people to say the words “He owns nine hundred and ninety-nine villages” than it takes to say “He owns a thousand villages.”
It is related that each Shabbos, his son felt restlessness within him, and this prompted him to begin a spiritual journey that concluded with his rejecting his enormous family wealth to become a Yid. His infuriated parents did all they could to hunt him down, and he went into hiding. He lived incognito near Vilna until, tragically, a Jewish tailor revealed his true identity and whereabouts to the Church authorities. They arrested Avraham ben Avraham and informed him that unless he returned to the religion of his birth, he would be burned alive.
Avraham ben Avraham refused to even consider the idea of reneging on the Torah that he had so willingly embraced.
It is told that when the Vilna Gaon came to see him in his prison cell, he offered to free him through the use of sheimos hakedoshim. The ger tzedek refused to give up on the opportunity to be killed al kiddush Hashem.
Other sources relate that when the Vilna Gaon came to see him, Avraham ben Avraham was weeping. The Gaon expressed surprise. “But you are going to give your life al kiddush Hashem, for the sake of Heaven, so why are you crying? You should be joyful!” he said.
The righteous convert revealed that he wasn’t crying because of his impending execution but because he had no roots among the Jewish people. “I don’t have a father and I don’t have children or brothers among Israel,” he said.
The Vilna Gaon replied by quoting the verse in Yeshayahu (44:6): “I am first and I am last, and besides Me there is no G-d.” The Midrash states: “I am first — I have no father; I am last — I have no son.” The Gaon explained that “I am first — I have no father” means “I am the Father for those who have no father,” and “I am last — I have no son” means “I am better than 10 sons.”
It was on Shavuos that Avraham ben Avraham was taken to the stake. Before his lofty soul left his holy body, he declared: “If I will only merit [to attain] the World of Truth, I will not rest and will not be silent until I manage to bring the man who informed on me to Olam Haba! Through him I merited this great fortune of being burned al kiddush Hashem.”
Even as he approached fiery flames, he didn’t flinch. He began to sing a moving niggun — one that has been faithfully passed down through the generations — to the words “aval anachnu amcha, bnei brisecha, bnei Avraham Ohavcha shenishbata lo b’Har Hamoriah” — “but we are Your people, members of Your covenant, children of Avraham, Your beloved, to whom You took an oath at Har Hamoriah…”
As the fire began to consume his body, he recited the blessing “Baruch Hamekadesh Sh’mo B’rabbim,” and with the words Shema Yisrael, his holy soul ascended to Shamayim.
The Shulchan Aruch (551:18) states that during the Three Weeks one should be careful not to walk alone between the fourth and ninth hours of the day, as it is a time when demons (ketev meriri) roam. Most communities are lenient, though, because the Gaon of Vilna said that when Avraham ben Avraham, Hy”d, was killed al kiddush Hashem, his petirah rid the world of this type of danger.
In addition to purifying the world from these forces of evil, Avraham ben Avraham continues to inspire Klal Yisrael to serve the Ribbono shel Olam with mesirus nefesh as they face myriads of tests and tribulations in their day-to-day lives.
Through living lives that personify kiddush Hashem, we help keep alive the memory of the Ger Tzedek of Vilna, and all the others throughout the generations who gave their lives to sanctify the name of Hashem.
As we prepare for the glorious Yom Tov of Shavuos, and relive once again Kabbalas HaTorah, we commit ourselves anew to dedicate every fiber in our being to cleave to the Ribbono shel Olam through learning the Torah, observing the mitzvos, and serving Him with song and true happiness.