Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Celebrating Growth and the Future

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

So often, we hear disparaging comments about our society and way of life that we begin to believe them and think that all is lost. We hear speakers bemoan all the things that are going wrong and begin to think that the ship is sinking. As Elul approaches, some of us grow melancholy, as we ponder our mistakes and missteps throughout the year.

If we step back and view things objectively, though, it's comforting to note that the record is not all bad.

In consonance with the Shiva D'nechemtah, the seven weeks of consolation that we are now in the midst of, perhaps we should focus more on the positive and less on the negative.

Somebody I know well and respect sent me the following e-mail, which got me thinking: "Are you putting a picture on the front page of bnei yeshiva learning at the start of the Elul z'man? Don't. It's the same thing every year. It makes the paper very parochial and predictable."

We have grown so much, so fast, that we all take our success for granted. We forget that there was a time not that long ago when people regarded the Torah way of life, which flourished for so many centuries, through so many bitter vicissitudes, as a thing of the past. People thought that yeshivos could never be transplanted to this country; they said it would never work. "Yeshiva bochur" was a pejorative term weighted with derision and scorn.

A mere few decades ago, it appeared as if the naysayers were correct. Torah, as we know it, remained alive in a couple of yeshivos, thanks to the stubborn efforts of a handful of heroic diehards. But as for Torah enjoying a vibrant future and continuity? Who was willing to place their bets on such a remote, quixotic vision?

The words of Ben Gurion, when he agreed to a draft deferment for yeshiva bochurim, are well known. When people around him were concerned about his exempting Bnei Torah from the nascent country's army, he is said to have assured them that yeshiva students were a dying breed who wouldn't last more than another generation. They weren't worth hassling over. Why not give them the deferment and avoid a major fight?

Ben Gurion didn't offer this argument to be cute and flippant. He didn't say it because he needed to quiet his advisors. He said it because he believed it to be true, and they accepted what he said because they agreed with him that yeshivos were doomed.

Boruch Hashem, they were wrong. Today, six decades after our people were almost wiped out, we are stronger and more populous than ever. Yeshivos are flourishing and bursting at the seams. They cannot accommodate all the young men who seek to study and grow within their hallowed walls.

The story of the ehrliche seforim socher who tearfully told Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch zt"l in the 1940s that he was selling him the very last copy of the classic sefer Ketzos Hachoshen captures the mood of an era when people really believed that no one would be learning Torah for much longer. The call of the outside society would be too loud, its pull too strong. The lure of the secular world, with all its "isms" and utopian visions, was overpowering. The most one could hope for was decent children who had some appreciation for their heritage.

Orthodox young men took up positions in Conservative congregations because they thought that there was no future in Orthodoxy. Some found their way back; many didn't.

People worked on Shabbos; they couldn't withstand the trials of poverty and destitution. They felt as if they were fighting a losing battle anyway. Jews would daven in shul Shabbos morning and then head out for work. There were no day schools for their children; they went to public school and dissolved into the American melting pot, lost forever.

But then, the Second World War changed everything. Hitler's rise to power wiped out most of European Jewry. Several rabbinic leaders and good Jews managed to escape and found their way to these shores. Financially broke but rich with spirit and determination to rebuild what they saw destroyed, they refused to take no for an answer. They had witnessed the empire of Torah crumble in front of them and wouldn't let anything deter them from doing all they could do to rebuild it.

Rav Aharon Kotler zt"l founded Bais Medrash Govoah in 1943. The yeshiva began with 13 students in a building located at 617 Sixth Street which housed a bais medrash, dining room, dormitory, office and an apartment for the rosh yeshiva. Following his petirah, architectural plans were designed for a building that would service up to 500 talmidim.

The plan was dated 9-29-1946. At a time that the yeshiva's enrollment was less than fifty, Rav Aharon had a vision of five hundred. At a time when people were saying that the matzav was hopeless and no one would ever learn Torah lishmah in treifeneh Amerikah, the rosh yeshiva clung tenaciously to his vision. With a soul aflame with Torah, he ignited a revolution that even he never dreamed would be this far-reaching and successful.

There were others, to be sure; many more were galvanized by his towering leadership and encouraged to build on.

Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt"l, who arrived here much earlier and breathed life into Torah Vodaas, set up a beacon of life and light for the New York area and attracted talmidim from near and far. His establishment of Torah Umesorah led to the creation of Jewish elementary schools all across the country. Eventually, that movement changed the face of American Jewry. Children were snatched from the clutches of assimilation and hope was given to their parents that they could be saved.

The full history of that era is outside the scope of this column. There were other beacons of light that shone in the darkness of those times. There were intrepid souls who fought the tide and went on to greatness, studying under brilliant émigré talmidei chachomim and going on to lead productive Torah lives.

Rav Aharon wasn't the only one. But he was one of the most outspoken and dynamic proponents of the system of Torah scholarship that had been imported from Europe to America. He was the lightening rod for the haters of Torah who derided his vision and what he stood for. Despite them, his yeshiva has expanded beyond anyone's dreams and is today the largest edifice of Torah in this country. Lakewood, a virtual Torah town, has been blessed with a continuous growth surge.

That was on display Sunday night of this week at the wedding of the daughter of the present-day rosh yeshiva, Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler. Thousands upon thousands of Bnei Torah converged on the wedding hall to join with the leading roshei yeshiva of our day to join in the celebration of the marriage of Rav Aharon Kotler's great-grandchild. The Kotler name has become synonymous with the building of Torah and everyone present was deeply cognizant of the richness of the moment.

The resurgence of Torah, the drastic expansion of the Torah community, the huge numbers of Bnei Torah and the promise of their growth were on full display. The joy was palpable at the simcha as everyone joined the beloved rosh yeshiva and his family in the memorable celebration.

How many who learned under Rav Aharon or Rav Shneur could have dreamed of such a scene? Who would have believed that one day in Lakewood thousands upon thousands of present and past talmidei yeshiva would join with dozens of roshei yeshiva, marbitzei Torah, roshei mosdos Torah v'chessed and tomchei Torah in a simcha celebrating the future?

In a world awash with much more depravity than existed in the 1940s, the Torah community continues to grow despite the decadence which surrounds it. The kedusha breaks through tumah and breathes life into a nation.

Torah is our lifeblood and Bnei Torah are our present and future. We treasure them, how they live their lives and what they represent. When they return to the bais medrash after a well-deserved break and the kol Torah resounds once again from yeshivos around the world, we feel fortified and uplifted. We express our pride and elation by publishing a photo celebrating Torah.

It is our way of embracing these Bnei Torah and sharing in their enviable lot. We mark the growth of Torah and dare not take it for granted. It is not tiring, it is not trite, and no, my dear friend, it is not parochial or predictable. It wasn't always this way. We need to remember that and take pride in how far we've come. We need to support Torah with all our resources so that it may continue to flourish and flower beyond our wildest expectations and dreams.

So yeshivaleit, welcome home, back to the shtender and Gemara. Continue shteiging and strengthening the chain which trails back to Slabodka, Kelm, Volozhin, all the way through Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Syria, Morocco, Spain, Portugal and Eretz Yisroel, all the way back to Har Sinai. Continue making us proud and lighting up the world with Torah, leading us to zikuy b'din Moshiach Tzidkeinu b'karov.


Post a Comment

<< Home