Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Carefully Sowing Generations

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz


This Shabbos, hundreds of accomplished educators will join for an intense, exhilarating weekend tied to the future of tens of thousands of Yiddishe neshamos. The professional enrichment the participating men and women will receive there will provide them with techniques necessary to provide the next generation with the skills to flourish and prosper in an increasingly turbulent world.

Leading roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, learned scholars and eloquent lecturers will address the gathering, using the parsha as a springboard to confront issues of the day, seeking and providing inspiration from its pesukim.

Perhaps, as we pay tribute to the valiant rabbeim and moros and the staff at Torah Umesorah, the opening posuk of this week’s parsha illuminates our path.

The parsha opens with the statement, “Vayedabeir Hashem el Moshe beHar Sinai leimor.” To know that the Torah was delivered to our people on Har Sinai isn’t merely a geography or history lesson, but a fact laced with practical and enduring meaning for all. As Rav Yochanan says (Megillah 31a), “Kol makom she’atah motzei gevuraso shel Hakadosh Boruch Hu atah motzei anvesanuso - Wherever you find the might of Hashem, you will find His humility as well” (see Maharal in Gevuros Hashem, chapter 67).

The fact that the Torah was given on the most humble mountain is integral to comprehending mesirus haTorah. The humility of those who transmit our glorious heritage is central to their mission and effectiveness. 

When young boys or girls ask questions in class, humble teachers respect the students enough to appreciate what they are really asking, what their concern is, and what their needs are. They note how they are dressed and the lunches and snacks they bring from home, and gain an appreciation of what their lives are like outside of school.

If the students are quiet and shy, they draw them out. If they are insecure, they reinforce them, instilling pride as they provide life skills necessary to succeed socially and scholastically in school and in the world at large. They relate to the chochom, the rasha, the tom and the she’eino yodeia lishol, each one on their level, for they know that Torah is for everyone and there is an individual message for all. 

They teach them to stand tall and think big. They infuse them with optimism and the self-confidence that fuels ambition. They offer a warm embrace and allow them to dream of excellence and success.

Painstakingly, they help their young charges turn the corner on frustration and enter an upward arc of increased expectations. They assist them in coping with failure and recognizing that life and study are not a straight upward tangent, but that there are ups and downs. They teach their students how to maintain the upward trajectory, focusing on the dream and the goal, rather than the temporary lags. They create expectations and help their students realize them.

When things appear dark, they tell their students that it is dawn, rather than dusk. They teach them to communicate, to read, to write and to speak. They help develop an appreciation for wisdom and big ideas. They foster an appreciation for leading a just and moral life. They portray the beauty of demonstrating kindness towards all. They augment their lessons with spirituality that adds depth and meaning to the lives of their students long after they leave the classroom.

Great rabbeim and moros don’t just teach a class. They teach people, seeking to reach each student, bearing in mind their personal stories and personalities. They peer into the soul of each student and do what they can to break through and elevate it. They let their students know that they care about them and believe in them.

As the Second World War began, Lithuania and Poland were sliced up like a pie by Russia and Germany, each claiming large swaths. Since Vilna somehow remained independent under Lithuanian control, it became a refuge city for thousands of bnei Torah who streamed there from all over.

Seventy years later, Rav Yaakov Galinsky remembered his arrival in Vilna. A young bochur, he was anxious to take advantage of the opportunity to meet the gadol hador, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky.

The night before he went to Rav Chaim Ozer, young Yankel was too excited to sleep. He reviewed what he had learned that zeman. No doubt, the towering gadol would speak to him in learning and he wanted to make a good impression.

As Yankel entered Rav Chaim Ozer’s study, he readied himself for the inevitable questions: “What are you learning? What daf? Let’s hear a chiddush.

But that didn’t happen. Rav Chaim Ozer asked three questions, and they were quite different than what Yankel imagined they would be.

First, the senior rov asked him when he last received a letter from his parents.

“Half a year ago,” stammered Yankel in response. “They are on the Russian side and we ran to the German side. No mail came through.”

The second: “Do you have a blanket?”

The city was so overrun by refugees that many of them had no place to sleep. At night, the yeshiva bochurim slept in their clothes on benches in unlit, unheated shuls. The lucky ones had blankets with which to cover themselves and provide a measure of comfort and warmth.

“Yes, boruch Hashem, I do,” said Yankel.

Then came the third and final question: “Please, can I see your shoes?”

An embarrassed Yankel showed the aged gadol hador, upon whose shoulders rested all of Klal Yisroel, the ripped strands of leather wrapped around his feet.

Upon seeing them, Rav Chaim Ozer reached into his pocket and gave the boy money, telling him to use it to purchase a pair of shoes. “This is your new home,” he added. “Whenever you need something, at any time of day or night, I want you to come here and I will take care of you.”

When Yankel heard those words emanate from the gadol hador, he began to cry uncontrollably. He was overcome because someone cared about him. Someone felt what he felt. He wasn’t alone. He cried from emotion as he felt, once again, the love he last experienced back at home.

The rabbon shel kol bnei hagolah, the greatest Talmudic genius of his time, the leader of Torah Jewry, was not above showing a young lonely bochur that he cared about him. That was why he was not only so deeply respected, but also warmly loved.

A menahel asked the Tolna Rebbe of Yerushalayim how to identify a good rebbi. The rebbe told him that when interviewing a candidate for a chinuch position, he should have the candidate speak to one of the children in the hallway. If the rebbi looks down at the child, he shouldn’t choose him. If the candidate bends close to the boy to speak to him, then he’s a legitimate contender for the position.

“But,” concluded the rebbe, “the fellow who crouches down so that his eyes are level with those of the child, he is your man.”

The Torah was given b’Har Sinai and is still being given by those who aren’t so bloated or conceited that they can’t see others and so loud that they drown out young voices. The Torah Umesorah convention, this Shabbos, Parshas Behar, is a celebration of their humility.

At the age of 16, Rav Mendel Kaplan’s future wife became ill and traveled from her hometown of Baranovitch to Vilna to see a doctor. Her father, Rav Tzvi Hirsh Gutman, the mashgiach in the Baranovitcher Yeshiva, was friendly with Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky and told her to visit him upon her arrival in Vilna. Rav Chaim Ozer would help her get to the doctor.

Rav Chaim Ozer welcomed her and gave her directions to the doctor. Many years later, after she was married and the mother of a few small children, they joined the flood of refugees streaming into Vilna. Together with her husband, Rav Mendel, they went to Rav Chaim Ozer to ask him to help them find a place to stay, which he did. He arranged for them to stay at the home of Mr. Zev Wolfson’s parents. When they entered Rav Chaim Ozer’s room, the first thing he asked her was whether the directions he had provided her years earlier were correct.

Once, when Rav Chaim Ozer was a young man walking on a Vilna street, a man stopped him and asked for directions. The gaon didn’t simply answer. Instead, he accompanied the unfamiliar fellow through the streets of Vilna to his destination.

Rav Chaim Ozer’s time was precious. Someone asked him why he didn’t just tell the man how to get to where he was going. Why did he invest the time to accompany him to the destination? The answer sheds light on how Rav Chaim Ozer emerged as a most beloved rabbon shel Yisroel.

“When the man asked me for directions,” Rav Chaim Ozer explained, “I discerned that he suffers from a speech impediment. I imagined that if he would follow my directions, he might still get lost again given the complexity of the streets. He would then be forced to ask another person for help. Since speech doesn’t come easy to him, I would be subjecting him to more humiliation. I did what I could to prevent him from suffering that pain.

Rav Chaim Ozer perceived not the question, but the ramifications. He didn’t reply with information, but with compassion, heart and love. He cared.

Like Rav Chaim Ozer, mechanchim master the art of listening, not just to words but to the emotions and queries underneath them. Like Har Sinai, it is their own modesty that leaves them space to see others. They see beneath the questions and outer veneer and appreciate the person and his needs.

Never has the pool of talent seeking to break into the world of chinuch been larger. It is up to us, the community, to develop and encourage these stars, whose lives will light up the world. In fact, there is likely no role more important to the success of our people than good mechanchim.

The importance of a gathering such as this weekend’s convention is that it serves as a reminder to us to empower the hardworking rabbeim and give them the chizuk and encouragement to keep doing their thing. The higher we place such events on our communal agenda, the more we imbue our shared shlichim with a sense of mission to achieve great things.

We learn in this week’s parsha of the shomer Shvi’is, the farmer who honors his Maker and His land, observing the lofty mitzvah of Shmittah. It is hard to imagine a harder working laborer than the farmer. He wakes before dawn and works long, hot days under a blazing sun. He toils over his land, fighting elements and braving natural forces, all to produce delectable vegetables and fruits from the seeds he dedicatedly plants.

To be a shomer Shmittah, it is not sufficient to wake up before the seventh year and respond to the call. It requires six years of fastidious dedication to the mitzvos of the Torah. It means six years of living with a complete awareness of Who makes the seeds sprout forth. The farmer, say Chazal, is ma’amin bechayei olam vezoreia. He fills his role as a partner in creation, watching the wonders of the Creator Himself, Who blesses the farmer’s work with success.

After working faithfully for six years, Shmittah provides him with the opportunity to take a step back and proclaim loud and clear Who helped him along during the previous six years. He works hard and then observes his Shabbos, the famer’s personal chance to rest his body and leave the responsibility for feeding him and his family in the Hands of the Source of all life.

The farmer we celebrate in this week’s parsha is not unlike the rebbi or morah, who toils diligently, often thanklessly, to bring forth pleasant fruit. The field is full of stones that have to be removed in order for the seeds to take root. There are a variety of pests that must be fended off to preserve the crops. Weeds that suck away the nourishment have to be removed, lest they damage the yield. The danger of intruders and predators always lurks in the back of his mind.

A rebbi is obligated to teach the same passage to his student several times until the student understands it. If the student doesn’t understand what is being taught, the rebbi is not permitted to get angry, but must patiently explain it until its meaning is grasped.

Like the farmer, who plants and has faith that his efforts will bear fruit, he toils and tries, but he knows that without the melameid Torah le’amo Yisroel, there is no learning. He, too, is ma’amin bechayei olam vezoreia.

For that reason, lo habayshan lomeid, a student should not be uncomfortable about admitting when he doesn’t understand what is being taught. He should ask to have it explained and reviewed as many times as necessary until he understands it. The One who works along with the rebbi, the ultimate teacher, is the Ribbono Shel Olam, “hamelameid Torah le’amo Yisroel.”

And so we look with pride to both our mechanchim and the talmidim, two partners in a Divine flow.

The Torah Umesorah convention and similar gatherings imbue mechanchim with a sense of importance in their holy work and they pass on this message of chashivus to their talmidim and talmidos.


As we count the Omer each day, marking the importance of the pinnacle of it all, Mattan Torah, we proclaim just how important this gift is to us and to who we are.

Israel’s Egged bus company had the idea of using the digital screens on each bus to broadcast that day’s Omer count. It was a charming idea, reminding the people of the Holy Land to count Sefiras Ha’omer and underscoring the centrality of Sefirah to our nation’s core.

But people protested. Idan Yosef, a popular media commentator, called it “irrelevant information” and argued that “public transportation cannot be allowed to present information that ignores entire populations.” In response to the furor he created, Egged removed the “offensive” notifications from their busses.

We live in a time when Jews don’t appreciate their heritage. Some Jews have been robbed of the opportunity to be taught and raised in homes and schools of Torah. Their goals are folly, their counts are fictitious, and their lives are vacuous. But who are we to blame them if we never attempted to enrich them with the knowledge of how to count and when and why? How can we fault people for wasting their lives if we never attempted to teach them that there is a Creator Who fashioned the world for us and for Torah?

The current period, in which we count with passion and heart towards the apex of creation with Kabbolas HaTorah on Har Sinai, underscores and reminds us that every Jewish child deserves the opportunity to learn and to appreciate the gift of Torah they have been given. They need to realize that they are the Chosen People, selected to live a life of kedushah and taharah, of simcha and sasson, and that these concepts are not mutually exclusive. Torah breathes life into those who follow its ways. They need to be taught to know and feel that a Torah life is the greatest blessing known to man. We have a responsibility to each other fostered at Har Sinai when we became areivim zeh lozeh.

Mr. Moshe Reichmann, the famed philanthropist, would make it a point to bid farewell to Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach zt”l before leaving Eretz Yisroel. One evening, as he was in the vestibule about to enter Rav Shach’s room, a man recognized him and asked him for a favor.

“I know that when you go in,” the man began, “you will probably be with the rosh yeshiva for a while. I am here with my fourteen-year-old son. I just want to ask the rosh yeshiva for a brochah for him. It will take a minute. Would you permit me to go in before you?”

Mr. Reichmann graciously agreed, and the fellow and his son went in to Rav Shach’s room. The philanthropist watched through the open door as they approached the elderly rosh yeshiva at his table. Rav Shach said something to them and then stood up, walked to the door and locked it. The door remained closed for a long time, while Mr. Reichmann waited outside.

Finally, the door opened. The man remorsefully approached the dignified industrialist. “I am so sorry,” he said. “I had no idea it would take so long. I really thought it would only be a moment. Please be mochel me.”

“I forgive you,” he said, “but please tell me: What happened in there for so long?”

The man explained: “My fourteen-year-old son is having a hard time in yeshiva. He complains that he has no cheishek for learning. He’s a good boy and we agreed to go to Rav Shach to ask him for a brochah that he develop a cheishek for learning. When I told Rav Shach what our problem is and why we came, the elderly and weak rosh yeshiva got up to close and lock the door.

“Then he asked my son what masechta he is learning in yeshiva. My son said Bava Metziah. Rav Shach removed two Gemaros from the bookcases, one for himself and one for my son. With much love, he looked at my son and said, ‘If you don’t feel a geshmak in learning and if you learn without cheishek, it is because the Torah is not being taught to you correctly. You don’t understand the sugya and that is why you have no cheishek. Let’s learn a sugya and you’ll see that you will have cheishek.”

Together, the gadol hador and the young boy sat down to learn, tasting the sweetness of Torah and experiencing the intense joy of havonah and the exhilaration of true ameilus.

For over an hour, they learned. Nothing was important besides the Gemara, Rashi and Tosafos. Then, when the rosh yeshiva sensed that the boy understood the sugya and was finally learning with cheishek, he bid the boy and his father farewell.

The elderly leader, who carried a nation on his shoulders, knew that his wealthy, beloved talmid, who supported many Torah institutions close to his heart, was waiting outside. The rosh yeshiva had his own shiurim to prepare and many issues required his attention. But the most important thing in the world to him was that a bochur zol kenen lernen mit cheishek.

He never forgot his goal. He never forgot his most important mission. He was able to bend down and look a young boy in the eyes and determine what his problem was. He put everything else aside and set about solving the boy’s problem.

A story is told about two friends who were talmidim in the great Volozhiner Yeshiva. Meir was exceptional, brilliant and driven, and had been considered one of the yeshiva’s most accomplished students. That was before he began reading and then becoming increasingly influenced by Haskalah literature, which robbed our people of thousands of promising people such as Meir. The poisoned pens of the Maskilim which mocked and disdained the holy traditions and Torah leaders succeeded and Meir found himself unable to apply himself to learning and davening.

Chaim had been his chavrusah and best friend, but as Meir fell under the spell of Haskalah, their friendship fell apart. However, Meir was determined to take Chaim along with him. He sought to take his simple, unsophisticated friend by the hand and lead him into the great big world beyond the walls of the Volozhiner Yeshiva. Chaim refused to hear his friend’s arguments, explaining that he derived all the intellectual and emotional stimulation he needed from the pages of the Gemara.

Meir didn’t give up and continued hammering at Chaim with the arguments he picked up in the pamphlets of the Maskilim, who used their creative gifts to carefully compose tracts that brilliantly mocked everything and everyone holy.

Meir turned to Chaim and asked, “How can you learn Gemara all day and delve into the words of the Tannaim and Amoraim if you have no idea who they were and what they were all about? First you have to learn some history and connect with their era. Familiarize yourself with the geography of the great cities and yeshivos in which they learned and then you will be able to begin a proper analysis of their words and teachings.”

It was to be their final argument. Chaim looked at him with pity and turned to head back to the bais medrash. “Meir’l,” he said as he walked off, “you may know where Abaye and Rava died, but I know where they live.”

We have to be able to reach our children so that they will know where Abaye and Rava live and of the supreme lives they led. We have to transmit to them an appreciation for the full picture of Yiddishkeit, with ehrlichkeit and middos tovos being an integral part of their being, understanding that fidelity to a value system is their birthright and what we celebrate.

May the brachos assured to those who uphold Hashem’s word accompany the askonim for chinuch, the supporters of chinuch, and the rabbeim and moros. Thus will our most important communal commodity, our children, be blessed as well.


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