Chayei Sarah 5772 -- Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt"l; On Hating Gemara Learning
by Jonathan Rosenblum
November 16, 2011
For Love of Torah and Every Jew
I first saw Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt"l, around thirty years ago at the chasanah of a chavrusah, who had been in his shiur at the Mirrer Yeshiva. I had no idea who he was. But I couldn't take my eyes off of him. A half-smile never departed from his lips the entire time I observed him. It conveyed goodness and love and joy in a talmid's simcha. I remember asking my chavrusah later, "Who was that man who looked like an angel?"
When I started learning afternoon seder in the Mirrer Yeshiva, a few years later, Rav Nosson Tzvi was giving at least two hour-long shiurim and a chaburah every day. And he was available to learn in chavrusah with anyone who approached him, except on Thursday evenings when he travelled to Ofakim to learn all night with his rebbe Rabbi Chaim Kamil, zt"l.
My chavrusah at the time had come to the Mirrer Yeshiva from Ohr Somayach, and learned privately with Rav Nosson Tzvi almost from his first day in the Mirrer. On the first Monday of BaHaB, his second week in the yeshiva, he could not find Selichos in the unfamiliar siddur. His embarrassment grew by the second, until Rav Nosson Tzvi, who had somehow noticed his discomfiture, came over to with a siddur opened to Selichos. Such acts of chesed could be told by every single one of the tens of thousands of talmidim who came within Rav Nosson Tzvi's dalet amos.
I want to emphasize that these memories go back to long before the debilitating Parkinson's, which took such a heavy toll on the Rosh Yeshiva during his twenty-two years heading the Mirrer. In those days, if you wanted to talk to him, the best time to do so was walking to or from his apartment in Geula, over a mile from the yeshiva.
His selflessness and love for every ben Torah, which was of a piece with his ahavas HaTorah, was already fully developed. The nisayonos that he endured later were not in order to actualize kochos previously dormant. Rather they were to publicize – or so it seems to me – the kochos he already embodied and to provide an indelible lesson to the world in ahavas Torah.
How did an all-American boy, who arrived in the Mirrer Yeshiva from Chicago at fifteen, without a strong background in Torah learning, become the greatest builder of Torah in his generation and rise to head the largest yeshiva in the last two millennia? The key lay in his total lack of sense of self. The question – What will be the consequence of this decision on me? – never entered his mind.
At the levaya, I was standing next to a talmid chacham who was a bochur in the Mirrer more than forty years ago, when Rav Nosson Tzvi was a recently married yungerman. He told me how he had not wanted to trouble Rav Nosson Tzvi to be mesader kiddushin at his daughter's chasanah -- which inevitably entailed his coming in a wheelchair and being aided by at least two attendants to the chuppah -- even though the chassan learned in the Mirrer. In the middle of the chasanah, he received a call on his cellphone that Rav Nosson Tzvi was outside and wanted to wish Mazel Tov to the chassan and his new father-in-law. As my companion related this story, he broke down sobbing.
Because he completely transcended the normal boundary between self and the world, Rav Nosson Tzvi was able to transcend all natural boundaries. For anyone else as ravaged by disease as he was just davening with a minyan three times a day would have been a super-human achievement. Hours every day, he could not move at all from his couch. Still he continued giving shiurim, even when he could never know in advance whether he would be able to speak at all. And he travelled regularly to America to raise the money to build one new beis medrash after another in the Bais Yisroel neighborhood around the original Mirrer building, and carried an annual fundraising burden of tens of millions. Many of those contributors were from the ranks of bochurim he had learned with as a chavrusah decades earlier.
What the world viewed as mesirus nefesh was something entirely different from his perspective – an expression of an overwhelming ahavas HaTorah. Just as one would not bemoan the money spent to redeem a loved one from captivity, said his brother-in-law Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky in a hesped, so he viewed his ordeals to spread Torah as a trivial price for spreading Hashem's Torah. He once told a maggid shiur in the yeshiva that since he could not escape the tremors of the Parkinson's even when he lay in bed, he used the time to think of new ways to spread Torah.
Because he placed no boundaries around himself, he was accessible to all. Every Torah Jew who saw or heard of him wanted to touch him in some way and be uplifted by the contact. Several times I saw him address audiences of baalebatim. Each time he spoke briefly and was barely audible, but the awe on the faces of his audience was palpable. And when he was finished each person in the room rushed to give kavod to the Rosh Yeshiva.
Words that would have seemed like clichés coming from anyone else pierced the heart when he said them. At the last Siyum HaShas in Eretz Yisrael, he could not manage more than, "Hadran alan Talmud Bavli. Tell your children how zis (delightful) Torah is." When he pronounced the words, "Ve'ahavta l'reiecha kmocha," they came alive as never before because they radiated from one who lived them.
As I was preparing to leave for the levaya, I received a call from a reporter from Sydney, Australia, who wanted to discuss the confrontations between zealots and national religious in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Sky News called the next day to discuss separate seating on busses. I told both reporters the same thing: Why are you focusing on trivial issues and fringe groups, and not on a hundred thousand Jews gathering for the funeral of the Rosh Yeshiva of Mirrer.
True, even for those of us who nominally inhabit the same yeshiva world as Rav Nosson Tzvi, his purity, his devotion to Torah, his strength remain unfathomable. We recognize that our world has suffered an irreparable loss, and that we will never see his like again. But, at least, we know enough to wail over that loss. And an outsider who wishes to understand our world, even a little bit, should attend to that wailing and, more importantly, learn about the great man who inspired it.
Passion: the Missing Ingredient
Michael Freund wrote a sad oped in the Jerusalem Post two weeks ago, entitled "Teaching kids to hate Talmud." "Ask any Israeli religious high school student what subject he likes least and chances are that the Talmud will be right at the top of the list of the most unpopular subjects," he writes. Freund reports that he could not find a single national religious teen who said that he enjoys learning Talmud. The results of that admittedly unscientific survey are buttressed by a 1989 Hebrew University study, in which many respondents ranked Talmud at or near the bottom of their favorite subjects.
Freund makes a number of suggestions that he thinks might help reverse the current situation among national religious youth – e.g., providing more background in Aramaic – but clearly he does not hold out great hopes for any of them, since his main suggestion is to reduce the number of hours studied from the current two-to-four hours (probably closer to two in most cases) for all except the most talented students.
No doubt there are many chareidi boys who also find the study of Gemara difficult, even intimidating, and some for whom it is torture. But I doubt there are many who would describe it as "boring" or "irrelevant." By the time they are 14 or so, virtually all young chareidi males in Israel are engaged in full-time Gemara learning for at least eight hours a day. And even during bein hazemanim, batei midrash in chareidi neighborhoods are packed with bochurim learning with bren (enthusiasm).
What explains the difference in attitudes towards Gemara study of chareidi and national religious students? Only one thing: Talmud cannot be taught at any level as another academic subject. Yes, at every level, it makes a difference whether it is taught well, by a rebbe who has made the effort to break down the logical structures for his talmidim. But even that is not enough without passion.
Virtually all chareidi boys come from homes in which their father is currently learning in kollel or did so for many years. Even if the father is no longer in full-time learning, he is likely to spend several hours every day learning. And so it does not occur to the sons that Talmud is "irrelevant."
But even where boys do not come from learning homes, the deficit can frequently be overcome by rebbeim who view learning Gemara as the essence of life. Many of the current generation of roshei yeshiva were educated in primary and high schools in the national religious system. But in those days, the Gemara rebbes in the national religious schools were primarily drawn from the chareidi world. An entire system of yeshivos, such as that of Rabbi Yissochar Meir, zt"l, in Netivot, were created for young men from national religious backgrounds. And they produced many outstanding talmidei chachamim.
A decade or so ago, philanthropical money became available to bring in avreichim to learn with students in national religious high schools. Almost immediately, there was a major jump in the percentage of students in those schools choosing to enter hesder yeshivot or pre-army academies, with an emphasis on learning, rather than going straight into the army, where the level of religious observance often declined sharply.
Passion for Gemara learning on the part of those teaching it is the missing ingredient for which Michael Freund is searching.
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