Va'yeishev 5773 -- What Makes a Really Great Shiur; Elef L'Mateh, Elef L'Mateh
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 7, 2012
What Makes a Really Great Shiur
The greatest shiurim leave an imprint far beyond the content of that particular shiur: They change our relationship to Hashem and His Torah. For more than a decade, I attended, along with hundreds of others, Rabbi Moshe Shapira's Thursday night shiur, and for a number of years I was part of a small chabura at Ohr Somayach learning perek Cheilek in Sanhedrin with Rav Moshe.
There were times when I felt I missed the thread of the Thursday night shiur or failed to grasp it at all. (Though I often bring divrei Torah that I heard from Rav Moshe in these pages, I almost never cite him by name for fear that I am offering only a very superficial or even wrong version of what he said.) But even when I was too exhausted to concentrate on Thursday night or during the mid-afternoon chabura, I felt it was worth going just to see Rav Moshe.
I always left the chabura with the feeling that the whole Torah fits together seamlessly. From friends in another chabura on the Rambam's Hilchos Talmud Torah, I would see that Rav Moshe was dealing with the same themes in every shiur over a period of weeks. In other words, no matter what text he started with, he would bring it back to a particular set of problems with which he was wrestling, while remaining completely faithful to the text in front of him.
I might be troubled by the age-old issues of theodicy – e.g., the suffering of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked – but watching Rav Moshe it was clear to me that he does not share my questions. And the knowledge that he has worked everything out was assurance enough for me.
RECENTLY, I WAS DRIVING BACK from the wedding of the daughter of a young Rosh Yeshiva in my neighborhood of whom I am in awe, with a friend whom I only seem to meet at simchas. My friend – himself a talmid chacham of note – related how he and the ba'al hasimcha had recently been at a Chumash party at their sons' cheder, and the latter fell into a trance-like state at the table, during which one could see him working out a shiur, asking and answering to himself. At the end of twenty minutes, he snapped out of his trance, realized what he had been doing, and smiled sheepishly.
My friend added a story involving Rav Elyashiv, zt"l. The grandson of Rav Elyashiv who was sleeping in Rav Elyashiv's house asked a yeshiva bochur from America with whom he was friendly if he would like to watch his grandfather learning in the early hours of the morning. The American bochur asked the obvious question: Won't Rav Elyashiv find it a bit strange to find a complete stranger in the middle of his study at 2:30 a.m.? But the grandson assured him that there was no chance his grandfather would even know he was there.
In fact, the grandson told his friend, he could stand right over Rav Elyashiv's left shoulder and listen to him recite the shakla v'taryeh of the Gemara aloud. Even if his grandfather got up to retrieve a sefer from his bookcase, he always turned to the right and would not see anything not directly in front of him. (Note that Rav Elyashiv was famous for his acute powers of observation when he was not learning.)
When we observe great minds able to connect to the Gemara in this fashion eighteen or more hours a day for decades, we know something else: There is an answer -- or more often multiple answers -- for every question. Otherwise such great minds could not attach themselves to the study of Gemara as they do. Rav Aharon Kotler once made a seudos hoda'a upon solving a difficulty in Rabbi Akiva Eiger that had bothered him for over twenty years. And at that seudos hoda'a he said, "The only reason I was zoche to find a solution was that not once in those twenty years did it occur to me that the mistake was Rabbi Akiva Eiger's and not mine."
Rabbi Noach Weinberg, zt"l, used to refer to this as the "genius" proof of Torah. Thousands of the greatest minds in history having been delving into every nuance of the Oral and Written Torah for over 3,000 years, without ever concluding that they do not make sense or are internally inconsistent. Only works produced by the ultimate "Genius" could have withstood that test.
We may leave a sugya with a fog and have many unresolved questions. But attending a shiur in which a talmid chacham poses seemingly irresoluble contradictions, and then proceeds to solve them step-by-step, with thoroughly convincing logic, is more than an intellectual thrill. It strengthens our confidence that all the questions are a reflection of our own limited abilities and do not lie in the Rishonim, or, chas ve'shalom, in the Gemara itself.
ONE FINAL EXAMPLE of how a rebbi can take us to a different dimension in our emunah, no matter what subject he is teaching. In a weekly Nefesh HaChaim shiur, I am continually amazed by the way my rebbi can instantly find in his dog-eared, out-of-print old copy of Nefesh HaChaim, the exact paragraph anywhere in the sefer to answer anything we may ask or to elucidate the text in front of us. The entire sefer is an open book in front of him.
The point has nothing to do with his brilliance or memory. Rather what I learn from him is that it is possible to live Nefesh HaChaim -- to internalize it so that Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin's insights inform one's every tefillah and every time one opens the Gemara. Not that those of us in the shiur expect to get there. But just knowing that it is possible makes even our puny efforts seem worthwhile.
Elef L'Mateh, Elef L'Mateh
When Israel is at war, each of us wishes there were something that we could do for the Jewish soldiers on the frontlines. It turns out there is.
During Operation Pillar of Defense, the impulse to help soldiers at the front led a group of volunteers in Baltimore to launch the website of the Shemira Project ahead of schedule.
The Shemira Project enables Jews anywhere in the world to sign up to daven and perform good deeds for the merit of Israeli soldiers whose Hebrew name they are given. In little over a week, 10,000 signed up, from 35 different countries.
The Shemira Project is an outgrowth of a similar project started by Rabbi Simcha HaKohen Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Rechovot, during Operation Cast Lead four years ago. At the time, Rabbi Kook cited the Midrash that when Moshe Rabbeinu went to war against Midian, there was a specific person at the front assigned to daven for each soldier, and quoted Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky to the effect that David Hamelech instituted a similar practice in subsequent Jewish wars.
In his warm haskama for the Shemira Project, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, stressed, "Tefila (prayer) has enormous power to evoke the mercy of G-d towards His creatures, [and] the mention of someone's name in prayer greatly enhances its power." Rabbi Feldman added that Shemira Project also enhances the awareness of all those participating that Hashem is the ultimate guarantor of the welfare of the Jewish people.
WE LEARN FROM THE MITZVAH of Egla Arufa that just the knowledge that one is the object of concern has a protective impact. In the case of an unidentified dead body found between cities, the elders of the city closest to the body had to take an oath that they did not shed the blood of the victim. What does it mean that they did not shed his blood? The Gemara answers: that they did not send him out of the city without being accompanied (Sotah 45b). From which Chazal derive the principle that one who is accompanied on his departure from a place will not come to harm (Sotah 46b).
Nothing does more for the morale of soldiers than the knowledge that others care for them. At the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, Rabbi Ari Kahn, a well-known Torah lecturer and author, who had two sons called up for reserve duty, sent out a request for funds for badly needed supplies for their units. The commander of one son's paratroopers unit requested thermal underwear, and the commander of the other son's combat engineer's unit requested headlamp flashlights and other basic tools.
These were soldiers who spent a week sleeping out on the ground, wearing the same clothes, with no shelter from the rockets falling around them. Tough guys. But as one of Rabbi Kahn's sons reported, "All these tough guys – blue collar, no frills -- just received their 'care packages' and the officer told them that Jews all over the world care about them and are looking out for them. Some of them got choked up."
We pray that no more Jewish soldiers will ever come into harm's way. To that end, the Shemira Project will soon expand to match Jews around the world with individual soldiers in combat units, even during times of "quiet." But if another war breaks out, it is important for us to know that there are concrete ways for each of us to contribute.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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