The Rav-Talmid Relationship
Rabbi Gustman, whose twentieeth yahrtzeit just passed, and Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky, the late Ponevezh Rosh Yeshiva, were once reminiscing about their days in Grodno Yeshiva under the great Rabbi Shimon Shkopf. They concluded that those who had achieved the most in subsequent decades were those who had been the biggest masmidim and bound themselves to Reb Shimon completely – never missing a shiur no matter how sick and following the Rosh Yeshiva wherever he spoke, whether in the yeshiva or to the local baalebatim.
Once Yisroel Zev hired a driver to take him shiur when he was burning with a 104 degree fever. Before the shiur, Reb Shimon – who had heard from the other talmidim how sick his favorite was – came over and remarked how terrible he looked. Yisroel Zev was afraid that he would be sent home, but to his relief Reb Shimon simply said, "Try and concentrate. Maybe you'll feel better." As soon as Reb Shimon began, Yisroel Zev felt his fever break and by the end of the shiur it was completely gone.
The emphasis of two of the greatest roshei yeshiva of the previous generation on the importance of a close rav-talmid relationship reiterates something I heard many years ago from a major talmid chacham: Those who achieve the most in learning are much more likely to be those who thoroughly absorb the derech of one rosh yeshiva for many years than those who jump from yeshiva to yeshiva to taste from one rosh yeshiva and then another.
With few exceptions, Torah must be learned from a rav. The necessity of the rav-talmid relation derives not just from the rav's greater knowledge, but from the need for the talmid to experience Torah as coming from some place else, as Torah min haShomayim. (Shomayim (the Heavens), is a language of sham – there and not here.) Torah does not intrinsically belong to any man. Only as he recognizes it as Toras Hashem, as infinite, does the student of Torah feel humbled. And as he feels humbled by the vastness of Hashem's Torah, he reduces himself, and in the process creates within himself a larger vessel for receiving Hashem's Torah.
Korach's fatal error was to imagine that he had no need for anyone else from whom to receive Torah. He viewed himself a house full of Torah, not requiring a mezuzah: He felt no need for Moshe Rabbeinu to receive the Torah. Thus he did not see Torah as intrinsically coming from another place, as opposed to being something innate within him. In the language of Chazal, he denied Torah min haShomayim. Filled with his own pride, he could no longer be a vessel for the receipt of Torah.
The relationship of rav and talmid is the highest expression of love. Teaching Hashem's Torah, writes Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuos 18:9), based on the Sifre, is the purest expression of ahavas Hashem. Ideally, the relationship of rav and talmid is as close as that of father and son. Ve'shinantem l'vanecha – You shall teach them to your son, say Chazal, refers to one's students no less than one's son. And a talmid is required to honor his rav even more than his father, for while the latter gave him life in this world, the former gave him life in the world to come.
A proper appreciation of the centrality of the rav-talmid relationship to the transmission of Torah, and the importance for talmidim of binding themselves to a rav who is aflame with love of Hashem and love of his talmidim has many consequences for fathers eager to maximize their sons' growth in Torah learning. One of the most important questions that fathers must ask about their sons' prospective yeshivos is not just where are the "best boys" and the most prestige, but where are each particular son's chances greatest of forming an intense and loving relationship with a rav. (That was part of Rabbi Henoch Plotnik's point last week in describing the modern-day Molech worship.)
The size of the yeshiva and of the individual shiurim is one factor, but not the only one. A large number of talmidei chachamim available to talk in learning in the beis medrash might mitigate even a very large shiur. Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky felt that the primary direction in learning in Slabodka Yeshiva in its heyday came not from the roshei yeshiva but from older, more experienced bochurim who gathered small chaburos of younger bochurim around them. Whether the Ramim learn in the beis medrash and are available to speak to bochurim, and how they view their task, is another important factor. And finally, the nature of the bochur will make a big difference: Is he a self-confident type, who will not be ignored no matter how large the shiur? Or is lacking in confidence and in need of a R"M who will seek him out and take an interest in him?
Holding the Torah World to Its Own Standards
Ba'alei teshuva are the great underminers of Torah society. And I mean that in positive sense.
William (Zev) Kolbrener is a chareidi resident of Jerusalem's Bayit Vegan neighborhood, a professor at Bar Ilan University and world renowned scholar of the British poet John Milton, a ba'al teshuva, and, for purposes of full disclosure, a morning chavrusah of mine for a brief period of time a few years back. He is also the father of Shmuel, a nine-year old boy with Downs Syndrome. Shmuel and his impact on his father, a graduate of Oxford and Columbia, is a subject of a number of Kolbrener's essays in his new collection Open Minded Torah.
In one essay, he relates his efforts to have Shmuel accepted in a mainstream cheder, with a helper that the Kolbreners would supply. At first, the principal seems inclined to accept Shmuel, but later he develops cold feet. To the arguments based on Torah that Kolbrener adduces for his son's acceptance, the principal responds, "Rabbi Kolbrener, what you say is emes l'amito – the undeniable truth, k'dosh kedoshim, holy of holies, but we live in an alma d'shikra, a world of falsehood."
Kolbrener is stunned by the response. Of course, he has heard the phrase alma d'shikra used many times as withering critique of the world around us devoid of Torah values. But never before has he heard it as defense for the refusal to act in a manner consonant with Torah values. "Making the alma d'shikra . . . a justification for doing the wrong thing, makes the Torah something theoretical – 'We can't actually live by the words of Torah.' Torah ceases to be a handbook for tikkun olam, the redemption of the world, but an ideal to which we aspire when not in conflict with our prejudices and fears," he writes.
And this Kolbrener cannot accept. For it was Judaism's promise "of a learning which is not only theoretical," of "study [that] transforms the real into the ideal, elevating the world," that first drew him from the large oak seminar tables at Oxford and Columbia into the beis medrash. He has invested too much to be told that he transformed his entire life, at the sacrifice of career and familial relations, for an illusion.
Virtually every ba'al teshuva was first attracted by the contrast between the ideals of the Torah world and the world from which he came, between the perfection of character of the rabbis to whom he is first introduced and everyone he has previously known, himself chief among them. Because ba'alei teshuva have bet the bank on the vision to which they are first exposed, they tend to insist, at least if they do not become jaded, that the Torah world live up to its own highest ideals and strive for the perfection of its greatest figures.
That is why the Torah world is never fully comfortable with the ba'alei teshuva. And why they are so desperately needed.
The Limits of Hypocrisy
The peerless Walter Russell Mead posted two powerful essays last week on the dramatic failures of Al Gore as leader of the climate change crusade: the first on Gore's personal failures and the second on his failure to comprehend the near impossibility of achieving the goal of massive reduction in carbon emissions. I will return to the latter at some future date.
The global green movement is everywhere in retreat. The Kyoto Protocol withers on the vine with no replacement in place. And despite a Nobel Prize, an Oscar, and a fawning press, Gore can do nothing to reverse that trend. The reason, Mead suggests, is that one cannot lead a world of moral reformation, without wearing the hairshirt one would impose on others. The head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving cannot be caught driving under the influence.
Similarly, one cannot hector the world that the end is nigh, while flying a private jet, which will "incur more carbon debt in one trip . . . than most of the earth's toiling billions will pile up in a lifetime," and maintaining multiple private mansions that "consume more electricity than most African villages." One cannot convince others that the danger is so overwhelming that "entire political and social system of the world must change," if one does not live accordingly.
In a charitable vein, Mead refuses to label Gore a hypocrite. Rather he subscribes to "an illusion common amongst the narcissistic glitterati of our time that politically fashionable virtue cancels private vice." That false dichotomy between public and private realms is one against which those who live with the awareness that they are always in the presence of Hashem are protected.