A Model Shul
Last week was spent in Toronto, where most of my davening was in Congregation Shomrai Shabbos. One instantly notices that a great deal of thought went into the design of the shul, with an eye to maximizing Torah learning. Whenever there is a minyan in one of the large rooms in the morning, there are at least three other rooms available for chavrusos and chaburos, each beautifully designed to foster harchavas hadaas. There are chaburos and chavrusos throughout the shul both early and late.
But what strikes me most about the shul is not just the amount of Torah learning, but the closeness of the members to one another and their allegiance to the rav, Rabbi Yacov Shalom Felder. Shomrai Shabbos is a chevra of Jews who have joined together with other aspiring bnei aliyah to strengthen one another in the growth process. And in Rabbi Felder they have a rav focused on building a community and on the ruchniyos growth of each member, despite the heavy demands on his time as vice-chairman of the Rabbinical Vaad HaKashrus of Toronto. His success is reflected in the wide diversity of the community in terms of backgrounds, hashkafah, and dress – an increasingly rare phenomenon in an era where we too often obsess over distinctions based on fine differences.
The current issue of Klal Perspectives, an on-line policy journal (on whose editorial board I am the least active member), is devoted to the stress on today's baalebatim from the multiple competing demands on their time and tensions involved in the transition from kollel to the working world. Rabbi Menachem Zupnik, rav of Bais Torah U'Tefillah of Passaic, notes in his important piece for the journal, "The Simple Jew is Not Simple," three specific advantages of the Chassidic world with respect to the transition from full-time learning to the working world.
The first is the "greater appreciation for the exquisite beauty of simply being a frum Yid and performing mitzvos each day." Second is the emphasis on chevra and the importance of being part of a group of like-minded seeking individuals. And the third is the desire for rabbinic mentoring. Each of those elements are found at Shomrai Shabbos.
Ironically, it may be easier to create a shul around common spiritual aspirations where few of the members learned for many years in post-high school yeshivos and kollelim. The members of Shomrai Shabbos or Rabbi Zupnick's BTT, with its high percentage of ba'alei teshuva, are able to be excited about their Torah learning, without being distracted by thoughts that they once learned with greater iyun or a vague sense of failure that they are no longer in full-time learning. They never imagined that they would be roshei yeshiva one day.
And because the members of Shomrai Shabbos do not have the same loyalty and ongoing connection to a rosh yeshiva or a feeling that their real chabura are those with whom they learned in kollel (and from whom they may now feel slightly estranged) it is easier for them to attach closely to a rav whom they now see every day and to a new group of friends with whom they share a desire to grow in Torah.
My point is not, chas ve'Shalom, that former kolleleit cease to be bnei aliyah upon leaving kollel. There are hundreds of batei medrash in Boro Park, Flatbush, Monsey, not to mention Lakewood, where one can find any early morning or late evening former kolleleit learning with chavrusos with all their former fire. Rather my point is that the focus point of their continued growth is less likely to be the chevra of a particular shul.
Facilitating a less jolting transition between kollel and working world is a major subject of the current Klal Perspectives, and one to which we shall return in weeks to come.
The Basis of Our Mesorah: Parents Worthy of Trust
I mention my morning shiur fairly frequently in these pages, partly to indicate how important such a shiur with a rav whom each person in the shiur looks up to as a walking Mesilas Yesharim can be for a pashute baalebos, like myself. Though by far the bulk of the shiur is taken up with Gemara learning, I often feel the fifteen minutes of mussar/hashkafa at the beginning are the most important for me at this stage in my life. In recent years, we have finished the Vilna Gaon's commentary on Mishlei (twice), Mesilas Yesharim (twice), and most of Nefesh HaChaim (so perhaps I should be careful about writing that the mussar seder has the largest impact).
Recently, we began the Ramchal's Derech Hashem. In the first chapter, in which the Ramchal specifies what we can know about Hashem, he mentions that all these matters can be derived logically, but that he prefers to rely on the mesorah for his presentation. Elaborating on this comment, the rav made reference to the famous Ramban at the end of parashas Bo, which we have studied together many times.
The Ramban writes that Hashem does not perform open miracles in every generation, and that is why we have so many mitzvos that remind us of yetzias Mitzrayim. The parashiyos of Tefillin, for instance, serve as a constant reminder of what we witnessed in Egypt. And each of us is commanded to "transmit the matter to our children, and our children to their children, and their children to their own children, until the last generation."
The power of that mesorah from generation to generation – that which assures us that "the matter is true without any doubt" – writes the Ramban elsewhere (Devarim 4:9) is the assumption that "we will not witness falsely to our children." Because a person will not lie to his child about the most important matters we can rely on the unbroken chain of transmission to verify the miracles recorded in the Torah with absolute certainty.
It follows from the Ramban that any time a parent says anything with even a tinge of falsehood or deception to his or her child, the negative impact is cosmic. For if a parent does so, he or she has thereby undercut in his or her child's mind the chazaka that a parent will not witness falsely to his child and thus the entire basis upon which our mesorah from generation to generation is based. That is something that should give each of us pause every time we promise our children something and do not follow through or otherwise distort the truth.
I mentioned this conclusion to my teacher and friend, Rabbi Dovid Affen, and he told me a story involving Rabbi Chatzkel Levenstein that confirmed the insight and took it a step farther. Rabbi Affen is the son-in-law of the late Rabbi Aryeh Leib Bakst, Rosh Yeshiva Bais Yehuda of Detroit. Rabbi Bakst spent the entire war together with Reb Chatzkel in Shanghai, and the two became very close.
In the 1950s or 60s in Israel, there was a young child in Bnei Brak, who suddenly began quoting pages and pages of Gemara b'al peh, in a manner that defied explanation. News of the miracle child spread around the Jewish world. Rabbi Bakst in Detroit wrote to Reb Chatzkel and asked him whether he had gone to visit the child and verify the matter for himself.
Reb Chatzkel wrote that he had not. Since his son-in-law had done so, for him to travel to verify the matter would show a certain lack of trust in his son-in-law. And that lack of trust, Reb Chatzkel wrote, would at some very fine level undermine the belief in what others tell us that is the foundation of the mesorah.
The ability to trust one another is the glue without which society cannot function, but it is something else as well: it is the basis of our mesorah.