by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 28, 2004
The simplest errand in Eretz Yisrael can often lead one in totally unexpected directions. A few weeks back, I decided to buy my youngest sons cheap watches to help them better keep track of the time on long, lazy Shabbos afternoons and meet their father at the agreed upon times for learning.
My first trip to a nearby watch store yielded no results. The store was locked in the middle of the afternoon. Undaunted, I returned the next day. This time was the owner was in, and we entered a desultory discussion about the relative merits of different $12 watches.
I commented matter-of-factly that I had been there the previous day and the store had been locked. "Is that your usual time for Minchah," I asked. No, the storeowner informed me, today was the first day he had opened the store in weeks, ever since his oldest son was killed during Operation Rainbow in the Gaza Strip.
Suddenly we had entered territory for which I was completely unprepared. There was no way to return to the safe harbor of discussing whether it made any difference whether the water resistance on the watch extended to 200 meters. I offered a sympathetic look, and the storeowner started talking about his son. "If he came into the store to talk to me, and you were at the counter, he would wait in line just like any other customer," he said. "It would never occur to him to assert any special rights as the owner’s son."
I asked the man whether he had a picture of his son, and he took out from his wallet a photo of a husky young man in army khakis with a green kippah seruga on his head. If we had passed one another on the street, I’m embarrassed to say, I would probably not have noticed him, and if I had, I would probably have thought to myself that the kippah was largely vestigial.
How wrong I would have been. The father mentioned that his son had left extensive notebooks of writings on Mesillat Yesharim and other mussar and hashkafa texts. I asked if I could see them, and he took out a ma’amar his son had written on the relationship of Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David based on the writings of Rav Kook. The seforim of Rav Kook were not on the shelves on any of the yeshivos in which I learned, but the depth of thought they inspired in this 19-year-old ben Torah was obvious. The father told me that he had cartons filled with similar notebooks.
Since then, I’ve been back to the store several times, ostensibly to purchase another watch, but really just to let the father speak about his son. Yet each time the store was locked. When I asked the Russian guard at the nearby supermarket, he commented laconically, "Every day closed; every day closed."
NOT ALL ERETZ YISRAEL’S CHANCE ENCOUNTERS, however, are depressing. Last Erev Shabbos, I met a close friend outside the local supermarket, where we were both picking up flowers. He took out of his pocket an Email he had just received from one of his talmidim in a well-known ba’al teshuva yeshiva.
The student had returned to the States for the summer, and was learning late one night in the West Side Kollel with a chavrusa when a stranger wearing a rabbinic frock entered. The stranger looked around and came straight over to the pair. He asked them in Hebrew what they were learning. They told him they were studying the Maharal’s Netivot Olam. "A little bit of mussar for Sefiras HaOmer," the other member of the pair commented.
The stranger asked if he could learn with them. He began by telling them to turn to the end of perek 12, where the Maharal discussed the failure of the talmidim of Rabbi Akiva to show proper kavod for one another. As impressed as the young men were by the stranger’s ability to immediately point them in exactly the right direction, they were even more so when he began explicating the pshat of the Maharal. Soon he had moved beyond explaining pshat to weaving a rich tapestry drawn from diverse sources.
The Israeli member of the chavrusa grew oddly silent, but the young ba’al teshuva, despite having spent only a year learning in Israel, found that he was able to converse fluently in Hebrew with the stranger. Later he wrote to his rebbe how moved he was by the way that the nocturnal visitor "was really trying to connect to us. . . [He] seemed so pleased that he had found us learning. Even though we, in our kippot serugot, did not look like model kollel guys, he treated us like we were his own talmidim."
After about twenty minutes, the Rosh Kollel entered and told the stranger that they had to be going. The latter seemed reluctant to leave. And before doing so, he asked each of the chavrusas for their full Hebrew names, and put his arm around the baal teshuva next to him and hugged him tightly. He then smiled at the chavrusa across the table and said, "Don’t think this is just for him. If I were over there, I’d hug you too."
Only when the stranger had left, did the Israeli member of pair inform his chavrusa, "That was Rabbi _____ ______, one of the world’s greatest experts in Maharal." The recent ba’al teshuva instantly recognized the name he had heard his own rebbe pronounce many times with reverence.
He could hardly wait to describe the experience to his rebbe: "Even before I knew who it was, I had this feeling that this is a different kind of person. This is what it is like when a man is filled with Torah. This is a man who makes you want to grow yourself. . . ."
"I’ve heard you describe that experience to me many times before, but I never really understood it until that night. I don’t know what I did to merit such a gift from HaKadosh Baruch Hu. But I’m showing my appreciation the best way I can think of: I still learn Maharal three times a week – maybe now with a little more geshmack."
Both these chance encounters taught me a great deal -- above all how little we know of the true depth of our fellow Jews. Had I passed the young soldier, now gone forever, on the street, I would have known nothing of who he was. And even though I have heard shiurim for twenty years from the gadol in the second story, I was still brought to tears by hearing of his boundless love for every Jew who embarks in any way on the search for truth and the impact of his smile and hug.
Related Topics: World Jewry
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