But for the madmen…
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 15, 2006
Most people if they see an obviously deranged person approaching on the street start edging to the side. I, however, have a natural affinity for a certain type of madmen.
Let me give an example. My friend Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb called me recently after returning from a Shabbaton in St. Louis. He was bubbling with enthusiasm (and we are talking here about a former professor of analytical philosophy). He mentioned a name I couldn’t quite catch – Rabbi Mordechai Yaroslawitz, it turns out, but everyone calls him Yari -- who had just run a Shabbaton for 950 Russian-speakers of all ages and from all over the United States and Canada.
That’s a lot of Shabbos guests, but the real kicker, Rabbi Gottlieb told me, was that four days before the Shabbaton was supposed to start, Yari still did not have a hotel in which to host this event. The hotel where he had been running the xmas-weekend program for 10 years cancelled at the last minute, and Yari was too busy making two weddings for graduates of previous Shabbatonim to find a replacement.
A hotel was eventually found. Yari and crew moved in the five industrial-size ovens he owns to avoid having to rely on kashering hotel kitchens, and were still busy connecting a industrial-size sink when the guests started pouring in.
Six weeks later, I had a chance to meet Yari myself when he came to Israel for two days to be mesader kiddushin at the wedding of a former talmid. At a late night gathering with families of those who have passed through his programs, I learned that the Shabbaton is typical of everything he does -- gargantuan in scale and leaving plenty of room for Hashem to help.
Yari doesn’t exactly rely on miracles, even if finding hotel accommodations for 1,000 people on four days notice was not exactly a given. There was no shortage of hard work and detailed organization (including 45 birthday cakes for participants who had birthdays that month) in preparation for the Shabbaton. But he possesses a large measure of optimism that Hashem looks favorably upon those who go out on a limb on His behalf – like knocking down a wall of his house at the last minute to make more room for a simcha celebration -- and will provide the necessary siyata d’Shmaya in a pinch.
That attitude strikes most of us as little short of manic. We might also like to do something for Klal Yisrael. But we would want to be sure first that our salary is covered for the first three years.
The Yaris of the world, and a dozen others whom I have met, don’t think like that. They see something that something that Klal Yisrael needs – e.g., a Russian-language newspaper for unaffiliated Russian speakers; an organized program of kallah teachers for non-religious kallahs in Israel; an afternoon program of individualized tutoring for kids desperately in need of some positive feedback and encouragement – and they plunge in, without any cheshbonos (calculations) of time or money. The desire to realize a particular vision simply gives them no peace, and makes impossible the studied calculation that the rest of us make before embarking.
Over and over, I have seen that it is the madmen, or visionaries, to use a less pejorative term, who leave the most lasting impact. When Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz set out to build Torah Vodaath, he was dismissed as a hopeless dreamer. And the same was true when he created Torah Umesorah, with the goal of bringing a Jewish day school to every Jewish community in America. To those who told him that he wasn’t living in the 20th century, he replied, "You are right, I’m a man of the 21st century." And history proved him correct.
No one besides Rabbi Aharon Kotler believed that the ideal of long-term Torah study after marriage would ever take root in America. Yet today there are thousands of kolleleit, and kollelim in cities where there was barely a minyan ten years ago.
On my recent trip to the United States, I had the privilege to spend a little time in the Washington D.C. suburb of Olney, Maryland. Ten years ago, the leil Shabbos davening in Olney consisted of one visiting rabbi from Baltimore and two high school students. Today the community boasts its own mikveh, three daily minyanim, regular shiurim, and even a Sunday school for children of non-affiliated families.
Behind every great achievement in Klal Yisrael, one can count on finding a man or woman with a vision who wore down the doubters with his or her enthusiasm.
When I practiced law, one of the favorite activities of the lawyers in the firm was pondering why their clients, whom they deemed far less bright than themselves, were so much richer. It did not dawn on them that there was a key difference between them and their businessmen clients – the latter were willing to take risks, and endure many ups and downs.
The visionaries and dreamers whom I’m discussing are entrepreneurs of a different type – mitzvah entrepreneurs. And at the end of the day, they almost invariably find their mitzvah bank far more filled than those who never felt the drive to take large risks to do Hashem’s work.
I learned the secret of their success from my Rosh Yeshiva. I once ran into his Rebbetzin on the street, and she lamented that he needed to raise over a million dollars in the next year for a new building, an undertaking she viewed as well-nigh impossible. At the dedication ceremony of the new building the next year, I laughed with the Rosh Yeshiva about the Rebbetzin’s skepticism.
He told me that he is always optimistic, and that over the years he has learned that the optimistic view is usually closer to reality. But that’s only true when one's sole goal is to serve Hashem and has bitachon that Hashem will not let his partners down.
As usual, the Rambam says it best, "But for those who act irrationally the world would remain barren" (Introduction to Peirush Hamishnayos).
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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