During the holiday season, I have been giving a lot of thought to the people who influenced my life and way of thinking. I have been fortunate to meet some interesting people over the years. I decided that I would share some of these experiences with my readers. Some of these people are too private to write about, others had influences that are too specific to myself and not necessarily of interest to many. I decided to start with the person I consider “My Rosh Yeshiva”, Rabbi Aaron Moshe Schechter. (It’s been about six years since I left Chaim Berlin.)
This is not going to be a “Gedolim story” post, where I wax about his brilliance, piety and general infallibility (cough cough). This post will only contain first person accounts which I feel illustrate his personality, his message and the influence he had on me.
First, a little background information
Rabbi Aaron Schechter is the current Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. This Yeshiva, located in Brooklyn, NY, has a reputation for several things:
- Being the legacy of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner זצ”ל.
- Being a close-knit group that is rather hard to break into.
- Being somewhat more open-minded and interested in “ideas” and “מחשבה” than other Yeshivos, such as Lakewood or the Mir.
So how did I wind up there? Well, that’s a long story, but I will give a very abridged version now. After having a pretty negative experience in a Yeshiva high school which culminated in my ultimately being expelled, I spent some time @ YU, but eventually got a degree from a local college and started working as video editor. I was pretty much not religious at this point, keeping Shabbos and kosher out of respect for my parents but basically I considered myself an “agnostic leaning heavily toward atheist”. One shabbos in shul I was in a particularly intolerant mood, so I started making remarks to my father about a certain little spat that had arisen in shul re: an aliyah.
“So you’re telling me that G-d enslaved us for hundreds of years, then took us out of Egypt, split the sea, gave Moses the Torah, built a temple, exiled us twice, sent us the Crusades, Inquisition, Cossacks, pogroms and gas chambers, all so that Mr. Lefkowitz could get shlishi?” I asked my father “how very inspiring, I’m glad I came!”
His response was, “Yeah, I hear what you’re saying, if you don’t mind, I’m just gonna sit a few seats down, I don’t want to be right next to you when the lightning bolt strikes”
Anyways, that Sunday happened to be December 25th. December 25th is always a wonderful time in the States due to the lack of early morning traffic on the way to work. This December 25th was no different. While I was basking in the glory of being able to drive to work at 85 mph on a highway that is usually full of traffic, I neglected to notice some debris left in the road by a recent teamster construction crew.
As my car spun around for what seemed like ages, it was starting to dawn on me that my own demise could be imminent. At that point I decided to cut a deal w/ G-d. I vowed that if I made it out alive, I would return to Yeshiva for a year. The car spun into the highway railing was totally totaled, but I walked away w/o so much as a scratch. Afterwards, eventually I made good on my vow (another story) and on the advice of my 10th grade Rebbe, it was decided that Chaim Berlin would be a good fit.
My First Encounter
When I came to apply to be accepted to the Yeshiva, the Rosh Yeshiva was busy moving houses, as such I got in without meeting him (it’s generally customary for all applicants to meet with the Rosh Yeshiva before being accepted). On my first day there I woke up about 20 minutes before Shachris (morning prayers) I made myself a tea and decided to drink it in the yeshiva lobby and watch people come in for Shachris. Eventually an old man, who was obviously the Rosh Yeshiva came in. He made a b line right towards me, approached me, and asked me what my name is.
“My name is Yaakov Shore, I’m a new student in the Yeshiva here” I replied.
“Yaakov, where did you find that tea?” The Rosh Yeshiva asked me.
I was a little surprised by the question, but answered that I had found it “downstairs, in the tea room”.
The Rosh Yeshiva then looked me in the eyes, grinned and said:
“So drink it there!”
(I later was told that the Rosh Yeshiva is very against people standing around, schmoozing and drinking coffee in the Yeshiva lobby “like it’s a truck stop”.)
Not A Good Question
I used to frequently eat at the Rosh Yeshiva’s for Shabbos meals. Every Shabbos the Rosh Yeshiva has about 5 – 6 unmarried students as guests for the meal. One would assume that in a relatively large Yeshiva like Chaim Berlin, one would have to wait many weeks to get on the list of guests for the Rosh Yeshiva. This assumption, however, would be wrong. The reason the demand is not all that high (from what I can tell) is due to the fact that the Rosh Yeshiva doesn’t engage in any “small talk” or even general conversation at his table. He simply learns the weekly Parsha out loud with Rashi, the Ramban and an occasional short comment or insight. Everyone else eats in silence, and can only speak up to ask a question or say something relevant to the material being studied.
Not being one to sit silently meal after meal, but still wanting to develop a rapport with the Rosh Yeshiva, I decided that every time I ate at the Rosh Yeshiva’s (which was most weeks) I would study the first three or four aliyos with every Rashi and Ramban and prepare a bunch of questions and comments to ask the Rosh Yeshiva.
I tried to be very subtle about this and to pretend that I just happened to be so very brilliant as to be able to come up with these questions and insights right of the cuff. At some point he picked up on what I was doing and was generally pleased, although at some meals he would tell me, “Yankel, I know you’ve prepared, but we really have to move on”.
Sometimes a person would ask the Rosh Yeshiva a question, and they would be thoroughly lambasted. Usually this was because the Rosh Yeshiva felt that the answer was obvious and if they thought about it for a second before asking, they would be able to figure it out themselves. He considered this to be lazy thinking on their part. (I’m not certain if he ever used the term “lazy thinking”, this is just the easiest way for me to describe what I think he meant.)
He told me once that the first thing you must overcome is laziness, because if you’re not lazy, you can do what it takes to handle anything, and if you’re lazy, you’ll be overwhelmed by anything. The Rosh Yeshiva apparently felt it was his job as their Rosh Yeshiva to train them to think before they spoke, and to try to reason as much as they could on their own before just blurting out a question. (Sometimes this made for a somewhat uncomfortable situation at the table.)
Sometimes, however, his response would be more interesting. One of those times sticks out in my mind whenever I think of the Rosh Yeshiva:
The Simple Peshat
It was Parshas Balak, the passuk was Number 23:9
As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations.
Rashi there explains that by “from the mountain tops” Bilaam (the Prophet of the Gentiles, hired by Balak to curse the Israelites, but who, under Divine coercion, winds up Blessing them) is referring to the forefathers of the Hebrew nation, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Rosh Yeshiva was elaborating on the symbolism and meaning behind this metaphor. A bochur then chimed in with what he thought was a penetrating question.
At the end of the previous chapter, the Torah tells us that Balak and Bilaam ascended to a high mountain to view the camps of Israel in order to curse them, perhaps, this student reasoned, this is what they are referring to when they say “As I see them from the mountain tops”. (There is generally an assumed rule that in Chumash, Rashi will give the “simple pshat”, simple meaning of the passuk.
The Rosh Yeshiva was duly unimpressed, I don’t remember what he said word for word, but it went something like this.
“I see you think that you have asked a good question, and that you feel this is the basic explanation of the passuk. But, the truth is that it is not a good question at all, that is not a reasonable translation of the passuk. Bilaam’s blessings are filled with poetry and poetic allusions, in poetry, the “simple meaning” is not the literal translation of the words! The simple meaning of the words include the broader context within which the statement’s are made!”
He then went on…
“Many times I encounter people who consider their insistence on ‘the simple meaning’ to be an asset, but ‘the simple meaning’ is not what your first impression tells you before you have a chance to think and interpret, it’s just sheer blindness to insist on your first impression, or ask a question solely based on something not falling in line with your “first impression”.
He then went on to explain that even the simple things are not so simple, and went on to expound on how the simple statement 1 + 1 = 2 needs quite a bit of mathematical proof. (He went off on a tangent, getting a bit into numbers theory, but most of that I kinda just tuned out.)
There was a time when I studied with the Rosh Yeshiva daily. Being a public figure, our study session was sometimes interrupted by people seeking his counsel, opinion or approval for a something. Once, someone came in who had made a book of diagrams to teach children some details of the mitzvos. He wanted the Rosh Yeshiva to write a letter of endorsement for his new book, which he felt would help young children understand the material in his book better than they ever had before. The Rosh Yeshiva informed him that, while he was sure that many great Roshei Yeshiva would endorse such a project he could not.
After some coaxing, he explained that he doesn’t believe in these picture books and that he feels children gain more from studying the material in-depth and coming up with their own concept of what things should look like and how to organize information.
Due to his age, the Rosh Yeshiva had trouble reading the fine print on the side of his Gemara. His solution to this was to keep his place with a plastic bookmark that doubled as a ruler and as a magnifying glass. One day he lost this bookmark and had a lot of trouble reading the fine print, particularly his own notes on the side which he wrote in tiny, tiny print in order to stuff in as much as possible.
One Thursday night, I was out at the Pharmacy filling a prescription when I noticed such a bookmark for sale for $1.50. I asked the lady behind the counter to gift wrap it. Friday morning, I walked into his office and told him that I had a gift for him. He peered up from his sefer, rather unimpressed by this, and I handed him the gift-wrapped bookmark. When he opened the package and saw the bookmark, he was visibly moved.
“Thank you! I appreciate this very much! Thank you Yaakov! I really appreciate it!” He said, emphasizing the word “appreciate”.
From then on, when we were learning, sometimes when he used the magnifying glass he would look at me and smile. I never had the guts to ask him what he was trying to convey to me by “appreciate”. (Of course, it goes without saying that his appreciation never stopped him from lambasting me for saying things he felt indicated my being “lazy” in my thinking. Not, that I was ever the main recipient of that. I found I got lambasted less than most, possibly due to him sensing I was too sensitive, or possibly due to the fact that I was too frightened of the man to just blurt things out w/o first thinking about it.)