A Conversation With Rav Dovid Cohen

The Alter of Slabodka would instill in his talmidim a sense of the spiritual stature of a ben Torah. For that purpose, he instructed his yeshiva bochurim to dress in a dignified fashion, using their external appearance as a means of creating an inner appreciation for their status. In our generation, what can be done to help a bochur feel uplifted and special simply by virtue of the fact that he learns in yeshiva?

“I have studied the writings of the Alter of Slabodka at great length, and it is clear to me that he did not view the special attire of yeshiva bochurim as a fundamental principle in its own right. Rather, it was a single detail of the total picture of the life of a ben Torah in Slabodka. He felt that the greatness of a yeshiva bochur should be reflected in his manner of dress as well.

“The Alter’s primary message was that every person should recognize his innate value and potential, and that every ben Torah should be aware of the tremendous abilities that he possesses and should always strive to be on a path of growth and to fulfill his potential. He also felt that a person’s external appearance should reflect the inherent greatness of every human being, because a person is influenced inwardly by his own outward appearance and behavior.

“These concepts have not changed since the times of the Alter. In fact, they are even truer today. Some ten years ago, a group of roshei yeshiva gathered at the home of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the rosh yeshiva of Mir. The speakers were Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch and Rav Aviezer Piltz. Both said that even though there were different views in the previous generation regarding how to influence bnei Torah, there is really no alternative today other than to educate bnei yeshivos with the ideas and aspirations that the Alter of Slabodka taught to his talmidim.

“I once observed that in the previous generation, the yetzer hora was more intellectual in nature. That generation was more educated, and even among the nations of the world, young people tended to appreciate education and knowledge. In the midst of that culture that cherished knowledge and ‘enlightenment,’ it was difficult to recognize the superiority of bnei Torah. Our generation, however, is steeped in lust and indulgence in physical drives, and people have descended to the level of animals. In this generation, it is much easier to recognize the greatness of a ben Torah and to observe the difference between our bnei yeshiva and youths of the outside world. They have lost every vestige of humanity, while we absorb the elevation and refinement of the world of yeshivos.

“Therefore, the task facing mechanchim, whether they are maggidei shiur or mashgichim, is to elevate their talmidim in two ways – by teaching them to appreciate the inherent greatness of a ben Torah and by instilling in every bochur greater confidence in his own abilities and potential.

“I should point out that in our generation, the external appearance of a ben Torah should adhere to the dress code that has been accepted in the Torah world, which means wearing a hat and jacket. This mode of dress is a means of creating dignity and respect. Unfortunately, it has become very common to see bnei Torah walking in the street without their hats and jackets, which cheapens their appearance and lowers the dignity and elevation of a ben Torah.

What should a bochur do if he feels that he is inferior to his peers, whether because they are greater masmidim or possess sharper intellects, or he feels incapable of matching their level of accomplishment for any other reason? When a bochur feels that he is inferior to everyone else, that alone will cause him to experience a decline. What can be done to cause him to feel uplifted?

“There are two points that must be explained. First, we have seen bochurim who did not have stellar learning abilities, yet who toiled for years and reached higher levels than others who were far more brilliant. This comes only through hard work, and many of them became prominent marbitzei Torah. Second, in matters of ruchniyus, a person’s job is to achieve whatever is possible for him within his own abilities. His success will be measured solely based on how he has actualized his own potential. The process of working to achieve one’s potential is much more important than the results.

The secular world can exert a tremendous pull on a bochur. There are times when it is difficult for a bochur to be among a group of friends who disparage anyone who is unfamiliar with the outside world; he will find himself derided for having a ‘closed mind.’ What can be done to help a bochur deal with this challenge?

“The only way to deal with this is to express pain over the baseness and shallowness of the outside world, to show respect and honor for those who have left it, and to denigrate as strongly as possible anyone who belongs to the depraved society that surrounds us. One must emphasize that anyone who is part of that scene does not truly have an ‘open mind,’ as they consider it. Rather, his mind is flooded with all the immorality that exists in the wider world and is sealed to understanding the Torah.

“Rav Yeruchom writes in Pischei Chochmah V’Daas that he once visited Vilna and stayed across the street from the non-Jewish school, and he witnessed the way they lived. He saw their frivolity and disdain for their studies, and he observed that their laxity did not prevent them from achieving excellence in their secular studies. For those who learn Torah, on the other hand, any defiance or disdain for the halacha, any forbidden sight or even the slightest immoral thought, can prevent a ben Torah from absorbing his learning. This illustrates the kedushah of the Torah, which cannot coexist with thoughts of sin. Therefore, if a person’s mind is open to the depravity of the secular world, it will be closed to Torah.”

If a yeshiva bochur feels that he is drawn to learning iyun on a very deep level, is it appropriate for him to pursue the form of learning that he enjoys? On the other hand, if a bochur prefers learning bekius but feels that that somehow makes him inferior to his peers who enjoy iyun, should he make an effort to learn iyun?

“If a bochur feels that he has a stronger inclination for learning bekius, it is certainly appropriate for him to invest more effort in learning bekius, for that is the area in which he will derive the most benefit. But even if a bochur feels this way, he must not completely neglect learning iyun. Any person who does not have an attachment to iyun is lacking in his connection to the Torah itself.”

The Elul zman is now beginning, and many bochurim are starting the year in new yeshivos. What can a bochur do in order to increase his chances of success in his new yeshiva?

“The first key to success in yeshiva is to avoid being preoccupied by how to achieve better standing among one’s peers, a more favorable position within a shiur, or a superior status in the eyes of the yeshiva faculty. The more energy a bochur devotes to improving his standing in a yeshiva, the less he will actually succeed. To a certain extent, this is part of Chazal’s teaching that when a person chases after honor, it will flee from him.

“A bochur must focus his efforts primarily on building himself – in learning, in yiras shomayim, and in middos. When he does that, he will certainly find an appropriate place for himself among the other bochurim as well.

“The second thing that must be emphasized at the very outset is that a bochur should not seek too much independence. Many bnei yeshivos have stumbled because of this, when they did not build themselves in the proper way. In my own years in the world of yeshivos, I have seen that the bochurim with the greatest success were those who kept the sedorim of their yeshivos, who always learned the material that was being learned in those sedorim, and who made certain to listen to the shiurim and to learn from their rabbeim.

“The third thing to stress is that the greatest cause of failure for bochurim is squandering the nighttime hours after the third seder has ended. When bochurim fritter away these hours with idle conversation and stay up until late at night engaging in frivolity, it wreaks havoc on the life of a ben Torah. This also causes them to sleep late the following morning, to miss davening in yeshiva, and sometimes even to miss the zmanim for Krias Shema and tefillah. They also become tired during first seder, and then take long afternoon naps. This is the single most common cause of a bochur losing his path of growth and living a life of emptiness even within the framework of a yeshiva, which prevents him from growing into a ben Torah.”

 

Is it realistic to expect bochurim to change?

“Sure. A bochur can always increase his success and improve his standing by taking on a strong kabbolah and resolving to take his life in the yeshiva much more seriously. He can also make a greater effort and invest more energy in his learning. One of the most incredible things that I have seen in the world of yeshivos is the fact that when a bochur decides to turn over a new leaf and to position himself on a path of growth, it takes a very short time for his status to change radically, and no one even remembers his previous behavior. Many bochurim have changed their spiritual level and their status in the yeshiva within a very short time, to the point that they were barely recognizable. All it takes is determination and consistency.”