I sat on a bench in the middle of the bais medrash with my chavrusah, and I closed the booklet of sources. The hour of learning had ended, and it was time for the celebratory speeches. Surprisingly, Rav Zohar’s speech was brief, perhaps because he was so affected by the event, or because he felt that there was only one message he needed to deliver.
“When miracles happen,” he asserted, “they often go unrecognized. We are currently witnessing a genuine miracle taking place before our eyes. Look at the power of a Jewish soul. What do you think happened on Chanukah? Thirteen men set out to fight against a world-class power, against a mighty empire. They didn’t care how formidable their enemy was. They didn’t make any calculations about what it would be natural for them to accomplish. That is Jewish power. That is Jewish light. That is the type of strength that comes from mesirus nefesh. And it continues through today.
“And you,” he added, after taking a short breath, “you are the evidence of this!”
Rav Uri went on to make another statement: “During World War II, almost the entire Jewish nation and Torah world were destroyed. Only a small fraction of us survived. And what was left of the Torah world? One small group in Bnei Brak and another small group in Meah Shearim. But today, there is a massive world of Torah study. Hundreds of thousands of people are learning Torah, and tens of thousands are becoming baalei teshuvah. Hashem is bringing the Jewish people back to Him. We have been fortunate to draw close to the Shechinah and to bring the geulah closer.”
Since he mentioned the geulah, Rav Uri reiterated what he has been saying at every opportunity in recent times: “The geulah is near. Rav Chaim Kanievsky says so. It all depends on us. It will come if we are moser nefesh, as the Maccabim were. Do you daven twice a day? Then start davening three times. Bring more friends to the midrashot. Save their lives! If your friend tells you that he can’t come because he has to see the soccer game between Manchester and Liverpool, then go back to him the next day. Pester your friends until they come. Don’t give up! This great light will continue to grow, and it will illuminate the souls of the Jewish people.
“I was asked to give you a brachah,” Rav Uri went on. “But who am I? It isn’t you who are privileged to be here with me. On the contrary, the privilege is mine. But if I have any spiritual merit because of the hour that I have spent learning with you, then I use it to bless you that all of us should be able to bring Moshiach Tzidkeinu very soon.”
– – – – –
Let us return to an earlier point in the evening. It was Chanukah, and I found myself at the massive bais medrash of Ateres Shlomo. I had never been there before, and like all the other first-time visitors, I was stunned by the magnitude of the place. I have seen other massive botei medrash, such as Belz in Yerushalayim and Lakewood in America, but I wasn’t expecting such a regal hall.
Signs of the hubbub were evident even in the entranceway. The area was filled with avreichim and with boys who did not look like yeshiva students — and that is exactly the point. I had been invited to attend a special learning seder held by Lev L’Achim, and two of the heads of the organization, Rabbi Natan Chaifetz and Rabbi Avrohom Zaibald, greeted me there. They didn’t have much time for pleasantries, though, since the success of the entire evening was riding on their shoulders.
An avreich from Lev L’Achim who is responsible for the midrashah project showed me to a seat.
“We’ll get you a chavrusah soon,” he informed me before going on his way. If I were on a bus or a plane, I mused as I waited, I would probably be davening that the person who would sit down next to me would be normal. But here, at a Lev L’Achim event, I was calm. Did it matter if the chavrusah they sent me was a boy named Shoham from the town of Lapid or a boy named Lapid from the town of Shoham?
On the shtender before me was a booklet whose cover announced that it was specially printed “for the learning seder of Chanukah, 5776, in Modiin Illit, for the youths of the midrashot for the newly religious in Ramle, Lod, Modiin, Shoham, Kiryat Ono, Rosh Ha’ayin, Be’er Yaakov, Kfar Saba, Achisamach, and Lapid.”
All of those places are in the vicinity of Kiryat Sefer. Modiin is a very large and relatively new city, with a mostly middle-class population. Ramle and Lod are home to slightly poorer populaces, and both cities include Arab neighborhoods that cause a good deal of trouble for their Jewish residents. Rosh Ha’ayin is a city whose population was primarily Yemenite in the past; today, a number of upscale neighborhoods have been added. Kfar Saba is an older city, with a population that is mostly well-established. Shoham is a city that was built mainly to provide housing for Israel’s security personnel. Be’er Yaakov, as you probably know, is where I was born. It was always a very close-knit town, where everyone knew everyone else, until the recent construction of huge apartment buildings that added thousands of new families to the town, transforming it completely.
The booklet presented a “contemporary question based on the sugyos in Shas on the halachos of mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah.” The material it contained was to be studied by the occupants of the bais medrash, who were to be divided into pairs, during the following hour. On the first page was a message: “Dear avreich: We admire and appreciate your giving of your time to learn with our precious brethren, the extended Lev L’Achim family, and the youths from the midrashot for the newly religious in the cities of this area…”
The question that was the topic of study dealt with the fabricated case of “Itzik and Roi.” In the story, Itzik and Roi were employees of a restaurant who had pilfered various food products from their employers. On Chanukah, they were considering lighting their menorahs with stolen oil. There were three questions to answer: 1. Is Roi allowed to light his menorah with stolen oil? 2. If it is prohibited but he lights the menorah anyway, will he have fulfilled his obligation, or will he be required to light again, using oil that wasn’t stolen? 3. If he must light the menorah again, should he recite a brachah on the second lighting?
Of course, from the fact that the second and third questions are asked, one can deduce that the answer to the first question is that it is prohibited…
– – – – –
My designated chavrusah sat down beside me. He seemed slightly flustered, but I imagined that I seemed even more ill at ease. I felt a great sense of responsibility. If I uttered one wrong word, he might get a negative impression of “avreichim.” Too much pressure from me might cause him to become disenchanted. I envisioned the avreichim who learn regularly with the students of the midrashot and with secular adults in their homes.
My chavrusah’s name was Eliyahu Dahuki, and he was several months past his 18th birthday. The name “Dahuki,” he told me, comes from Kurdistan, and he lives in Shoham, the city that is home to many of Israel’s security personnel. I did not question him about his parents’ occupations, but I did ask him about himself.
Eliyahu learns in the midrashah in Shoham, but he had never been to such a large and impressive event. Like me, he was mesmerized by the sounds of hundreds of chavrusos learning together. The din of voices raised in learning made it difficult for us to converse.
Before we began learning, I asked Eliyahu if he would tell me a bit about himself, explaining that I planned to write an article for a newspaper. “All right,” he agreed. “Why not?”
I regarded him intently. He was an Israeli boy of average height, slightly heavyset, who spoke a typical Israeli Hebrew. He seemed to have a slight lack of confidence, and he did not strike me as a genius in any sense. In short, he looked like an average youth from Shoham. As usual, though, I discovered later that appearances can be deceiving. Eliyahu turned out to be an extraordinary young man, blessed with great intelligence and refinement. Although I shouted in order to make myself heard, he answered me in a soft, pleasant tone.
Eliyahu has been part of the Lev L’Achim family for two years already. He had been learning in the midrashah in his hometown of Shoham. Although he attended special events from time to time, he had never been at an event of this scale. I asked how he first came in contact with Lev L’Achim.
“I was playing soccer with some friends one day, and after the game, we started walking home. On the way, I was approached by a Lev L’Achim volunteer who began asking me questions: Did I observe mitzvos? What was my spiritual life like? Did I keep Shabbos? I told him that I didn’t wear tefillin every day, and I didn’t exactly learn Torah either. He asked me, ‘Would you like to come to a midrashah? You will discover the truth there. You can see for yourself that it is the truth.’ And I have been in a midrashah ever since.”
I was astonished. “It was that simple?”
Eliyahu, for his part, couldn’t understand my amazement. “He told me outright that if I didn’t enjoy the midrashah, I could always leave. No one could force me to stay.”
So you stayed….
“Yes. That encounter happened two years ago. The first few times I went to the midrashah, I was essentially hovering on the threshold. I went once or twice a week, but I was still chiloni. Gradually, though, it began to have an effect. I started going to the midrashah three times a week. I saw that it was interesting and that it was true, and at a certain point, I began learning Gemara.”
Eliyahu had been attending the local high school, Tichon Shoham (Shoham High School). He did not consider his schooling a contradiction to learning Gemara with a chavrusah from Kiryat Sefer. “I felt that it suited me to learn something interesting in the afternoons. I wasn’t doing anything special after school anyway. I was only playing soccer, nothing more…”
You didn’t know anything about Yiddishkeit before?
“I knew that the Torah exists. We made Kiddush at home and my father sometimes went to daven, but I never knew about the Gemara or the Mishnah.”
Did you wear a yarmulka?
Do you wear one today?
If you didn’t have a yarmulka, I presume you didn’t wear tzitzis either?
Before Eliyahu could answer me, I tried to turn the question into a learning moment of sorts.
Do you know what a kol shekein is? Or a kal vachomer?
“Of course. If one thing is easier and the other is more difficult, we can learn about the more difficult thing from the one that is easier.”
Yes, that is what I had in mind. If you weren’t wearing a yarmulka, which is very easy to do — and which many people do, even if they are only traditional — then a kal vechomer indicates that you didn’t wear tzitzis.
Eliyahu replied, “Not exactly. Wearing a yarmulka may be more effortless, but tzitzis is a mitzvah de’Oraisa.”
I was somewhat surprised by the response.
In essence, what you have done is remove the basis for the kal vachomer.
“In the Gemara’s terminology, that is called a pircha,” Eliyahu said.
Apparently, the roles of student and teacher had been reversed.
Tell me, now that we are discussing the concept of kal vachomer, do you think it is possible to punish a person based on a kal vachomer? For instance, if you know that a person who violates a lesser prohibition is punished with malkus, can you deduce that someone who commits a more severe sin receives the same punishment?
Eliyahu astounded me by coming up, on his own, with the answer given by the meforshim to this question. This young man, who had been chiloni just two years earlier, advanced the line of reasoning known as the Talmudic principle of ein onshin min hadin: “I don’t think so, because he might be deserving of a more severe punishment.”
I then tried to explain the concept of dayo lavo min hadin lihiyos kenidon, which teaches that even when the principle of kal vachomer is applied, the punishment derived from it cannot be greater than that which is administered in the less severe case. I soon discovered, though, that Eliyahu was already familiar with the principle and was even aware that it is derived from the punishment of Miriam Haneviah.
Your family isn’t completely secular, is it?
“That is correct.”
Then I assume that your parents were happy about your decision to become religious.
“Not exactly. My father wasn’t opposed to it, but my mother was.”
Perhaps she has the common misconception that baalei teshuvah sever their ties with their parents. You should assure her that it won’t happen and then she will support you.
“That’s not the reason. She is afraid that I won’t find a job if I don’t learn a profession.”
I told Eliyahu that I understood his mother’s feelings. Chilonim believe that a person’s livelihood is determined by his academic degrees and education. Who can explain to them that Hashem can give parnassah even to a person who has no degree and who never studied in a university? I told Eliyahu a beautiful moshol of the Chofetz Chaim and he glowed with pleasure. I presumed that he would repeat the moshol to his mother later that evening.
Eliyahu told me proudly that he had begun learning Gemara and that he enjoyed it very much. At first, he had learned with an avreich named Avrohom Mekni from Kiryat Sefer. Now, his new chavrusah is Avrohom (Avi) Ben-Abu, who lives in Elad, near Shoham. He wasn’t yet used to the Aramaic words of the Gemara, but he was making good progress. He had already begun learning the first perek of Maseches Bava Kamma, mainly the Gemara with Rashi’s commentary.
Do you know what the word “maveh” means?
“There is a dispute if it refers to a person who damages or to an animal that causes damage through eating.”
Now I will ask you a question that you have no chance of answering. This is a “yeshivishe” subject, something known as a chakirah. I am interested to see how you will answer it. Is there a prohibition to cause damage?
“I don’t know,” Eliyahu replied, “but a person who causes damage has to pay the victim.”
We are making progress, but that is exactly the question. Is there no prohibition to cause damage, and the only requirement is to compensate the victim, or perhaps in addition to the obligation to pay for damages, there is also a prohibition to cause them? Is a person required to prevent his ox from causing damage or is it his choice? Can he decide that he will not guard it and that he will simply pay for any damages it causes?
Eliyahu closed his eyes and sat silently for a moment. I could see that he was pondering the question. I told him that it was the topic of the first section in the Kehillos Yaakov on Bava Kamma. Then I took him to the next step.
If we decide that there is a prohibition to cause damage, then we have to determine where in the Torah it comes from.
A spark shone in his eyes. “I think it must be prohibited, because of bein adam lachaveiro.”
You have said practically the same thing as the Steipler Gaon. He says that the prohibition can be derived from the mitzvah of returning lost objects. I see that you have the head of a rosh yeshiva!
I explained to Eliyahu who Rav Yisroel Yaakov Kanievsky was. His forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. “How can the prohibition be derived from the mitzvah of hashovas aveidah? If I find a lost object that is not mine, it stands to reason that I should return it, but how does that imply that I have to prevent my possessions from causing damage?”
Let’s agree that the next time you go to the midrashah, you will ask your chavrusah to learn that piece in Kehillos Yaakov with you. On that note, are you planning to attend a yeshiva in the future?
“That’s what I wanted to do,” Eliyahu replied, “but I am in the army now. I am a soldier. My mother told me that I had to go to the army first and afterward I can do whatever I want.” Eliyahu honored his mother’s wishes. Today, he is serving at the Tel Hashomer military base in the center of the country — “close to home,” in military terms — in the logistical corps.
Then you are a “jobnik,” as they say.
“True. I am on the base every day from eight o’clock until five o’clock. At five o’clock, I am released to go home.”
What do you do there? Do you make sandwiches?
“I prepare the equipment.”
Then you won’t become an officer. There isn’t much room for advancement.
And your mother is satisfied with that?
“She is happy because I am in the army. She believes that if I don’t serve in the army, it will be difficult for me to advance in life.”
Avrohom Ben-Abu, Eliyahu’s regular chavrusah, came over to us at that point. He was a bit displeased by the fact that we were chatting instead of learning together. I decided to honor his wishes and I prepared to end our fascinating conversation. But first, I learned from Eliyahu that many of his friends also attend the midrashah. On average, there are about 25 boys there on any ordinary night. There are some shiurim that are attended by more boys and some with fewer attendees. Eliyahu himself, over the past two years, has completely changed his way of life. Today, he observes Shabbos completely, wears tefillin every day, and davens three times a day.
What did you do on Sukkos? Is there a place outside your home to build a sukkah?
“It would be possible to build one, but I ate by neighbors who built a sukkah.”
Were you home for Pesach?
“My parents keep kosher,” Eliyahu replied, “but I chose to spend Pesach with family members who are more careful.”
Before we parted with a handshake, I asked Eliyahu one last question: “When is your birthday?” I wanted to see if he would answer me with his secular birthday or with his birthday on the Hebrew calendar.
“The third of Nissan,” he replied.
– – – – –
Rav Yaakov Edelstein was the guest of honor and the main speaker at the event. Half of the attendees — the Lev L’Achim chavrusos themselves — were certainly familiar with him. The other half — the youths from the midrashot — may not have known as much about him, but based on the applause, the curiosity and the tension that filled the room when he rose to speak, it was clear that they had heard of him as well. Rav Yaakov Edelstein’s very name inspires awe. Whenever he comes to an event, he is invariably surrounded by admirers.
Rav Yaakov is the rov of the city of Ramat Hasharon. He is also the rov of a neighborhood in Bnei Brak, a rosh kollel in more than one location, and a posek. But above all, he is known for the power of his brachos. Once a week, Rav Yaakov has hours for receiving the public. In the past, he was featured in a Yom Tov interview for the Yated. Every Chanukah, Rav Yaakov visits his son, Rav Boruch, who lives within walking distance of this massive bais medrash.
When the hour of learning drew to a close, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin got up to speak. At that precise moment, Rav Yaakov arrived. He sat down next to Rav Uri Zohar, facing the audience and listening intently. When he was invited to the podium, the entire assemblage rose to their feet and began singing “Yomim al yemei melech tosif.”
In his speech, Rav Yaakov discussed the topic of a siyum on a masechta. “The words ‘hadran alach’ mean more than simply that we plan to return to the masechta we have learned. The word is also derived from the term hadar, beauty. The beauty of the Gemara that you complete radiates from you.
“I live in a quiet neighborhood in Ramat Hasharon that is mostly nonreligious,” he said. “Most of the people in my neighborhood do not go to shul. When one of them has an event on his rooftop, especially if he plays music over a loudspeaker, it wakes up the entire neighborhood. Sometimes, after these events, I ask my neighbors the next morning what the occasion was. One person was studying to be a doctor, and when he received his degree, he threw a party and invited many friends to celebrate with him, with a band playing music. Another time, someone made a party after he was released from prison.”
The bochurim listened, enthralled by his speech and trying to guess at the point of his words. Rav Edelstein surprised them with his next comment: “You certainly understand that those two celebrations were very different from each other. The prisoner who was released didn’t say ‘hadran alach.’ The doctor’s party, though, celebrated a beginning. Now he would benefit: He would be able to work in a hospital, healing patients and saving lives.
“When I sit here and look at you, I see great nobility. This is a festival of bnei aliyah. Let me give you an idea of how Ramat Hasharon celebrates its endings. There is a school known as Usishkin in our neighborhood, whose graduates move on to junior high school. Every year, on the last day of school, the students celebrate the beginning of their vacation. And how do they celebrate it? With wild, wanton destruction. They break windows; they destroy everything around them. This happens every year, and the school knows that it will have to repair all the damage during the vacation.
“But you are completing a masechta. You are making a siyum of ‘hadran alach.’ You have acquired something very valuable, and you are now ascending to a much higher level. We say ‘hadran alach’ because we all yearn to study the masechta again and to learn all of Shas. You are truly incredible.”
Rav Yaakov went on to speak about Chanukah. “In Al Hanissim, we say that Hashem delivered ‘the wicked into the hands of those who are involved in Your Torah.’ The Torah is an ‘eisek,’ an involvement or a business. It must be at least as important to a person as his business. When a person learns Torah, even if he doesn’t learn all day, he must recognize that while he is learning, the Torah is his business. Have you ever seen someone close his shop and sit there idly, doing nothing? Of course not. The business is his source of livelihood. That is exactly the way we must feel about the Torah. The Torah is our life. It gives us vitality.
“Just yesterday,” Rav Yaakov continued, “I passed by a preschool in Ramat Hasharon and I heard the children singing about the ‘mighty Maccabim.’ I imagine that their teacher told them stories about the Maccabim’s heroism. What are the children being taught? That there was a war in Eretz Yisroel for our independence, a struggle against a foreign conqueror, and that the Maccabim wanted to be released from the conqueror’s dominion and to be independent, to establish a Jewish government in Eretz Yisroel — that they wanted their own currency, and for people to speak Hebrew and not Greek.
“But that isn’t what happened at all. The battle was fought over the Torah. The Greeks wanted us to forget the Torah, and the Chashmonaim were willing to sacrifice themselves over that. The Yevanim wanted to uproot the study of Torah from the Jewish people. They ruled this country for 280 years! This wasn’t a war over land or over independence. It was a war over the Torah, and it was fought with mesirus nefesh.
“The Yevanim passed decrees against the Torah,” he continued, “and today, as well, there are many battles over religion, like the Reform movement, for instance. They perform conversions that are incomplete, which is essentially uprooting the Torah. Wherever the Reform movement exists, Jews are becoming lost.”
Rav Yaakov concluded his address with some words of praise for Lev L’Achim: “You represent the continued victory of those who study the Torah over the evil ones. Yasher koach to the workers of Lev L’Achim, who help the large community of Jews who thirst for the Word of Hashem. May you continue slaking their thirst in order to protect the Jewish nation and the entire world.”
His words were followed by an enthusiastic ovation. Rav Yaakov found it difficult to make his way to the nearby exit, as hundreds of people surrounded him, begging for a brachah, a handshake, or simply an opportunity to see his face. He remained calm, walking slowly and smiling at everyone. He certainly made a deep impression on those who saw him. The bochurim who were sitting near me appeared astounded.
At some point in the evening, small dancing circles began to form spontaneously. At first, it was a chavrusah or two here and there, and then the circles slowly widened until there was hardly anyone left who was still seated. The band began playing exuberant music. I walked out into the lobby, where dozens of bochurim were receiving sufganiyot and drinks.
I walked to my car. When I had arrived, all the parking spots in the vicinity of the bais medrash had been taken, so it was a relatively long walk. A long line of buses, vans and private cars had filled the streets. Here and there, Lev L’Achim stands were set up, so that anyone boarding a bus received a free gift package: a beautiful card containing the passage of Haneiros hallalu, a brief guide to the laws of brachos, and a refrigerator magnet with a list of the proper brachos for different types of food. Every package also contained a mezonos sandwich and a can of soda, and each bag bore the logo of Lev L’Achim and the words “Chanukah Sameach.”