Shimmering Images from the World of Zoom

One of the enduring memories we will all have from the Covid era is life on Zoom. Perhaps it is even here to stay. Classes, shiurim, simchos, bikur cholim, nichum aveilim and many other aspects of our lives have been taken over by two-dimensional images on a screen. How this is changing our lives and its long-range ramifications remain to be seen.

A prescient philosopher, Marshall McLuhan, famously wrote, “The Media is the Message,” meaning that how we communicate eventually defines us. He didn’t even know of the internet, smartphones and more recent innovations. But he analyzed how telephones and other media of the 1960s were changing society, often for the worse.

We now know some of the irreversible detrimental changes that radio, television and of course the internet have wrought upon everyone, even those who consider themselves immune. What, then, are we to make of an extended period of time when human interaction has often been relegated to fleeting apparitions upon a screen? Rabbeim and teachers, grandparents and ainiklach can often only see part of each other’s faces and hear but the hollow sounds of technology. In a way, boruch Hashem for that, since without it, we may have had nothing at all for these difficult months. The sense of humor survives and teachers tongue-in-cheek complain that they can’t send anyone to the principal, while students lament that there is no real recess.

The good news is that, just as in other nisyonos, limud haTorah has gone on. Some have resisted the internet-based Zoom and taught exclusively by phone. Others have tried to harness and tame the odious technology so that some semblance of teacher-student visibility remains. However, nothing can replace the original classic methods, so we shall attempt to discover what the Torah tells us about this latest phenomenon and how to hopefully return to “normal.”

We should begin with a posuk made famous by the old “Rebbi Cards” series: “Your eyes will behold your Teacher (Morecha)” (Yeshayahu 30:20 and see Avnei Yashfei, volume 3, page 63). Although the literal translation there of teacher seems to refer to Hashem, Chazal (Eruvin 13b, Horiyos 12a, Kerisos 6a) and meforshim (see Malbim) understand the word to mean any teacher of Torah. Indeed, Rabbeinu Yonah (Iggeres Hateshuvah Hasholeim, page 70) is of the opinion that “there is a specific mitzvah lehistakeil (to behold) a tzaddik and chochom.” Many poskim actually cite the ability to “see the rebbi” as a chinuch requirement.

Rav Menashe Klein ztl (Mishneh Halachos 7:154; Chashukei Chemed, Niddah, page 379) cites the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 246:9), which rules that “the rebbi should sit at the head with all the students in a semicircle so that everyone can see and hear him.” He concludes from many other sources that a student must be able to contemplate his rebbi’s face.

One of the two main sources of this concept is the well-known Gemara (Eruvin 13b) that Rebbi (Rav Yehudah Hanosi) revealed: “The reason that I am sharper than my colleagues is that I saw Rav Meir from behind him. And if I had seen him from his front, I would be even sharper.” The Maharsha there explains that a student who can see his rebbi will be able to view his facial expressions and make eye contact, helping him understand more than the simple words.”

Some gedolim (Pe’er Nochum of Novominsk, page 11) raise an interesting issue: If Rebbi had the opportunity to see Rav Meir, why didn’t he apparently ever make the effort to see his face?

Some (Megadim Chadoshim to Eruvin) give a fascinating answer. Rashi’s opinion is that Rebbi sat in the last row in Rav Meir’s shiur, from which angle he was only able to see Rav Meir’s back. However, the Yerushalmi (Beitzah 8:2) tells a different story. It relates that when Rebbi was marrying off his son, Rav Shimon, Rav Meir arrived on Shabbos, as they were celebrating what appears to be sheva brachos. Rav Meir saw the assemblage clapping their hands, which he held was forbidden. A man of integrity, Rav Meir expressed his opinion, but Rebbi asked sharply, “Who is this who challenges us in our own home?” Rav Meir heard Rebbi’s voice and proceeded to run away, but the wind picked up his head covering, revealing only the back of his neck. According to Tosafos (Menachos 104a, as explained by the Acharonim), this was the one and only time that Rebbi saw Rav Meir (for a full discussion, see Margoliyos HaShas to Eruvin).

In any case, we can understand how powerful just seeing a tzadik, even from the back, can be.

On my own microscopic level, there were two gedolim whom I was only privileged to see once, each for a moment, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein and Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, and each made an inedible impression upon me.

The other Gemara (Kerisos 6a) tells of Rav Mesharshiya’s advice to his sons concerning teacher-student relations: “When you wish to go learn before your teacher, [first] study the words of the Mishnah [well] and [only then] come before your teacher. And when you sit before your teacher, look at your teacher’s mouth…” Here, too, it is clear that nothing can compare to being able to look directly at the rebbi’s face and mouth in particular.

Indeed, Rav Dovid Cohen (Ohel Dovid 6:93) concludes halachically that “one who watches a shiur on video has not reached the high level of one who gazes upon his rebbi directly in a live presentation.” Rav Yechezkel Abramsky (Chazon Yechezkel, Yeshayahu 30:20, page 282) refers to this as “the great rule of Jewish religious education.”

Interestingly, both Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach (Machsheves Mussar 2:2) and Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Taama Dikra, Tetzaveh, page 106) independently reach the same conclusion about Moshe Rabbeinu’s masveh (mask). The posuk (Shemos 32:36) teaches us that when Moshe Rabbeinu returned from heaven,1 his face was shining. He thereupon taught the Bnei Yisroel Torah that he learned from Hashem and placed the mask on his face. Rav Shach and Rav Chaim Kanievsky ask: Why didn’t Moshe put the mask on before he spoke? Their answer is that the students must see the rebbi’s face during the transmission of the Torah, even if it is difficult.

Rav Shach also alerts us to another Gemara (Sotah 49a), which teaches that “any Torah scholar who engages in Torah [study despite] adversity…shall be sated with the splendor of the Shechinah.” Since the Gemara cites the verse in Yeshayahu, Rav Shach sees viewing the rebbi as the venue for connecting with the glory of the Shechinah itself. Surely this is an accomplishment that can only happen through human contact, not the artificial substitute of Zoom.

Let me conclude with an amazing story within a story. Rav Yoel Teitlebaum, the Satmar Rov, was approached by an important member of his kehillah in Satmar who was enrolling his son in the rebbe’s yeshiva. The man’s request was that “the rebbe should keep an eye on his precious child.” The rebbe’s response was that the Chasam Sofer had received a similar appeal in the city of Pressburgh long before. His response had been, “You know that I am extremely busy with the yeshiva, the hundreds of students, the burden of the city and beyond, so I cannot reasonably commit myself to keep track of every single student. However, my advice is that you should tell your son to watch me very carefully. If he does so, he will be sure to succeed.”

This is not, G-d forbid, conceit, but following the statements we have seen from Chazal literally. It is true that the generations have diminished, but each rebbi must carry on the tradition, from Moshe Rabbeinu to the Chasam Sofer, to the rebbe of Satmar (Butzina Kadisha 1:179).

My own rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, once adjured a large group of menahelim from many yeshivos to remember that each rebbi represented a direct link to Sinai, a responsibility that they dare not shirk and should be proud to maintain (last maamar in Pachad YitzchokShavuos, printed in the original Yiddish).    

Given these sources, we may draw several conclusions for the end of Covid, G-d willing, may it come very soon:

First of all, whenever it becomes more possible, we should take our children to see gedolei Yisroel in the flesh. Secondly, we should attend shiurim with a live rov, not just on a video or a recorded shiur. Even if Zoom becomes convenient because of finances, scheduling, or even habit, let’s remember that there is nothing like a live animated teacher who is the link for each child to Sinai and to the Shechinah itself.  Thirdly, as we saw, rabbeim and moros, who already do so much, must try to notice the moods, demeanor and facial expressions of their students. Most do not require my reminders. However, in light of what we have learned from Chazal, they should try their utmost to take advantage of the holy interaction they can have with each precious neshomah under their responsibility. Fourth and most of all, we should be so grateful to our children’s rabbeim and moros for their mesirus nefesh in doing all this day and day out.

Yes, it was fun traveling to the world of Zoom. But now we can appreciate what we were missing: no less than our connection to the Divine Shechinah itself. Let us treasure the opportunity when it returns and, hopefully, never lose it again.