While I was in Eretz Yisroel last week, I came across a pithy saying I had never seen before. In Hebrew, on a keychain in a store in Zichron Yaakov that doesn’t cater to tourists, it said that wealth is achieved when you have everything that money can’t buy.
I had the good fortune to spend ten days in Eretz Yisroel from before Shavuos until Motzoei Shabbos.
Being there was refreshing, invigorating, and an opportunity to recharge my spiritual reserves through learning, connecting with my rabbeim, and being and davening in holy places.
When I’m in Israel, I get chizuk from watching people. Simple people. Good people. People who look holy and people who don’t.
All Jews have at their core a neshomah mimaal, and for some reason, in that country, it is easier to spot it. Not always, not in everyone, but often enough to inspire.
I was sitting on a bench on Rechov Abir Yaakov in Naharia, waiting for someone. A man was walking down the street with a white nylon yarmulka perched on his head. With his hand outstretched, he was asking people for money. There was something off about him and nobody gave him anything.
One man seemed to know the beggar, and when he asked for money, saying he needed it for food, the man looked at him and sharply responded with a loud, “Lo. No.” Though the poor man promised that he had not consumed any alcohol since Monday, the man refused to give him anything.
He sat down next to me, holding his lit cigarette between his nicotine-stained-fingers, and began humming to himself in a most beautiful tune a kapitel of Tehillim. I moved a little closer to him and was in awe as I listened in on his conversation with Hashem. He finished the kappitel and went back to work.
Such is the beauty of Eretz Yisroel and its people. A shiker without a shekel in his pocket reaching out to Hashem with a most beautiful tune, reciting the ancient words of Tehillim as he awaits his daily salvation.
Though they seem so far removed, the sparks are there, close to the surface, ready to be set aflame.
I met Binyomin Netanyahu and was discussing the political situation with him. I asked what it would take to topple the current government. He looked at me and said, “What we need is for you to daven a little harder!” Not known to be religious, he also has the spark of a Yid.
Why am I telling you this?
My trip began on a sad note, for shortly after our arrival, Rav Uri Zohar suffered a heart attack and passed away. My involvement with Lev L’Achim over the past 30 years afforded me the opportunity to develop a relationship with Reb Uri, ever since he began coming to America to help the organization raise money.
His passing brought out mourning and much discussion across the country in religious and secular communities.
Uri Zohar was the embodiment of Israeli culture. He was the personification of what the general world regards as success. He was the country’s top actor, comedian and entertainer. Nobody else even came close. And since he left the profession, nobody has replaced him at the pinnacle of achievement in Israel.
He was wildly popular, admired and idolized, living in a three-story Tel Aviv glass-walled beachfront home. He had all the money and physical accouterments anyone could desire. And then he shocked the country and dumped it all.
He found something more tempting and fulfilling than everything that his fans, the cultural elites and the media, define as success and achievement. His public teshuvah and embracing of Torah some forty years ago sent shockwaves across the country.
He went on to live a life of complete and total penitence, forgoing fame and fortune, living in virtual poverty and spending his days and nights making up for lost time, learning Torah. He spread his message of truth across the country, filling theaters and halls with thousands of people, who, decades later, still had not gotten over the shock of his transformation. Working with Lev L’Achim, he helped bring tens of thousands of children to yeshivos and their families to teshuvah.
He went from being a public clown to a well-known tzaddik, who lived in a tiny 30-square meter apartment, dedicated strictly to learning Torah and doing mitzvos. Hu hagever, he experienced life the other way and saw the futility of physical pursuits. He wasn’t born to it. He came to it on his own and went on to set an example for all who were interested in the truth.
His inner spark got lit and flamed into a giant torch, providing light and direction for himself, his family, and millions of people, earning the respect of all.
He had to forsake much to live the life we lead. He was tested in many ways and withstood everything thrown in his path. He came from far away to adopt the lifestyle we take for granted. And since his passing, at his levayah and in private and public conversations, his life is being celebrated.
I’m telling you all this by way of introduction to the massive, unprecedented celebration of our Torah life that took place this week in Philadelphia. Tens of thousands of bnei Torah gathered in a sports stadium to commemorate the growth and support of the many thousands who dedicate their lives to learning Torah at Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood.
Shortly after he escaped from the Lithuanian churban, Rav Aharon Kotler opened the yeshiva in 1943, determined to rebuild here the world of Torah that was destroyed in Eastern Europe, where it had flourished for hundreds of years. His yeshiva began with a smattering of talmidim, his idea given a very small chance of success. The idea of kollel was not foreign, but was highly unpopular and would remain so for a long time.
The kollel concept was mocked by many, as was the idea of strictly learning Torah in yeshivos gedolos without attending college. Almost everyone went to college and earned a degree to enable them to succeed in life. It was believed that a bochur without a degree wouldn’t amount to much in life. Rav Aharon and his fidelity to Torah lishmah were considered throwbacks to an era gone by. The Jewish leadership and the masses mocked and vilified him and the few who shared his views, giving them no chance of succeeding.
But he paid no attention to them, persisting in inculcating the idea of Torah lishmah to a growing number of talmidim. By today’s numbers, it wasn’t much, but the idea and concept were set and others began to follow. Rav Aharon’s talmidim began opening yeshivos, and other American yeshivos and kollelim were slowly growing.
It’s hard for us to imagine that Orthodoxy was given little chance of survival. Many religious people were not able to hold on to their children, and hundreds of thousands left the world of shemiras hamitzvos. Yeshiva talmidim seeking rabbinic positions sought out Conservative congregations, thinking that that was the wave of the future.
Despite all the negativity, the Torah community began taking hold, as yeshiva graduates married, had children, and enrolled them in yeshiva elementary schools and then high schools and on to yeshivos gedolos. People saw that it could work and was working. Over the decades, American born-and-bred parents were thrilled to see their children growing in the path of Torah study and observance. Their lives had fulfillment. Learning Torah brought them satisfaction, meaning, purpose and nachas.
When plans were announced for the Lakewood event, skeptics abounded, questioning its purpose and need. But all those who were blessed enough to be in attendance felt as if they were at an historic celebration of lomdei Torah, bnei Torah, machzikei Torah, and the very Torah lives that we lead.
It was the largest event produced by and for bnei Torah anywhere. No longer are we dependent on the generosity of outsiders. No longer do we need others to produce things for us and tell us what is good for us and what we should be doing. Bnei Torah have demonstrated time and again, and celebrated this week, that we have arrived. The days of being mocked and vilified, the days of being looked at as shleppers and lo yutzlachs, are gone. Every ben Torah has an extra bounce in his step this week, every yungerman feels more appreciated than ever before, and every bochur feels special.
Invariably, stadiums are arenas where winners and losers gather, but this night it was different. All the attendees were winners. There was a pervasive energy in the room, a combination of ruchnius and nitzchius, of haromas keren haTorah velomdeha vetomcheha. The spirit that guides and maintains us was tangible in the room. Nothing but Torah was mentioned, nothing but Torah was celebrated, nothing but Torah mattered.
Rav Aryeh Malkiel Kotler, the Bais Medrash Govoah rosh yeshiva under whose leadership the yeshiva experienced its tremendous growth along the trajectory that began under his father, Rav Shneur, set the tone of the event with his sparkling message of the life-giving qualities of Torah. What was left unsaid, but not unfelt, was that he is third in line playing a leadership role in the transformation of the world of Torah. The revolution that his grandfather began and laid the foundations for, took off under his father, and under him it has blossomed to qualitative and quantitative heights unprecedented in our history.
In the country where it was thought that Shabbos, kashrus, limud and shemiras haTorah stood no chance, a packed stadium sat, stood, danced, and called out that netzach Yisroel lo yeshaker, demonstrating it by their very being there, by the lives they lead, by the way they dress and act, and by the way they support Torah and Torah supports them.
The special guest from Eretz Yisroel was Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of the famed Chevron Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. Famous for his brilliant shiurim and seforim, as he addressed the packed arena, he epitomized all that he spoke of, a giant in Torah who dedicates his life to learning Torah lishmah simply and without any outside considerations.
The words of the speakers were prose and poetry. The older people closed their eyes and imagined what the world was like as they were growing up, and the younger people were pumped with pride as they gained a better appreciation of their historic roles and opportunities.
The sparks of Yidden throughout the lonely forties, fifties and sixties were lit and began to flare with increasing fervor until the world of Torah and bnei Torah grew to the flaming torch we are today.
We went from being the few to the many, and thanks to Hashem’s brachos, bnei Torah who are working and in the business and professional worlds contribute historic sums to yeshivos and yungeleit within whom the flame of Torah burns. They support Torah and Torah supports them. The Torah carries the yungeleit as well, allowing them to grow in Torah and avodah, and together with their dedicated wives, they are raising another generation of bnei and bnos Torah whose lives revolve around Torah.
Anyone who saw Rav Aharon Kotler and attempts to describe him will speak of the fire in his eyes. They will tell you that when you looked at him, he was aflame, on fire with Torah.
In those eyes, he held all the sparks of the generation to come and provided the fuel to light them on fire. That fuel was Torah, Torah lishmah, learning for the sake of learning and constantly growing in Torah.
This week’s event was a celebration of his vision, the fire in his eyes and the flame in his soul. It was a celebration of the remarkable burst of growth of the Torah world, of the flame that arose from the sparks, of the thousands of families who dedicate their lives to Torah, and the budding talmidei chachomim as well.
It was a gathering of rich people – the richest people in the world. A gathering of over twenty thousand people who possess all that money cannot buy.