Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024

The Biggest Night of the Year in Lakewood

It was over two decades ago and one of the first times I spent the Yom Tov of Shavuos in Lakewood as a talmid learning in Bais Medrash Govoah. After finishing the seudah fairly quickly in order to return to the yeshiva's bais medrash before all of the seats were taken, I walked in and found the bais medrash already 90% full. My chavrusah and I found shtenders and sat down to learn. I remember putting my feet on the bottom bar of the old wooden shtender (the type they used to have at Bais Medrash Govoah) that would be my companion for the night.

It was an old shtender. So old, in fact, that the bottom piece upon which the feet rest was so indented from years of use that the majority of the wood was rubbed out, leaving only a thin piece for one’s feet. The shtender was also rubbed shiny from its years of use. I remember the thoughts flitting through my mind: “How many thousands of hours of Torah learning has this shtender experienced? If this shtender could talk, how many heated arguments over a difficult Tosafos, Rashba or Rambam would it recall? How many smacks did it absorb as talmidei chachomim, in their passion when emphasizing a point to a chavrusah who disagreed, gave a klop on the shtender? How many thousands of hours of hasmadah, deep dedication to learning the devar Hashem, had taken place on this shtender for the footrest to become so whittled down?


It was a simple wooden shtender, a domeim, an inanimate object, but somehow, in the wonderful, kedushah-permeated atmosphere of the bais medrash, I felt a kinship with it. If there was anything that felt like tashmishei kedushah,holy objects whose purpose is to serve kedushah, it was that shtender. That shtender was a symbol of dedication to learning, of time – hours upon hours, day after day – spent toiling in Torah learning. As old and as well-worn as that shtender was, it served as a symbol of a different era, the era of Lakewood that my rabbeim talked about with such fervor and such nostalgia.




It’s hard to pinpoint, but looking back to my mesivta years and my rabbeim who had been Lakewood talmidim when the yeshiva was a fraction of its current size, the picture one got when they spoke about Lakewood in the early years was that of a revolutionary feeling. Lakewood then consisted of a very small group of bochurim and yungeleit who were literally taking on or, as it were, figuratively thumbing their nose at all the preconceived norms in the world in general and the frum world in particular.


They spoke about Torah lishmah. They told stories about “the rosh yeshiva zt”l,” as they called Rav Aharon Kotler, and how he changed the paradigm and inculcated the ideal of Torah lishmah. How he created an atmosphere that not only didn’t attach importance to materialism, wealth and comfort, but almost disdained them.


These young pioneers were revolutionaries, and they changed the face of Torah in America. They often battled family members, hostility and indifference. They made do with the absolute materialistic minimum so that they could sit and learn. They sacrificed, but that sacrifice reaped tremendous fruit. Many of them went on to become roshei yeshiva and rabbeim who influenced thousands of their own talmidim. They ushered in an era when kollel and long-term kollel learning have become mainstream.


Indeed, the proof that the revolution was so successful is that it became mainstream.




It always seemed that the Yom Tov of Shavuos was one that, more than anything else, highlighted the success of the Torah revolution that transformed America. There was and is electricity in the air on Shavuos in Lakewood. It is not a coincidence that so many flock to Lakewood to spend Shavuos with family members. Without a doubt, leil Shavuos is the biggest night of the year in Lakewood, symbolizing the revolutionary transformation that America experienced thanks to the idealism and mesirus nefesh of a few handfuls of Torah pioneers.


That fire, that powerful ahavas haTorah and revolutionary idealism, is not gone. When one speaks to or listens to the shmuessen of several older roshei yeshiva, one can feel it. It is so powerful, that one can touch it. They are steeped in emes, in Toras emes and the fire of emes, the unadulterated emes that they absorbed in their youth which still burns brightly within them.


Recently, Rav Chaim Epstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Zichron Meilech and a talmid of Rav Aharon Kotler, delivered a hesped on Rav Ephraim Zuravin zt”l at the kollel that Rav Zuravin headed in Lakewood. Rav Chaim lamented the extensive bluff and obfuscation found in our times. He said that we are constantly being bombarded by messages, both overt and covert, that seek to make falsehood look like the truth. In his words, “L’ameis es hasheker.” Tragically, these messages are absorbed by virtually everyone. They have also gone mainstream.


Anyone who studies the history of successful revolutions will find that the revolutionaries of the first generation are always gripped by fiery idealism, an idealism which they deem sufficiently important to sacrifice their lives. The next generation is usually not as enthusiastic as the first, and by the time the third generation comes along, the revolution has become mainstream and most of the populace does not even know that things were once different. They take the new order that was ushered in by the revolution for granted.


Things are no different when it comes to the Torah revolution. Boruch Hashem, we live in a generation when most yeshiva bochurim go on to learn in bais medrash and kollel, with a very large percentage remaining in kollel for many years. “Yosef Hashem kochem elef pe’amim.”




We would be foolish, however, to stick our heads in the sand and not recognize the unfortunate byproducts of the mind-boggling success of that Torah revolution. The very fact that it has become so mainstream has, in many cases, minimized the fire, the idealism, the visceral knowledge that “I am engaged in kiyum ha’olam.” The absolute pedestal upon which a true Torah life is placed along with the disregard for material matters and those who attach importance to material matters are not what they once were. Like any revolution, if one didn’t grow up fighting for it, if it was taken for granted and presented on a silver platter, it does not become absorbed in one’s blood and one’s very essence.


If a razor would penetrate the veins of those early Lakewood talmidim, the blood that would flow from their veins would scream, “Torah! Mesirus nefesh for Torah!” That was their default button. Today, it is possible that some young bochurim don’t even know why they are learning. They are just learning, because, well, they have been taught that they are supposed to learn. Tragically, if we take the revolution for granted and do not try to transmit the neshamah of the revolution to the next generation, they won’t absorb it on their own.


Today, perhaps we are good at repeating slogans and catchwords such as, “Torahlishmah,Shivti beveis Hashem kol yemei chayai,” and “Ashrei mi she’amalo baTorah,” but I think that most readers would concur that, sadly, it is not with the same passion, fervor and inner kesher nafshi that characterized those early pioneers.




The Yom Tov of Shavuos is upon us. It is the Yom Tov that truly characterizes the neshamah of the revolution. It is the Yom Tov that, in the Gemara’s words, separates “the “Yosefs in the market from the Joes.” It is the Yom Tov that truly makes us different. Let us all try to transmit the neshamah of the revolution and not take for granted that the third and fourth generations after the revolution can understand on their own or have a deep emotional connection to totally dedicating oneself to living a life of Torah.


In this way, the night of Shavuos will continue to be the most important, the most beautiful, the most exalted, and the most inspiring night in Lakewood and in every other locale where Torah is learned with emes. 




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