Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

The Vanishing Greatness of the “Simple Jew”

Our mesivta had a full chazoras hashatz for Minchah. It is well-known that many yeshivos customarily have a shortened chazoras hashatz with Kedushah, commonly referred to as a “hoicher Kedushah,” for Minchah. The reasons for this custom are beyond the purview of this column, but until today, a large percentage of Litvishe yeshivos still maintain this minhag. When I came to Yeshiva Ner Yisroel of Toronto as a young bochur, the yeshiva had a full chazoras hashatz. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Knobel, told me back then that the minhag had been changed not long before my arrival. Initially, the custom was to have a shortened Minchah, but a profoundly moving incident precipitated the change.



What was that incident?


The yeshiva’s cook at the time was a special Yid named Mr. Herman Klein z”l. Mr. Klein and, ybl”c, his wife were a team who not only cooked the meals for the bochurim, but they invested their very hearts and souls into their work, tending to our culinary needs with almost parental affection and care. Because of their great mesirus nefesh for the chinuch of their children, the Kleins left everything behind as they escaped Communist Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s and made a new life for themselves in Canada. I still vividly remember how Mr. Klein would come every morning to davening, sit in his place, and daven with inspiring temimus and trust in Hashem.


My rebbi told me that one day, Mr. Klein approached the rosh yeshiva, Rav Naftoli Friedler zt”l, with a request. He explained how growing up in times of unrest and living for so many years under oppressive governments had prevented him from pursuing Torah learning at a high level. However, he said, one way that he is able to serve Hashem is through davening, an integral part of which is answering “Boruch Hu uvoruch Shemo” and “Amein” to all brochos. Mr. Klein appealed to the rosh yeshiva, saying that he spends most of his day cooking for the bochurim. He does not have the time and wherewithal to engage in lengthy Torah learning sedorim.


“What do I have other than answering ‘Boruch Hu uvoruch Shemo’ and ‘Amein’ to the brochos of the shliach tzibbur?” he said. “Without chazoras hashatz, that great zechus is being taken away from me!”


He begged the rosh yeshiva to institute the regular Minchah chazoras hashatz. Rav Friedler, who always expressed his admiration for Mr. Klein, was so moved by the appeal, the temimus, the purity of heart and the desire for closeness to Hashem through the simple recitation of Ameins to brochos that he agreed to this request. From then on, Minchah in the yeshiva featured a full chazoras hashatz.


I remembered this notable incident when I was told by an old classmate that our dear Mr. Klein passed away just over a month ago. May this story serve as a zechus for his neshamah.




This story got me thinking about what Mr. Klein and so many of his generation represented: a certain temimus, a certain wonderful, beautiful uncomplicatedness in their relationship with Hashem. They had been through so much in their lives. They endured tragedy, pain and suffering, and yet they still retained a simplicity of faith, a pashtus. These people were “poshuteh Yidden” in the most noble and exalted sense of the word.


This made me think. What about us? What about we who have had the unbelievable zechus to learn Torah at high levels? We yeshiva graduates who were zoche to spend so many years learning; we bnei Torah who know what a question of Rav Akiva Eiger is and perhaps have even been mechaven to one of his questions in our own learning; we who have tasted the sweetness of learning the commentary of the Ketzos Hachoshen and have spent hours mutchering and toiling over one difficult line in the Rashba; why don’t we have that same temimus regarding chazoras hashatz and other aspects of Yiddishkeit like Yidden such as Mr. Klein?


When Mr. Klein would talk to the rosh yeshiva, the adulation radiating from his eyes, the deep yiras Hakavod that he exuded, was so profound that one couldn’t fail but to be impacted by it. Why is it that he and so many of his generation possessed such kavod, such deep respect and bittul atzmi for their rabbonim, while we, who can appreciate their scholarship so much more, do not come to the toes of these “poshuteh Yidden” in their emunas chachomim and love for chachomim?


The purpose of these words is not to provide answers, because we don’t know the definitive answer, but rather to raise the question in the hope that it will spur us to some introspection to try emulating some of the beautiful, positive attributes of amazing seemingly simple Jews like Mr. Klein and so many others of that generation.




I remember once hearing a shiur from Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l. It’s been a long time since I heard the tape, but if I recall correctly, he said (I am paraphrasing), “I don’t know if today’s generation can relate to this, but when I was growing up, there was the type of Yid who came to shul early every morning before he went to work. He would put on his tefillin before davening and start from the beginning of the siddur, davening with a temimus, saying everything, beginning with brochos, continuing on to korbonos and then Pesukei Dezimrah, etc. After davening, he would stay for a short shiur before going to work,” said Rav Pincus. “Because we are osek in gadlus, we forget the pashtus. We are so busy with gadlus, we are learning Torah with iyun, and that is the way it should be. Ashreinu that this is what we are doing, but nevertheless, we run the risk and danger of forgetting the pashtus, the simple inner connection with Hashem that must be cultivated regardless of what we do. We cannot afford to let our engagement in greatness make us forget the simple beauty of that connection.”


When a person is engaged in gadlus most of the day, he can mistakenly say to himself, “Korbonos? Pesukei Dezimrah? I am connecting to Hashem with the Rashbah and Rav Akiva Eiger.” This is a fundamental error. In a quest for greatness, one is forgetting the stepping stones to that greatness, the foundation of that greatness, the pashtus.


It is that pashtus symbolized by so many in the previous generation that has become lost and that we must find and emulate if we are to break through the cynicism that has engulfed us and gripped its tentacles around us.


It is a pashtus that is perhaps needed even more urgently by those of us who are engaged in gadlus.




By way of example, around a decade ago, a Yid named Reb Pinchos Morgenstern z”l retired to Lakewood to live near his children. He had lived in Pittsburgh until then. Reb Pinchos, a talmid chochom who was at home in any mesechta in Shas, conducted himself as a simple Yid. He was known as Reb Pintche or Mr. Morgenstern and never saw himself as anything other than a poshuteh Yid.


When he served as a shochet and had to travel from Pittsburgh to the slaughterhouse, he would say Tehillim by heart the entire way. He would measure distance by how many times he could complete Tehillim, saying, “Such and such a place is two and a half times Tehillim from Pittsburgh.”


In the 1960s, when car companies began offering optional radios in vehicles, Rav Pintche said simply, “Why do I need a radio? I have my Tehillim.”


It is this kind of pashtus that we are losing and we must regain. Yes, we have reached gadlus. There is probably no generation that has merited so many people engaging in limud haTorah at such a level as ours, but what about the pashtus?




We would be remiss if we did not mention one more thing. No person should make the fundamental mistake of thinking that the concept of pashtus or the poshuteh Yid is an excuse for mediocrity, for not striving for greatness, for being complacent about spiritual growth, for having a laissez-faire attitude toward Yiddishkeit, and even, in some cases, for ridiculing talmidei chachomim and what they stand for. That is taking the concept of the simple poshuteh Yid and abusing it, turning it on its head, and trying to cynically excuse laxity in mitzvos and amaratzus due to laziness, under the guise of being absolved because you are a simple Jew, a“poshuteh Yid.


The poshuteh Yidden I knew – the Mr. Kleins, the Mr. Morgensterns and the thousands of other seemingly “simple,” yet spiritually rich individuals – were the exact opposite. They wanted nothing more than that their children should strive to be talmidei chachomim and medakdekim in mitzvos. They would never use the title “poshuteh Yid” as an excuse not to strive for deep closeness to Hashem. They would never say, “I am a poshuteh Yid and I am therefore absolved from properly learning Torah or properly davening.” On the contrary, they lived every second cognizant of – and actually living with – Hashem’s Presence.


The pashtus was their humility and their refusal to give themselves credit for their tremendous accomplishments. Their humility was so profound that they had no idea that they were great!


Let us strive to emulate the beauty and the pashtus of these special Yidden, even as we engage in greatness, so that we can be zoche to the true manifestation of gadlus shebepashtus and pashtus shebegadlus!



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