Thursday, Sep 21, 2023

There’s No Me Without You

By Rabbi Zvi Belsky

In early January of this year, I received a call from a young businessman in New York named Edward*. He and his friends had started a shul several years ago and he asked if I’d consider coming to visit.

I visited twice and couldn’t believe what I saw and learned about this kehillah. The shul was originally founded in a small house, before Rosh Hashanah of 2019. They were a young group of childhood friends, some of them former public school students, who were looking to grow spiritually and have a beit knesset to call home.

They found a rov, a talmid chochom who agreed to embark on the journey together with them on condition that they plan to open more than just a shul. The rov stipulated that limud haTorah must be a major focus of their efforts and that they agree to fund programs to increase Torah study in the community.

Only one year later, the kehillah founded a full-day kollel. The shul became so popular that within three years, they had to build two extensions and have now once again run out of space and are in the process of constructing a building.

Torah study in the shul begins at 5 a.m. and continues until 10:30 p.m. The first minyan for Shacharis is kevosikin, followed by two additional minyanim at 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. There are two daily minyanim for Mincha and two for Maariv.

Breakfast is served every morning, followed by three shiurim for baalei batim until 10 a.m. Every evening, there is a learning program for children and baalei batim between 8:30 and 10:30.

Other programs include Avos Ubonim, a Sunday morning program for girls, a Sunday afternoon program for boys, and special Rosh Chodesh events.

There are thousands of seforim in the bais medrash. If you take a quick look at the seforim shranks, you’ll see that the library is identical to what you would find in a typical yeshiva. The shelves are lined with Gemaros, Rambams, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Rishonim and Acharonim, including the shiurim of the roshei yeshiva of the last generation. When I had a chance to talk to the rov, I asked him about this. He said that he wants the people who enter the shul to know that the Torah is their personal inheritance. He wants them to know that learning on a higher level is within their reach and that he will do everything he can to help them grow.

Edward told me that what he is most proud of is the fact that although he and his partners fund the shul themselves, all decisions are deliberately left up to their rov. They recognize that the shul must be built and shaped under the guidance of a talmid chochom and they are happy to recognize their limitations.

I became very taken by Edward’s seichel hayoshor, refined middos, and confidence, so I asked him to share his personal story with me. I was moved to tears by what he related to me.

As a child, he transferred from public school to Be’er Hagolah Institutes, a school that is dedicated to absorbing public school children. He was not an easy student. He would constantly challenge his rabbeim and teachers, and they struggled to deal with him. His behavior would often affect the whole class and he therefore spent many hours in the office of the dean and principal, Rav Avner German.

He said that he remembers sitting across from Rabbi German’s desk dozens of times while Rabbi German learned and worked. Occasionally, Edward’s rebbi would stick his head into the office and beg Rabbi German, “Don’t let Edward go!” He realized that Rabbi German and his rabbeim loved him and were trying to do everything they could for him. His behavior, however, just kept on becoming more and more disruptive.

One day, things became so bad that Rabbi German told him, “That’s it, Edward. You can no longer be a student here in school. Go pack up your belongings and go home. You’ll have to find another school.”

Edward said that he was the happiest boy around. The rabbi had just made his day. “Yes! I’m free from the shackles of school. Finally! Just get me out of here.”

He ran to his classroom, packed his belongings, and left the building with a skip in his step. But as he was leaving the school property, he heard footsteps behind him. He stopped, turned around, and saw his principal, the seventy-year-old Rav Avner German running behind him with tears in his eyes.

Rabbi German stopped, looked him in the eye, and said, “Edward! Is this how you treat me after we’ve become so close to each other? I tell you to leave me and you just walk away without even putting up a fight? Are you so readily prepared to end our relationship just like that? Edward, don’t you ever leave me again!”

It hit the twelve-year-old Edward like a bolt of lightning and it flicked a switch inside his heart. Rabbi German was telling him that as far as he was concerned, Edward was his own child. And how can a child just accept being driven away from his father without holding on for dear life?

Edward heard the message loud and clear: Even if it was your own mistakes that led to this situation, leaving is not an option!

No, Edward didn’t want to leave school anymore. He couldn’t articulate it at that age, but he did feel an incredibly deep and special love. And although he was still the same boy bursting with energy who hated sitting through class, he was, from that moment on, willing to suffer the pain of being in school in order to hold onto this relationship with someone who loved him so much.

Edward went on to graduate from school, earn a college degree, find a wonderful wife, and begin to build a beautiful frum family, bli ayin hara. He used those boundless energies of his, along with his tenacity and creativity, to establish and build a number of successful businesses.

Now, he puts much of his time into expanding the shul under the leadership of his rov. Edward’s teachers tell me that they always knew he was a leader. But it required the guidance of a brilliant mechanech and tzaddik like Rav Avner German to guide him in the right direction.

Rabbi Avrohom Yaakov Leibowitz of the Khal Yereim Kollel in Cleveland Heights showed me a Be’er Mayim Chaim in Parshas Noach (ois bais). The Be’er Mayim Chaim brings that the posuk in Yeshayah (54:9) calls the Mabul “mei Noach.” The reason is because Noach wasn’t mispallel on behalf of his generation to be saved. Had he been mispallel, he could have saved them. The question is: What could Noach have done?

The Be’er Mayim Chaim explains that the only tefillah that could have helped would be one that is similar to what Moshe told Hashem after the chet ha’Eigel. Moshe said, “Macheini na mesifrecha asher kosavta.” Moshe was saying, “If Klal Yisroel is out, then I also want to be removed from the Torah.” Moshe was being moser nafsho for Klal Yisroel.

So too, had Noach said to Hashem, “I am moser nefesh and I refuse to enter the teivah because I refuse to separate myself from the people, Hashem would not have destroyed the world.”

Of course, we can’t even fathom those who the Torah speaks about. But we are supposed to learn a lesson. And the lesson is that a tzaddik can tell himself and Hashem, “If you take the one I’m responsible for, it is like you are taking me. He can’t go without me.”

And that was Rav Avner German’s message to Edward. If you go, you’re by definition taking me with you, and I’m not leaving, so you have no place else to go.

(I share my deepest appreciation to my chavrusa, Rabbi Avrumy Fergusson, who refuses to “let me leave” with anything less than the vort articulated crystal clear.)

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