When Small is Really Big and When Quite is Really Loud

On Motzoei Shabbos, I heard the deeply saddening news of the passing of Rav Avrohom Turin zt”l, longtime mashgiach at Yeshiva Bais Moshe of Scranton. In addition to the tremendous sense of loss and bereavement that I felt upon hearing the news, I also felt a profound recognition of his greatness, something that I had perhaps failed to properly appreciate during his lifetime.

Why? Because when I heard about his passing, I took a trip down memory lane. It was more than forty years ago. I was a small boy of nine, attending sleepaway camp, Camp Agudah of Port Carling, Ontario, for the first time. That was the first time I met him. He was the rov of the camp. Aside from the more than ten years that I spent in camp in his presence, he later became my mashgiach in yeshiva, and yet later, after I was married, we continued to occasionally cross paths.

I cannot consider myself a talmid. I knew him as a child and a young bochur and only spent one year in the yeshiva, but in retrospect, what I found most remarkable about him – and he had many qualities – was his profound humility. He never revealed more of himself and his greatness than he had to. He never felt the need to look good in the eyes of others for his own benefit. When I think of him, I couldn’t help but think about the Gemara in Sotah that discusses the great quality of Dovid Hamelech, who was maktin atzmo, making himself small in front of others.

With Rav Turin, it was only decades later that I realized how his method of making himself small offered true insight into his towering greatness and how his quiet reticence when he didn’t feel he needed to speak spoke louder than the loud pronouncements of others who were of much lesser stature than he.

Taught by Teens, Guided by a Gadol

Let me start by depicting how I, and I would imagine many of my friends, viewed Rav Turin through the eyes of a nine-year old day school child from Toronto coming to Camp Agudah in Port Carling, Ontario in the mid-1970s.

He was the rov of the camp, which meant that he had to pasken shailos and speak on Shabbos for the entire camp, but the role in which we campers noticed him most was as the highest authority during learning groups. He would walk around the entire campgrounds during learning groups, making sure that things were running smoothly, and when they weren’t, he would have a talk with the campers.

Readers don’t have to be told that camp learning groups are not exactly when the hasmadah gene in ten-year-olds or those even older shines through in the most luminescent way.

In those days, we didn’t have professional rabbeim. Rather, our learning rabbeim were yeshiva bochurim, usually in their younger bais medrash years. Also, the learning groups were held on picnic tables spread throughout the expansive campgrounds. (I wonder if any of my peers still remember picking up acorns, blowing into them, and hearing the ultra-shrill shriek emanating from them, while the poor bochur was trying to teach us…)

When someone didn’t behave, he was sent to Rav Turin. I don’t remember his words of mussar, if he gave any at all, but I do remember his understanding smile and his pat on the back as he told us that he believed that deep down we really, really wanted to learn.

As a child learning in a day school, where it was not a given that everyone would go on to learn in a yeshiva al taharas hakodesh, his restraint, his smile, his goodness of spirit and his understanding of the mindset of a child showed me in hindsight how much he valued long-term goals over momentary short-term law and order.

The Rov Who Judged Color War?

But it wasn’t just the learning groups. He made himself small in so many other ways as well. He was a venerated mashgiach, a gadol baTorah who knew any masechta you asked him about. Any halacha that he was asked about received an instant answer, tailor-made to the level of the petitioner. At the same time, he totally participated in the spirit of camp. He did not find it beneath his dignity to serve as one of the judges during color war, and with tremendous koved rosh, he would listen to the songs, watch the plays, analyze the costumes, and listen intently to the Grand Sing, marking them. In hindsight, perhaps he would have preferred to be doing something else, but he knew how important it was to the campers and the staff members and therefore it became important to him.

I remember how every day, he would swim together with us in the lake. He would swim laps, one after another, for a long time. He got his exercise and did not think it beneath his dignity to share the lake with the campers. (No, there was no pool. We swam in the lake and survived!) In fact, our esteem for him just grew because of that. Not only was he the rov, but he was also a great swimmer!

We saw the fire of Yiddishkeit burning within him, but it wasn’t something he advertised. Who can forget the special nusach with which he said Havdalah every Motzoei Shabbos and Kiddush on Friday night, or the animation of his drasha on Friday night between Kabbolas Shabbos and Maariv?

One p’sak that he gave me still resonates. Before Tisha B’Av, one of the counselors gave us a powerful talk about what the churban Bais Hamikdosh should mean to us. I remember the impact it made on me then, as a thirteen-year-old boy. I went to Rav Turin with a shailah. I had no idea what any of the Kinnos meant. The Hebrew was impossibly hard for me. I went to ask Rav Turin if I could just read the English translation in an old Kinnos that my father z”l had given me before camp. He understood me right away and said, “Certainly. The main thing is for you to understand what you are saying.” He showed me with his smile how proud he was of me that I wanted to understand. It is amazing what an impact a rov and rebbi can have on a thirteen-year-old with an encouraging, understanding smile.

The Transformation from Camp Rov to Mashgiach

Had I never attended the Scranton Yeshiva, perhaps my childish view of Rav Turin would have stayed with me for my entire life. When I came to Scranton as a bais medrash bochur, some ten years after I had first met him, I began to realize that this judge at the grand sing and this amazing swimmer was a true gadol baTorah, an unbelievable masmid and a great tzaddik.

I arrived during Elul and saw the eimas hadin etched on his face as he said his shmuessen. You couldn’t help but be impacted by his sincere passion. We didn’t see that side of him in camp, because there was no reason for him to show it to us. As mashgiach, though, he had to show it.

Also, his greatness in Torah was something that he didn’t show in camp and tried to hide in yeshiva as well. However, anyone with a discerning eye realized that he knew everything. He gave a shiur during second seder to the first-year bais medrash. Every Rishon was at his fingertips. It was clear that this mashgiach who you thought was just there to give shmuessen and offer guidance to bochurim, and this rov in camp who you thought was just there to make sure learning groups were running smoothly or judge the Grand Play, was in truth a gadol in Torah and gadol in yirah. I remember when it hit me that Rav Turin must have spent his nights learning. I noticed that often during shiur, he would sit straight, hand behind his back, between the chair back and his own back, to make sure that his exhaustion would not overcome him.

During the ensuing years, I met him at simchos or other gatherings after I was married and no longer a talmid. Suddenly, the “mashgiach personality” was gone. It was replaced by a warm, caring and loving persona. Even though he was one of my rabbeim, he would tell me how much he enjoyed reading the articles I had written. He didn’t think it below his dignity to lower himself to tell me that he read the paper. (Others, at times, comment, “I don’t really read the paper, but my rebbetzin showed me something you wrote…” He wasn’t like that.)

If I had to say anything about the towering greatness of Rav Turin, it would be that he emulated Dovid Hamelech. He was maktin himself, making himself small in front of everyone, even, or perhaps especially, before those whom he far exceeded in greatness.

It was from Rav Turin that so many learned that smallness is greatness and there is such a thing as thundering quiet whose impact can be felt 40 years later, warming and inspiring.

Yehi zichro boruch.