“If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for yourself—it is for this that you have been formed.” – Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (Ethics of the Fathers 2:9)
There’s a prevailing idea in Jewish philosophy that anything concerning the Nation of Israel—whether it’s the Jewish people or the Land of Israel—is above natural law. This idea can stretch into the realm of what we call “Hashgacha pratis“…divine providence.
The New Age community likes to call it “Alignment of the Stars” or “the Universe coming together”. However you choose to call it, the more time you spend in the Jewish community and in particular, the observant Jewish community, the more you come realize (assuming your eyes are minimally open) that there is absolutely no such thing as a coincidence.
After making aliyah four years ago, part of my journey took me into the Ba’al tshuva/Orthodox world in Jerusalem, where I first experienced inspiration and then came to witness certain realities I didn’t expect (but that is a topic for another post). Then life somehow had brought me back to New York…a place I thought I had left behind forever.
Where to learn Torah in the exile? Where to grow as a Jew in a place where kedusha (holy sparks) are a rare commodity?
I get a phone call from a friend a few months ago about this new place that had opened up in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn.
I remember now. Those tefillin guys. And no, they’re not like Chabad. They don’t have an army that stands on the streets of every large city and small town all over the globe. It’s more like one guy with a couple of shekels and a lot of will.
So now he wants to teach Torah to guys who came to the Torah world from the outside and need to learn how to learn. Such a place needs a guy to head it up. A Rosh Kollel. Who would they hire?
None other than a person cut from the same cloth as the ones it was made to serve. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, he was raised secular and also came to observance of his own accord…then somehow married into the Feinstein family, specifically a grand-daughter of the great sage Rav Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory.
One may wonder: how did a guy with virtually no background in learning Talmud and in the “frum” world come to marry a Feinstein and run a kollel in Brooklyn. The answer, ironically, can be found in this week’s tragedy in Har Nof, Jerusalem.
I run the Facebook page for Roots. The morning of the attack, I get a text from my close friend and head of the Roots kollel, Rabbi Zev Shub:
“Could you post on the FB page that the rosh kollel will be giving a hesped/eulogy for his rebbe, Rav Kalman Levine, who was murdered al-kiddush hashem in this terrorist attack.”
Me: “Yes. Baruch Dayan Emet. 🙁 *pause* “rosh kollel” as in…you?”
I genuinely didn’t understand what he meant or maybe I was experiencing a moment of cognitive dissonance. Denial. I thought he meant another rosh kollel of a different Roots Kollel.
Rav Shub: “Yes me. Come tonight and crash in Brooklyn.”
That afternoon, I get a phone call from Rabbi Shub. I can only remember two things he told me in that conversation:
1) that he had been crying all morning.
2) “a terror attack is always a bad thing…but when four big Torah scholars are murdered like this, it’s a direct and serious message from HaShem.”
That it is.
I know this not only because the sages have been telling us this since antiquity…but also because of what Rabbi Shub told us about his teacher and friend, Rabbi Kalman Levine, later that night. How Reb Levine’s life and sudden departure from this world served to shine a light on what the Jewish people, specifically the self-professed “frum” world, needs to be working on in a serious way going forward.
“Reb Kalman was a talmid chacham (great Torah scholar) and had yiras shamayim (fear of heaven) and did not care if anyone knew about that. He learned because G-d wanted him to and he loved doing it.”
How many people have I met in the Torah world who are great scholars, yet learn to earn honor and make sure that people know about it?
A great deal.
“He was a person who did not consider that any one group had a monopoly on Torah. He loved Gemarra, halacha…whatever he could find…and he was happy to hear it from anyone. He didn’t have any pride and he looked at any book.”
How many times have I personally heard from members of a particular group in the Jewish world: “Oh those other guys are wrong. We have the right path.”
“He was somebody who was always positive. He always tried to look at the good in people. He really loved every Jew.”
How many times have we all heard from self-professed “frum” people or people in the “kiruv” community about how this person or that person isn’t “frum enough”?
All the time. I’m guilty of it myself.
Then came the kicker.
Rav Shub began telling us the story of how he ended up learning with Rabbi Levine. When Rav Shub first came to yeshiva in Jerusalem, he was on the lowest level imaginable. There was only one person who would agree to learn with him one on one, and that was Rabbi Levine.
Maybe Rav Levine saw a lot of himself in Rav Shub…having arrived to the Torah world from a place like Kansas City, more famous for its football and baseball teams than for its Talmudic scholars. Or maybe it was just the type of person he was.
And so Rav Shub went…from “Zero to Feinstein” in a flash.
This made me think back to my days in yeshiva.
How many guys from the top shir (class) sat down with someone like me and watched me break my teeth in a virtually dead language? Zero.
Scratch that. There was one guy…from Australia. He was a tzaddik.
We sat for half an hour and went through the main text, Rashi and Tosafot.
At the end of the session we found ourselves caught in a web of a logical conundrum from which we could not escape, thanks to Rashi’s unwavering grand-children and their relentless friends. But in that half hour, I learned that “I may just have a knack for this Talmud stuff”.
It is always best to learn Torah from a great sage. And if you don’t have access to that great sage, but to his student, then learn from the student. I didn’t know it at the time, but Rav Kalman Levine had been the man who enabled me to learn Torah today.
Much like Rabbi Levine, Rabbi Shub is on a high level himself. So Rabbi Shub decided to learn from his teacher. He not only learns with guys who are on much lower skill level than he is, he pesters us endlessly and hunts us down to the four corners of the Earth to come learn with him.
He doesn’t merely agree to learn with us. He insists on it, because this is the message he received from his teacher. To seek out the Jews who can barely learn Talmud and teach them.
When great Torah scholars are taken from us, we receive multiple messages from G-d:
Learn for its own sake.
Learn from everyone. No one group has all the answers.
Love every Jew.
And last but most certainly not least…strive to see the greatness in others and bring it out.
Here is the eulogy given by Rabbi Zev Shub for Rabbi Kalman Levine: