A letter to my melamed

A letter to my melamed, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, in honor of his yortzeit,

Thank you. Thank you for being a voice of expansiveness in a four-cubit world. Thank you for allowing my eyes to see and my imagination to soar. In a world of narrow details, you created a small slit through which to peer upon expansive fields and rolling hills. You made routine details into animate personalities I have now come to know.

Thank you for showing me that ideas are worlds. Worlds to enter and explore; Worlds that live and breathe. In the worlds you built, I lose myself. I find myself.

Thank you for showing me that emotions are realities worth stopping for. Moods and feelings are universes to embrace and travel through. They are not the enemy of intellect. They are its partner. Each heart beat – the happy and the sad, the ecstatic and the downtrodden, the anxious and the calm – is an opportunity for another mode of the divine-human relationship.

You brought my world to life and my life to the world. You gave me a system through which to think and a dignity to wear. You taught me that God empowers. You taught me how to taste yiddishkeit and how to dance with God. And you taught me that a dance need not always be perfectly coordinated. And that it is certainly not limited to one tempo or style. You taught me to see nuance and paradox.

You taught me to be firm and strong, and you showed me that we have what to be strong with. You taught me how to be dignified in the face of mockery and tall at the dismay of those who try to shorten.

Through you I am connected. Through your brilliant, creative and penetrating analysis and reasoning I am plugged in to an ancient wisdom ever relevant and promising. It is with you that I transcend my sense of self and enter into the richly textured chain of Jewish history. The quiver in your voice transports me the heart of Jews living thousands of years ago. The aching pain in your words brings me to the tears of Jews in a distant land. The passion, promise, confidence, and excitement in your tone projects me into the glorious future of souls yet unborn. And the love and charm of your expression binds me to the embrace of my loving Father.

And yet you’ve taught me more. You’ve taught me to be defeated. To feel the cracks in my heart and the impenetrable wall over which the human cannot cross. You’ve taught me to see religion for what it truly is. A challenge, a gift, and a strange paradox of the two. You’ve taught me to love the challenge – not to whitewash, but to accept. To deeply connect with the reality of humanity and the crack in its heart. You’ve taught me what it means that “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” You’ve okayed my deepest crises and doubts. And thus, you’ve done nothing short of giving me life.

I’ve never met you, but you are so deeply inside me. I feel I know you and understand you. When I hear people who did know you speak about you, it disappoints me because I feel I know you better. I carry you with me constantly, you teach me daily, and you form a large piece of my identity.

A part of me feels that as a community, we all owe you a deep apology. It feels to me, from listening to hours of your lectures and reading pages of your writings, that your community failed you. In so many different ways. Even many of those who teach in your name. Sometimes, I feel so sad for you. I just want to say sorry.

It is hard for me to call you my melamed. I want to call you my master teacher, brilliant existentialist, Talmudist of little compare, poet par excellence, courageous leader, charismatic, captivating, and sweeping dramatist, and bearer of truth. But I know that you care nothing for these titles. You knew that you were all those things, but it’s not how you defined yourself. You called yourself a melamed. A caring and sensitive teacher of young souls, often found in adult bodies and minds.

In a word (as you would say), for me, you are the counter-cultural voice of a sophisticated and mature Judaism in a world of child-like superficial utilitarian Judaism. And yet, in all the maturity, there was also the small, still voice of purity and genuine love for God.

Sincerely and with the utmost admiration and gratitude,

Your student,

Yakov

About the Author
Yakov is a clinical therapist specializing in trauma, sex-addiction, and couples therapy. He is also a public speaker and Jewish educator with a unique blend of spirituality, philosophy, and psychology. He earned Semicha and a Masters in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University, completed his Masters in Social Work from Walden University, and was a member of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. Yakov lives in Chicago with his wife and four children.
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