My host for Shabbos lunch on a recent trip to Baltimore told me a story that I have already repeated many times.
After high school, Shlomo learned for two years in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh in Eretz Yisrael. The normal trajectory from Kerem B’Yavneh was to Yeshiva University for college, and indeed that is where everyone, including his parents, expected Shlomo to go. But an older bochur he met in Kerem B’Yavneh convinced Shlomo to join him at Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore.
Shlomo stuck out a bit in the Ner Yisrael beis medrash upon his arrival: He was one of the few bochurim who wore a kippah seruga , not to mention blue jeans. Sometime in his first zman in the yeshiva, his friend managed to get him into one of the weekly vaadim given by the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l. Shlomo was enthralled by Rabbi Weinberg and made up his mind to ask the Rosh Yeshiva for a private chavrusah once a week.
During afternoon seder, Rabbi Weinberg learned at the front of the beis medrash, and one afternoon Shlomo approached his shtender to present his request for a chavrusah. As he drew nearer, he felt the beis medrash grow quiet and 300 pairs of eyes turn towards him. The silence grew thicker the closer he came to the Rosh Yeshiva, and he felt as if the stares were piercing through his back.
Shlomo stood before the Rosh Yeshiva, who sensed his presence and looked up from his Gemara.
“My name is Shlomo . . . .” he began.
“Nice to meet you, Shlomo,” Rabbi Weinberg replied.
“I’m in the Rosh Yeshiva’s Chovos Halevovos chabura.”
“I was wondering if the Rosh Yeshiva has time for a private chavrusah with me once a week?”
“Well Shlomo, I have four vaadim to prepare for every week and a shiur klali. I’m afraid I really don’t have any time to learn with you.” With that Rabbi Weinberg smiled pleasantly to indicate the discussion was over, and returned to his Gemara.
Shlomo just stood there frozen in his place. Suddenly, he heard himself blurt out, “THE ROSH YESHIVA DOESN’T EVEN HAVE TEN MINUTES A WEEK TO LEARN WITH ME!”
Rabbi Weinberg’s head snapped up, and he looked at Shlomo. “Yes, Shlomo I suppose that I have ten minutes a week. Come to my office at 9:30 on Friday morning, and we’ll discuss what we should learn.”
Thus began a chavrusah that would last seventeen years, and in Shlomo’s words, completely transform his life and determine the person he is today.
There are many lessons to learn from this story. It is a perfect example of Chazal’s statement that a “bashful person cannot learn.” It could also serves as a perfect metaphor for another ma’amar Chazal: “All the gates of tefillah are locked, except the gate of tears.”
BUT LISTENING TO SHLOMO describe how his entire course in life changed as a result of his weekly chavrusah with his Rosh Yeshiva, I was saddened by the thought of how few yeshiva bochurim today are privileged to establish anything like such a close relationship over a period of years with a talmid chacham who knows them intimately.
In the largest yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael, the entering cohort of talmidim each year can number above 150. Even if the shiur is divided into two shiurim, that still leaves 75 bochurim per shiur — a number far beyond the capacity of any maggid shiur to establish a close relationship with. And usually the bochurim only attend a daily shiur for their first two years in yeshiva. True, there are various levels of mashgichim and usually a number of mashivim with whom different bochurim can form a relationship. But the fact remains that many bochurim, even top learners, fall completely through the cracks, unless they are the type to aggressively pursue a relationship with an older authority figure competent to guide them.
Many yeshivos do not even have vaadim to prepare the bochurim for shidduchim or, even more importantly, for marriage. One major yeshiva recently started a special vaad on this subject for bochurim already in their mid-20s. One can only wonder what was available for them until then.
And the situation is hardly better in the largest yeshivos catering to bochurim from chutz l’aretz. The most sought after shiurim may have hundreds of talmidim – many of them forced to listen to shiur by some sort of audio hook-up. And when bochurim return to the United States after learning for several years in Eretz Israel in order to enter into shidduchim, they are likely to enter into a huge beis medrash where they are relative strangers. At precisely the period in life when he is most in need of advice from some one who knows him well, a bochur has to start forging new relationships with trusted older figures capable of guiding him. And the number of those figures is invariably inadequate to meet the demand.
Nor does the need for a close relationship with a ba’al eitzah end with marriage. At last year’s convention of Agudath Israel of America, one of the sessions was devoted to the relationship between baalebatim and the yeshivos. The most frequently heard complaint from the former was that their married sons, who have been learning in kollel for a number of years, have no rav with whom they are close who can guide them through the transition to life after kollel, whether in chinuch or business.
Those who are learning in kollel indefinitely also need guidance from a rav. One of the biggest challenges they face, apart from parnassah, is how to maintain their freshness in learning when the future looms before them as an endless expanse with no clear stages or demarcations of progress. They require someone who knows both their abilities in learning and their personalities to help them set concrete goals in learning. Without such goals, it is too easy to shrug off the failure to learn well one day with the promise to do better the next day or the one after that.
Shlomo’s Guardian Angel caused him to cry out for what he needed. And he was answered. Ensuring that all our talmidim receive the guidance they need must be one of our top priorities.
This piece appeared in Mishpacha Magazine on Dec. 11, 2007