I’ve fallen terribly behind in offering our readership a report on the annual convention of the Association of Jewish Orthodox Programs (AJOP). I posted one piece on Rabbi Lowenbraun’s decision to test the feasibility of committing some of the tools and resources of the kiruv community to energize parts of the mainstream community that are suffering from feelings of apathy and disconnect.
At some point I hope to summarize one of the sessions that I delivered, entitled “The Top Ten Reasons Why Frum People Are Unhappy With Their Yiddishkeit.” I pulled no punches, but deserve little credit for candor. I live on the West Coast, relatively out of the reach of those who detest candor and honesty. Truth be told, though, nothing I said held a candle to the breathtaking courage of Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee, who spoke to 600 people, roughly evenly divided between kiruv professionals and laypeople from the New York area who drove up to Stamford to try out some of what Rabbi Lowebraun put together for them. R. Twerski spoke after the two other scheduled speakers at this session, namely R. Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlit”a, the Novominsker Rebbe, shlit”a, both members of the US Moetzes.
After close to a twenty minute lead-up to the centerpiece of his presentation, he spoke of the need to relate differently to the expectations of those to whom we reach out and offer membership in the community of the halachically observant. More importantly, he said we need to relate differently to a need in the lives of the tens of thousands of yeshiva-trained people who have left the beis Medrash for the world of employment.
The transition came with a story, courtesy of Rabbi Berel Wein. A talmid told him that he was no longer learning in yeshiva. “But don’t worry. I’m not working, either.”
With that, you could sense that something momentous was about to happen. R Twerski was going to talk about an idea Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken. In a very refined and gentle way, he pitted the chassius of Chernobyl against the others, and declaimed on the positive aspects of working for a living! Here is an excerpt that is close to verbatim:
Yaakov Avinu meets up with Esav after the years that he spends with Lavan. Rashi tells us that Yaakov said, אם לבן גרתי ואחר עד אתה. : “Im Lavan garti, v’taryag mitzvos shamarti.” (I dwelt with Lavan, but I observed all the 613 mitzvos.) Now, anyone who is thinking about Esav’s perspective has got to be surprised that Yaakov Avinu is trying to brag that he get Taryag mitzvos. Who is he talking to? Why would Esav care?
The meforshei ha-Torah talk about the fact that there was a division. Yaakov Avinu inherited Olam Ha-bo, and Esav was given Olam Ha-zeh. And when it came to that chazon that Yaakov Avinu had on Har ha-Moriah, where he went to sleep and he had this awesome vision of the ladder, Yaakov said אכן יש א-קים במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי [Behold, Elokim is in this place, and I did not know it.] And the meforshim say there, that Yaakov Avinu who had just come from Yeshivas Shem V’Ever was totally mufrash from Olam Ha-zeh. And here he came, on the way to the house of Lavan to get involved with the business world, and here is where he has the awesome vision? When he came to meet up with Esav years later, and Esav sees him coming – tzon u-bakar, avadim u-shefachos – it is a violation of the terms! You are ish tam, yoshev ohalim! I’m supposed to have the money; I’m supposed to have the business. What are you doing with my stuff?
Says Yaakov Avinu, “Dear brother – I discovered indeed my mitzvah was limud ha-Torah. But ever since that dream I had on Har ha-Moriah I came to discover that there are actually another 612 mitzvos in the Torah. Taryag mitzvos shomarti! This was not a division. And in order for me to observe the rest of the Torah, it requires tzon u-bakar. We can’t do ma’aser behemah without animals.” And so on.
R Twerski observed that people sense the apologetical attitude towards parnasah that is common in the yeshivah world. Involvement in material concern is but a tool to facilitate more learning. It is a bedieved. He urged a thorough investigation of what the seforim actually write about the value of involvement in Olam ha-Zeh, and the avodah it entails. It is the only way that we are going to feel any real value in our involvement in the physical world. Whether it is our involvement in the workplace or doing carpool – “It can’t be an excuse. It has to be real.”
The audience waited for the earth to open up and swallow him – or at least for a strong response from the previous speakers. Neither happened. Some speculated that gedolim are sometimes secretly pleased when others say things that their position as shepherd to many different types of sheep does not allow them to speak their hearts and minds.
It was a moment to remember.
[For those who wish to listen to or view the session (or other sessions at the convention) AJOP has posted the mp3 audio of the most recent convention on Ajop.com for $1.99 a download, and the videos on torahanytime.com The login for torahanytime is ajop, ajop613.]