Now it was the third week, and almost all the bochurim had come. It was already a minhag
Late on Thursday night, the rosh yeshivah was sitting in the dining room, surrounded by a huddle of bochurim.
Originally, he had thought that doing a formal hashkafah shiur would somehow mark the yeshivah as less mainstream, so he let it go, but over the winter, he had developed the perfect format. It wasn’t an official shiur, but more of a conversation.
The yeshivah would serve cholent late on Thursday night, after night seder, and at Penina’s urging, Rabbi Wasser started joining. The first few weeks were awkward, and he made small talk with the boys, but then one week Dovi Korman had asked a question — perhaps out of compassion, Sholom Wasser thought, but still. He had wanted to know what made someone a gadol b’Yisrael, who decided, and how come there were no elections for the post.
Rabbi Wasser had comfortably settled into the answer, describing the chush harei’ach, the sense of smell with which Klal Yisrael is blessed, and bringing all sorts of historical examples of gedolim who lived in small towns, who had no prestigious titles, yet were sought out from all over.
“Right, like the rosh yeshivah who lives in Modena,” Shimshy Lieber had blurted out, and everyone laughed. Sholom had laughed too, because he wanted the matzav to be pleasant and he desperately hoped someone else would ask a question if he looked relaxed.
Dovi Korman was looking meaningfully at Boruch Zeldman, who came through and wanted to know what yeshivishe people thought about making aliyah.
Rabbi Wasser was happy to be able to connect them with the mesorah, sharing a story of what his own rosh yeshivah had said on the matter, and explaining that the real “tziyonim” were those who daven “Vesechezena einenu b’shuvcha l’Tziyon” three times a day.
The boys seemed to enjoy it. This was big-boy talk.
The next week Harari asked about why the Lakewood schools had so many rules about getting in and Rabbi Wasser told him he had a while to worry about it and it wasn’t his problem yet and everyone laughed. It felt very good and rosh yeshivah-like. Then Harari said he was still irritated about which high school he had gotten into, his first choice turned him down because his father didn’t daven with a hat, so of course it was his problem and everyone laughed harder and Rabbi Wasser again made the decision to laugh along and roll with it.
Wagner asked about women working and it got very quiet and Rabbi Wasser realized that this was because they all knew that Penina worked.
He was going to celebrate that, he decided, instead of apologizing.
“Look,” he said thoughtfully, “my own rebbetzin actually has a very high-powered job, maybe you know that.”
It wasn’t exactly high-powered, but Mr. Hirsch did count on her for everything.
Sholom told the bochurim about the need to rebuild the olam haTorah and the mesirus nefesh of the women, and how much fulfillment it brought to the house, how the women of this generation were on a pedestal. As he was speaking, he realized for the first time that the young men around him weren’t just humoring him or passing the time.
They were really listening.
Now it was the third week, and almost all the bochurim had come. It was already a minhag. Ephraim had made sure there was extra cholent and the soda was cold. Rabbi Wasser took his usual place and looked to Dovi Korman, as usual, to kick it off.
The first question was easy, about listening to Shlomo Carlebach’s music. The rosh yeshivah earned admiring glances when he said, “I mean, can you imagine life without Shloime’le’s ‘Yisroel B’tach b’Hashem?’ We lived with that in yeshivah… the holy land, the holy people of Israel are all alone, hein am levadad yishkon…”
Some of the boys were humming along and he briefly considered starting a song, which would be a new frontier for him, but Tishler asked about following sports and that was it.
Then Halbfinger caught him off guard.
“Rebbi, how do I know that I have a neshamah? Who says?”
The sudden silence alerted the rosh yeshivah to the importance of what he was about to say.
He thought about running through the words of the gemara in Berachos about the neshamah in the guf, but took a chance.
“I can’t answer that, but you can, Mordy, you can. There are times that you know, moments when your neshamah speaks to you, tells you it’s there, let’s you know that it’s inside you and that it’s the real you, but I can’t know when they take place.”
Some of the boys were nodding along.
“I mean, maybe it’s on Yom Kippur before Ne’ilah, or on Purim afternoon, or on a random day. Maybe you see a sunset and feel so small, like you don’t really exist, and I would hope that it happens in the beis medrash too — you break through a Tosafos and feel this great light?”
Rabbi Wasser knew without looking around that he was connecting, that the boys around the two wooden tables were processing what he was saying.
“You feel like the stuff you’re busy with, your clothing or your reputation, making money or whatever you’re busy with, is empty, there’s something more, something deeper, inside of you and it wants more. You know that’s the neshamah.”
He was loath to share his own personal spiritual experiences, but he thought that it was part of his responsibility at this moment, to these boys, to share it.
“I remember different times when I physically felt Hashem’s presence, for sure during my chuppah and when I was in the hospital while my wife was in labor, those are special times. But once, when I was about your age, I had something.”
He told them about the shvere Rashba and the Pnei Yehoshua, how the rosh yeshivah had a different mehalech according to Rav Naftoli and how at 18, he had decided to rework the sugya and stayed up all night making the cheshbon.
It was just before Shacharis, and he was still in his seat since night seder, the light filtering in through the dirty windows, and he looked up and saw people coming in and realized how long he’d been working and felt this incredible joy inside, like he had just received the Torah.
“I never had that again, that feeling. It was like I didn’t have to wonder if I had a neshamah, but if I had a guf.”
Mordy Halbfinger seemed to understand.
“You too, Mordy?” Rabbi Wasser asked gently. “You’ve also felt the neshamah? You know what I mean?”
Mordy nodded slowly. “Yes. I think maybe I do. I once felt that way, like I just wanted to be close to Hashem, like I was connected to something not in This World.”
“When was that?” the rosh yeshivah asked, then wondered if it was too personal a question.
“Oh, it was just a few weeks ago,” Mordy said happily, “when we were in the studio singing with Rabbi Portman, we were saying the words ‘le’olam odeka’ again and again, and it took hold of me. It was crazy. I started crying, but I wasn’t sure why. It was like, I felt this kedushah, you know?”
Rabbi Wasser nodded, but he could not speak.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 838)
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