"We are mechanech ourselves to jump into action, which is wonderful, but we need to also work on being mechanech ourselves to just feel"
I am old enough to have seen unfamiliar singers charged with “opening acts” for famous performers — the dubious shteller of singing to near-empty halls as people found parking and located their seats and got comfortable — rise to become the featured singers themselves. I’m experienced enough to have seen sly changes in biographies over the years, in one case a “rabbi’s assistant” becoming an assistant rabbi.
It takes time, but there’s a process.
Six years ago, I was asked to moderate a panel of talmidei chachamim at the Agudah Convention. The panel would showcase those who teach Torah and guide talmidim discussing and deliberating over real-time questions in front of a live audience.
The years have passed and I still haven’t gotten past moderator, so it’s time to embrace the role, I guess, and accept my place.
The nice part of playing a minor part in this “daas Torah in real life” production is getting to witness extraordinary moments from up close, the kinds that take your breath away and leave you marveling not just at what you’re hearing, but at what you’re seeing.
Before the session, we invite people to submit their questions to a designated email address. The questions vary, but they are generally in the realm of chinuch, shalom bayis, the challenges of a community split between “have a lots” and “have not enoughs,” along with a smattering of crises traditional (drinking) or relatively new (road rage in frum neighborhoods). The inbox also features several rants, “someone shoulds,” “I remember whens” and the inevitable LOSE 30 LBS IN THREE WEEKS GUARANTEED!!! 1OO% SATISFACTION GUARANTEED, DO NOT DELETE BEFORE READING.
Just before the cameras started rolling at the session, I noticed a newly arrived question. It was the sort of question that doesn’t easily lend itself to a Q and A format.
We’ve come up with organizations and support groups for every single demographic in the frum world, but the older single — especially girl — still faces an uphill battle. I’m not talking about the desire to get married and the loneliness, but the way that we are looked at in society and the lack of a defined role. Whatever the situation, we’re made to feel like the “other.” I was in shul this Simchas Torah and a well-meaning woman asked, “Oh, that’s so nice, you came to watch your nephews dance?” Insensitive, I know, but also reflective of how people view us. How can we reeducate people and explain to them, and to us, what is our avodah?
Seventy-five minutes into the session, it was just about time to wrap things up. The off-camera producer messaged me that there was time for one more question, and I had a thought that the questioner who’d sent that wrenching email, whoever and wherever she is, might be watching. For that reason alone, I figured it might be worth voicing the question that has no real answer.
Honestly, I would have preferred to end with a livelier question, one with options and suspense and back-and-forth — and the possibility of a real solution. A question with no answer can feel tame, maybe even lame.
But I shared the question anyway… and I got to see something awe-inspiring: that sometimes, not answering is more profound than any answer.
With a tremble that was clearly visible, Rav Aaron Lopiansky took the mic first.
He spoke of the very admirable instinct we have to help, to do chesed, to provide what’s needed.
“Our chinuch is to do,” he said. “But sometimes, you have to first picture yourself in that situation and ask yourself how you would want people to react. Put yourself there. We are mechanech ourselves to jump into action, which is wonderful, but we need to also work on being mechanech ourselves to just feel.”
That was his answer.
As was the pattern, Rav Yosef Elefant went next and brought the point home in a very real way, addressing himself directly to the questioner.
“It sounds like a cliché, but the words must be said. Your tzaar is real and it’s legitimate and it’s an open wound for all of us.”
He spoke of the single girl sitting alone in a rented basement, not only lonely but also unable to move on with life as per our community’s template — and then offered a thought.
Rav Wolbe says that the biography of Moshe Rabbeinu’s early rise to greatness is relatively short: “Vayar b’sivlosam.” He saw the suffering of the Jews in Mitzrayim, which, Chazal say, means that he made a conscious effort to devote his eyes and heart to suffer along with them.
His intellect and his emotions were all in. He felt the pain along with his people.
Rav Yosef added one line. He didn’t have a solution, of course, but he offered this: “We’re still a people who believe in tefillah, and if we all really davened, there is no doubt it would make a difference.”
There are askanim trying valiantly to help our older singles. Rabbi Moshe Pogrow has given his eyes and heart to this cause for over a decade.
But here’s what we can do, the one area in life in which “feeling” and “acting” merge — tefillah. It’s an act, but not a quick-fix, emotionless jump into action. Instead, it’s an act based on genuine feeling and concern.
Late that night, I checked my phone. There was the usual flood of middle-aged balabatim weighing in on the issues, always with the disclaimer that, “I’m not in chinuch, but I gradeh hold…” In the midst of the self-appointed-expert takes I found a text from a close friend, a bochur in shidduchim.
I just wanna say that Rabbi Elefant’s monologue in response to the last question resonated deeply with me. There was something special in his voice. I know it was about girls but I felt his heart and the depth of how much he cares. You can tell him it was mechazek me.
I know that a moderator doesn’t get to preach. I’m lucky that they even put a water bottle by my place. But we learned that in this area, while data is important, askanim are important, and every endeavor and program that might move the needle important, we have our collective work cut out for us.
We’re headed into the weeks of Shovavim, and though the profound mystical significance of this period is beyond me, we know that reading about the process of geulasan shel Yisrael, our national ascent from the depths, gives strength to each individual in our nation to rise and find redemption.
The Geulah was spawned by one person who gave eyes and heart to the cause.
If we take time to really see — to look, contemplate and reflect — then our hearts will follow suit.
Everyone has a Tehillim at home. We always knew what to do and we know what to do now.
We know precisely what to do.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 890)
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