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Look Up

Why were they able to reach these plateaus of true inner happiness and purpose, and I can’t?


As a young boy, I was privileged to daven in a shtibel that, for its time, had a modern edifice. It had a balcony for the ezras nashim, and was blessed with acoustics that allowed every word of the baal tefillah to be heard in every nook and cranny.

Six fans hung on the walls bobbing their heads right to left, left to right, to provide seconds of relief as the air swept past your face. The shtibel boasted an honest-to-goodness, permanently built brick succah. Schlock, windows, doors, tables, and benches. There was a stove that upon its flames perpetually perched a 60-gallon pot with a spigot so there was always adequate hot water for “a glezzele tei.” The “scents” (essence) were piles of tea bags in a jar soaking in water. One or two drops of that liquid brewed that perfect cup of tea. The tiny fridge held the “limoneh” (lemon), and the closet, sugar, spoons, and glasses.

Then, the people. Each with a story of pain, loss, and horrors. Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, Siberia, early ’20s in the US; yet they managed to smile, raised choshuve families, and were content. I can fill pages describing their depth of character, incredible personality, their awesome erlichkeit and cheishek haTorah.

Reb Zundel was the gabbai. While his word was law, he was an inspiration as well.

It was rumored he had a grocery. Not sure who ran it, because he was always in the beis medrash learning. His left hand gripping the edge of the bench acted as a fulcrum for his shuckeling. His right index and middle finger pointing into one of the many well-used Gemaras with the ubiquitous glezzele tei at his right.

Don’t you dare talk in shul, because you would get a “petshel” from Reb Zundel as he patrolled during chazaras hashatz. No one minded.

So when it came to Elul, with great trepidation, Reb Zundel walked up to the bimah and blew shofar before L’Dovid. A chill traveled up and down the spines of each and every one of the mispallelim.

This seriousness, awe, and erlichkeit permeated every molecule in that beis medrash. The entire Yamim Noraim in that shtibel engendered these same feelings in me. A question always nagged me since. Why were they able to provide, capture, and inspire this Divine connection to the Above, and I can’t?


As I write these words, memories waft into my consciousness. Buried under layers of time and dealing with the now, yet so meaningful they deserve to have been more influential on my life.

The Lower East Side was the locale of my chinuch in my younger years. Having served as a non-Jewish educational institution for years prior to the yeshivah’s purchase, the building, still standing today, was built as if it were meant to be a fort.

The ground floor housed the administrative offices, the kitchen, and dining room. The second floor had three notable and important areas. The office of the menahel/rosh yeshivah to your left, a place that inspired fear. To your right, the entrance to the beis medrash. Straight ahead was the soda machine monster.

The soda machine monster, temperamental by design, was an oft-discussed subject. If you had the funds (a rarity) and good mazel was shinning on you, after you fed the coin slot, a cup would drop from its innards, and a spray of flavor selected by the customer and carbonated water would fill the cup.

Most of the time, one of various negative possibilities occurred.

  1. The cup wouldn’t drop and the soda spritzed into the waste receptacle of the machine.
  2. The cup dropped, but the soda didn’t.
  3. It just swallowed your funds.

To your right was that beis medrash. When we came early enough, or as we passed it during lunch or recess, we would peek into that room with awe and hope.

A wide, long wooden conference table bisected that large high-ceilinged room. Beautiful armchairs circumnavigated it, the front reserved for the rav and/or the rosh yeshivah as they said shiur. A beautiful aron kodesh occupied the center of the mizrach wall. To its left was the “Lions” table, ariyos she’b’chaburah — Rav Moshe, Rav Yonason, Rav Yudel, and their chaburah.

How we longed to deserve being there! How we looked up to these men who rarely left their seats in their single-minded pursuit of becoming talmidei chachamim.

Most of the seforim shelves were plain, green metal storage shelves. One set of them ended at a wall and thereby created a right angle, the wall facing mizrach and the shelf to its right.

That corner was the makom kavua where Rav Yudel davened. That davening was nothing short of awesome. Eyes closed in deep concentration, his right hand on the shelf and his left touching the wall. His shuckeling defied words. Rocking to and fro with a yegi’ah to match his hislahavus, saying each word so carefully in a singsong laden with immense passion, he bathed in their kedushah and the inner joy they brought him. Where he climbed to in the spiritual world with that effort is beyond my ken.

His attire attested that the material world was not his forte. Rather, his exceptional middos, his humbleness, and his gadlus in learning were the pride and joy of his erliche neshamah. He accomplished that greatness because of his hurevanyeh.

My mind now picks up moments later in time.

To 109 Gruman Avenue, a one-family home that housed the yeshivah in which I spent my beis medrash years. Oh, what mechanchim. What roshei yeshivah. How much they cared about the hatzlachah of each of us.

I remember how we venerated the mashgiach, Rav Melech. He moved with deliberate purpose, never in a hurry, never late, never wasting time or motion. Each daily shiur of chassidus delivered before Shacharis was a flawless gem. Rav Melech’s face was normally serious. Yet when he saw that his charges understood and appreciated a complex concept, his features became bathed in an angelic smile that spoke of deep inner spiritual satisfaction.

Then came his davening. He said each syllable with awesome concentration and effort. An exercise in avodah where every pore in his body expressed kol atzmosai tomarnah as his machshavos climber higher in the spheres of kedushah. This avodas hatefillah lasted two to three hours daily and on Shabbos up to five hours. He was able to climb to these heights of self-mastery only because of the effort he invested into his character, davening, and learning.

Why were they able to reach these plateaus of true inner happiness and purpose, and I can’t?

Because they looked up.

They had no interest in fancy homes, expensive chasunahs, or prohibitive shtreimlach. None of them were wealthy. Even those who were baalei parnassah lived simply. Yet there was depth, richness, and a spiritual connection to our glorious past in every pore of their being.

Because they looked up.

Fact of the matter is that we have now been unceremoniously heaved out of our shuls, mikvaos, minyanim, and even levayahs. We are imprisoned like a metzora — bidud yeishev. And our social life was wiped out in one fell swoop.

Maybe now that we are flat on our backs, we will look past the materialistic ground and look up.

Yes, look up.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 820)

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