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Once and Future

Recently, one event from my bar mitzvah journey finally became clear


My father, born in Yerushalayim in 1925, loved to regale me with stories from his youth. He recalled how, as a child, his father brought him to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld for a brachah at the Kosel. And how he celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Kosel in 1938.

In 1967, following the Six Day War, my father and many other Jews yearned to daven at the Kosel again. The following year, having saved money for an entire year, my father fulfilled his pledge from the previous year.

We arrived in Yerushalayim for Shavuos of 1968. On Shavuos morning, I insisted on accompanying my father and uncle as we trekked from Rehavia to the Kosel to daven vasikin. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

It was that Shavuos morning at the Kosel when my father told me that with Hashem’s help, just as he had had his bar mitzvah at the Kosel in 1938, I would have my bar mitzvah there as well. And indeed, after four years of frugality and careful planning, my father was able to fulfill his promise. In the summer of 1972, we arrived in Yerushalayim to celebrate my bar mitzvah.

I recall my aliyah and how emotional it was to receive my first aliyah as a bar mitzvah, exactly where my father received his 34 years before. I can still taste the Yerushalmi kugel we served at the kiddush and the bottles of Tempo cola we drank. I remember posing for pictures for what seemed like hours and saying “todah rabah” innumerable times.

All of this I remember as if it were yesterday. Recently, however, one event from my bar mitzvah journey finally became clear.

As we walked back to my uncle’s home from the Kosel that morning, my father insisted we pay a visit to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to receive his brachah.

My father greeted the gadol hador, saying, “Ani Yoel Moshe ben Rav Yosef Nosson Nota.”

Immediately, Rav Shlomo Zalman flashed his famous smile. “Hayiti b’chasunah shel hahorim shelcha — I was at your parent’s wedding!” he told my father. I felt as if I was visiting my zeidy, whom I had never known.

The rav was so down to earth, yet simultaneously ethereal. Rav Shlomo Zalman spoke to my father like a long-lost friend and reminisced with him about my grandfather and great-grandfather. Finally, it was time to take leave of this memorable moment.

My father asked him for a brachah for me, yet before he would bentsh me, he and my father engaged in a whispered discussion. Afterward, Rav Shlomo Zalman bentshed me, but because I was awestruck in his presence, I can’t remember what he said.

Recently, though, while cleaning my office, I came across a letter my father had written to my grandmother describing that visit to Rav Shlomo Zalman.

My father wrote that Rav Shlomo Zalman asked where we lived.

My father replied, “Brooklyn.”

The Rav asked, “The grandson of Rav Nosson Nota doesn’t live in Yerushalayim?!”

After some back and forth, Rav Shlomo Zalman stated (about me), “If he must live in chutz l’Aretz, I bentsh him that he should be a rav, who teaches Torah.”

As I read the letter, I was agape — how could he have known? And had that been a brachah or a challenge? One thing is clear — Rav Shlomo Zalman had not been blessing me with life on “easy street.”

I sometimes wonder how my life would have turned out if my father had said, “Rebbi, you are right. We’re staying in Eretz Yisrael!”

Would my life be easier? Would I be living up to my potential?

I don’t know. I can’t know.

But 50 years later, I realize the prescience and farsightedness of Rav Shlomo Zalman.  —

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 859)

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