Sometimes you need to play nice, and dumb, and keep your insights to yourself. Sometimes you walk away even when you probably should stay. And you never tell people the answer — they need to get it themselves.
“The ego is the yetzer hara’s most devoted henchman. Often, when we think we’re being humble, that’s when our ego shines brightest.”
—Rabbi Dov Briansky
“Got another advice email,” Dov called across the dining room, hoping he was keeping his smugness in check.
“What does this one say?” Tziporah asked, looking up from matching socks.
“It’s a girl — or woman — I never know the right term.” He frowned at the screen.
“What does she want to know?”
“If she should give up on marrying a long-term learner.”
“Ouch, that’s rough.” Tziporah frowned, then went back to the three spare socks she was holding.
“Yeah, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say.”
“Aren’t you Rabbi Dov Briansky, sage know-it-all?” she teased, moving on to shirts.
Know-it-all, yes, sage, he wished. She had too much confidence in him. He should tell Tziporah what his rebbi had said one Purim years ago; it still made him hesitate.
“I don’t know this woman from Adam. She wrote that she’s listened to all my shiurim, and it’s strengthened her bitachon like nothing else, but there’s so much pressure from everyone around her. Is it kibbud av v’eim to entertain these ideas?”
“Maybe, I don’t know!” Dov adjusted his yarmulke. “I don’t know her at all — her upbringing, her personality, her hashkafos, nothing. She’s just a name and an email address; I can’t give her advice.”
He looked to his right, the Chofetz Chaim hung there, and Rav Moshe Feinstein was on his left. He was exactly where he wanted to be — and it scared him.
“So, what are you going to respond?” Tziporah stopped folding and looked at him expectantly.
“Some vague suggestion about how to think about the problem.” Dov gestured toward the screen. “Also even if I did know her, I’m not a rebbe, I don’t tell people what to do.” He looked at his wife. “Do they realize I’m in kollel and give a weekly parshah shiur? I can tell them what to think about, but I can’t offer an actual answer.”
Today Dov strongly felt the tension that always ate at him. Was he doing this for the right reasons — was this about Torah, or about himself?
Tziporah took the folded laundry and placed it back in the basket.
“I totally hear you, this is past your pay grade, but she’s gonna be disappointed,” she said. “She’s reaching out to you because she trusts you, because she feels like she knows you.”
Dov frowned, glancing at the gedolim pictures again.
“I’m just someone who gives speeches on the Internet. I don’t think ‘Dear Abby’ is part of the job description of a speaker.”
“But you’re not just a speaker, you’re a rabbi.”
“I don’t have semichah.”
“Shhhh — don’t tell anyone.” Tziporah laughed; she never saw this the way he did. “Besides, you don’t need semichah to be called rabbi these days.”
That’s part of the problem, Dov thought.
Tziporah started walking toward the stairs with the laundry basket.
“Did I ever tell you what Rabbi Teichman told me one Purim?” Dov said, trying to sound casual.
“No, tell me.” She continued walking.
Maybe he had sounded too casual, and she didn’t realize he was about to show his cards.
“I was 22, one of those ‘Rebbi, give me a brachah, Rebbi I want to learn Torah, inspire the world’ kinda drunks.”
Tziporah laughed at that.
“And Rabbi Teichman, who’d had plenty to drink himself, looked at me and said, ‘Dov, you’re already great, your nisayon is that you know it.’ ”
He tried reading Tziporah’s face. She was impassive.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “Just share your Torah, that’s what it’s all about.”
“Never mind.” Dov waved his wife off, and she trekked upstairs. He was relieved and disappointed at her departure.
Tziporah didn’t get it, and didn’t care, too; maybe it was better that she didn’t see the worst of him. The insatiable abyss that always seemed to get in the way, that demanded to be fed. No matter how much he starved it, it didn’t die. People were emailing him questions he had no business answering, yet the ravenous darkness wanted to take a bite out of it all, spit back smart, pithy answers. He was tempted every day.
Dov looked back at the gedolim hanging on the wall. Did they see through him while everyone else thought he was an inspiration?
“ ‘No’ can empower you more than ‘Yes.’ ” —Rabbi Dov Briansky
“Rabbi Briansky?” An unfamiliar voice.
Dov turned and found himself facing a single woman, older twenties. He didn’t know her, but he offered a closed-mouth smile in acknowledgment.
“Good yuntiff, I’m Henny Grossman. You probably don’t remember me. I emailed you a few months ago with a shidduch question.”
He knew exactly who she was.
“Yep, that’s me.” She was obviously happy about the recognition; Dov felt both uncomfortable and satisfied. Two points for a great memory.
“Nice to meet you.” That wasn’t accurate, awkward was more like it.
He moved to the side as attendees exited the Cobalt Room, where he’d just given a shiur. Dov nodded and smiled as they passed. Someone else, anyone, come over here, he mentally beseeched.
“I saw you were going to be on this Pesach program, and I thought it was perfect,” Henny was saying. “My parents were looking for a new program because the one last year was awful, and when we emailed, you said you couldn’t advise me much because you didn’t know me. So I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to meet you, and when I send you questions, you’ll have a better idea of who you’re talking to.”
“Right.” Dov gave a slow nod; this was not what he’d intended or wanted.
Henny was still talking. “Do you have a few minutes? I’d love to tell you a little bit about myself.”
Could he excuse himself, was that impolite? How could he help her, he shouldn’t be having this conversation. But how could he say no? He glanced around. They were in a wide area off the lobby that had chairs with small tables between them — that could work.
“I’d rather people not overhear me. There’s a public balcony over there” — she pointed to the back of the room — “that’s a little quieter.”
“I’d really prefer to be where other people are.” Dov paused, but Henny didn’t say anything. “We can sit in a corner if you’d like.” She nodded, though she didn’t seem happy.
Dov’s eyes darted around, looking for his wife — maybe she could save him? Too bad it was Yom Tov, and he couldn’t text. Would Tziporah come back after changing the baby and putting him down for a nap? Where were his other kids playing, couldn’t they show up?
The chairs were small and stiff, though the cushions looked plush.
Dov looked at Henny expectantly. Wait, was he supposed to carry this conversation? He was just a speaker, not a rav, not a therapist. Thankfully, she spoke.
“You know that speech where you talk about how we should have bitachon, and we have to trust that whatever will be will be, but that also, bitachon can be subverted by someone else’s bechirah?”
Slow nod from Dov.
“So, my parents are more the heimish type. Torah and learning are important, but so is taking care of a family. They’re not into full-time learning. They were willing to go along with it for a while, but now I’m 26, and they just don’t think it’s realistic anymore.” Her hand gestures were large and dramatic. Dov couldn’t fault her for them, but they definitely weren’t helping his “stay inconspicuous” attempt.
Dov nodded again. This was just more detail added to what he already knew from her email.
“The thing is” — Henny chopped one hand on her other palm to make a point — “I chose to want to marry a full-time learner. It was something I chose, independently. I feel like if I don’t continue to choose that, then I’m losing, making the wrong choice morally.”
“Morally?” Dov repeated. Negate yourself and get out of here, he told himself. Don’t give an answer.
“Yes, morally.” Another chop. “It’s definitely better to marry a long-term learner than to marry a short-term, or someone who’s working.”
“It is? Morally?” Dov asked. He could see tension in her jaw; she didn’t like what he was suggesting, he wasn’t supposed to question this part. He leaned back in his seat, trying to avoid the impending barrage.
“Of course it is.” Henny paused as she floundered for words.
Dov was implying that her question — or at least its premise — wasn’t a question. Was that too harsh? He didn’t know her. Deflect and guide her back to herself, he lectured himself.
“I think you should think about this assumption you have, why you have it, and if it isn’t an accurate assumption, what would you think?” Was that condescending? Definitely vague. Was this being a kli, or was this ego? He wasn’t sure, and that confused him.
Out of the corner of his eye, Dov saw Tziporah. She was holding the baby, who apparently didn’t want a nap. Thank you, Hashem.
He waved his hand to get her attention.
“Excuse me,” he said, “my wife needs help with our baby.”
Henny’s face fell, and Dov felt bad but relieved.
“Good yuntiff, hatzlachah,” he offered in parting.
He rushed toward Tziporah and took the baby from her arms. No one seemed to be looking at him. Good.
“He gave you a hard time?” Dov asked.
“Not really — just didn’t want to nap. Who was that?” Tziporah’s voice sharpened at the end. Dov glanced back at Henny, who was standing now and walking away.
“Someone who emailed me once,” Dov said.
“And she introduced herself?” Tziporah’s voice rose at the end again.
“Yeah, she wanted to talk,” Dov’s voice also rose.
“I know, right?” Relief flooded him. “I’m only a few years older than she is.”
“And you sat down.” Tziporah was accusing again. She reached and took the baby from him, walking toward the seating area he’d just vacated.
“What was I supposed to do?” Dov trailed after her.
“Say no.” It sounded simple coming from her. She sat, and Dov sat in the same seat again, facing his wife this time. It didn’t feel any better.
“That’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how.” Dov kept his voice low and neutral, they were in the lobby.
“Seriously?” Tziporah responded mildly, but he knew it was the environment dictating her tone, not her feelings. This would be interesting to point out in one of his shiurim; it could be a perfect mashal for something, he wasn’t sure what yet.
“What did she want to talk about?” Tziporah’s tone held more than simple curiosity.
“What do you know about shidduchim, you married your first girl.” She put the baby down; he promptly pulled himself up on the table between them.
“I don’t know. But do you have to know to listen?” he asked.
“Dov, seriously, it’s off for a woman her age to be asking a man she doesn’t know, a man she theoretically could have married, for advice.” Tziporah picked up the baby again. Security blanket, Dov decided.
He was quiet. She was right.
“What happened to the whole ‘sharing my Torah’ attitude?” Dov tried.
Tziporah just gave him a look. She didn’t get it, she’d never been there, 13 years old, in a stuffy classroom, smelling like sweat and energy after recess, trying to get back into the learning and it taking everyone else too long. He did though, he remembered watching Rebbi trying to assert himself and explain the machlokes of shomeia k’oneh, and what Rashi and Tosafos meant, but no one was getting it until Dov klopped on the desk, stood, and said, “It’s pashut, Rashi says it’s a simile, Tosafos says it’s a metaphor.” He thought he’d done something good — the class was quiet, they finally understood the concept — but no one liked him. Including Rebbi. It took until high school, where he started with no one who knew him, to reset.
Sometimes you need to play nice, and dumb, and keep your insights to yourself. Sometimes you walk away even when you probably should stay. And you never tell people the answer — they need to get it themselves.
“Gray is where the yetzer hara hangs out. It’s also where our neshamos shine.” —Rabbi Dov Briansky
He never contemplated that he’d tire of his name, but he was just leaving the shul after learning and prepping his shiur. It was exhausting, and he had no headspace for others.
A rotund man sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, and a well-dressed woman with oversized plastic-frame glasses stood next to him. He didn’t need an introduction. There was only one guess as to who they were.
Dov nodded. He didn’t mean to smile, but his mouth automatically curved into one — a reflex.
“Shalom aleichem,” the man offered with a beefy hand. “I’m Tzvi Meir Grossman, this is my wife” — he indicated — “Rivky.”
No “Do you have a minute?” or “Is this a good time?” Mr. Grossman simply launched into his speech.
“We need you to speak to our daughter. You’re the only one she’ll listen to. I’m not sure why, she could have just listened to Rav Avigdor Teichman’s shiurim.”
A learned passive-aggressive insulter. Nice. Rav Avigdor was one of his rabbeim, so Dov wasn’t too offended.
“She thinks your mehalech is her mehalech, and if you tell her to do something, she will. I don’t get what my daughter sees in you, but I admit you have a power I don’t, and you need to use it correctly.”
Mr. Grossman was swinging his hands, his gestures were just like his daughter’s: big and forceful. Dov wanted to step back but knew it to be a bad idea.
“Our daughter is under the impression that the only way she can achieve her tafkid in life is if she marries a long-term learner. Which is very nice, I’m not against that. But she’s 26, and it’s time to broaden her options. She won’t listen when I tell her that she doesn’t know what her tafkid is, and she can get a lot of sechar marrying someone who learns for two years, or works and is kovei’a itim.”
Lots of air-chopping from Mr. Grossman. Dov glanced at Mrs. Grossman, who stood to the side with her arms folded, head cocked. Bored?
“She won’t hear of it. She talks about bitachon, bechirah, and other gobbledygook I don’t think she fully understands. Believe me, she’s never learned anything inside. Everything just comes from shiurim, and you and I both know how the truth can get lost in a speaker’s charisma.” There was a nudge and a wink with that.
“So please, one father to another, a Yid to another, talk to my daughter, set her straight.”
If Dov was flustered by the daughter, he couldn’t identify the emotions he felt toward her father. This man seemed to see right through him, didn’t think much of him, but still wanted Dov’s help. He felt bad for the girl and was amazed she’d held out this long. But they were both too much, and he was in the middle. For once he could easily negate his ego and exit.
Dov glanced at the doorway; it was so close. What could he say to make this end?
“I’ll think about it,” he finally said. “Excuse me, my wife is waiting for me.” Dov gestured toward the hallway.
Mr. Grossman cut in front of him sharply.
“A Yid asks for help, something only you can do, and you run away? Your wife can wait.” The tone was mocking. Did this man want his help, or did he just want to prove to himself that he was better than the random speaker his daughter idolized?
Dov pulled his shoulders back, trying to reach his full height of five feet eight inches. Mr. Grossman was at least six feet tall.
“I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. As a parent you just want what’s best for your child, and sometimes they do things that go against what you believe is best.” He paused and glanced at Mrs. Grossman. Her eyes were as sharp and beady as her husband’s.
“I don’t know you or your daughter. And therefore, I don’t have an inkling of what the correct course of action might be. I can see how I seem like the answer to your problem. But that’s not an achrayus that’s appropriate for me to accept.” Dov clasped his hands together in a way he hoped would be read as respectful.
“Achrayus?” Mr. Grossman growled. “You’re a public figure putting ideas into people’s heads. Of course you have the achrayus to back up your words with action.” He pointed a stubby finger at Dov, moved closer. “You change someone’s way of thinking and then leave them hanging because you’re scared of responsibility? If you can’t stand behind your words, you shouldn’t be up there speaking.”
Mr. Grossman and his fingers ended up centimeters from Dov. Dov needed to get away.
“I — I…” Dov stammered.
“How old are you anyway?” Mr. Grossman said. “Thirty-five?”
Dov almost corrected him, but he stopped himself in time, suddenly grateful for the gray flecks in his beard that were probably responsible for making him look five years older. His age was irrelevant, another meaningless power play.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Grossman, I hear what you’re saying. I need to consider it. But I can’t do anything right now.” Dov put his hand to his heart sincerely.
“Rabbi Grossman,” the man said, his eyes cutting into Dov’s. “I have semichah, unlike some other people.” Rabbi Grossman brushed passed Dov, the force of his body pushing Dov slightly to the side. His wife followed.
Dov looked after them and shook his head. Had that just happened? It felt like the opposite of the mussar shmuess Rabbi Schneller had given after he told his best friend Yisroel to dump the girl he was dating.
“You weren’t the right person to say that to him, even if you were right,” Rabbi Schneller had said, nursing a coffee. “There’s a time and place for everything. Now is not your time.”
Yisroel’s mother didn’t acknowledge Dov whenever he came to visit after that. Only once Yisroel was engaged to someone else did she deign to wish him an “Im yirtzeh Hashem by you.”
It’s not just the message, it’s the messenger. He learned that too well long ago. But was it his time now? And did he have a clear message?
Dov stumbled from the room.
“We’ve crowded out the internal knowledge, the ‘Ani’, with society’s ‘should.’ Don’t conflate the two: they’re different, and ‘Ani’ should always come first.” —Rabbi Dov Briansky
The presenters had their own eating space, separate from the guests. Of course, they were still interrupted — a tap on the shoulder, throat-clearing at the buffet — but for the most part, here they weren’t on display.
Looking around, Dov was keenly aware of the hierarchy.
His eyes wandered around the room and settled on Rabbi Shimmy Pinowitz. It seemed like a good time to bring up the topic with someone else, and Rabbi Pinowitz felt right. Genuine and deep. Plus, there were a few empty chairs around him, his family was presumably at the buffet. Walking over, Dov rehearsed phrasing in his head, but it wasn’t necessary.
“Reb Dov!” Rabbi Shimmy said as Dov approached. “To what do I owe this honor?”
Dov blushed. Don’t believe it, it’s not an honor. He sat beside the master mechanech and looked him in the eye. After the basic pleasantries, he dove in.
“Let me ask you, how to you deal with people reaching out to you for guidance?”
Rabbi Pinowitz pursed his lips and nodded his head. Slow to talk, Dov noted. I should learn from that.
“Reb Dov, before I answer, tell me, what happened?”
Oh. He hadn’t anticipated spilling all so fast. Deep breaths. He gave a short synopsis of the slow but building trickle of emails that contained not just compliments, but life stories and questions. Stories he had no business knowing, questions he had no business answering. He left out Henny and her parents. That was just embarrassing.
He also left out how much wanted to answer all of them, but how experience and shame had taught him self-control.
Rabbi Pinowitz nodded and hmmed in the right spots.
“I hear. It’s an achrayus to help people, why else would Hashem put me in this position?” the mechanech finally said. “And it’s a great zechus to be Hashem’s messenger. I’ve built up an extensive referral network over years, and when people come to me with these kinds of questions, I guide them to professionals who are more suited to their needs.”
Rabbi Pinowitz didn’t give answers to people who sought him out, but he was still helpful. How much time did he spend on that?
Suddenly, Tziporah was at there, a plate full of salad with no dressing.
“And it works? It helps?” Dov asked.
Again Rabbi Pinowitz nodded, considered, didn’t speak. A full five-second gap before he answered, “It works probably eighty percent of the time. People need answers, they want guidance, and they’ll take it when directed to the right place. The way I see it, most people don’t have a real relationship with their rav. They ask him if the chicken is okay, but they don’t talk about tachlis. Aiy, so why do they turn to speakers who they have zero shayachus with?”
Rabbi Pinowitz smiled; Dov could see he felt smart with this question, like he was breaking the fourth wall.
“A psychologist explained it to me very simply. All these people have para-social relationships with you. That means it’s one-sided. They feel like they know you, they have strong feelings toward you, and they already feel comfortable with you, even though you don’t know they exist. You see this l’havadil in celebrity culture. Here, we don’t have movie stars, although I’m sure the singers see it plenty.”
“And the other twenty percent?”
Rabbi Pinowitz sighed, even rolled his eyes slightly.
“Those are the celebrity culture people. They turn you into a god, and they just want to have shayachus with you. You direct, and redirect, and they keep coming back with something else.”
“What do you do with them?”
Rabbi Pinowitz shrugged, not nonchalant — defeated.
“I pity them. I keep my correspondence short, but cordial. I don’t encourage contact. I also don’t spend time referring them to other rabbanim or counselors.”
“And that works.”
“Sometimes. And other times, they end up supporting me.” Here he smiled. “They show up on tours, that pays the bills, you know. But then also, I keep my distance, eat at a separate table. These people are unhealthy.”
Dov nodded. He looked at Tziporah, who had an elbow propped on a chair, listening avidly. Dov saw Rabbi Pinowitz take a deep breath.
“Just one more point.” His eyes met Dov’s; they were darker, and his mouth was more firmly set, than his usual jovial self. “It feels very good. The eighty percent, and especially the twenty percent who know your speeches better than you do. They say the most flattering things, they make you feel like you actually are everything they think you are.
“Don’t believe them. You know who you are when you clap al cheit. Ask your wife, she knows who you are and still puts up with you. You need an inner circle of people who keep you in check.”
Yes, that twenty percent was his kryptonite. Tziporah still didn’t seem to see that.
“Thank you, Rabbi Pinowitz,” Dov said. “You’ve given me a lot of food for thought.”
Could he do it though? There was something tantalizing to being the answer, the hope, instead of an unnecessary stopover because the person couldn’t afford to fly direct.
“When dealing with Western culture and society, Torah is a complete paradigm shift.” —Rabbi Dov Briansky
“Reb Dov!” a voice asserted just as Dov was finishing Minchah. His body tensed. He turned, then exhaled. It was Rabbi Yaakov Kleiner, one of the quick-wit speakers, they’d schmoozed a bit at different events. “I was sitting behind Rabbi Pinowitz when you asked him about helping people. I have derech eretz — or at least I try to — so I didn’t interfere, but if I may, can I give you my two cents?”
Dov gave his first real laugh of the day. “Sure!”
“Pretend you’re in witness protection.” He put his arm around Dov’s shoulder. “Get a new email address, a new phone number.” He ticked off fingers with his other hand. “Share it only with people you trust — and let them know it.” He paused and looked at Dov. “Mask your number when you call out. Have your wife screen your calls and emails.”
Dov side-eyed him. Rabbi Kleiner returned it with a cynical half-smile.
“I know it sounds harsh. But if you’re asking the question, that means there’s a problem.” Arm still around Dov, he led him to the chairs at the side of the shul. “Let’s be honest, we’re all very smart sitting here, and we may have life experience that qualifies us a little. But we don’t know the people reaching out to us. We don’t owe them anything, we already give of ourselves when we speak. Our wives, our kids, they deserve us, and they’re the ones who lose when we don’t have clear boundaries.”
Something about this felt off to Dov. Was it ego in the opposite extreme?
“But if we have the privilege of being in this space, don’t we have a responsibility to guide people to someone who can help? Or at least give them a new way to think about their question?” Dov asked.
Reb Yaakov smirked. “How’s that working out for you?”
Dov laughed mirthlessly.
“And you’re just starting out. I’ve heard you, Reb Dov, you’re touching people at the neshamah level, not just at the chinuch-parenting front like me. You probably get heavy-duty questions. And a lot of unhealthy nutters too.” He got up, klopped Dov affectionately on shoulder. “Chayecha kodmin,” he said, and he walked away.
Dov said nothing. He sat looking around the near-empty shul. Just then, he both loved and hated Yaakov Kleiner.
There was a tap on his shoulder. Dov jumped. It was Yaakov again.
“I just remembered. That whole para-social whatnot Rabbi Pinowitz was talking about, that’s one place where he’s right on the money. People think they really know you, and like you, and will remember the random things you might’ve said off the cuff. It’s creepy. Watch out.”
Another shoulder klop, and Dov was left to his unnerving thoughts again.
What part of helping was real, what part was ego, what part was irresponsible, what part was duty?
Yaakov Kleiner obviously had no problem being the class gavra. Dov always felt like a cheftzah when his gavra peeked out.
“You can’t control what happens. What will be, is. The only question is who will you become in the process?” —Rabbi Dov Briansky
“Do you think they’re the type to talk about it?” Dov wondered, looking at the floor.
“I think you did the right thing,” Tziporah asserted. Dov’s muscles twitched to smile; she was always on his side.
“Do you think I have a big ego?”
“Yeah, like do I think I’m the bomb?”
Tziporah was quiet, her foot rubbing the carpet as though it could erase the pattern, the past.
“What are you thinking?”
“That you think you’re the bomb but pretend that you’re not.”
So she did see it. Did everyone else? Was everyone rolling their eyes at his attempts at deflection?
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” he pressed.
“Neither,” she said. “It can be annoying when you pretend to be or know less than you do. Y’know, just be.”
Just be. She made it sound so simple. How can you just be when you keep getting in your own way?
“Oh look, it’s Mr. Hershkowitz,” Tziporah said. The program director was walking toward them. There were bags under his eyes, and he reeked of urgency.
“Can I talk to you a minute, Reb Dov?” He looked at Tziporah. “Sorry to steal him for the few minutes you have together. I promise this’ll be quick.”
Dov felt the now-familiar pit in his stomach expand. The two of them moved further down the hall to the ice machines.
“A Mr. Grossman just came over to me,” Mr. Hershkowitz said with no preamble. “I want to hear your version of what happened.”
“What did he tell you? What did you tell him?” Dov’s hands were suddenly sweaty. Were his reputation and livelihood at stake?
“He complained that you weren’t accommodating, and unqualified, that I didn’t do a good job vetting, he’s not sure if he’ll come back next year, he has lots of friends. You get the type.”
Dov nodded. He recounted the story, and Mr. Hershkowitz rubbed his face vigorously. His fingers twitched like he wanted to press for ice, just to do something with them.
“You did nothing wrong, Dov. Some people really know how to ruin it for everyone.” He gave a weary laugh. “I just daven he doesn’t do too much damage to this program. He seems like the type to take the time to write nasty and overly detailed Yelp reviews. Or have his secretary do it.”
Hershkowitz shifted his weight.
“How’s the program otherwise? Your family enjoying? We were so excited you agreed to join us. We like to bring in Torah thinkers who can still sit with the people, you know what I mean? I hope this hiccup won’t get in the way of you coming again.”
Yes, Dov knew what he meant, but it was distance, not familiarity, that he was trying to breed with the public now.
“It’s wonderful, thank you for the opportunity. My wife is loving it,” Dov assured him. She was, wasn’t she? Drama aside, Tziporah didn’t have to make Pesach or plan Chol Hamoed. She wasn’t cooking, clearing, or dealing with her sister’s petty politics. He couldn’t ruin it because he was uncomfortable. Because he couldn’t resolve a basic man-versus-self problem.
“Good, good, shkoyach,” Hershkowitz said as he shook Dov’s hand again and walked to the door. “Glad to hear.”
Dov stood a moment longer. The first days would be over in a few hours. If he’d learned anything the past two days he knew that even if his rebbi said to help, people would have to find him first, and he wouldn’t make it that easy. He went back to Tziporah.
“What did he want, what did he want?” she pestered.
Dov shook his head.
“We’ll talk later, I need to go daven,” he deflected. He didn’t really, he had time.
Tziporah tried not to look upset, but he knew her expressions.
“Y’know, I was thinking,” she said. “How is you asking Rabbi Pinowitz advice any different from this Henny girl approaching you?”
Dov glanced back, then forward, focusing on the hallway in front of him. Low blow, he thought. And he probably deserved it.
He headed to the shul. All people were a blur, did some say hi, did some nod, he didn’t know.
Tziporah’s words stewed in his mind. The comparison was embarrassing. Yes, he did ask for advice, but he wasn’t asking for Rabbi Pinowitz to understand him, he just wanted Rabbi Pinowitz’s experience.
He walked through the lobby, and there must have been an intensity in his step because no one acknowledged him. His mind was rolling the tape from the beginning, how did he get here: email, email, Pesach, meet, Tziporah mad.
He stopped. Why had Tziporah been so upset, was it just the inappropriateness? He blushed at the thought, and replayed their conversation. “What do you know about shidduchim, you married your first girl.”
He stopped abruptly and someone behind him stumbled, then walked around him. Dov didn’t have the presence of mind to apologize.
Tziporah had understood the issue better than he had: Dov was so worried about feeding his ego that it had masked the real culprit — that he simply didn’t know.
Dov walked back to the lobby and looked around, hoping to find them.
Not in the lobby, but in the tea room, there they were, huddled together picking out fruit and cookies. He approached with a clarity he hadn’t felt in a while.
“Good Yuntiff. Can I talk to you for a moment?” he asked.
Henny looked up, too delighted to see him. He ignored that and addressed the three of them.
“I’m sorry if I seemed reluctant to address your questions. I was — I am,” he corrected. “And I’ve gained some insight, I’ve figured out how to explain why I didn’t think I’m the right person.”
Henny was spellbound, her father grumpy and cynical, her mother — expressionless.
“Baruch Hashem, I had an easy time in shidduchim. Whatever I tell you will be coming from an intellectual approach or what I think is right, but in truth, I’m missing the reality component. I’m missing real understanding and empathy. I can’t advise you. And if I did, what I’d say would be useless.”
The words came out quick but clear. Emotional but intelligent.
Henny’s eyes went downcast, but she nodded like she understood. Rabbi Grossman harrumphed, then offered a hand.
“Shkoyach,” he said gruffly before he turned back to the buffet.
Dov laughed to himself. Rabbi Grossman was his own issue, not a reflection on him. Neither was Henny. She’d probably find someone else to obsess over.
He’d have never imagined that admitting he didn’t know something could solve such a thorny problem. He thought it was all about him, how ego-centric.
Dov looked around the tea room at people piling plates with faux chometz. Some shot glances at him, while others studiously pretended his non-status.
He should tell Tziporah she was right, she’d find that amusing. He went to go find his wife while he still held on to the clarity of not knowing.
“The Chovos Halevavos says that a baal bitachon is an anav and fears no one. I’m not on the level, but I love the sentiment.” —Rabbi Dov Briansky
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956)
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