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Rebbi for Life

He’s a scion of Yerushalmi Torah greatness and an heir to the legacy of Brisk. Rav Yonason Sacks taps his family legacy for the challenges of a new generation


Photos: Jeff Zorabedian, Kalinin photography

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’ve been in many a rabbi’s study, but the one in Rav Yonason Sacks’s Passaic home is an experience apart. It’s not a large room — there’s space for a desk and a couple chairs and bookcases — but that only magnifies its most striking feature: Mounted along its walls are a dozen or so poster-style reproductions of rulings issued by Rav Sack’s illustrious great-grandfather, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, who served as the chief rabbi of Jerusalem for nearly four decades until his passing in 1960.

These kol korei signs, of the very same type that still festoon the Holy City’s walls, give the study a pronounced Yerushalmi flavor, wordlessly conveying precious continuity, a generational chain unbroken. This is clearly a room with a view.

There’s also a large placard announcing with deep sorrow the passing of the Chazon Ish — and when I ask why it’s there, Rav Sacks’s reply opens a small window into his inner world. “These were really incredibly inspirational figures, not just for their overall greatness, but in particular because of their ameilus b’Torah, the ceaseless toil in learning. When you’re learning late at night, it’s good to have those models in front of you.” For Rav Sacks — rosh yeshivah, kehillah rav, and author of 38 seforim and counting — there have undoubtedly been many such late nights in this room.

Rav Sacks currently heads Beis Medrash L’Talmud in the Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood of Queens, the yeshivah component of Touro College’s Lander College for Men. Before assuming that post, he was a rosh yeshivah at Yeshiva University’s affiliated Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (REITS) for 18 years, and for close to three decades, he’s served as rav of Agudath Israel of Passaic Park. As he speaks, he exudes a strong, quiet warmth, but at the mention of Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, the stories tumble forth.

“You know, when one is in mourning, lo aleinu, he eats bei’im, eggs, because their oval shape represents the natural cycle of life and death. But when Rav Tzvi Pesach was in aveilus, he thought it appropriate to learn Maseches Bei’ah too — and so, every day of the 12-month mourning period, he made a siyum on that tractate.” He pauses, and then reflects: “I was in aveilus last year for my mother and I didn’t do that as often, but I tried to follow the elter zeide’s minhag to the extent that I could.”

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orn shortly before Rav Frank’s passing, his great-grandson never knew him, but, he says, “the model he set of avodas hatzibbur and mesirus nefesh for ameilus b’Torah in abject poverty is so striking and inspiring for those of us who live amid such plenty. My zeide, Rav Menachem Sacks, used to tell me that his father-in-law, Rav Tzvi Pesach, had two shtenders, one at the spot where he learned in the house and another shtender next to the front door. That way, when he left home — and it was really a very small space — he could walk through the house still learning from the Gemara in his hands without wasting those few seconds, placing the volume down on the shtender near the door as he left. And when he’d arrive back home, he’d pick up the Gemara from there and continue learning.”

As a quintessential rebbi, the needs of his talmidim are never very far from Rav Sacks’s mind, and he pivots to apply the lessons of Rav Tzvi Pesach to them. “He used to learn at a quick pace — I’m told that he chazered the entire Maseches Shabbos every Shabbos — and I encourage the talmidim in the yeshivah as well to have broad she’ifos in their learning. To learn in depth is an amazing gift, but simply to cover the breadth of Shas and try to acquire large portions of it is remarkable. Certainly at a younger age, this is what the talmidim have to try to do. We try to balance things between breadth and depth.”

The aspiration to cover Shas is one Rav Sacks gained from his own rebbi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, whose shiur he attended for many years in REITS, followed by many more years in several of its kollelim. “The shiur was not on limited blatt in Nashim and Nezikin, but on Shas. It encompassed Orach Chaim and parts of Kodshim, and it was rare that we ever learned the same thing twice. Even when we’d go back to a masechta we had learned previously, it was to a different perek, so there was always a sense of newness.

“Adding to that freshness,” Rav Sacks continues, “Rav Soloveitchik gave shiur as if he was learning the sugya for the first time, even though of course, he had invested hours and hours — years! — of preparation. It taught us how to develop a sugya, not just the conclusions. And by shiur’s end, as magnificent as it was, you were convinced that the way he had learned it was poshut pshat.”

As a scion to Yerushalmi Torah greatness and, through his rebbi, also an heir to the legacy of Brisk, Rav Sacks seeks to use that mesorah to guide his many talmidim through a contemporary world that is in so many ways uncharted territory. He observes that for Rav Soloveitchik, “the shalsheles hakabbalah was all-important; everything he did took into account how his father and his zeide would have approached things. And that’s something that is very important for bnei yeshivah today. I always tell talmidim: If you have a kushya the Rishonim didn’t ask, your mission isn’t to give a teirutz but to understand why the Rishonim didn’t ask it.”

Standing at the helm of an institution whose mission is to enable students to integrate the world of Torah with their pursuit of parnassah, Rav Sacks is keenly aware of what awaits today’s young men as they venture out into the world at large. But to his mind, the answers to today’s challenges are different more in form than in substance. “To be sure, the challenges facing talmidim today aren’t the challenges that faced the talmidim of old. But in terms of mindset, to be the mechadesh, to come up with a creative answer that the gedolim of previous generations would not have signed onto — that’s not my mission statement.”

Rav Sacks cites a Tosafos in Berachos that states that after reciting birchos haTorah in the morning, one doesn’t recite it again all day, because a person never really mentally detaches from Torah. “It has to inform everything one does throughout his day. In the yeshivah, we’re giving over that holistic sense, with a physically integrated campus, and with everything that takes place there being part of a seamless whole. The subject matter itself is taught that way, so that, for example, when science majors take biology, their professor starts with the Rambam in the second perek of Yesodei HaTorah about the awe of Hashem that comes from studying His creation.”

“The entire institution is under one standard of ruchniyus, which is set by Rabbi Sacks as the final authority,” says Dr. Moshe Sokol, who has been the dean of Lander College since its founding in 2000 and works together with Rav Sacks on a daily basis, discussing talmidim who may be experiencing difficulties in their college studies or their learning. “Students here don’t get a bifurcated message that kodesh and chol have nothing to do with each other, because our partnership sends a message that’s in keeping with the institution’s motto of b’chol d’rachecha de’eihu, meaning that Yiddishkeit is the overarching theme that runs through one’s life. The goal is for a student to strive for consistency between his learning in the beis medrash, his academic life and his work life. It’s a single, integrated whole.”

Each semester, Rav Sacks gives a shiur to the boys on the challenges and opportunities of the workplace. Moreover, he says, it’s a requirement of graduation that every student must attend a lengthy series of shiurim in the halachos of his chosen major, given by rabbanim and professionals in the fields of medicine, business, psychology, and the like.

Students come to Lander’s seeking a spiritually wholesome environment where they can excel in their pursuit of a parnassah, often going on from there to top graduate programs — acceptance rates to medical, dental, law, and graduate schools are between 90–100 percent — before entering the business or professional world. But, Rav Sacks says, “climbing the corporate ladder is not easy and the social climate today is incredibly challenging. We make clear that they have to make gedarim. Perhaps in the past, talmidim thought they could somehow live in that world as a frum Jew, but the talmidim of today see that it’s not true. Technology is a major challenge, but only one of many.”

He acknowledges that an integrated program like Lander’s, in which students spend mornings and evenings learning and afternoons in secular classes, can have advantages and drawbacks. “Sometimes, the message can get diluted as a result, and with boys coming from a variety of backgrounds, their hashkafos aren’t monolithic. Yet sometimes the sense of ‘eilu v’eilu’ can be incredibly enriching.”

Still, Rav Sacks feels that a program like this, in which everything takes place under one roof, is preferable to the alternative model in which bnei Torah venture out from their yeshivah for classes at a secular college. “It’s the difference between a talmid feeling ‘I didn’t make the cut’ and feeling ‘I found my calling and got good hadrachah from my rebbeim that for me this was the appropriate derech.’ And the talmidim feel they have rebbeim who get it, to whom they can ask any question.”

As rosh yeshivah, he has final say over any school activity, extracurricular or otherwise, and as a result, “everything is done al taharas hakodesh. To me, that’s a very important step-up, because when someone leaves yeshivah for secular studies, in that other open, unsupervised environment he can simply unravel. So there are definite challenges in having everything together, but what emerges can be outstanding.”

Not all the talmidim at Beis Medrash L’Talmud, however, are headed directly for the workplace — there’s a semichah track in the yeshivah too, yielding 50 new musmachim at its most recent chag hasemichah. It features a heavy emphasis on practical shimush, with the added plus that many of the rebbeim are themselves shul rabbanim.

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he hat Rav Sacks wears as longtime rav of the Agudath Israel of Passaic Park is not so unlike the one he dons in Queens. The shul boasts numerous mispallelim who are klei kodesh, but the majority of the members are working people, many of them professionals. The amount of learning that goes on is very impressive, with chaburos in the mornings and evenings, which Rav Sacks proudly calls “serious groups, with bechinos and attendance taking, and they plow through masechtos.”

He and his rebbetzin found Passaic to be a special place to raise their children, because it’s a town to which, he says, “people come for the right reasons. It started as a yeshivah community, and even though it has branched out, people continue to come for a real sense of growth in ahavas Torah and yiras Shamayim.”

Rabbi Moshe Krupka, the executive vice president of the Touro College and University System, is also a mispallel in Rabbi Sacks’s shul, giving him a dual perspective on Rabbi Sacks that few others have. Rabbi Krupka was a contemporary of the Rosh Yeshivah at REITS, and remembers well the day they both received semichah: “At the chag hasemichah, Yonason Sacks was the musmach honored with speaking on behalf of all of us. He walked up to the podium, and without any notes — he never speaks with even so much as a little card in front of him, yet quotes perek, daf, siman, pasuk, all verbatim — he spoke for a half-hour, delivering a crystal-clear masterpiece of pilpul in articulate English. I was watching the faces of the roshei yeshivah on the dais, and their eyes were popping.”

He says that Rabbi Sacks has the unique combination of being “a prolific, world-class talmid chacham of rare clarity and Torah erudition, who’s also able to relate to and guide young men making the most important decisions of their lives, like ‘What kind of girl should I look for?’ ‘What sort of home should I set up?’ and ‘How will I balance the need to live a life of kedushah with the pursuit of a parnassah?’

“Many of these are boys who have come back from Eretz Yisrael and don’t necessarily have a close connection with a rebbi, and Rabbi Sacks is there to accompany them through the important stage they’re at,” Rabbi Krupka adds. “For many, he’s become their rebbi for life. I see how many of his talmidim from 20 and 30 years ago have been drawn to settle in Passaic because he’s there.”

Rabbi Ariel Kopitnikoff, Lander’s assistant dean for student affairs, has a front-row seat for observing the deep caring Rav Sacks lavishes on his talmidim. “They’re an integral part of his life, on campus and off. It’s not infrequent for talmidim to be on the phone with him at one or two in the morning.”

One recent graduate, Kobe Dorfman, is now in medical school and attributes his successful transition from yeshivah to his current environment to the fact that the Rosh Yeshivah “was there for me with chizuk and hadrachah every step of the way. He always sets the bar high, which was the best thing for me, not allowing me to compromise on either hashkafah or halachah despite sometimes challenging situations. The clarity and wide-ranging knowledge he imparts in his shiur make it a privilege just to be able to say you were his talmid.”

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oth rabbanus and Torah scholarship run plentifully in Rav Sacks’s family. Grandfather Rav Menachem Sacks was born in Jerusalem, and made his way from there to Chicago as a fundraiser on behalf of the Yishuv, with his family eventually joining him there. He served as a leader of Jewish education in the city for nearly six decades — he taught at the Skokie yeshivah and was active on the local vaad hachinuch, helping to nurture the growth of Chicago’s day schools. His son, Jerusalem-born Rabbi Yehuda Leib (Louis), raised his family in Chicago, and in later years held a pulpit in Delray Beach, Florida, the major Orthodox Jewish community north of Miami prior to Boca Raton’s rise to prominence.

Rav Menachem’s wife, Chana, was Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank’s oldest child. After her came Reb Tanchum, whose great-grandchild, Rav Dovid Cohen, is the rosh yeshivah of Chevron, with whom Rav Sacks maintains an ongoing relationship.

Another family luminary was the legendary Ponevezher rosh yeshivah, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, who married Esther Frank, one of Rav Tzvi Pesach’s younger children. When Rav Shmuel was seriously ill and came to Boston’s world-renowned medical center for treatment, a young Yonason Sacks got to spend some unforgettable time with his great-uncle. Reminiscing fondly about a Shabbos he spent with Rav Rozovsky in Boston, he says “the gadlus in Torah was tremendous, the precision and clarity in everything he did remarkable. I recall asking him about a difficulty I had in a Milchamos in Perek Shevuos Shtayim — he knew it verbatim.”

It was in Boston, too, that he developed his initial connection to his rebbi, Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik. While still in high school, he spent several summers in Boston attending the Rav’s shiurim alongside some of the latter’s younger talmidim. A highlight of those weeks was Tishah B’Av in the presence of Rav Yoshe Ber. It was, remarks Rav Sacks, “to live kinnos.”

Today, he continues, “there’s little appreciation of what that means. The first question the Nesivos asks in his Haggadah is, since we live under such crushing oppression, how do you fihr a Seder, how do you experience cheirus? But in our times, I’ve never received such a question. For us, it’s Tishah B’Av that’s the challenge — how do you experience aveilus on the Churban? It’s not simple. But in Boston, it was something you saw.

“After Shacharis, kinnos would continue all day, and we’d have to stop the rav to daven Minchah, because the emotion would just overtake him. Here in Passaic we also spend hours in shul, from Shacharis until Minchah, going through every kinnah. We try to make it a living experience, and hopefully it resonates.”

It was during those Boston summers that the teenaged Yonason, future rosh yeshivah to bnei Torah and rav to balabatim, first observed how a master pedagogue tailors his teaching to each audience according to its needs. Rav Sacks recalls that “the Rav was primarily teaching his talmidim, but there were some balabatim there too, and it was amazing to see him respond differently to the same kushya depending on who asked it. With the bnei yeshivah, he could be very tough because he expected ameilus and you had to prepare well and be on your toes. But for the others, both the expectations and the demeanor were different.”

These days, Rav Sacks disseminates Torah not only in the two very different settings of shul and yeshivah, but also in a third, more unusual one as well: The Sacks family spend their summers at Lake Forest, a mostly chassidic South Fallsburg vacation community of about 130 homes, where Rav Sacks delivers numerous shiurim. During the course of the year, too, he gives shiurim in Boro Park, keeping up the connection with his summertime talmidim, of whom he says, “I’m part of their lives and they’re part of mine, and we share simchahs together.”

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abbi Krupka tells of his own first-hand experience with Rav Sacks’s integration of erudition and sensitivity: “When my son became bar mitzvah, I prepared a shtickel Torah for him to say at his bar mitzvah seudah. Of course, I invited Rav Sacks to speak first, and as he spoke, I realized he was going to say the same chiddush that was at the heart of my son’s derashah. So I ever-so-gingerly came up behind him and whispered, ‘The bar mitzvah bochur is speaking on a similar inyan.’ He nodded, and without missing a beat, he segued masterfully into an entirely different derashah, a brilliant derashah, full of far-flung sources as if he had the seforim he was quoting in front of him. Afterward, I went over to thank him and said, ‘I’m sorry,’ but he all he’d say was ‘It’s more important for him to say the shtickel Torah than for me.’ The incredible sensitivity together with astonishing Torah greatness was something to see.”

Dean Sokol has his own personal story illustrating Rav Sacks’s lightning-quick Torah versatility: “We went to Eretz Yisrael together to meet with prospective students, and prior to our visit to one high-level yeshivah, Rav Sacks had been asked to give a shiur on Kiddushin daf vav. But when we got there, it turned out they were only up to daf hei. On a dime, he pivoted to give a totally different shiur on a topic on daf hei, and it was an extremely complex, brilliant one — I still remember what it was about — with maybe a hundred mareh mekomos.”

I saw for myself, as Rav Sacks reaches for a certain sefer. He opens an antique copy of the Artzos Hachayim, a well-known work on Orach Chayim whose author was the Malbim, of Tanach commentary fame. Opening to a particular page, he says, “The Artzos Hachayim here in hilchos tefillin discusses whether a person who loses an arm, chas v’shalom, has the option to put the tefillin shel yad on the other arm. The Malbim advises that when putting on the shel rosh, he should make one brachah — that of ‘lehaniach.’ But that’s problematic, because the only brachah one ever makes on the shel rosh is ‘al mitzvas tefillin,’ not ‘lehaniach.’

“Not long ago,” Rav Sacks contines, “there was a seforim auction in Eretz Yisrael where I was able to secure this copy of Artzos Hachayim very inexpensively. It was the Malbim’s own copy, and I must show you this….” He points to the margin of the very passage we’ve been discussing, where in the Malbim’s own handwriting, the word “lehaniach” is changed to “al mitzvas” — just as Rav Sacks argued it had to be.

I look at the broadly smiling Rosh Yeshivah and I nod appreciatively. But I also can’t help but wonder to myself why he chose to share this particular vort, seemingly apropos of nothing, with me.

Then, looking once more into his dancing eyes, I realize that for him — as for his elter zeide and his rebbi before him — it’s everything else that must somehow be found to be apropos of Torah, rather than vice versa. For him, every new insight in Torah, however seemingly minute, even just one word in the Artzos Hachaim, is worth rejoicing over.


LESSONS TO LIVE BY

To help his talmidim negotiate the oftentimes bewildering byways of the working world, Rav Sacks stresses several themes in his talks and one-on-one counseling, important ideas to help young men navigate a new and often overwhelming frontier.

 

 

Aseh Lecha Rav

Find a knowledgeable and informed rabbi whom you thoroughly respect to help you navigate the potential pitfalls of parnassah. That way you can make decisions that are consistent with daas Torah, rather than having to extricate yourself from compromising situations after the fact.

Recognize the Halachic Challenges of Your Chosen Field

Each field — business, medicine, psychology, etc. — has particular halachic obstacles. Don’t wait until after you enter the workplace to familiarize yourself with them. Consult with rabbanim, poskim and informed colleagues, and devote significant time to learning the relevant halachos of your field, before facing these challenges.

Set Appropriate Boundaries

Parnassah is not a free pass to allow inappropriate influences and exposures. Incorporate the study of mussar into your daily routine, preferably at its outset. Institute gedarim, such as Internet filters on your work computer, and other practices that promote appropriate levels of tzniyus in the workplace.

The workplace is not merely a vocational setting, but an encompassing culture. Job expectations often include team building activities, social events and holiday parties. Many work environments are at odds with halachic and hashkafic boundaries regarding interaction between the genders. Significant time and effort must be invested to navigate these cultural challenges.

Frum workplaces present their own unique challenges. Precisely because of one’s comfort in such an setting and commonality with coworkers, one’s guard is down, and it’s is easy the blur the lines separating professional and social interaction. You cannot necessarily assume that the highest level of halachic and hashkafic standards are upheld even in what seems to be an ideal environment.

Climbing the Corporate Ladder Is Not Necessarily an Appropriate Goal

Career choices should be determined based on the religious quality of life you will be able to achieve while pursuing a given profession. Passing over a more lucrative position to ensure a fulfilling and meaningful religious life is appropriate. There is nothing inherently wrong with climbing the corporate ladder, as long as it doesn’t impede your religious and spiritual quality of life.

The Workplace Provides Endless Opportunities for Kiddush Hashem

Recognize that, as a religious Jew, you represent the Torah — an awesome responsibility and a sanctified privilege. Always conduct yourself with impeccable honesty and integrity, realizing you will constantly be held to a higher standard. People will make judgments about Orthodox Jews based on how you treat employees, interact with colleagues, the language you use and your overall behavior.

Your Valiant Efforts Are Merely Hishtadlus

It’s important to plan appropriately for parnassah and exert a healthy amount of hishtadlus. This could mean investing the time and resources to pursue professional training and degrees. But it is also critical to realize that after all the initiative put forth, it is Hakadosh Baruch Hu who determines the impact of your efforts. Reaching ultimate goals is a function of Divine providence. We invest merely to position ourselves to merit siyata d’Shmaya.

Confront Challenges with Emunah and Bitachon

A financial downturn is an appropriate time to focus on emunah and a meaningful opportunity to model the steadfastness and consistency of a true eved Hashem. If you remember that parnassah is from Hashem and that He has decided that what you’re experiencing is what is necessary for you at the current time, you will be able to face the challenge. It’s a good idea to remind yourself of this essential truth, even when business is going well. If you truly recognize in good times that it is Hashem who is responsible for your success, you will be fortified with emunah to weather the difficult times.

Always Daven for Siyata D’shmaya

Every aspect of your life is dependent on Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Be constantly mindful that He is always with you. Tefillah is a most potent tool to merit siyata d’Shmaya. Recognize that the goal of parnassah is to enable you to spend more time studying Torah, and not just so that you have an easier and more plentiful material life. Parnassah is merely a means to the ultimate end — immersion in Torah.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 776)

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