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The Deepest Dialogue

Rabbi Dovid’l Weinberg found connection on the wings of isolation

Photos: Elchanan Kotler

 

How do you define yourself?

Two years ago, Rabbi Dovid’l Weinberg might have filled in the blank like this: I’m a vigorous, bearded, young man, who lives with his wife Rina and young family in Ramot and teaches Torah in the Old City of Yerushalayim.

But suddenly and unexpectedly, those adjectives no longer fit him. A disquieting diagnosis landed Reb Dovid’l and his young family in the USA for treatment, where over the course of two years, Reb Dovid’l would continue to teach, compose music, and even write a sefer, all while fighting for his life. The Weinberg family battled a formidable enemy far from their true home in Yerushalayim, but the gifts they gained by journey’s end were real and lasting.

Reb Dovid’l was born and raised in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. His father, Dr. Jerry Weinberg, is an ophthalmologist by trade, but Reb Dovid’l describes him first as a man “in love with learning.” His mother, Mrs. Fran Weinberg, kept the books at his father’s practice, but her primary focus was raising the couple’s three sons. Reb Dovid’l attributes his thirst for knowledge to his parents: His mother has always been a voracious reader and his father, who is never without a sefer, “finds equal pleasure in studying a daf of gemara, a teaching from the Ben Ish Chai, or an esoteric passage from the Arizal — for him, it’s all a single ocean.” That receptiveness and breadth made a deep impression on Reb Dovid’l, who sought out diverse Torah figures as mentors as he grew into adulthood.

Coffee and Sugar

The lymphoma diagnosis was not sudden — it was preceded by the typical parade of doctors, rounds of tests, and lots of waiting. Then came the decision making: Though there were treatment options in Israel, the Weinbergs ultimately relocated to Bergenfield, New Jersey, so the extended Weinberg family, living nearby, could lend their support while Reb Dovid’l would be treated at Hackensack University Medical Center.

After the decision to leave Israel had been made, Reb Dovid’l had to decide how to share the news of his illness with his community, friends, and students.. Reb Dovid’l serves as a rebbi at Yeshivat Orayta, in the Old City of Yerushalayim, just steps away from the Kosel, and is a beloved member of his close-knit Ramot community. Without the luxury of being able to communicate the news personally, he composed a heartfelt email.

Borrowing a lyric from the Israeli musician, Aharon Razel, which contrasts the bitterness of coffee beans with the sweetness of sugar, Reb Dovid’l wrote, “Three spoons full of sugar in water is not a drink most people care for.” The bitterness of the coffee beans is what allows us to enjoy the sweetness of the sugar, he explained — just as life’s difficulties can help us to appreciate the simple joys of being alive. “Well, today my wife and I got an extra spoonful of coffee grounds,” Reb Dovid’l concluded, gently informing his audience that he would be receiving treatment in America. The bitter news was glazed by a sweet invitation to the seudas hoda’ah that would surely take place soon.

As he continued to process the diagnosis for himself, Reb Dovid’l openly shared his reflections with his students and community. Some, devastated by the news, questioned Reb Dovid’l’s unexpected composure in the face of crisis. He responded with another public letter, in which he affirmed that “while this was a very real and painful setback, obstacles are invariably part of the human experience.”

It was a challenge to write that letter, Reb Dovid’l admits. But it helped him formulate his thoughts and define his choices. How would he relate to this challenge? Would he view it as a learning experience, or just something to get through? Reb Dovid’l decided to approach this time as a “forced sabbatical.” He would focus on several learning, music, and writing projects that had been waiting for his attention. He also made it a goal to continue to teach. After all, he was a teacher; his students were watching. He could choose to “retreat and deal solely with his illness,” or allow others in, so they might grow along with him.

 

On the Receiving End

Alongside their neighbors, the Weinbergs had grown accustomed to supporting other families in times of need. It was a jolt to find themselves on the receiving end. Ultimately, Reb Dovid’l conceded that although they were more comfortable playing the role of giver, circumstances demanded that they allow others to help them. “This was the year we learned to accept graciously,” he said. “Having to take from others has made us into better, more sensitive givers as well.”

When the Weinbergs arrived in the US, they moved into an empty rental house. Aside from their clothing and a few seforim, they had nothing of their own. Family and new friends kicked into gear and the Weinbergs suddenly had beds, a table, and chairs. An old student contributed a set of Shulchan Aruch and Mishnah Berurah. Somehow, a full set of dishes materialized, toiveled and organized in the kitchen drawers. Their friends back in Israel didn’t forget them either — they packed up some of the Weinbergs’ possessions and sent them along when people traveled to the US. Unexpectedly, the Weinbergs’ favorite paintings and pictures from home, Rina’s Shabbos candlesticks, and extra winter clothing arrived at their door. “Hashem answers tefillos,” Reb Dovid’l comments. “Sometime we have to be the answer to each others’ tefillos. This generosity was the way Hashem answered some of ours.”

In another letter (originally featured in Mishpacha Magazine, Issue 729), Reb Dovid’l expressed how moved he was by the outpouring of generosity toward his family. He addressed this letter to Hashem Himself, and praised Klal Yisrael’s compassion and caring. “Believe me when I say that one cannot possibly know the well-oiled machine that is Am Yisrael‘s chesed until they are the direct recipient of it,” he wrote. Then he described the community’s support to one of the nurses in the chemotherapy-infusion center of the hospital. “She didn’t believe it. Neither do I, really. But it is true. Hashem, who is like Your People?!”

Making It Real

Notwithstanding Reb Dovid’l’s strong faith, the challenges of treatment were real and ever-present. One morning, after his beard and peyos fell out, Reb Dovid’l caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and had an epiphany. “Most people identify themselves by their profession, their appearance, or where they live,” he said. “But I couldn’t do that anymore. I wasn’t in Yerushalayim. I wasn’t teaching Torah in the Old City. I didn’t even look like myself. But I was still completely and totally me because the soul cannot be confined by geography, occupation, or physical attributes. Sometimes, illness merely highlights what is most important to us, what can’t be taken away.”

When Reb Dovid’l began treatment, he and Rina invested careful thought and effort so that their young children would continue to feel safe, happy, and secure. When their seven-year-old daughter Noa came to visit him in the hospital, he asked the nurse to disconnect him from the IV pole in advance, so Noa wouldn’t become frightened. As Noa approached his room, Reb Dovid’l went out to greet her without the protective mask he usually wore. First he gave her a big smile, and only then put the mask on and explained why he was wearing it. In hindsight, he reflects that “Hashem also ‘wore a mask’ at certain points throughout the past year and a half. There were moments of hester panim, but, as a father does for his child, Hashem always made sure to give us a smile first.”

One of those “smiles” came soon after the Weinbergs’ arrival in Bergenfield. Reb Dovid’l was approached by a new acquaintance and the fellow extended an offer to undertake a Yissachar-Zevulun arrangement with him. Surprised, Reb Dovid’l joked, “I’m not wealthy enough to support you!” He declined the offer, explaining that he was uncomfortable with learning Torah for pay, but that he would be willing to work on a project together.

A few days later, the prospective “Zevulun,” together with his brother and another business partner, approached Reb Dovid’l with an idea: They offered to commission Reb Dovid’l to write a sefer. For some time, R’ Dovid’l had wanted to put a series of shiurim he had giving in Yerushalayim into writing, and after some give and take, they decided on a project. The resulting sefer, titled Birth of the Spoken Word: Personal Prayer as the Goal of Creation, is over 400 pages, and is based on three years of shiurim delivered on the first two perakim of Bereishis alone.

“I had wanted to write this sefer before I got sick, but never had the time,” he says. “Committing to this sefer gave me the strength to continue learning and writing throughout my illness. It was a smile before the mask.”

In the book, just released by Dovid Mecharker Press, Reb Dovid’l illustrates how Hashem created the world with speech instead of action in order to indicate that He wants us to respond to Him. Hashem speaks to each of us personally though the text of the Torah. Every interaction with the Torah is, thus, a personal interaction with Hashem, who infused Himself into the Torah and wants us to respond. “And that,” specifies Reb Dovid’l, “is what tefillah is all about.”

Reb Dovid’l’s writing style is fluid and almost musical; his subject matter is offered with respect, yet with a plainspoken charm. The sefer is very broadly sourced, taking the reader on a ride through several eras of Jewish thought. Every chapter ends with a personal tefillah that was written by Reb Dovid’l, summarizing the Torah content of that chapter. What did Reb Dovid’l find most difficult about putting his thoughts to paper? The difficulty, he says, was “putting these interactive shiurim into a fixed text.” Borrowing an explanation from Rav Hutner, Reb Dovid’l explains that the difference between teaching Torah and teaching other disciplines is like the difference between a commercial cook and a mother cooking for her child. The commercial cook caters to the general public, but a mother lovingly prepares individual foods to suit her child’s individual tastes and needs. Torah is personal.

Away from Home

Every Yom Tov spent in the US was a fresh reminder of home, of Yerushalayim, and of the challenge the family was facing — but they were also opportunities for growth.

The previous Shavuos had been spent in the Old City and Reb Dovid’l had given a shiur to a few hundred people; in the US he found himself confined to a chair, barely able to move — but he was still surrounded by a diverse collection of seforim.

The Weinbergs’ succah in Yerushalayim had overlooked a lush green valley and the Lifta forest; in the US, they had to suffice with a little succah on a concrete driveway — and that succah was destroyed by the wind on the first days of Yom Tov.

Again, the pain spawned gifts. On Motzaei Yom Tov, an anonymous neighbor from the Bergenfield community rebuilt the succah in the middle of the night. It stayed up for the rest of Yom Tov, a symbol of strength and hope; quite a literal manifestation of the words “HaRachaman Hu yakim… es succas Dovid(!) hanofales.” On Chol Hamoed, Reb Dovid’l composed a tune to those words to commemorate that experience.

By the family’s second Yom Kippur in New Jersey, Reb Dovid’l was feeling stronger and was permitted to fast. But he was still at risk of infection and couldn’t go to shul. Where would he daven?

The Weinbergs’ next-door neighbors were the Sobolofskys. Rabbi Zvi Sobolfsky’s shul, Ohr HaTorah, is attached to his family’s home. The Sobolofskys offered Reb Dovid’l a place in their hallway, where there was a window through which he could hear and see the tzibbur. Rina checked up on him throughout the day, and at the end of Yom Kippur she brought the kids up too. Together, they heard the last shofar blast of the year and, as the words “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim” rang out, “we did a little dance with the kids as the words took on new meaning for us…. Smiling through our broken hearts, we trusted and hoped that we would be back in Yerushalayim the following year.”

Even Shabbos was complicated, bringing a mix of succor and challenge. Spending several Shabbosos in isolation in the hospital, Reb Dovid’l and Rina shared Friday night seudos consisting of two small challah rolls, a little bottle of grape juice, and some food in aluminum trays. Rina had to wear a mask and gloves to protect her husband’s weakened immune system, and their divrei Torah and zemiros were punctuated by visits from nurses who came in and out to monitor him and provide care. For Shabbos neiros, they had two electric tea lights, and the table was set with a plastic tablecloth and decorated with a vase of plastic flowers. “But,” says Reb Dovid’l, “there was nothing plastic or fake about the glow of Shabbos.” That palpable serenity — even in the sterile hospital surroundings — made it clear that external circumstances could not obstruct the essence of Shabbos. “Shabbos doesn’t depend on the outer trappings,” he would later recall. “Sometimes when our kids are hanging from the ceiling during Kiddush on a leil Shabbos, we still joke that those were some of the most memorable Friday nights we ever had!”

Making Music

Music has always played a role in Reb Dovid’l’s life; he regularly incorporates music into his teaching. Rav Moshe Weinberger’s haskamah on his sefer particularly hits the mark. Rav Weinberger writes that there is a musical component to Reb Dovid’l’s Torah and a teaching component to his music. This synergy between music and teaching Torah was born organically when, in Yerushalayim, Reb Dovid’l’ formed a Thursday night chaburah at Yeshivat Orayta, where he offers a spontaneous, unscripted meld of divrei Torah and kumzitz-style singing. (When asked if it was difficult to deliver these lengthy presentations without preparing material in advance, Reb Dovid’l responded, “I learned soon enough that we can’t always be prepared….”)

When the Weinbergs came to the US, along with his seforim and laptop, Reb Dovid’l brought his guitar. Following the transplant, Reb Dovid’l had to remain in isolation, which he found to be the most physically and mentally challenging part of the entire experience. During those trying times, he tried to focus his energies on writing chiddushei Torah and composing music — “to see if my new immune system could write as well as my old one,” he jokes.

During this period, he wrote the song “Alim Noshrim (Falling Leaves)”. The song expresses how things must pass on in order to be revitalized — leaves fall and then grow; the Shabbos candles flicker and die, creating the opportunity to be lit again. His message is that the losses we experience are necessary in order to reconnect with the good in our lives.

And almost two years from their arrival in the US, the Weinbergs again took leave of many new friends and their adopted community, this time to return to Israel, safe and well. Looking back, Reb Dovid’l says it was the unconscious choices he made before his diagnosis that helped him to cope: When a person lives a life of meaning, it prepares him for difficulties.

“We had always taken life seriously,” he says. “The world, Torah, people — these things were always important to my wife and me. But we didn’t know we were weaving a safety net for ourselves.” He shares this not as a charge to others, but an insight he was grateful to have obtained: Life always presents challenges; people need to prepare themselves when things are calm so that they won’t fall hard when the tough times inevitably come.

Reb Dovid’l describes his return to Israel like waking up from a dream. “Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that the difficulties of galus are like a dream,” he explains. In a dream-state, it can feel like a lot of time has elapsed, but when you wake up, you find that the trials of your dream world spanned just a short amount of time. “When difficulties are overcome, they seem like a dream — ‘B’shuv Hashem es shivas Tziyon hayinu k’cholmim’ — viewing all those trials from the perspective of redemption, we will have been like dreamers.”

Now home, the challenges of the past two years have faded into the background as the Weinbergs return to the rhythms of regular life. But the dividends they earned in the face of their challenges will remain part of them always. “Those we get to take with us,” Reb Dovid’l says, “and share with our children, talmidim, and friends forever.”

Will You Sing through the Pain?

In the second letter he sent out to his community of relatives, friends, and students, Reb Dovid’l quoted a midrash (Sanhedrin 92b): Nevuchadnetzar wanted to imitate Dovid Hamelech and sing songs of praises to Hashem. He was a gifted musician and produced songs that were comparable even to the majesty of Dovid Hamelech’s Tehillim. But Hashem sent a malach to slap Nevuchadnetzar.

The Kotzker Rebbe asks, is that fair? If Nevuchadnetzar was creating legitimate praises of Hashem, why did he deserve to be stifled? The Kotzker explains that Hashem wasn’t trying to stop Nevuchadnetzar from singing — He was giving Nevuchadnetzar the opportunity to sing in the face of adversity. Dovid Hamelech lived a life filled with many disgraces and hardships, but he composed lofty songs praising Hashem; he used his suffering as a springboard for closeness with Hashem. The slap was Nevuchadnetzar’s opportunity to do the same. Was he prepared to continue singing to Hashem in spite of the difficulties?

Though admitting to moments of fear and weakness, Reb Dovid’l offered his own response to that question: “My humble answer right now is, yes!… I do not consider this a great feat of heroism. This itself is a Divine gift.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 809)

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