Despite the obstacles, there are tens of thousands of yeshivahleit around the world today
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: What is the meaning of that which is written: “Dare not touch My anointed ones, and to My prophets do no harm” (I Divrei Hayamim 16:22)? “Dare not touch My anointed ones,” this refers to tinokos shel beis rabban (schoolchildren who study Torah); “and to My prophets do no harm,” this refers to Torah scholars. (Shabbos 119b)
I have been observing from afar the give-and-take about yeshivah bochurim, and I feel obligated to speak up.
Full disclosure: I am a yedid nefesh of Reb Yisroel Besser, whose incisive article initiated this conversation. Klal Yisrael is lucky to have a person of his caliber sharing the hashkafah of Torah so beautifully in the written form.
I believe we must make clear at the outset that yeshivah bochurim are the crème de la crème of the Jewish People. They are our pride and joy — our very future depends on them! Yes, like all human beings, bochurim have faults, they aren’t perfect. But they are the closest thing we have to perfection today.
I’ve been working in chinuch for over 40 years and I do not believe that there was ever a more challenging era for yeshivah bochurim in terms of the innumerable spiritual temptations and challenges they face. Yet despite the obstacles, there are tens of thousands of yeshivahleit around the world today, all focused on a common goal: to shteig and grow in learning. They are willingly giving up untold measures of material success to sit and learn the timeless Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu, Rava, and Abaye, day and night.
We know, as Chazal tell us (Succah 52a), that whoever is greater than his fellow, his yetzer [hara] is greater than his. Furthermore, because of the exalted place that yeshivah bochurim occupy in our world, if they make a mistake, it tends to be highlighted and magnified by a very critical public. That is the reality. But we must ask ourselves, where would we be as a nation without our yeshivah bochurim?
People sometimes complain that there is too much drinking at weddings. I personally abhor excessive alcohol consumption, and I have spoken to talmidim on this topic repeatedly in our yeshivah over the years, with great success. But let me ask you a question: At which chasunah would you rather be a guest — a yeshivish wedding where 90 percent of the attendees have come to make the chassan and kallah happy, or an event where you might find several if not more people inebriated beyond control? Would you rather attend a wedding where the overwhelming majority are dressed modestly and in a dignified fashion, or another type of affair? I hear about the latest attacks on yeshivah bochurim and I wonder, have we lost our minds?
I witnessed Rav Shalom Schwadron ztz”l speak publicly in New York 56 years ago. I remember the date because I was in the year of aveilus for my father at the time and I would follow the legendary Maggid of Yerushalayim around. He retold the following true story:
A group of maskilim decided to build a library filled with problematic reading material in the city of Radin. The yeshivahleit were very upset about it, and right before the grand opening of this heretical institution, some bochurim climbed through one of its windows, removed all the books, took them to the yeshivah, dumped them into the main furnace, and made the proverbial brachah of meorei ha’eish. The books were destroyed.
The next morning the maskilim came to their library and discovered the empty shelves. Furious, they fingered the bochurim as prime suspects and went to the Radin yeshivah to search for the books. They were unsuccessful, but as they were about to give up, they decided to open the oven, whereupon they noticed some blackened fragments among the ashes.
Pandemonium ensued. A few of these chevreh walked into the home of the Chofetz Chaim, who was already quite elderly at that point. One of them proceeded to brazenly blurt out an epithet to the saintly tzaddik: “You old ___.” As soon as he said those words, the fellow lost his mind. He later went on a boat ride, jumped overboard, and drowned, Rachmana litzlan.
There was a local secular newspaper called Heint (Today) that published a very strong editorial against the Chofetz Chaim. (As an aside, Rav Schwadron mentioned that frum people used to acerbically refer to this paper as Hundt — literally “The Dog” — because it was forever attacking religious Jews.)
The editorial raised a question: If the Chofetz Chaim is so careful with shemiras halashon, why did he curse this young man, ultimately causing his untimely death?
Someone told the Chofetz Chaim about the article, but being too frail to write a response, he asked someone to submit the following answer in his name: Dear Editor, that this young man died is true. But that I cursed him? Chas v’shalom; I have never cursed a person in my life. So why did he die? L’maan yishme’u v’yira’u — it was a Heavenly message to one and all: Do not ever start up with yeshivah bochurim.
It may seem to us that the person actually died because he dared to open his mouth against the heiliger Chofetz Chaim. But we must absorb the lesson that the great tzaddik taught us in the process: to be very careful how we talk about yeshivah bochurim, even in private — and certainly in a public forum.
The vast majority of yeshivah bochurim today are doing wonderfully! They are a credit to their wonderful parents and devoted rebbeim.
What of those who do not appear to be learning seriously? Ask any mechanech and he will assert that the longer we can keep a bochur in yeshivah, even if he’s not garnering the greatest success at the present moment, the better off he — and all of us — will be.
It is for the same reason that I advise newlywed couples to make sure that the chassan spends a few years in kollel after their marriage, even if he is not the biggest talmid chacham, and even if they know that he will eventually enter the business world. Because a marriage that starts off with Torah as its focal point is the most secure marriage.
By the same token, when a bochur spends his formative years within a yeshivah and learns Torah, even if he is not the greatest metzuyan, he makes the biggest and best investment in building the foundation of the rest of his life.
This generation is blessed with a proliferation of yeshivahleit, more so than any period in the last few hundred years. Does a miniscule minority of them misbehave occasionally? Certainly.
(Incidentally, from my vantage point it seems that most of those who drink too much tend to have grown up in homes with fathers who embarrassingly get drunk at kiddushim and simchahs. I cannot fathom why, but even a simple simchah these days might boast the fanciest array of liquor. What do you expect from someone who hasn’t matured and is living in such a milieu? If blame should be pointed anywhere it might be the homes, not the yeshivos.)
Do some bochurim smoke or vape occasionally? Yes. That is, unfortunately, a part of growing up for some of them. And I believe that their rebbeim and mentors work very hard with them on a personal level, showing them the way and helping them to develop.
One final point: Perhaps we have become a bit spoiled, mistakenly taking for granted the widespread growth of Torah study today — in so many forms and among Jews of all walks of life — and we are in danger of forgetting its source, its prime catalyst.
At the Tenth Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi in 1997, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon shlita, the illustrious mashgiach ruchani of the Lakewood yeshivah, said something so profound and with so much passion:
We also have to appreciate — I think it’s important to know and understand — that the lomdei hadaf in the tens of thousands that have developed over the last years are part of a ripple effect.
The center of this ripple are the gedolei hador who, after the milchamah, set up yeshivos and kollelim so that lo tishtakach Torah mi’Yisrael. That ripple spread, the kollelim spread, and the yeshivos spread all over the world. And the limud haTorah b'mesirus nefesh — families dedicated to Torah — created an atmosphere impregnated with ahavas haTorah, with a noam tzuf mesikus haTorah. And from there the ripple spread into the streets — and people appreciated Torah and understood that they must also know Torah.
Let us all appreciate that it’s only because there are lomdei Torah b’omek, ameilei Torah yomam valailah… they give us the koach and the encouragement, and it’s from them that the siyata d’Shmaya stems, [ensuring] that Klal Yisrael can grow in Torah.
The Mashgiach’s words speak for themselves.
Let us give our exalted yeshivah bochurim the credit — and the reverence — that they so richly deserve.
Where does this leave the rest of us, those who might not be privileged to dwell in the daled amos shel halachah full-time?
A yungerman learning at Yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore approached the rosh yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman ztz”l, for a brachah. He was preparing to make aliyah, and he wanted his rebbi’s good wishes and advice at this pivotal juncture in his life.
“Make sure to always remain connected to a yeshivah,” Rav Ruderman enjoined him, “even if it means becoming the cook in a yeshivah.”
The fellow moved to Eretz Yisrael and soon forgot Rav Ruderman’s words. Sometime later, he became a citizen and was required to report for IDF reserve duty once a year. On the yungerman’s first day at the army base, a commander rose to address the group of reservists. During his remarks, the commander began by praising Israel’s military prowess but then proceeded to speak heretically about religion and about Hashem Himself. This yungerman was mortified — but what could he do? He held his tongue.
Suddenly, a voice rang out from the crowd. “Apikores!” Everyone was stunned. A young man was standing at full height, berating the commander in a loud voice. “How dare you speak against the Borei Olam?”
Interrupting and degrading a military man of that rank was a serious offense. The protester was promptly handcuffed and subsequently court-martialed.
The yungerman was bothered by this turn of events. The reservist who had the courage to protest a public chillul Hashem did not seem like a yeshivah man to him; he guessed that he was of Sephardic background and perhaps a dati at most. Yet he, a chareidi graduate of yeshivah and kollel, had stayed silent in the face of heresy.
After the court-martial, the two met.
“Tell me something,” our yungerman asked the dissenter. “Where are you from? What do you do?”
“I am the cook in Ponevezh.”
Suddenly the yungerman understood. The cryptic advice he received from his rebbi years earlier came back to him — everything was now crystal clear.
Rabbosai, we live in a chaotic, confusing world. For a person to survive in this maelstrom, to thrive as a Yid and stay true to the Torah’s ideals, one must make sure to always be firmly connected — to a yeshivah or kollel, and of course to a personal rav or rebbi.
There is no other way.
Rabbi Bender is the rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway and a member of the Vaad Roshei Yeshiva of Torah Umesorah.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 889)
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