Monday, December 12, 2011

Coming to Praise Him – Not to Bury Him

Imagine an opening like this in a biography of Rav Aharon Kotler:

As teenager he attended a co-ed religious high school. He was on their soccer team and was a beloved member of his peer group… very popular among his friends.

The great Rosh Yeshiva never forgot his roots – always speaking about them to various audiences. He even attributed much of his success with his students to his past. He said It broadened his outlook -enabling him to better relate to them. The young man from the co-ed high school eventually became the builder of the largest Yeshiva in the world and died a Gadol.

This great man was not born a genius. He worked hard to get where he was. That is what in fact defined his greatness in Torah as much as anything else. One of his eulogizers praised his background as an advantage over those who are immersed in Torah from the very beginning of their lives to the exclusion of all else . Those who were brought up with Kulo Torah (much like those who are educated in Israel) may have a head start compared to those with broader backgrounds. But those with broader backgrounds have to work harder to gain the same amount of Torah knowledge.

The advantage in Torah always goes to those who have to work harder for it. They end up actually owning the knowledge. They worked for it. The harder someone works for something the better he appreciates what he has and the more he owns it. Those who are fed a constant diet of Torah only from day one may understand it more quickly and earlier in life. But they will never own it the same way as someone who has worked hard for it owns it. Those who try harder will not only catch up with them - but they surpass them.

Working hard was the Rosh Yeshivas legacy. He learned Torah and re-learned it again and again and again - until he owned it like no one else. This should be a lesson to those who think it is best to learn Torah full time from kindergarden on and throughout life without studying anything else. They will not have to work as hard. But they will not own it as much as those who do.

I think an opening to a biography of Rav Aharon Kotler like this would be censored by the right. If one looks at the typical biography of a Gadol in these circles one will never see anything like it. Family members would strongly object to repeating a past that was not in harmony with the Hashkafos they teach. All references to a co-ed education would be deleted. As would references to participating in organized sports.

And the idea that he was not born a genius would be unacceptable. A book like this would never see the light of day. And if it did it would be banned even though it’s true!

But change soccer to basketball and this is exactly what the eulogizers at the Hespid Sheloshim for Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel said last Thursday night. None of them were Modern Orthodox. One of them is actually a member of the Agudah Moetzes. All of them made reference to Rav Finkel’s past and they did it to praise him, not to bury him.

The speakers included, Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Levine, the Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe, Rav Avrohom Freidman, the Rosh HaYeshiva of HTC (Skokie), Rav Aharon Lopianski, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva Gedola of Greater Washington who was the brother in law of Rav Finkel, and Rav Gedalia Finkel, a Rosh Yeshiva in the Mir who is Rav Nosson Tzvi’s brother.

How different is this Rosh Yeshva and his family from others on the right who refuse to publicize things like this! How different is the understanding of what inspiration means to ArtScroll publisher Rabbi Nosson Scherman compared to what it meant to Rav Nosson Tzvi and still means to his family.

How wonderful it is to read the many eulogies published over the internet where stories like the following abound.

Rav Hershel Shachter’s son - who learned in the Mir went to see Rav Nosson Tzvi to tell him that he was going to Lakewood next Z’man. Rav Nosson Tzvi talked him out of it insisting that he go back to Yeshiva University so that he could learn Torah from his father and be Mashpia over the YU students. How different is that from the typical Lakewood attitude that is allergic to anything that has to do with YU!

Perhaps some lessons can be learned by the right. Stop pushing a Torah Only agenda for everyone. Stop bashing YU. And most of all stop meddling with the truth of history. What you see as unflattering to a Gadol may actually be very flattering. Perhaps censoring the truth about him is not what he wanted, nor what God wants of you. Tell the truth and let people be inspired! And let their horizons be broadened.