A Shabbos Shuva Drosha by Rabbi Yaacov Haber, Ramat Beit Shemesh 5770
I remember as a child growing up in ‘anywhere USA’ meeting two shluchim of Torah U’mesorah. They had come to our town to talk to parents about sending their children to a Yeshivah. They were Yeshivah bochurim that had taken from their vacation time, packed their suitcases with cans of tuna fish and sardines and spent their nights on Greyhound busses to get from city to city. They had genuine warmth that was inspiring and their expectations were modest. They would spend hours talking to parents and if they could get ten families, just ten, they would begin to take steps to create a day school. Every Jewish child was a valuable diamond – no matter what the family’s politics or affiliation was. These men were heroes of Biblical magnitude and indeed they succeeded in creating a world of Torah in the USA. Similar phenomena took place in England, South Africa, Australia and of course in Israel. Organizations such as Chinuch Atzmai, Peeylim created a generation of Torah strength. Bou venachzik tov lahem for the hundreds of thousands of families that today lead a Torah life.
In moments of despair I try to imagine to myself what would happen if our modern day heroes would reach the threshold of our Yeshivot presenting a precious neshama from out there. What would be the response?
“We’ll take a look at him or her – but at first glance it is really not for us”. No longer would there be a celebration of triumph for the future of the Jewish people but rather there may be a creation of a chain of influence and protexia often resulting in rejection. Rejection is painful for everyone involved and is usually not seen as rejection of background or academic credentials but rather as a rejection of them. Rejection hurts, and the natural response will almost certainly be anger at, and rejection of the schools teachings. Rav Moshe Feinstien in one of his Teshuvos regarding expelling children from Yeshivos warns that rejection is so powerful that it often results in a net loss for the Jewish people. The childs thought pattern will be, “If you don’t want me – I’m out of here.”
There has been a struggle in Jewish education that has been going on for millennia. On the one hand, it has become abundantly clear over the past few decades that the key to the survival of Judaism both in Eretz Yisroel and in the Golah lies in the formal Chinuch that we, our parents and grandparents have created. They came to this country or other countries during the immediate post war period with a mission. The mission was articulated by Gedolim, carried out by askanim and funded by ashirim. They and we succeeded in creating a renaissance in Torah values, halacha and Yiras Shamayim.
But as Yeshivos began to become the norm in frum circles and the populations began to outgrow their facilities, criterion were created. Who exactly gets in? As the ‘system’ evolved and developed, niche and special needs Yeshivos were created to facilitate the outstanding students. As part of the general shtiebalization of Klal Yisroel, schools like shuls became the private domain and ownership of spiritual entrepreneurs who felt no obligation to make sure that every child has a Jewish education. They are right – these are private not community institutions.
These Yeshivos saw and see it as their mandate to build a certain type of school and feel the need to protect the environment that they are working so hard to maintain. A child that comes from a family with an even slightly different approach or standard is rejected outright because the reputation of the Yeshivah may be compromised, the ‘better kids’ will look elsewhere and the students that are presently there may become negatively affected by the new child.
As much as this scenario is distasteful and elitist, the menahalim and Roshei Yeshivah are within their rights. These are private enterprises, boutique institutions that have no obligation per se to accept every child. On the question of expelling a troublesome student from yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner is quoted as opining, “Even if I thought that tomorrow this student will leave the fold – if that student will be harming others by staying I would expel him…. We are not allowed to harm the others in order to save him.” The child and his or her family now have a serious problem. They must quickly scramble so the child does not end up on the street. It as if looking for a Country Club that will take them in and too often they end up with a compromised opportunity in Jewish education.
There is a famous Talmudic story that perhaps changed the course of history. After the horrific destruction of Yerushalayim the Chachmei Yisroel moved to Ashdod and tried to rebuild some of that which had been lost. Rabban Gamliel, the grandson of Hillel and the Nasi Yisroel was an unforgiving governing figure of authority that presided over his Yeshiva with iron fists. He was protecting the integrity of Torah by expelling any student in question. He hired a guard to stand at the entrance way of the Yeshivah and not admit anyone that wasn’t “tocho k’baro”. I’m not sure where he found this guard that somehow had the ability to discern between men and giants – according to Reb Tzadok HaKohein it must have been a maalach!
When his difficult and sometimes harsh rules became offensive and intolerable Rabban Gamliel was demoted and was replaced by Reb Eliezer ben Azariah and the shomer/maalach was removed. People came from everywhere to learn Torah and the Yeshivah became full. Rabban Gamliel watched this phenomenon and was moved to sadness. He sadly reacted and said, “I see that I have deprived the Jewish people of Torah!” While guarding it’s purity he felt no choice but to exercise rejection. As he saw the seven hundred new students march in to the Beis HaMedrash perhaps he remembered how his own grandfather Hillel was rejected from the Beis HaMedrash of Shmaya V’Avtalyon and sat on the snowy roof to hear words of Torah.
In fact the issue itself was a machlokes between Beis Hillel and Beis Shamai regarding the propriety of setting yeshiva acceptance standards. The position of Beis Hillel was that anyone who wanted should be taught Torah, for it will ultimately restore them to a good path. The demotion of Rabban Gamliel and his apparent remorse created a paradigm shift for the Jewish people.
Fast forward a couple of thousand years – Rav Aharon Kotler had also experienced a Churban. On the boat from Lithuania to the USA he was already conducting meetings about founding a Yeshivah that would produce serious Talmidei Chachomin, Gedolei Torah, that would sow the spiritual desert of America. He carefully chose his students and rejected almost everyone. He had 125 Talmidim. When he left this world his son Reb Shneur opened the doors to the Yeshivah which today serves close to six thousand Bnei Torah – who knows?
The history begins with the well known Takana of Yehoshua ben Gamla. Yehoshua ben Gamla was a Kohein Gadol during the Chashmonaen era. As the leader of the community he realized the disaster which was developing from the inability of fathers to link their sons to the Mesorah. He saw that although there is a biblical mitzvah for every father to educate their children due to travel and parnasah issues it simply wasn’t happening. Yehoshua enacted an innovation which was revolutionary at the time – he established a school system – predating the public school system by about 1900 years.
It is possible to view this Takana as a “Horaas Shaah” or a rule for his times. Yehoshua ben Gamla himself was not terribly impressive. He married a very wealthy woman by the name of Marsa bas Bytus. At the entrance to the marriage she bought her new husband as a wedding gift his position of Kohein Gadol from Yanai HaMelech. This was considered scandalous and Yehoshua ben Gamla was mocked by his generation. Tosfos asserts that Yehoshua was a Tzadik, but he was criticized by his contemporaries because there were others that were more qualified than he. (Isn’t it ironic that had the more qualified person become the leader of the Jewish people we probably would have never created a school system and according to Rav, “Torah would have been forgotten from Israel?!)
The Chachmei Yisroel supported him on this initiative and it became a Takana for all future generations. Rav, the great Rosh Yeshivah of Sura and Gadol Hador told us to, “Remember Yehoshua ben Gamla for good, for had it not been for him, Torah would have been forgotten from Israel.” The Rambam writes that since the enactment of the Takanah of Yehoshua ben Gamla there is an obligation on every community to build and support a school in their community where every child can learn Torah. The Aruch HaShulchan comments that the Chachamim realized that although the innovation came about because of a negative situation it was indeed an eternal improvement and made the takana a permanent obligation on Jewish communities.
A fascinating Halachic insight is stated by Rebbe Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro ((Bnei Yissoschor) . Although the original Mitzvoh of Talmud Torah was to teach your children or to pay someone to teach your children; “V’Shinantom L’Vanecho”, once the Takana of Yehoshua ben Gamla was enacted the chiyuv itself transformed into an obligation to create a community school where all children can (and must) attend; if need be – without tuition. Therefore, the Bnei Yissoschor posits, if a community member does not participate in the creation of this school, not only is he falling short on his community obligation but indeed he has not fulfilled even his personal requirement to educate his own son. He quotes the Pri Megadim who taught that once a Takonas Chachomim redefines the way we do a Mitzvah D’orayso – that becomes the definition of the mitzvoh, in exclusion of any other interpretation. Such is the working of Torah She’Baal Peh.
Subsequent to the Takana, Chazal emphatically taught “any city or town that has not built a community school where everyone is welcome to come learn will ultimately be destroyed and if one lives there they must leave for the world continues to stand only because of the hevel pihem shel bais Rabban.
The Nimukei Yosef records a fascinating debate dating back more than a thousand years. Rav Palti Gaon (638C.E.) instituted a penalty for individuals who refused to pay debts that Beis Din imposed. The penalties included a Cherem i.e. he cannot be counted in a Minyan, it is asur to circumcise his son or bury his dead and his children may not attend the school.
Ten Centuries later the Maharshal challenged the ruling. He argues that circumcising a son is a fathers obligation and therefore we can refuse to help him. However since the Takana of Yehoshua ben Gamla, it is no longer the father’s responsibility to educate the boy but rather the responsibility of the entire community. By expelling the child from the school we would not be penalizing the father but ourselves! He explained that by depriving this one child of a Torah education the community could G-d forbid suffer unspeakable suffering.
Significant to note that this takana was created to educate boys up to the age of Bar Mitzvah. Once they are considered “Gadol” they acquire their own personal obligation to become educated in Torah. . The Chofetz Chaim adds that these days this communal obligation carries over to girls as well as boys because today we can no longer rely on the Mesoras HaEm to teach them what they need to know.
What happens at the age of thirteen? The Aruch HaShulchan writes, “It is the custom in all of Israel that Torah schools are set up for children until they get older (Bar Mitzvah) at which point we separate out those who seem to have a promising career in Torah. Those that do not seem to have that promise are sent to the professional craftsmen in order for them to learn a trade.”
If we ask ourselves the difficult question as to why there are relatively so many dropouts from Yeshivah life the hard answer may be the lack of diversity. Yeshivos were set up to all have a virtually identical program with mass produced education. The fact is that children come in all shapes and forms. The lack of diversity per force will cause rejection.
In the United States there is a vocational Yeshivah in Lancaster PA headed by Rabbi Yeshaya Sakett. Surrounded by the Pennsylvania Dutch Amish, the Yeshivah has a rigorous Torah schedule. With the help of their Amish neighbors the Yeshivah also creates experts in construction.
Someone recently described to me a speech Rabbi Sakett made. He brought with him two pieces of white styrofoam. One was a square peg and the other was a flat piece of Styrofoam with a round hole in it. He said that he would like to prove to his assembled listeners that indeed he can fit a square peg through a round hole. He pushed, twisted, hammered, and chipped his peg and finally got it through the hole. He held up the peg and gleefully proclaimed, “I did it! I got it through! But look at the peg now,” he said, “it’s a mess!” The successful square peg was bent, chipped and weakened. This may be what we are doing to some of our children.
In summary: There is a chovas tzibbur – a community obligation. As a community we are obligated to create a community school or at least to make sure that no child is rejected from the best and most professional level of chinuch. Not only is the price of rejection too high but there is a dangerous blemish on a community that does not supply first class education to every child. This is not the responsibility of whoever decided to start a school, of organizations or of Roshei Yeshivah. This is a community obligation. What we need are creative thinkers and doers to work along side of the Gedolei Yisroel and community leaders to create a situation so that no future Hillel is sitting on a cold roof unable to get in.
A Medrash: On the day of the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua, Moses went to visit Joshua in his tent. (This was unusual, for people usually came to Moses.) Joshua saw Moses coming and ran out to greet him. They walked together to the Tent of Meeting, where God would communicate with Moses, and Moses made Joshua walk on his right, symbolizing his new position of leadership. In the tent, the Holy Presence of God descended for the first time upon Joshua, and not upon Moses. When the presence of God lifted again, Moses asked Joshua what it was that God had told him, Joshua replies, “When God used to communicate with you, did I ever ask you what God told you?” When Moses heard this he cried out, “God- give me a hundred deaths, but not this feeling of jealousy.”
No one is exempt from the pain of being left out in the cold. We must be inclusive and pray to Hashem on this Erev Yom Kippur that He will include us in the Sifran Shel Tzadikim so that we may merit a Gmar Chasima Tova!