More than Good Enough
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves as Rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills and teaches Judaic Studies at the SAR Academy, where he also serves as JudeoTech Integrator. His latest book is The Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah. He writes this piece in honor of Rav Hershel Schachter’s 50 years as YU Rosh Yeshiva.
I write these lines with trepidation, not merely because of the difficulty in capturing Rabbi Hershel Schachter on paper but because I tried once before, thirty years ago, and still have not learned my lesson. When Rabbi Noach Goldstein, z’l, editor of Chavrusa Magazine, asked me to profile my Rebbi, I was somewhat lavish in his praise. Then I had the bright idea of showing the piece to Rav Schachter before submitting it. His two word response: “Nice Hesped!” So let me paraphrase Mark Antony at the outset: I come to praise Rav Schachter, not to bury him.
During the early 1980’s, I spent five years in Rav Schachter’s shiur, as well as two summers learning from him in Tannersville, NY. I also was privileged to travel with him to various other speaking engagements and even spend time at a program in Israel for which he spoke. What follow are snapshots from my experiences.
The Audience Matters
...A member of the audience in a Manhattan shiur asks a question totally lacking in any logic or redeeming quality. Without skipping a beat, Rav Schachter reframes, “Oh, you must be referring to the kashya of the Ketzos Ha-Choshen…,” and proceeds to answer the question, conveniently eliding over the fact that the gentleman and the Ketzos are about as acquainted with each other as Richard Simmons and Hershey Bars. The scene repeats itself countless times, in different venues, with “klutz kashyas” instantly transformed into strokes of genius.
...On a program in Israel for Modern Orthodox families, Rav Schachter delivers a masterful shiur on the laws of berakhot. Some of the participants react, “But we were expecting something more ‘relevant…’” Instead of commenting on the religious observance of someone for whom berakhot are not relevant, Rav Schachter simply shifts the rest of his curriculum. The topic of the next shiur is the feasibility of building a Beit Ha-Mikdash today and offering korbanot.
...At a conference for the journal Torah She-Be’Al Peh, a speaker who was supposed to introduce for five minutes, instead speaks for nearly a half hour. In the ensuing schedule shuffle, all of the speakers are asked to curtail their remarks. None do...except Rav Schachter. He speaks for five minutes so that the audience will not be overburdened. Those, like me, who want to hear his presentation, will have to wait for the printed proceedings.
Adventures in Israel
...I accompany Rav Schachter to Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem to purchase an esrog for Sukkos, looking forward to learning exactly how one examines Arba Minim to assure their Kashrut. Will Rav Schachter use a magnifying glass? Will he distinguish dust specks from blemishes with a tweezer? We stop at a vendor’s table. Rav Schachter picks up an esrog: “This is a beautiful esrog,” he exclaims. He picks up a second esrog: “This is also a beautiful esrog!” He bought the second; I bought the first.
...We are staying in the Eshkolot Hevron Hotel and Rav Schachter is asked to deliver a guest shiur at the local Hesder Yeshiva, Yeshivat Nir Kiryat Arba. That shiur turns into a series of shiurim on the beginning of Bava Kamma, which the Yeshiva is learning. I marvel at the time, as I would many times in the future, that Rav Schachter doesn’t deliver a talk on a general topic related to the masechta being studied by his listeners. He speaks instead on exactly the daf and the sugya that his listeners are currently learning because he is comfortable with every sugya. This time I also discover that he can deliver a shiur in fluent Hebrew.
...Rav Schachter tells a story about a niggun for Ha-ven Yakir Li Ephraim. He liked the melody so much that he had the band play it as he walked down to his Chupa. His friend, Rav Binyamin Tabory, a Ram for many years at Yeshivat Har Etzion, heard it at the wedding and liked it so much that he had it played at his Chupa, as well. On our last morning in Kiryat Arba, I accost Rav Schachter with a tape recorder. “Sing!” He records the melody onto my cassette tape. I treasure that tape, and learn the niggun. Five years later, I have the opportunity to play it at my Chupa, under which Rav Schachter stands, as mesader kiddushin. I don’t know where the tape is now, but here is my more feeble attempt at that melody.
Rav Schachter dancing at Wednesday's Siyum HaShas in honor of his 50 years of service to YU. Rav Yehuda Willig stands to his right. To Rav Schachter's left are President Elect Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman and his son Rabbi Shay Schachter.
...After spending a couple of years in the shiur, I hear that some students actually travel to Tannersville, NY, better known for its proximity to camping and skiing venues, to learn from Rav Schachter, who rents a house there each summer. How do you get permission to join that group, I wonder. “Jackie” (Yaakov) Blinder tells me, “You just ask him.” “You mean,” I ask, “That he’ll either say yes or no?” “Oh, no,” Jackie says. “He’ll say yes. You just have to listen to see if he says yes with enthusiasm or not.” I hear enthusiasm in Rav Schachter’s voice, whether it is there or not.
...In Tannersville there are three sedarim, morning and afternoon on the lawn and evening in the Schachter home. This schedule does not take away from the time Rav Schachter spends learning with his children (at the time there are six, ranging from 12 to a baby). Rav Schachter reads and explains. People ask questions; he answers. We are learning Yoma and Chullin and so the Gevuros Ari and Lev Aryeh join us at the table. There is no such thing as simply reading and translating. As if osmotically, Rishonim and Acharonim enter the conversation. It is a shiur that masquerades as a chavrusa. I cannot imagine any place I would rather be. When I say the words of modim, thanking God for his kindnesses erev va-voker v’tzaharayim (evening, morning, and afternoon), I consciously think of the three learning sessions I am able to attend daily.
That doesn’t mean that I can always stay awake. Even as the Tosfos Yeshanim accompany us through the pages of Yoma, a tosefes yesheinim is noticeable around the table at certain points in our learning. As much as I want to learn, I am not immune to tiredness. But I plot my defense against the Satan of slumber. One night Rav Schachter’s ten-year-old daughter enters the house to find me standing as the learning goes on. “Moshe, why are you standing,” she asks innocently. “I was a bad boy and they are making me stand in the corner,” I reply, oh, so cleverly. “C’mon Moshe, why are you standing?” she presses on, undeterred. A voice comes from the head of the table: “He’s standing so that he shouldn’t fall asleep.” Had the earth opened up at that moment, I would gladly have joined Korach and his henchmen. And that is nothing compared to a four hour afternoon seder, when I am sometimes the only other person and most of the time is spent on one of the mammoth Tosafos that seem to grow in that masechta. After a while, it is hard to remember how the Tosafos ever related to the tractate. Rav Schachter never lets on that he is aware of my sleeping through the private chavrusa.
B’khol Yom Tamid
What is it like to attend a shiur of Rav Schachter? It feels like the Rebbi is having a personal conversation with you, peppering the dialogue with jokes, stories, and bibliographic tidbits. You are on even footing, but for the minor detail that one of you is conversant with all of Shas and the other isn’t. You know that Rav Schachter is repeating what he may have said numerous times during the term, but he never betrays impatience at the audience for reacting as if hearing it for the first time. The speed may vary, from the deceptively leisurely pace of an evening shiur to balebatim, to the brisker (no pun intended) rhythm of the daily shiur in Yeshiva, to the telescoped topics encompassed in a half-hour Kollel chaburah. But each variety contains a staggering amount of information that sneaks up on you. And it’s all presented as if there were no chidush involved at all: Al pi pashtus...Whose pashtus, one wonders. In shiur there will be running routines. RHS: So what’s the Halakha? David Arbesfeld: Mahlokes! RHS: Mahlokes who and whom? David Arbesfeld: ....
It all seems so easy. The more perceptive of the talmidim know how misleading that appearance is and how much labor lurks behind each shiur. In my day, Jeff Geizals is the student that pries apart the “Schachterized” product after shiur, looking up all the sources and trying to see how it was constructed. Then he goes back to the Rebbi and asks for clarifications. The rest of us are satisfied basking in the glow. I am proud that my note-taking ability makes it possible for the shiur to flow from Rav Schachter’s lips to my ear, down my arm and onto paper. But I am not bright enough to pierce the “easy” facade. When interviewing me, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein asked what I found so compelling about Rav Schachter’s shiurim. I answered, “He makes it all seem so easy.” He replied, “That is perhaps the hisaron of his ma’alos.”
At the Siyum HaShas. Behind Rav Schachter stand (L-R): Rabbi Yosef Blau, President Richard Joel, President Elect Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, Rabbi Menachem Penner, and Rabbi Shay Schachter.
When he concludes a daily shiur at Yeshiva, Rav Schachter often remarks, “Good enough.” To me these words have always meant that that the work is not done, nor will it ever be done. After all, kol ha-Torah kula inyan ehad, the whole Torah is interconnected and no one segment can substitute for the whole. But at the same time, there is a recognition that there is “good” even in the incomplete state. We have a right to be proud, even as we need to resolve to make our Torah even more complete tomorrow.
What can one say of fifty years of day in and day out “Good Enough?”
More than good enough.
V’hinei tov me’od.
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University