“I was a good boy, but had absolutely no connection to learning,” Shuki relates by way of introduction.
“There was a lot keeping me occupied – friends, trips, gossip and the like. I did not miss a single event, no matter what it was. I knew everyone, and they all knew me. Only learning never interested me. They gave up on me already in yeshivah ketanah and just let me be. It made no difference if I attended classes or not. I hardly knew which sugya my classmates were learning.”
Today this Shuki is an avreich whose head is completely engrossed in Abaye and Rava.
He already has a son of his own for whom he expresses the most heartfelt tefillos. “May he grow up to be a talmid chachom,” he whispers each night as tears stream down his face.
Meeting Shuki, one would never fathom that just a few light years back, he and learning were like two parallel lines that had no hope of ever crossing paths.
“When the time came for me to register to yeshivah, I did not begin to think that I had a problem or that there was a chance that I would not be accepted.
My six older brothers had learned in Tschebin, in Yerushalayim. I had no doubt that I would, too. I blithely sent in my application and two weeks later called to inquire about the reply.
“‘You’re not accepted,’ the secretary answered in an official voice.
“What?’ I asked. “It can’t be. It must be a mistake.
“I tried getting hold of my father while I waited for the secretary, but in no time I had been transferred to someone else on the registration staff.
‘It’s no mistake,’ he said. ‘The hanhala has rejected your application. Let’s put it this way: you’re not much of a learner, right? Our yeshivah accepts good learners only.’
“He spoke in a calm, quiet tone, yet nevertheless his words landed on my head like a pounding hammer.
“I dropped onto the nearest chair, hoping my conversation with the secretary had been nothing more than a wild dream. But it wasn’t, and I was forced to face the facts. The yeshivah was not even giving me a chance. I wasn’t even allowed to take the
acceptance test! What would I do? Begin working at barely seventeen? With what? In just a few short minutes my entire world had come crashing down!
“My father wasted no time. He got up and left to Yerushalayim. He spoke, he reasoned, he cajoled – with each member of the board separately. He returned late that evening, looking exhausted and worn out. The reflection in his eyes was one of acute
disappointment, and it pained me deeply. It was a far cry from the expression of fatherly pride that was obvious when he gazed upon my brothers as they swayed over their gemaras. Those same eyes that usually bespoke nachas and pleasure were now filled with dejection and frustration.
“My father looked at me and said, ‘It is only because your brothers are one of the strongest boys in the yeshivah, and those who graduated left a wonderful name behind them, that they agreed to allow you to take the test. But if you won’t succeed, you have
zero chance of being accepted. We’ll have to find you another yeshivah.’
“Yet I knew all to well, as did my father, that I did not have much of a chance of succeeding. It was impossible to fill such a huge void in a few days, as great as my desire was.
“I’m not going to any other yeshivah,” I said, trying to contain the tears that were threatening to spill over.
“You can forget about it right now. It’s either Tschebin or I’m out. There is no third option.”
My parents did not doubt that I was serious. I was all too famous for sticking to my convictions. In the days that followed I roamed around like a caged lion.
I kept picturing myself becoming a serious scholar and reaching great heights in Torah. Yet at the same time gloomy thoughts kept creeping into my head and I saw myself becoming the yeshivah handyman, the delivery guy - someone whose day ended at
the exact point where it started. My thoughts even ventured to race further to when I was older and left the Torah world completely, thereby severing any remaining link to learning, to yeshivah, to Torah.
Surprisingly enough, I felt distinctly uncomfortable with myself as I imagined my bleak future. In my parents’ house Torah was the very air which we breathed. We lived it and spoke about it night and day. To leave me outside was like cutting off the very branch I was sitting on.
“My thoughts turned to my mother, huddled over her tehillim, shedding heartrending tears. My father, distressed and frightened. I made my way to the yeshivah to take the test, my heart trembling inside of me. I was not naïve and knew all too well what happened to those who left learning at such a young age.
I shuddered as I realized to which side the scale was about to tip.
I sat over the test papers and was barely able to figure out any of the answers.
Although I had tried studying in the final days prior to the test, all the material I had crammed now literally flew out of my head. It
was belittling and embarrassing and indescribably frustrating. I came back home, my mood downcast, and refused to speak to anyone.
“’Shuki, we’ll try another yeshivah.’ My mother cried, my father was very obviously angry and my brothers tried to persuade me.
“Try,” I said, “but I’m not going to any other yeshivah. You’ll be working hard for nothing.”
“I knew that it wouldn’t be so simple to get me into another yeshivah, especially once the word spread that the yeshivah where six of my brothers learned refused to accept me.
“Try finding me work instead,” I said meaning every word. But it only led to a fresh outburst of arguments and fights. This time the volume increased, the pain and bitterness intensified.
Throughout that entire difficult period my father found it impossible to learn, and his work – he dealt with Sta”M – fell behind. Even my mother, who was famous for preparing delectable meals, produced tasteless foods. I even noticed that she hardly left the house. My brothers suddenly began calling each evening, and I felt my temper rising every time the phone rang. I was mad at them, and then mad at myself for getting mad. Anything that anyone did or didn’t do somehow managed to infuriate me.”
We listeners commiserated deeply with Shuki as he described in detail how tough his situation was at the time. His father’s heartache and obvious disappointment touched him to the very core. His mothers never ending tears tore his heart to shreds.
He was actually a fine, mature young man but for some reason did not realize the extent of the severity of the situation he was placing himself into with his very own hands.
“I was willing to give everything at my disposal, only to be granted a chance. I would agree to learn with a private tutor, commit myself to sit over the seforim the entire day and put my heart and soul into succeeding in learning. But only in Tschebin. The
facts were clear. It was either Tschebin or work. In a yeshivah framework or out. There was nothing that could convince me to consider other options.
“And then one day, which in hindsight turned out to be the catalyst for what was to come, a Kupat Ha’ir pamphlet managed to find its way into our home.
This took place several years back and in those days these pamphlets were not popular. People simply did not believe in their authenticity. Perhaps my younger sister brought it in to cut out the colorful illustrations.
Whatever the reason the pamphlet was sitting near my father who was trying to nap on the couch. He kept dozing on and off until he finally noticed the pamphlet and began reading it.
“From one minute to the next the expression on his face became more and more alive.
‘Come here, Shuki’” he said finally. As I approached he handed me the pamphlet. ‘Read this page,’ he said.
I read the page.
“What of it,” I asked in a toneless voice. A baby who was saved from choking, a man who sold his house, some woman who found a job. Who was interested in other people’s issues now?
‘Did you realize in what way each of these people found a solution to their problems?” he asked.
“You really believe in these things?” I answered with a question.
“My father rose from his place. ‘At this point I have nothing to lose,” he said as I watched him take out one thousand eight hundred shekel from his wallet. We were far from rich and the amount seemed astronomical to me. My father handed me the money
and said, ‘Take it to the rav in our neighborhood who accepts donations on behalf of Kupat Ha’ir. Daven to Hashem to send you, and us, a yeshuah and that Tschebin should accept you.’
“I immediately complied and walked over to the rav’s house slowly, hesitantly. I davened without moving my lips but with many, many words, as I felt the tremor of my heart inside of me. I promised Hashem that I would begin taking learning seriously and make an effort to connect myself to Torah if only I would be given a chance. As I walked back into the house my mind was still
absorbed in intense tefillah.
My father appeared to be ready to leave the house.
“‘Come, Shuki,’ he said. ‘I want you to accompany me to the kever of the Rav of Tschebin on Har HaMenuchos. Let’s pour our hearts out at his kever and implore Hashem for mercy.’
“‘What” I asked, unable to believe what I was hearing.
‘Yes,’ my father confirmed. ‘We’re going up to Har HaMenuchos. The idea came to me when you left to the rav. Let’s go.’
“And with that we left. It was mid-summer and the cemetery was bathed by the burning sun.
My father stood near the kever and said tehillim, tears streaming down his face. I stood to his side, confused. My lips too said tehillim but I found it hard to concentrate. I surveyed my surroundings. A few meters away, near the kever of the Admor of Belz,
stood a young, man, sporting a short jacket and bent down hat. I noticed he was looking at us, and I averted my gaze. I resumed my davening, hoping fervently for my tefillos to be accepted, yet at the same time braced myself for the impending disappointment.
I knew that I had no chance of being accepted.
“As my father’s tears flooded the kever, I tried concentrating on davening. I knew that my father had a lot of hope pinned on me, his ben zekunim.
All my brothers were outstanding avreichim and bachurim who brought him untold pride. Would I, his youngest, turn out to be nothing more than a simple am ha’aretz? My heart broke as I watched him crying as if there was someone sick in our family, or
worse, as if someone had died. But I had reached the point of despair. My father’s sobs were in vain. I was a hopeless case.
“At some point the man approached us.
“‘Can I perhaps help you with anything?’ he asked my father gently. My father raised his red, swollen eyes to him. I was so embarrassed! What would my father reply? Would he tell him about his beloved son, yours truly? The man noticed my father hesitating, unsure of what to reply.
“‘Hashem doesn’t cause people to meet in such places for no reason,” the man said, as his eyes scanned the entire area. ‘Perhaps I could be of use to you?’ he asked.
“My father looked in my direction, and I nodded my consent. Not that it was so comfortable for me, but I felt like I owed it to him to give him this last chance.
My father illustrated the situation to him in a couple of words.
It was at this point that Shuki paused for a moment.
It was obvious that the memories were flooding him. Then he told us that he made a sincere promise on the tziyon of the Rav of Tschebin to give himself over to Torah with all his strength and fervor.
The young man was studying him intently throughout the entire time, as if trying to measure how earnest Shuki’s intentions were.
“Today is Thursday,’ he said finally. ‘Call the yeshivah on Sunday and designate a date to retake the test.
But don’t waste time in the interim,’ he warned.
‘Learn the sugya well and Hashem will help.’
“The man refused to disclose his identity, or even to tell us how he was so sure that the yeshivah would grant me permission to retake the test, which seemed entirely illogical to us. He seemed to be sure of himself, and it looked as if he knew what he
was talking about. From our part we were in such despair and wanted more than anything to believe that I would indeed be granted permission to retake the entrance exam.
“That Shabbos I delved myself into the Gemara as I had never done before. I was determined to succeed and thus to prove that I was sincere in my promise.
But the deeper I dug into the sugya the more I realized that I was missing too much knowledge to retake the exam. On Sunday we called the yeshivah, our hearts swaying between hope and despair. They gave me a date without any to-do. It seemed as if they were actually awaiting my phone call. My father and I were shocked. Who was that man? We wondered. How did he have such a strong influence on the hanhalah of the yeshivah? My father was quite familiar with the yeshivah’s policy and the fact that they were allowing me to retake the exam was very uncharacteristic of them.
“My ever-optimistic mother insisted that it was a good sign and that I would surely succeed in the test and be accepted to the yeshivah. As for me I was far from optimistic but I put on a hopeful front for her sake.
“While I was taking the test I noticed the bochanim looking at me, and then at each other. Their expression spoke louder than words. I felt that I knew more this time than at the first test and I held onto to his hope like a drowning person clutches onto straw.
“The next day we were informed that I was accepted for a trial period. The joy among my family members knew no bounds. I locked myself into my room and learned. My father hired a tutor who began teaching me the basics. A new era had begun in my life.”
Shuki stopped talking and wiped his perspiring brow.
It was hardly a simple feat to relate such as story. But it was obvious from the pure gleam in his eyes that he was now well along the path of becoming a true talmid chachom.
“No one ever mentioned a word to me about the fact that I was on trial. I was a talmid like everyone else and it did not seem as if the hanhalah had any regrets about having accepted me. With much siyatta diShmaya I studied well and slowly, slowly, managed
to delve deep into the sugyos.
For the first time in my life I was able to form a connection with learning and actually relish the sweet taste of success. If at first
it was to fulfill my promise, soon it became impossible for me to detach myself from learning; I was addicted forever. On the infrequent Shabbosos that I would go home my father would gaze at me with affection as tears filled his eyes. My mother spoiled me to no end. There was no one who felt as fortunate as I did.
“All this time I was extremely curious to find out who that man was, that man to whom I now owed my very life. How had he managed to do what he had done?
“After some time in the yeshivah I became close to one of the key figures of the staff. When the first opportunity arose I asked him my question. His reply was puzzling.
“‘Why did we accept you?” he repeated my question as if the answer couldn’t be more obvious. ‘Did we have a choice? Do you know how much pressure we were under? And maybe we would have been able to withstand the pressure, but when someone from the family of a world renowned Admor told us that you promised to commit yourself to Torah, and asked us to give you another chance, we could hardly refuse him….’”
“I was stunned. At a total loss for words.
“The name of that Admor was hardly familiar to me. I knew nothing about him and had absolutely no connection to his family. The man that we had met at the cemetery did not look like a chosid - that much was apparent from his way of dress and shaven beard.
What did he have to do with that Admor? And what did that same Admor have to do with me?
“Maybe you can tell me who was actually the one who pressured the yeshivah?” I probed further. “At least tell
me what his connection is to the Admor!”
For obvious reasons I did not merit an answer. My curiosity burned. There were moments when I felt inclined to believe that it had been Eliyahu HaNavi who had revealed himself first to us at the cemetery and then later to the Admor.
And maybe there was a misunderstanding and the conversation that came from the home of the Admor
was really about another boy?” I asked. But my friend
insisted that it was no mistake.
The following Shabbos I went home – bewildered and in a turmoil. I repeated the story to my parents, who were equally stunned. As imaginative as we tried to be, we were unable to come up with a plausible key to the mystery.
Let’s stop thinking about it.’ This time it was my mother who had spoken, sounding firm and decisive.
‘Hashem has enough ways to carry out His wishes. It is not our job to delve into figuring them out.’
We stopped talking about it, but in my heart I was constantly davening that I would one day merit to meet that same man from the cemetery again. I longed to thank him, just once, for giving me a new lease on life; for taking an empty boy and turning him
into a true ben Torah who loved nothing more than immersing himself into learning with his entire soul and being.
A year passed, and then two. Shadchanim started knocking on our doors. No one remembered the boy who I once was. Respectable offers came our way. In no time I was engaged, and then found myself standing under the chuppah on my wedding day.
It was then that I remembered that man, whose face was still etched in my memory.
Would I ever find out who was responsible for the revolution that had turned my life around?”
At that point Shuki fell silent.
It seemed as if it was difficult for him to continue.
Emotions were choking his throat. He heaved a heavy sigh.
“A terrible tragedy took place several months ago, if you recall. A tremendous baal tzedakah was killed – Reb Ben Tzion Dunner, do you remember?”
Indeed, the details of that tragedy were remembered all too clearly.
“The newspapers published his picture. I recognized him at once and my heart fell. It was him. My savior.
Just as I had remembered him. He hadn’t changed at all. Bentzi Dunner, the man who had donated endless amounts of money to the poor, to Torah, to avreichim, to what not? And he had used his connections in order to help an anonymous youth get on to the right path.
I was dismayed when I realized that I would never be able to thank him.”
We in the audience felt like we couldn’t face Shuki.
His eyes were so full of sorrow, how he had yearned to meet that man again, to thank him, to shake his hand – just once!
“I am relating this story to Kupat Ha’ir since this is the only thing I can do for the neshamah of this precious man. It is very difficult for me to open past wounds, to reveal those difficult times of my youth. But I must.
My heart can find no peace. All the donations that will arrive in merit of this story will be an aliyah for his neshamah in Shamayim.”
At this point his voice chokes. His chair scrapes the floor as he stands up.
All eyes follow him. The silence in the room speaks louder than words. He makes his way to a nearby tzedakah box. He places
a bill into its slot. “After all,” he says, his eyes a soft gleam. “It was this way that the entire revolution actually began.
May this too serve as an aliyah for his neshamah.”