Over the last few colossally painful weeks, I have been thinking a lot about dreams. The month of July is generally my vacation time, a break from the weekly pressures of preparing shiurim, and so I’ve had the opportunity to read the media’s in-depth analysis of recent tragic events. In addition, the long shifts that I’ve spent at the hospital bedside of my grandson in the pediatric ICU at LIJ this month have afforded me many quiet, contemplative hours to absorb the depth of pain and despair that has permeated our community. And through it all, I keep thinking of the same thing: dreams.
Allow me to share my thoughts.
THE RUSH TO EXPLAIN
The passing of one of the ziknei hador (elders of our generation) is always troubling and painful; to lose three of the ziknei hador in rapid succession is overwhelmingly painful and frightening. What is the meaning for us when three ziknei hador, all in the vicinity of 100 years of age, leave this world within days of each other? What is the message that HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants us to learn from this national tragedy?
From my reading, I’ve gathered that everyone seems to offer a different perspective. To some, it is a foreboding sign of terrible things to come. Some suggestion was even made that the timing of Leiby Kletzky’s senseless and brutal murder is a case in point. To others, the three-fold loss was just the opposite; these writers mentioned Chazal’s description of the death of tzaddikim as a kaparah (atonement) for the sins of Klal Yisrael, much like the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.
The proliferation of suggestions and conjectures as to the meaning of all this is simultaneously confusing and depressing. While all of these “explanations” indeed have a source in Chazal, it’s impossible to know how to apply those sources to our current tragedy.
One of the biographies of Rav Moshe Feinstein recounts the gadol’s response to the untimely passing of his beloved son-in-law, Rav Moshe Shisgal, a great gaon and gadol in his own right. Broken in spirit, Rav Moshe rose to eulogize Rav Shisgal and stated regarding his death at such a young age, that “Der vos zogt az er farshteit is a kofer! – He who claims to understand is a nonbeliever!”
Years ago, my good friend Rav Mordechai Kamenetzky shared with me a conversation that he had during his teenage years with his illustrious grandfather, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky ztz”l. A tragedy had befallen the community at that time, and a certain respectable rav publicly pinpointed what he felt was the reason for the event. Young Rav Mordechai asked his grandfather what he thought of that particular line of reasoning. Rav Yaakov’s response: “Er veist vi ich veist – He knows like I know!”
In a similar vein, Rav Shach explained the double language of the pasuk describing HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s hidden ways — “Hastir astir – I have turned away from you” — as an allusion to two facets of murkiness we experience. One is the very fact that Hashem’s ways are hidden from us. The second mention of the word “hidden” refers to our tendency to attribute Hashem’s actions to the wrong “reasons.”
ECHOES OF A PHONE CONVERSATION
Still, despite our inability to truly understand the reason for our compounded losses, a conversation I overheard more than thirty years ago keeps repeating itself in my mind, with amplified relevance and heightened significance.
Several decades ago, Rav Shach was disparaged in a public forum. The yeshivah world was outraged. The elder rosh yeshivah of the time, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, initiated a phone conference of all the senior roshei yeshivah, during which they would decide on a course of action.
At the time, I was visiting with my rebbi, Rav Henoch Leibowitz, rosh yeshivah of Chofetz Chaim, and he allowed me to listen in on the phone conference so that I might learn something from the gedolim’s discussion.
On that phone conference, besides Rav Leibowitz and Rav Yaakov, were Rav Moshe Sherer, Rav Mordechai Gifter, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, Rav Avraham Pam, Rav Elya Svei, Rav Shimon Schwab, and Rav Shneur Kotler, zichronam l’vrachah, and ybdl’cht Rav Aharon Schechter shlita. Rav Kotler listened in from his hospital room in Sloan Kettering.
The discussion centered around one question: Should a protest be made for the kavod haTorah of this gadol hador, or should the incident just be ignored? There were strong advocates for each side of the argument. Then Rav Shneur Kotler began to speak. He told all those on the call (I believe he quoted a midrash) that Chazal relate: When a gadol b’Torah is attacked or ridiculed and no one protests, then HaKadosh Baruch Hu is prompted to respond, ”If they don’t have respect for the kavod of my gedolim, then they don’t deserve to have those gedolim in their midst” — following which Hashem removes one or more gedolim from the world. Rav Shneur added, “We must cry out for the kavod of Rav Shach, because if we don’t, then the lives of our gedolim are in danger.”
As soon as he made this heartfelt statement, the senior rosh yeshivah among them — Rav Yaakov — said that he agreed with the Lakewood rosh yeshivah, and so did everyone else on the conference call. The following week, a large gathering was held at the Kamenitz Yeshivah in Boro Park attended by thousands, all for the kavod of the gadol hador, Rav Shach.
Over the last few months, I have often thought of those powerful words of Rav Shneur, especially in having to endure the hurtful comments and disrespect for the kavod of the Skverer Rebbe shlita.
The terrible events that took place in Skver a few months ago were extremely disturbing. Despite the full-blown coverage in the secular media, we really have no idea of the full scope of what really happened and where the full responsibility lies. But one thing that I, along with thousands of other Jews know full well, is that the Skverer Rebbe is the paragon of ahavas Yisrael in the world today. His days and nights are filled with private appointments from Yidden throughout the world — Yidden of all stripes who come to the Rebbe’s door for a brachah, an eitzah, a good word, or just to share in the warmth of his smile and of his love for every Jew.
Late one night just a few months ago, I drove three couples from the Five Towns to Skver, each weighed down by their own burden, and brought them into the Rebbe for his sagacious advice and for divrei chizuk. Not one of my passengers were Skverer chassidim, nor do I expect any of them to become so, but despite the dozens of his own students and chassidim waiting for an audience with the Rebbe, each couple had the opportunity to spend time with him for as long as they needed.
And so I am greatly pained by the comments and accusations made against the Rebbe — not by bloggers and anonymous website commentators who believe that the colossal sin of lashon hara is not applicable to them, but by Yidden on the streets of Boro Park, Monsey, and the Five Towns. Not only does this disparagement bespeak a lack of kavod haTorah, it does not bode well — according to the words of the midrash that Rav Shneur quoted on that phone conference more than thirty years ago — for our future.
While clearly, no one can possibly know the reason for Hashem’s ways, I just can’t help thinking about the possibility of our lack of kavod haTorah contributing somehow to the three-fold loss we have just suffered.
THEIR DREAMS, OUR DREAMS
Much has been written about the lives of these gedolim and of all of their great accomplishments, and I leave that to others who knew them better. But as I read through the description of their lives, I found myself thinking of dreams.
The common denominator of these gedolim was their shared dream of learning Torah, teaching Torah, and creating a Torah legacy for the next generation. What struck me the most in reading the lengthy biographies in the newspapers and magazines was that interspersed between the pages were advertisements directed at all of us to follow our dreams. There were ads for the dream vacation, the dream summer home, the dream barbecue, and an ad describing the ultimate joy of life: biting into a piece of steak.
The contrast was vividly clear. These gedolim shared a common dream. They lived on three separate continents, yet were bound by their common dream of rebuilding the Torah world of their youth — a dream that propelled each one to continue teaching and inspiring well into his ninetieth year and beyond.
They didn’t share our dream of the “ultimate barbecue” and the dream steak. Rav Chaim Stein said for him, herring is like a steak. The first time I visited Rav Michel Yehudah’s home (or rather bungalow) and I was looking around, his eldest son said to me, “It hasn’t changed in fifty years.” No dreams of redecorating, no dreams of the “dream house,” just teaching, helping and loving Yidden.
And then we come to the incomprehensible tragedy that followed, the tragic murder of a sweet, delicious, and precious little boy, Leiby Kletzky ztz”l. Our community has been stricken by a sense of loss so intense that the Philadelphia rosh yeshivah, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, commented that he has lived through a lot, but never remembers a tragedy of such magnitude.
Everyone is trying to make sense out of the senseless murder, to comprehend the incomprehensible, hoping that a degree of understanding might ease our pain somewhat. Who didn’t shed tears at the sight of Leiby’s small casket filled with the shiurei luchos of a child of kedushah and taharah? We search for nechamah, but it is not to be found.
Again, I am thinking about dreams, the shattered dreams of a father and mother for their child. My fifteen-year-old son Dovid is a talmid in Mesivta Darchei Torah. He told me that one of his friends is driven from his Brooklyn home to yeshivah in a van driven by Leiby’s father, Reb Nachman Kletzky. Reb Nachman would often talk to the boys, and most often his topic of conversation was about his only son, Leiby, and the hopes and dreams he had for that little boy to become a great talmid chacham. Reb Nachman had dreams of greatness for Leiby, he had dreams of the Luchos … and for some reason was zocheh to bury the shivrei luchos instead.
In some manner, his dreams for greatness for Leiby were fulfilled beyond anyone’s human comprehension. A young innocent beautiful child was the source of such unity in Klal Yisrael; he achieved what most people can’t achieve if they lived a thousand years. Chazal say that if tears are shed at someone’s levayah it’s a sign that this person is a ben Olam HaBah. Who can fathom the level of a person whose passing inspired rivers of tears from Yidden all over the world, many who are still shedding tears even today? What can be said to describe the elevation of that pure neshamah?
And yes, my dream motif brings me to think about Levi Aron as well. What type of dreams did this troubled soul have in his life? What did he dream of in his tortured and twisted Yiddishe neshamah. What dreams, long ago, did his Yiddishe mama have for her child?
And in the last few days, I have been thinking about our dreams, yours and mine. As we turn the pages of the newspapers and magazines, do we share the dreams of the recently departed gedolim whose lives were described to us in such detail, or do we identify more readily with the ads depicting dream vacations and dream barbecues?
Maybe in light of all of these tragedies, it’s time to refocus our priorities and restore our sights to the dream of becoming an “adam hashalom,” of spiritual accomplishments, and of binyan Beis HaMikdash.
As I sit by my grandson’s bedside, I think of my dreams for him. We all want and dream that our children and grandchildren will achieve fame and fortune. We dream of the best bochur in Lakewood, or maybe of Harvard, and of making the most glorious shidduch. But maybe our dreams are misguided. It’s not about us — you or me. It’s about dreaming that our children and grandchildren fulfill their tafkid, their purpose in this world. This is what we should be dreaming about and this is what I dream for my grandson, may he be zocheh to a refuah sheleimah.
One things I do not know for sure; there is one beautiful and special little boy named Leiby Kletzky who surely fulfilled his.
Yehei zichro baruch.