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Thinking Out of the Box about Torah and Life

Yonoson Rosenblum

Rabbi Dan Roth insists that he never wanted to be the star of any show. So why do the popular educational videos produced by his company, Torah Live, often feature Rabbi Roth going to the ends of the earth, literally, to bring Torah concepts to life for today’s generation? The answer, he says, can be found in a commentary on Pirkei Avos that few people have read.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

dan roth at table in desert“Were you very involved in theatricals in high school?” I ask Rabbi Dan Roth, founder of Torah Live, as we sit late at night in his underground lair just outside of Jerusalem’s Ramat Eshkol neighborhood. The room has the look of a fairly luxurious bunker, in which Rabbi Roth could hold out for several days, while completing one of his Torah Live videos. In addition to a shower, fridge, and treadmill (along with a pair of gym shoes indicating that they get used), there is a long desk, with two computers, which serve as the command center from which the Torah Live production team is coordinated.

Earlier in the week, I spent a couple of hours watching Rabbi Roth give a presentation on hilchos Brachos, employing his full array of computer-generated visual aids, at Machon Yaakov, a yeshiva for mature baalei teshuvah. His enthusiasm was infectious and the energy level at top gauge throughout; so much so that I considered my deduction about his thespian past in the category of “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

But Rabbi Roth looks puzzled by my question about his acting experience. The image I have of him as a student in London’s Hasmonean School is very far from his own memories of his youth. “Actually, I was a painfully shy youngster,” he tells me. “My mother was a single parent, after my parents’ divorce, and we were frequently invited out for Shabbos. I can remember being terrified to enter people’s homes, and often stayed outside for the entire meal.” 

At 12, Roth’s mother bought him one of the first generation of home computers, and he quickly found solace for his loneliness in spending hours on the computer teaching himself computer languages from magazines. “Eventually, I was spending so much time on the computer that my mother had to declare it off limits.” But the interest in computers did not abate. After completing A-levels, Roth won a place at London’s Imperial College, the rough British equivalent of MIT, to study computer science.

He deferred admission, however, to learn at Yeshivat Kerem b’Yavneh in Israel. He was initially miserable, missing the creature comforts of his posh London home and his car. But by the end of the first year, he had caught the learning bug, and gave up his place in Imperial College. For the next 12 years, he learned in the Mirrer Yeshiva and in several kollels, with a primary focus on Halachah.

Until the age of 30, Dan was a fairly conventional yungerman, who had as yet given no indication of the dynamo he would become. He had still not found his calling in life, and felt himself drying up in his learning. Meanwhile, he faced continual familial pressure to get on with earning a living.

He had always felt a particular attraction to Pirkei Avos, and began studying Avos intensively on Erev Shabbos and Motzaei Shabbos. He wanted to make Pirkei Avos the focus of his iyun (in-depth) learning, but hesitated to take such a radical step.

As he wavered about whether to remove himself from the familiar learning track, Roth’s then neighbor Rabbi David Orlofsky gave him a piece of advice that would change his life. “It says ben shloshim l’koach,” Rabbi Orlofsky told him. “That means that by the age of 30 a person should have gained enough knowledge of himself to know where he should focus his efforts. Only by doing so can he bring out his koach [strength].” Rabbi Orlofsky gave his younger friend a mashal based on one of his seminary students. That particular student held a black belt in karate, and she could break bricks with her bare hands. That power derived not from any superhuman strength, but from her ability to concentrate all her strength on one point. “You need to do the same,” was Rabbi Orlofsky’s final advice.



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