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The Man with the Plan

Refoel Pride

Rabbi Nochum Stilerman, the legendary fundraiser who raised over $400 million for various causes over the last 50 years, has now made the tools of his trade a public offering: how to internalize discipline, make a rigorous regimen into routine, and actualize dreams.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Rabbi StillermanEveryone at the 12th Siyum HaShas in MetLife Stadium heard Rav Yissocher Frand tell the story. Soon, batei midrash the world over were abuzz with the tale.

An older talmid chacham, Rabbi Nochum Stilerman, had developed a personal study program for himself and sought Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l’s endorsement for it. The program would have had Rabbi Stilerman completing two tractates of Talmud (Brachos and Pesachim) and the Sefer Tehillim by his next birthday, his 71st. Rav Finkel, however, sent Reb Nochum back to the drawing board. 

“But what about the rest of the Torah?” the Rosh Yeshivah demanded. “Draw up a plan to finish kol haTorah kulah!” Reb Nochum went home and drew up a five-year plan to finish 12 masechtos (all of Seder Moed), all of Tanach, and the sefer Mesilas Yesharim. He brought a detailed printout to Rav Nosson Tzvi, who reviewed it and said, “But you’re not finishing Shas!”

“Rosh Yeshivah,” Reb Nochum protested, “to finish Shas according to this program I’ll need many, many years.” “Go print out a learning program for the whole Shas,” Rav Nosson Tzvi insisted. “As well as Tanach, the Shulchan Aruch, and the machzorim of the Shalosh Regalim.” The Rosh Yeshivah himself intended to be Reb Nochum’s chavrusa for learning the machzorim.

Reb Nochum went home, and with the help of his good friend Reb Meir Hellman, developed and printed out the plan, which also included the Lakewood Chazarah Program, a six-time review of each sugya. Some 2,500 pages later, he had a program to present to the Rosh Yeshivah – a program that would take 23½ years to complete.

When Rav Nosson Tzvi saw the three-volume printout, he exclaimed, “Now that’s a plan! THAT’S a plan!”

“But Rosh Yeshivah,” Reb Nochum objected, “I can’t do this! I’m already 70, and it would take me until I’m over 93 to finish this — at a pace of ten hours of learning a day! I hope to live to 120, but how can I undertake a plan that I can’t possibly complete?”

The Rosh Yeshivah struggled mightily to stand up, and while quivering in his place he said, “And do you think I can do what I’m doing? Look at me!”

Rav Nosson Tzvi then reached under his tablecloth and pulled out his plans for the Mir, which included adding more buildings to the yeshivah and making space for even more talmidim. “Do you think I can do this?” he asked Reb Nochum. “Of course I can’t.

“But, you and I have a great advantage,” Rav Nosson Tzvi continued. “We both realize that we can’t possibly do what we would like to do. Everyone else fools themselves into thinking that they can do what they want to do. You and I realize that we are in the hands of the Ribono shel Olam, and that we can’t do more than commit ourselves to the task.”

In the weeks since Rav Frand’s retelling of this story, it spread across the world and landed in a Har Nof beis medrash, where two chavrusas were chewing it over with one concluding, “You know, if that [old guy] can do it, why can’t I?”

Unbeknownst to this pair, the “old guy” sat just over their shoulders several seats away, lifting his eyes from his sefer as their conversation reached his ears. Had they known, their rhetorical question might have received a reply.

Rabbi Nochum Stilerman is no fresh-faced greener when it comes to making plans. The program he presented to Rav Finkel was born of a half-century of wisdom and decades of experience as a management consultant and fundraiser that took him to the very apex of his field. Having developed campaigns that raised $300 million for various causes over the last 50 years, Rabbi Stilerman has spent the last three decades giving seminars, teaching overflow crowds of eager listeners the tools of his trade. And the most valuable item in his toolbox is his “SMART system” — a method of internalizing discipline, making a rigorous regimen a routine thing, and constructing bulwarks against the yetzer hara


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