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Lifelines: For My Parents

C. Saphir

My two older brothers faithfully followed the family trajectory, becoming professionals while setting aside time every day to learn. With me, the plan backfired

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

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I grew up in the 1950s, in a tenement apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Like most of my friends in yeshivah, I played punchball, watched television, and swapped baseball cards. An avid New York Giants fan, I was dismayed when my team picked up and moved to San Francisco in ’57, but I continued to follow its fortunes from afar.

My future, at that time, looked no different from that of any other good Jewish boy on the Lower East Side. Finish high school, go to college, become an accountant or a lawyer, be koveia ittim, work until you retire, die.

My two older brothers, Tuli and Elya, faithfully followed that trajectory, attending college and becoming a social worker and a lawyer respectively, while setting aside time every day to learn. With me, however, the plan short-circuited.

Originally, I was planning to pursue a degree either in mathematics, or in the emerging field of computers. Having a very logical, analytical mind, I was drawn to those areas of study.

I enjoyed learning Gemara in yeshivah, too. When I was in 11th grade, an older bochur in the yeshivah named Nosson Gelbfreund formed a chaburah of boys who learned together bein hasedorim, and I joined that group. During those learning sessions, Nosson explained to us that the purpose of life had less to do with what you live with and more to do with what you die with.

“It’s what you bring with you to Olam Haba that counts,” he emphasized. “This world is temporary — 120 years at most — but the next world is eternal. And once you get there, you can’t learn any more Torah or do any more mitzvos. What you amass in this world is what will remain with you forever.” He told us a story about the Chofetz Chaim, whose home furnishings were limited to a table and some wooden benches. “Where is your furniture?” a surprised visitor from abroad once asked him. “Where is yours?” the Chofetz Chaim inquired in response.

“I am only passing through,” the traveler explained.

“I, too, am only passing through,” the Chofetz Chaim replied. Hearing shmuessen like these spurred me to reassess my values and rethink my future. Eventually, I decided that rather than go to college, I wanted to continue learning and perhaps become a rebbi one day and teach Torah.

Reb Nosson got married and moved on to a yeshivah in Monsey, and when I graduated high school, he suggested that I follow him there.

My parents, especially my Polish-born mother, were vehemently opposed to this. They insisted that I remain in my current yeshivah and attend night classes at Brooklyn College.

I begged them to allow me to switch to the yeshivah in Monsey for beis midrash, but they adamantly refused. “You need to get yourself a parnassah,” they told me. My talk of how my neshamah needed sustenance in the next world more than my body needed sustenance in this world accomplished nothing other than convince them that I had been hopelessly brainwashed.

“Parnassah is from the Ribbono Shel Olam,” I told them.

“But ever since Adam Harishon was cursed, a person needs to make a living!” they argued. “It’s a curse, not a l’chatchilah,” I countered. “Besides, a person’s income for the year is decided on Rosh Hashanah, having nothing to do with whether he has a college degree. When I need money, I’ll become a rebbi, or maybe go into computers. Parnassah isn’t the most important thing in life.” To them, however, it was very important. They were good frum Jews, but having a profession was as much a part of their religion as putting on tefillin. They thought I was irresponsible and short-sighted, and they predicted doom and misery for me if I pursued my dream of continuing to learn instead of going to college. Not that they were giving me a choice.

“The only way you won’t go to college is over my dead body,” my mother declared.

Throughout all the arguments we had over this, I never doubted that my parents were motivated purely by love and concern for me. Based on their understanding of life, they were doing the best thing for me by insisting that I go to college and get a profession.

With Reb Nosson’s encouragement, I went to speak with the mashgiach of our yeshivah, Rav Kriegman, who was a renowned gadol and tzaddik.

“Your parents want the best for you,” he reflected. “But they don’t realize that learning Torah is really what’s best for you — and for them. When they get to the Olam Ha’emes, not only will they receive the eternal reward for the learning you did while they were alive, they will also continue to receive reward for the learning you do after they are no longer here.”

“But what about kibbud av v’eim?” I asked. “My mother tells me that I have a mitzvah to obey her.” “What if your mother told you to take a gun and shoot her?” he responded. “Would you obey her? What if she accused you of being remiss in kibbud av v’eim? Would you obey her then? She doesn’t realize that by removing you from Torah study, she is causing spiritual harm to you, and to herself, for all of eternity. The best thing you can do for her is to go to yeshivah full-time.

“Still,” he added, “you have to be respectful to your parents, and avoid confrontation as much as possible.”

With his guidance and Reb Nosson’s, I devised a plan. I took the College Board exams, and then applied to Brooklyn College. When I received my acceptance letter, I wrote back to the college asking them to defer my acceptance for a year. In the meantime, I started slipping a few pieces of clothing out of the house every day and hiding them in my locker in yeshivah.

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