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Wednesdays With The Rosh Yeshivah

Yisroel Besser

There are many things about Rabbi Avrohom Kamenetsky’s relationship with his father that made it unique. He was Reb Yaakov’s ben zkunim, privy to a sacred Wednesday ritual when he would spend the day learning with his father. He was also the only Zevulun in a family of Yissachars — and he was the one entrusted with his father’s last wishes. A special glimpse into the gadol who carried American Jewry on his shoulders, yet who tried to conceal himself, hoping more than anything else to be forgotten.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Reb Avrohom started out as a rebbi, teaching at Toras Chaim, the yeshivah headed by his older brother, Rav Binyamin. It was not an institution where salaries could be taken for granted. “Money was tight, but one day I heard from the other rebbeim that there was a check. It was good news. I waited and waited, but mine never came. I went to my brother and I asked him if it was true that there was some money for paychecks? ‘Yes,’ he said with a sad smile, ‘but not enough for me, and not enough for you, Avremel.’ It was tough. I said to him, “At least you’re building Torah with your self-sacrifice, but why do I have to do this?”

“During the summer, I decided to find a way to make some extra money, and I davened that the Ribono shel Olam should guide me to a product that I could sell, but that wouldn’t involve schlepping heavy samples. Inspiration struck — I realized that every single manufacturer needs boxes for shipping.”

That idea seemed to fit all his criteria, but of course, before pursuing it, he discussed it with his father. And thus spoke Reb Yaakov:

“Avrohom,” he said, “you want to engage in mischar, commerce. Remember what the term means. If you have something that someone else needs and you can provide it, that is mischar. The moment that you are giving him things he doesn’t really need, then that is not mischar at all. Then, you have no more heter for the bittul Torah.”

Every one of Reb Yaakov’s children received guidance based on their particular needs, appropriate to their situation. “I was in business, so he told me to recite Parshas Vayishlach on Motzaei Shabbos, as well as the tefillah of Ribon kol HaOlamim, printed in the bentschers. Vayishlach, Chazal tell us, was recited by the chachamim before they went to Rome, and hence a protection for someone engaged with the wider world. And the tefillah? He said it’s a precious tefillah. Every one of us got what we needed.”



Being in sales allowed Reb Avrohom to make his own schedule, enabling him to devote himself to his father. “My father felt that it was my destiny to have this special relationship with him, a sort of calling.”

He elaborates:

“I once asked him what Rav Yisrael Salanter’s goal with the mussar movement was: was it that a person should ‘remake’ himself? He said of course not, because then someone with a ‘krumme kop’ would become even more crooked. A skewed perception would result in skewed behavior. Rather, he said, Rav Yisrael wanted something else: Just as there is a Shulchan Aruch that delineates how a Jew serves Hashem, so too, there is a Shulchan Aruch, a code, in proper interpersonal behavior. He said that the way to know the ‘halachah’ in how to behave is to study the accounts of Chazal, the stories in Chumash, Midrash, and Gemara, and learn how a person reacts.

“In fact, he quoted his rebbi, the Alter of Slabodka, who once said, ‘Others think one can develop as a baal mussar without Torah, without knowing how to learn. Of course it’s not true: How can a person know how to react to a situation without being thoroughly well versed in the stories of Chazal?’

“My father said all this by way of introduction. He went on to explain how each of the Avos had their own destiny, their own strengths and challenges, and they paved the way for all of us. He referred to the words of Chazal about the Yaakov Avinu’s various sons and the time each of them spent with him, and he smiled. ‘Ich hob moira, I’m afraid, that this is your shickzal, your destiny.’ ”

And so Wednesday became a special day — a sort of weekly Yom Tov — in the life of Reb Avrohom, the day he was ‘ragil’ to be with his father.


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