I f the weather cooperates, the first-day-of-zeman chavrusa tumult has become an event, while photographers are on scene to capture the commotion and drama. The pictures of white-shirted, black-trousered young men (some in jackets, others opting for the casual style of a jacket round over the shoulders) outside the iconic batei medrash of Lakewood or Mir is a regular feature on the picture pages of chareidi publications.

The tumult, for the uninitiated, is this unscripted, informal matchmaking service, ensuring that every single talmid in yeshivah finds an appropriate chavrusa — yet there is no computerized list or formal director, no algorithm or aptitude test, just well-meaning intermediaries making suggestions and answering questions as would-be chavrusas try to gauge their potential partners.

It’s our version of the stock or diamond exchange: intense discussions, frenzied negotiations, serious huddles, and finally, a deal, and a new pair is formed. The fresh duo will thank the various mediators and make their way to wherever one of them has a chazakah on a seat, and a new era will begin. They will learn to discern each other’s moods, start to understand the nuances and expressions of the other. What, the Rashba is still shver to you? I see you’re not chapping. I need a minute to think this through. They will connect on a deeper level, their souls and hearts and minds merging in the pursuit of the one and only Truth.

Beyond that, however, they will know when the car is in the shop, the wife isn’t feeling well, and the baby was up all night.

(It doesn’t always work, by the way. Once, a well-meaning liaison in the Mir arranged for me and a slight, courteous Swiss bochur to learn, certain that we were on the same wavelength. We sat down and within minutes, it was obvious to both of us that it was a mistake. No one said anything, but one of us excused himself to go to the washroom and then went AWOL, never to return. Months later, we made eye contact at the Mir Chanukah mesibah and we both smiled and nodded politely. No hard feelings.)

The term “chavrusa tumult” is intriguing. The tumult seemingly refers to the noise and disorder of the process, the raised voices and heated negotiations.

I’d like to suggest a variant reference.

A person would have to be very confident to allow a team of peers, with no real expertise or formal training, to offer a public assessment of his abilities and skills.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening. The candidate is on stage, so to speak, with any number of people weighing in on his ability as a lamdan, opining about whether or not he “gets the vort,” if he’s fast but not so fast that he’s an illui, if the lingering headaches that made him a no-show last zeman are still a problem, and if he’s the type that needs to shtell on every little thing.

How many among us would be open to that kind of public scrutiny, essentially an audit of our smarts, middos, and general personality?

Balabatim have it easy. Their learning often consists of formal shiurim, or a steady chavrusa, not one that switches every zeman. Younger bochurim are still benefitting from arranged matches, the rebbi moving chess pieces around the board for them. They don’t really have to come face-to-face with how they’re perceived, especially since a kind rebbi will often assure the talmid that “You’re the stronger one, you need to make sure to pull the train.”

It’s only at a certain age that this brutally honest appraisal is conducted, when you find out exactly how you’re perceived.

It’s the exclusive domain of the chavrusa tumult that gives you that streak-free window into your identity, because in real shidduchim, there are too many other external factors at play. No one is choosing a chavrusa because he’s tall, his father just took the company public, or he’s a ben achar ben of the Ropshitzer.

This is as real as it gets, a taste of the ultimate judgment. So of course they tumult. Wouldn’t you?

Fake News

There is an undeniable appeal of being in yeshivah on the Yamim Noraim. Long-gone talmidim come back and willingly endure long Shemoneh Esrehs, overcrowded benches, and lousy sponge cake, just to be there. Alumni who carry Hilton Honors cards in their wallets and travel business class somehow manage to sleep in the dormitory. What’s the magic?

A wise rav shared the following conversation with his kehillah: He related that one person had confided in his friend that he was really uneasy with his Rosh Hashanah Mussaf. He found himself getting emotional and inspired while reciting Aleinu, swept away with the infectious excitement of “lesaken olam b’malchus Shakay…” Then reality hit. He remembered that he says the same words of Aleinu three times each day during the year, and doesn’t feel any of that enthusiasm. He mumbles the words, often jingling car keys on the way out of shul.

He concluded that his Rosh Hashanah persona was a fraud, and that the heightened emotion was merely going along with the tone and spirit of the day.

His friend listened and asked a question of his own. If you were walking down a deserted street on a winter day and a bunch of hooligans jumped out of a van and surrounded you, insisting that you bow to avodah zarah or they’ll kill you, would you bow?

The first Jew was shocked. “Of course not. I would die. Avodah zarah is yehareig ve’al ya’avor.”

The second fellow smiled. “So every single day of the year, at any moment, you’re ready to give your life for kevod Shamayim — not just you, but everyone around you as well. So tell me, my friend, when are you expressing your true self, by Aleinu on Rosh Hashanah or Aleinu of a rushed Minchah in Shevat? It’s the second one that’s a fake — the Rosh Hashanah one is for real.”

And this might well be the secret of the yeshivos. The bochurim there don’t have these questions, for they are young and raw, not yet cynical and jaded enough to question themselves and their own motivations. And we are drawn to them, to their hopeful, sincere, full-throated song because deep down, we know that it’s the rest of the year that’s a fake, not these days.

We go to yeshivah because if we’re being real, there’s no better place.

A gut gebentsht yohr.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 672. Yisroel Besser may be contacted directly at besser@mishpacha.com