On Equal Service and Becoming a Mentch

This past week, I had the privilege of attending what was, for me, a special simchah. A friend of mine, with whom I had attended yeshivah, had finally found his zivug. This wedding gave me the opportunity to meet and catch up with old friends, including some I hadn’t seen in over 15 years. Much time had passed since we sat together on the benches of the beis medrash, and it was eye opening to see the diverse paths we had taken. Various communities in New York, New Jersey, and even Eretz Yisrael were represented. Occupations ranged from accountant, nursing home administrator, insurance broker and lawyer to Rosh Kollel and maggid shiur, and also included some who were still learning in kollel.

A chance to reconnect with people with whom I had spent many of my formative years was a great thing, and it had a profound impact on me. I wasn’t quite able to put my finger on it until, on the ride home, I discussed my feelings with a friend who is now moving on from full-time limud haTorah to learning a profession. Our conversation, which was predicated on my ride-mate’s “career move,” helped clarify what it was that my yeshivah-mates all had in common, despite their having traveled down different life paths.

Harav Sholom Schwadron, zt”l, when describing the greatness of his Rebbi, Harav Leib Chasman, the Mashgiach in Chevron Yeshivah, zt”l, repeated the words of the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim, in describing Reb Leib, marveled that the Alter fun Kelm was able to produce a talmid like Reb Leib, and repeated three times, “Oy a mentch, oy a mentch, oy a mentch.” From these words, and the fact that this is what he used to describe greatness, there are two things to be learned.

Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid when describing someone is to say he is a true mentch. It is also true that the effect Torah study has on the people who learn it is more than just the knowledge they attain. It has the ability to change a person’s entire being. Put simply, someone who makes Torah study the primary focus of his life can and will, through the unique relationship formed with the Torah, forever be different than someone who never had this bond. He will be a ben Torah and he will be more of a mentch.

Although there are many things that make us different this many years out of yeshivah, these facts will always remain. While many of us were lucky enough to be able to continue learning after we had married, many were not. But the essence of who a person is — once he has had this relationship with the Torah — doesn’t change. We may be living in different cities, and finding different ways to earn a livelihood, but what we all still have in common, for all our differences, is that we are all still bnei Torah.

That is what struck me most about just about every one of the people with whom I reunited at this wedding. The imprint left by the time spent within the walls of the beis medrash is still apparent. The strength of character, the middos tovos, and the overall mentchlichkeit was universal. The Torah’s indelible impression was undeniable to anyone who cared to see.

The discussion my friend and I had that night was contained to the little bubble we live in. We only spoke in the context of our mutual friends, and his decision to enter the business world. But the reality is that it can be expanded to help us understand some of the issues facing Klal Yisrael today.

The Yair Lapid/Naftali Bennett bill that aims to forcibly conscript yeshivah students in Eretz Yisrael is problematic for many reasons. And although the pushers of this bill think that the existence of a so called “Chareidi battalion” would somehow take care of the problems of the draft (it doesn’t), they are missing a crucial point. They want to take away the most important years of a yeshivah student’s life, force him out of the beis medrash, and deny him this life-forming relationship with the Torah, this lasting impression of becoming a mentch that the Torah leaves.

When they talk of limiting exemptions to around 25 percent of students (one member of Lapid’s party insisted that were it up to him, the number would be less than 5 percent!), it is clear that they don’t understand the value of the years spent only learning in a yeshivah. Maybe they have never taken the time to appreciate it, or maybe they rely too much on preconceived notions and stereotypes and have never even taken a close enough look at us to even have ever seen it.

The difference between someone who is a ben Torah and a mentch and the inverse is there. It’s real. It makes a difference — both in our own lives and in the lives of the children we raise. And it definitely is something worth fighting for.