Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, in his later years, would often be seen walking the corridors of the Agudah conventions with a group of yungeleit and baalei batim in tow. They were hanging on to his every word. With his unique heartwarming smile and distinctive twinkle in his eye, he would invariably introduce a story, and apologize for it saying, “An old man likes to tell stories.”
Perhaps the reason that “an old man likes to tell stories” is that he is trying to translate lessons and values learned under different times and dissimilar circumstances to the realities of today. Perhaps he is trying to transmit these lessons and values to the next generation. It does not always work, but at least one can try.
I don’t know if I qualify as an old man, but at least at Pesach time, we can take the opportunity to reflect upon the past as we think and forge ahead into the future.
The year was 1964. Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore was celebrating a chag hasemichah. Over 60 talmidim who had completed their requirements for semichah during the prior few years were going to be awarded their semichah in a gala public event. I was asked to be one of the talmidim representing the musmachim.
It was less than 20 years after the end of Churban Europe. Celebrating the awarding of semichah to so many young men, mostly American-born and bred was certainly an auspicious occasion. These were men who had decided to dedicate their lives to rebuilding Torah and Yiddishkeit. The question was what message to leave the audience with.
After some serious searching, the proper message was found in the Pesach Almanach a journal edited by Reb Yosef Friedenson, z”l. Rabbi Friedenson later became my good friend, colleague and mentor at Agudas Yisroel. In this journal, I found a fascinating explanation of the story mentioned in the Haggadah: “Maaseh b’Rabi Akiva…….”
Dr. Emanuel Carlebach, z”l, describes the historical context of the story. “The Jewish nation had just suffered its greatest national tragedy. The second Beis Hamikdash stood in flames. Yerushalayim was destroyed. The Jewish land was desolate and its people exiled after much pain and death. In the small town of Bnei Brak, the Gedolei Yisrael of the generation gathered to prepare for the Pesach Seder. Filled with worries and trepidation for the Jewish future, they awaited the coming Pesach. The lechem oni and maror that lay before them were not mere symbols but actual cold hard facts in their lives.
They began to tell the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim, to give praise and thanks to Hakadosh Baruch Hu for, thousands of years earlier, taking an enslaved and downtrodden nation and miraculously giving them their freedom. They prayed that He once again save His children from annihilation. As they became engrossed in discussing the miracles of earlier times, the discussion strengthened their faith and hope that Hakadosh Baruch Hu would once again perform the miracles that would redeem His people from their plight. (In fact, other meforshim explain that the reason they came to Bnei Brak was that it was the home of Rabi Akiva, who was always able to interpret in a positive way the many misfortunes that befell the Jewish nation.) Given the trying circumstances, it is reasonable to expect that they weren’t fully consoled.
Suddenly, the door opened. In walked their talmidim. On their faces you could see that, although they were also affected by the terrible events, their eyes shining with respect and admiration for their rebbeim showed the commitment they had to follow their leaders in rebuilding a Torah community. When the Gedolei Yisrael saw these young men, any hopelessness that they might have harbored was washed away. As long as there were young men ready to learn Torah and to do whatever was necessary to preserve it in unadulterated form, the future of the Jewish people was guaranteed.
“Ad sheba’u talmideihem ve’amru lahem …” The coming of the young students, was itself the message that the elders needed to be able to have the confidence that higiah zman Krias Shema shel Shacharis — that the dawn has risen showing there is a bright future for the Torah Nation.
If it was true then in Bnei Brak in the time of Rabi Akiva, it was also true in 1964. We see today before our eyes what these young men of Ner Yisroel as well as the young men of Lakewood, Telshe, Chaim Berlin, Mir and Torah Vodaath and the other yeshivos of the time were able to accomplish with great siyatta diShmaya. Nobody sits around Pesach night and ponders whether the Torah community has a future. Baruch Hashem we see a vibrancy and growth in Torah and Yiddishkeit that nobody would or could have imagined a few short years ago.
Baruch Hashem, this generation’s challenge is not whether or not we are going to survive. It is rather whether or not we have the young men (and the young women) who are committed to seek out those new mountains, those new heights and vistas that our community can ultimately reach — l’hagdil Torah ul’haadira. We have already reached unprecedented heights that our grandfathers could never have believed possible. Our real job, however, is to maintain these levels and in fact reach higher levels of Kiddush Shem Shamayim in which Moshiach can feel comfortable coming to lead the Am Hashem. We still have a way to go, true. But with siyatta diShmaya, and a generation imbued with commitment and a sense of mission and purpose, can lead us to the ultimate dawn — the coming of Moshiach. May he come speedily in our days.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.