“It’s About Speaking Torah”
By Rabbi Y. Y. Rubinstein
For many of us, poshute Yidden, our Gedolim seem to be not too far removed from Malachim. Their mastery of Shas, sifrei Kodesh and their matching middos, wisdom and insight place them rightfully in our minds as far above us.
Yet grow close to any Gadol and one of the most surprising discoveries you’ll make is how seamlessly they are able to stand in two worlds simultaneously.
My Rosh Yeshiva, Harav Leib Gurwicz, zt”l, illustrated this perfectly. He was the son-in-law of the mussar giant, Harav Elya Lopian, zt”l, who declared him to be a “Walking Mesillas Yesharim” and the head of Europe’s largest post-War yeshivah in Gateshead. He was also the head of Agudas Yisroel in Europe. He nevertheless understood his generation and its needs perfectly and strove to meet them.
One of his innovations was created without any fanfare or publicity. Yet for me and many of my chaveirim and later, talmidim, it was one of the most important gifts he gave us.
Every second Shabbos afternoon, those of us in yeshivah who were already married, were welcomed into his home and invited to give a shiur in front of our chaburah and Rav Leib. Afterward, he would offer comments about the construction, content and presentation of the shiur, pointing out its strengths and how it could be improved.
Many people don’t know that the number one human fear is spiders! The second greatest human fear is public speaking. For Torah Jews, that second great fear could easily be promoted to first place. I doubt there is any society or group that expects people to stand up and speak in front of large numbers of their peers so frequently as Klal Yisrael.
That expectation in our world starts very, very young for both boys and girls. There are divrei Torah at Shabbos tables, then comes bar mitzvas, sheva brachos (your own and countless friends’ simchos), brisos, pidyonei haben and much more.
I would have been happier sitting inside a dark closet with a few hundred spiders scuttling around rather than standing in front of my Rosh Yeshivah and my chaveirim when my first turn to speak arrived.
But as Gedolim do, he encouraged me with smiles and nods and somehow made me feel relaxed enough to complete my half hour shiur. Not having the slightest clue how to construct a shiur, I simply said over one I had heard from another of my great teachers, Rabbi Mordechai Miller, zt”l.
When I finished, Rav Leib analyzed what I had said, how I had said it and provided suggestions for presenting it better. He concluded with a smile and “Zeyer gut!” and my fears vanished. Without knowing it, I left his home with the gift I am quite sure he meant to impart — a desire and confidence to do that again and to do it better. We understood his purpose was not about our learning how to speak well; it was about how to better spread Torah.
I took Rav Leib’s suggestions and applied them while carefully listening to my other great teachers, including his son, Harav Avrohom Gurwicz, shlita, Harav Matisyahu Salomon, shlita and many others. I gained not only from what they said but how they said it and then applied that to my own shiurim. I became a shameless ganov, taking away anything I saw of value that others possessed, claiming it for myself. Speaking essentially became my career and soon I found myself invited to teach what I had learned and developed along the way to other groups of Rabbanim and mechanchim.
When I moved to America, I offered to teach a public speaking course in two yeshivos near my home in Inwood, Long Island. One was the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway and the other Mesivta Shaarei Chaim.
It was the first time I had taught this skill to 11th and 12th graders. The bachurim had as little a clue about how to do what I was asking of them as I had had all those years before.
The first lesson is always a shiur on the chashivus and chiyuv of being able to gain this skill, supported with quotes from Chazal and Gedolei Haachronim about how important a mitzvah it is to convey and communicate Torah to others.
There are basics to master and some of them are remarkably simple, such as, “How you look counts!”
“You are salesmen,” I tell my talmidim. “You are selling Hashem’s Torah. You have to look presentable.”
I show them videos of some of the best Torah speakers in the world today, pointing out, as Rav Leib did for us, exactly what made their talk so effective. I take videos of them for them to see and study, in order to improve.
Eventually, I tell them it’s their turn to prepare a drashah and speak. It is then that I share the most important speaking secret of all. It is something I heard that the Chofetz Chaim used to tell Rabbanim, “Aleh mohl mit a masseh — Always with a story.” Because everyone loves a story.
The first task I assign is to find a story they can use to begin a short three-and-a-half minute dvar Torah. Then I add a few words that cause them total bafflement and panic: “And it has to be one that you haven’t read in a book and people have never heard before!”
When I tell my young talmidim that, they look at me with faces that express total hopelessness. They usually ask, “Where will we find a story like that?
In answering them, I give them a gift as precious as the one my Rosh Yeshivah gave me all those years ago:
Go home and ask your parents and grandparents to tell you a story from their own lives and explain to them why you need it. I guarantee that you will be absolutely astonished to discover that those you love and are so close to you within your own family circle, have lived lives and done things that will surprise and amaze you.
Every time the bachurim come with their stories, they never fail to surprise and amaze me, too.
A Novominsker talmid said, “I felt totally humbled and proud when I realized how great my elter Bubby and Zeidy actually were.”
One of my talmidim came back to tell me the story of his parents’ grandparents. They lived in Copenhagen, Denmark, which fell to the Nazis early in the War.
As the Jews prepared to leave their homes for shul on Rosh Hashanah they were unaware that the Germans had chosen that night, knowing all the Jews would be in their homes, to round them up and deport every one of them to their deaths.
As his elter Bubby completed the finishing touches to her table, there was a loud banging on her door. The Danish resistance stood outside to warn the entire community that they had to flee at once, as the Germans’ timetable for death had begun. The family immediately left their table and its silver bechers and the family’s prize heirloom — a crystal dish — as they ran. Almost every Jew was smuggled across the sea to the safety of neutral Sweden.
Upon their return after the War, they found their table set exactly as it had been. The Danish non-Jews had left everything as it was. The valuable bechers and the crystal dish stood in their places. The bachur brought them to yeshivah to show us.
There were many more such amazing stories these future darshonim discovered among the unsuspected treasures in their parent’s lives. This was especially so when I was invited to teach my course at Yeshivas Novominsk where so many boys come from families that survived the Holocaust.
As the bachurim’s enthusiasm and confidence grew, so too did their desire to speak, and speak well. They began to appreciate Harav Leib Gurwicz’s message that they weren’t learning about how to speak well, but how to spread Torah better.
Some even came to tell me that they had come to hear me speak at some event or other and to compliment me that I had remembered to look around the room as I was speaking, exactly as I had taught them to do. Some gently mentioned the issue when I hadn’t done so enough!
Boys are competitive by nature. After my second year of teaching my course with the addition of Far Rockaway’s Mesivta Shaarei Chaim and Yeshiva Tiferes Boruch in New Jersey, Hashem gave me the idea of creating the first ever New York Inter-Yeshivah public speaking competition.
In 2019, the two yeshivos reaching the finals were Yeshiva of Far Rockaway and Mesivta Shaarei Chaim. The chairman of the three judge panel was Rabbi Paysach Krohn, who immediately understood the importance of grooming the next generation of speakers.
The finals were hosted by the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, and their dining hall was packed as two yeshivos and their Rebbeim arrived to watch the ‘battle’ commence. Although parents were not invited, many decided they wanted to shep nachas and came anyway.
The rules are that both teams of four bachurim must take what they have learned and put it to the test. Three of the boys are given an imaginary audience they must address.
One boy addresses a frum audience. The language and content have to relate to his listeners, so it doesn’t matter if he uses Hebrew terms such as Gemara or mamash.
The second boy speaks to a mixed audience of frum and non-frum Jews. Here, language and content become critical. Both the content and words must be appealing, and be understood by both kinds of Jews.
The third boy presents and explains a Torah idea, for example, why the Torah opposes euthanasia, so-called mercy-killing, to a completely non-frum audience.
Once again, language is crucial but so too is explaining Torah hashkafah clearly and convincingly.
They all must speak for three-and-a-half minutes, with penalties if they are too brief or too lengthy.
The fourth boy on the team is the captain. He has to prepare and master his own three speeches for each type of audience. The competition starts with a coin toss. The winning captain decides which team speaks first and then which of the three imaginary audiences his opposing captain must address.
Tactically, he is likely to give the most difficult one to his opponent. That leaves now only two remaining audiences and it is the turn of the second captain to choose the one the first captain must address.
The competition began and the standard of every one of the eight speakers, as all three judges attested, was simply astonishing. There was little trace of boys struggling to construct a shiur or find and deliver a moving or astonishing story that no one had ever heard before. Rabbi Krohn and I laughed afterwards, which of us would be first to publish them in our next books.
The next two years should have seen second and third face-to-face competitions take place, but COVID intervened. The bachurim I taught during those two years successfully completed the course, but the competitions had to take place over Zoom, which is a very poor substitute to meeting in person.
By now, word of the competition was out and several other yeshivos wanted to join, including the town where I live, Inwood, whose first ever yeshivah, Nishmas HaTorah signed up. There was even interest from as far away as England and Australia.
Knowing that I could not teach in so many yeshivos, I created a written course so it could be taught by others. More and more bachurim in Passaic and Lakewood started to learn about the astonishing stories within their very own families and how to use them for spreading Torah. The course is now being taught in Bais Yaakov schools too, so that young women can speak about Yiddishkeit with confidence and eloquence.
There was something else I discovered since creating what came to be called, “The Perfect Presentation Course.” It was the most precious discovery of the entire project, and one I simply did not anticipate.
In one of the yeshivos I taught in, the secular principal asked me if it was true that a certain bachur was on the team. When I replied,“Yes,” the principal frowned and asked if he were any good. I answered him that the bachur was, in fact, very good. When that team won, the principal told me that was the first time this boy had been able to shine in his entire yeshivah career.
I suspect that was another reason Harav Leib Gurwicz encouraged us to speak in front of him. It would allow us to grow in confidence and perhaps truly excel for the first time ever.
That bachur told me, “When we won that competition, I knew I had played my part. I felt it was one of the best things I have ever done.”
A 70-year cycle
The Chida (Midbar Kedemos) teaches that he found a manuscript written in 5266/1506 — more than five centuries ago — that sheds some light on this mysterious creature.
There are only two of these animals alive in the world at any set time, one in the east and one in the west. Every 70 years, the two come together for a very short-lived marriage which ends in the female killing the male. For 11 years, the expectant female walks around, grazing and drinking water. In the beginning of the 12th year, it falls on its side and can no longer move. Hakadosh Baruch Hu, in His compassion, causes saliva to run from her mouth like a wellspring, which waters the grass at the location where she is lying. For the next 12 months, she sustains herself by eating from what is near her head. At the conclusion of this period, she gives birth to twins — a male and a female — and dies in the process. The twins separate, with one heading to the east and the other to the west, where they each stay for the next 70 years, and then the entire process begins anew.
Short Past, Long Future
When Mrs. Rifky Amsel taught at Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion in Edison, N.J. over 25 years ago, she initiated a genealogy program for her 6th grade students. One girl expressed consternation due to complications she had with drawing a detailed family tree for the project. Her father was Avraham ben Avraham, a newcomer to our nation, and her mother, a baalas teshuvah wasn’t very clear on her distant ancestry either.
“I recall that you sat with me,” the grateful student told her years later, “and you drew stick figures, illustrating my past and my future. You pointed out how it will be me and my future children who will continue the chain.”
“I told her how remarkable her parents were,” Mrs. Amsel explains. “I emphasized that she didn’t need to crawl up a family tree to find her grandparents who sacrificed for Yiddishkeit — her parents were those people! ‘Look at where they came from and who they are. Look at what is now going to be because of them. Be proud of them! They’ve soldered a link to the old trusty chain, and because of them, there will bezras Hashem be beautiful, frum generations to come.’”
Many years later, the student, now a mother of a growing Torah family, thanked her devoted and sensitive teacher for giving her a past — and a future, and “helping me become who I am today.”
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