You may remember that as I ended last week’s letter, I left you in Bnei Brak. The Shabbos I spent there with my Bnos Avigail girls was so meaningful that I wanted to save it and the best way to do that is to share it.
I wrote about what Friday night was like, and here is a bit more about how the rest of Shabbos was.
Most of the girls got up before dawn to daven in the famed Lederman synagogue on Rashbam Street. They woke the sun up in order to daven with Rav Chaim Kanievsky. This time he was himself, in his normal habitat, not surrounded by the paparazzi and security men who had been part of his entourage when they saw him on Friday. Born in 1928 to his father Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky who was known the Steipler (he came from Honosteipel), Rav Chaim is the closest we have to true Jewish royalty. His mother was the sister of Rav Karelitz, and the shidduch between his parents was made by no less than the Chazon Ish, the leader of Israel’s yeshivah community who “just happened” to be the bride’s brother. Rav Chaim followed his great father’s footsteps. He too married into one of the most renowned families. His bride’s father was Rav Elyashiv, the great halachac decisor, and her mother was Rav Aryeh Levine’s daughter. The bride herself was a personality in her own right, and was a source of inspiration to thousands of women who turned to her for blessings, advice, and the warmth of her bigger than life personality.
Rav Chaim is an uncanny Talmudic phenomenon and considered by most to be our generation's greatest scholar. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky receives literally hundreds of queries in person and in the mail every single week from every corner of the globe in every topic under the sun. Every Erev Passover Rabbi Kanievsky makes a festive meal celebrating his annual completion of the entire Torah, including the entire Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, and many other studies. Besides his erudition, Rabbi Chaim is regarded a holy and sagacious man. Each year thousands of people visit him for his advice and blessing. He has three sons and six daughters. He is by all accounts a spiritual super star. It is wonderful that today’s Bais Yaakovs have produced girls who idealize someone like him in a world that is so steeped in falsehood. It was for that reason that I had real nachas when the girls headed out to Rashbam.
This time he was himself, in his normal habitat, not surrounded by the paparazzi and security men who had been part of his entourage when they saw him.
The girls went out to eat with families. They got to see Bnei Brak as a place where real people live. One thing that never changes is the way a Shabbos snooze is the perfect mixture of sweet retreat from the world and everything that is turbulent, temporary, and material while at the same time it’s just what your body has been craving. After I had the third meal with some of my family, I headed back to the dorm. This time our plan was to meet with Rebbitzen Kolodetzky, Rav Chaim’s daughter. I knew that the arrangement was “iffy”. Her schedule is so crowded that she no longer invites guests on Motzei Shabbos, however I was told that there are sometimes exceptions. When we arrived, there already was another seminary there! We waited on the stairs, as her patient assistant told us that she won’t disappoint us. After about three quarters of an hour, we went into the light spacious living room. It opened toe side room where there was plenty of room to wait until the girls from the other seminary made their way downstairs. I expected that she would wish us well, and a few questions, and send us on our way. That isn’t what happened.
She greeted us with undisguised warmth, complimented the girls on the tznius of their dress (which was clearly a statement she made with the confidence of someone who takes pride in doing things right, and not making compromises in serving Hashem). She told us about her life, and encouraged the girls to adapt her “secrets of spiritual success”: “Be content with your lot, and don’t make demands. Speak to Hashem in the language of the siddur. Say the traditional three prayers a day. They don’t have to take long. 25 minutes for the morning prayers, five for minchah and seven for maariv is enough.” When she said it the very idea of losing an opportunity to talk to G-d seemed ludicrous. When she spoke about taking in Shabbos early, it not only seemed possible, but the unspoken question, “How can you resist having as much Shabbos as possible?” seemed reasonable even to a chronic procrastinator like me. To her the world of spiritual growth was so chrystal clear that the illusions that we fondly call “reality” faded away in her presence. We left lighter, higher, happier, looking forward life.
I still haven’t crashed. The awesome beauty of that Shabbos is still is with me. Maharal tells us that one of the things that mark humans as unique is our ability to experience beauty.
When Rivka was told that she will be the mother of two nations, and that the two children within her will have descendants who epitomize this greatness.
Rashi quotes the Talmud as telling us that the one who exemplifies the greatness of the Jews was Rebbe, Rav Yehuda HaNassi who compiled the Mishneh, which is the core of the oral law. The other was Antonius (who some of you know as Marcus Aurelius’, the philosopher king) who exemplified the best of Western thought. Both of them were so wealthy that they were able to put winter vegetables like radish, along with summer vegetables like lettuce in an era in which refrigeration was non-existent and transportation was primitive. The first time I read this I was astounded. That’s what makes someone great? Lettuce? Radish? Why isn’t the Mishneh mentioned, or Marcus Aurelius’ contribution to Western thought? Maharal explains that introducing beauty, harmony and plentitude to physical experience is something only humans can do.
Today I asked a class how many of the girls have pets. About four girls have dogs. As much as they love their pets, they know that they will never buy Fido or Spot, great art, moving literature or profound ideas. They don’t need fine China and silver. All of these capacities are spiritual. Love of beauty is rooted in an inner need for harmony, truth and grace. Its power is greatest when the beauty you see is spiritual beauty. When I was in Bnei Brak I saw a handful of really beautiful people.
To keep things going, my students had a contest in which they counted the number of synagogues and of kids they passed on our nighttime walk from one end of Bnei Brak to the other. The numbers were unbelievable, but the beauty hidden within the anonymous faces of the gorgeous kids is even more astounding.