The Gemara relates that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said: The fact that I am more incisive than my colleagues is due to the fact that I saw Rabbi Meir from behind, i.e., I sat behind him when I was his student. Had I seen him from the front, I would be even more incisive, as it is written: “And your eyes shall see your teacher” (Isaiah 30:20). Seeing the face of one’s teacher increases one’s understanding and sharpens one’s mind.
This is the third post in a series of posts about my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aaron Schechter זצ״ל. Each one of these posts is written in tears. This post was going to be the fourth post. There was another post I had started writing called “The Angels Have Defeated The Sages”, about the suffering and challenges the Rosh Yeshiva זצ״ל overcame without ever compromising his learning and avodas Hashem. However, writing about the Rosh Yeshiva’s yissurim was too painful for me at this point; the pain of his passing is too fresh. I have therefore decided to write about some my impressions of the Torah of the Rosh Yeshiva זצ״ל, as the edicts of Hashem are straight, they gladden the heart.
While I usually preface what I’m writing with a disclaimer that these are just my personal memories and impressions of the Rosh Yeshiva זצ״ל, in this matter it would be silly for me to do so. I’m not so delusional as to believe that anyone would think that I, little Yankel Shore, came to understand even a drop out of the broad oceans that were the Torah, or even the approach to Torah, of a giant like the Rosh Yeshiva זצ״ל. Everyone is already aware that all they can hope to hear from me are nothing more than the table scraps that fell from the Royal banquet! As such I will just apologize for my brazenness to even have the gall to talk about this matter. I hope the reader will forgive me on account of my grief.
The Simple Reading vs. The Reductionist Reading
The Rosh Yeshiva זצ״ל would often emphasize the importance of understanding what the “pushite (simple / straightforward) pshat” was. But he would also emphasize that understanding the simple pshat, required making the effort to appreciate the proper context and the spirit in which something was said in.
To give a simple example, in Parshas Balak, at the Shabbos table in Camp Morris, we learnt the following passuk (Numbers 23:9).
As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations.
The general context here is that Bilaam is hired by Balak to curse the children of Israel, but when he tries, Hashem turns his curses to blessings. The above phrase is part of his first attempt to curse the Jews.
The phrase “I see them from the mountain tops” is ambiguous both in English and in Loshon Kodesh. It could mean either, I see those who are on the mountain top, or I, who am on the mountain top, see them.
Rashi, in explaining this passuk, brings the Medrash Tanchuma that says that “the mountain tops” refers to the great Patriarchs and Matriarchs who laid the foundation of the children of Israel. This implies that it is the children of Israel that are on the mountain top.
The Ramban, on the other hand, explains that Bilaam is referring to the fact that he is viewing them from a mountain top.
As the Ramban points out, the fact that Bilaam is looking down on the Jews from a mountain top is not controversial. The last passuk in the previous Perek says so explicitly.
A student at the table asked the Rosh Yeshiva why Rashi, who usually explains things כפשוטו של מקרא, like the straightforward reading on the text, didn’t explain the passuk like the Ramban’s interpretation, and then possibly add the Medrash as an alternative midrashic interpretation, as he does in many other places.
The Rosh Yeshiva first gave a very straightforward answer - in Bilaam’s ”curses”, he’s not giving a weather report, he’s waxing poetically in praise of klal Yisroel. In poetry, the correct meaning is not the same as the literal meaning. Mentioning the fact that Balak brought Bilaam to a mountain top to look down on the Jews is not really congruent with the gist of what Bilaam was saying. Especially the way our sages interpret the rest of the “curse” (as brought by Rashi).
The Rosh Yeshiva then decided that this was a teachable moment. For the next five minutes or so, the Rosh Yeshiva gave us a schmooze where he corrected various confusions and misconceptions about what “pushite pshat” means and what it doesn’t mean. I could never in a million years expect to do justice to the depth of insight and the clarity of thought the Rosh Yeshiva זצ״ל imparted to us in those 5 or so minutes. I will just relate one phrase that for some reason, echos in my mind. The Rosh Yeshiva said that some think it’s a form of sophistication to be very reductionist and try to reduce the pshat to be as close to the literal meaning of the words. “This is not a form of sophistication,” the Rosh Yeshiva said, “it is a form of blindness!”
The Mind’s Eye
For one summer, I had the opportunity to learn second seder with the Rosh Yeshiva זצ”ל in Camp Morris. We learnt Perek Arba Nedarim that Summer. Before seder, all sorts of people would come to make requests of the Rosh Yeshiva.
Once, an avreich came to get a haskama on a book of diagrams he made for teaching children. I believe it was on the Tabernacle and the clothes of the Cohanim, but I don’t remember for sure.
The Rosh Yeshiva looked at the sefer for a few moments, admired the artwork and accuracy of the diagrams. He then apologized to the author and said that he had no doubt he would get haskomos from great Rabbonim, but that he could not give one. I don’t remember if the Rosh Yeshiva volunteered the reason, or gave it after being asked, but it came out that he was not keen on this kind of educational material in principle. He explained that a rebbe’s job is to help the talmidim learn the passuk or a mishna and create an image in their mind’s eye from the source material and the mefarshim. It’s not to show them a ready made picture that they can retrofit into the source material.
Fortunate are the eyes that merited to gaze upon the Rosh Yeshiva זצ״ל. Even if only from behind.