A Student's Journey, A Teacher's Pride
As a teacher, I try to share insights and teachings that I think my students will find powerful, uplifting, and helpful to their lives. Every once in and while though, I hear something from a student that just blows me away, something which causes me to wonder – who is the student and who is the teacher? I assume this is what the Talmudic sage Rabbi Hanina meant when he famously remarked: “I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students, I have learned more than from all of them” (Ta’anit 7a). Two days ago, my student and friend Daniel Wallach, sent me the below speech he delivered to his peers at Machon Yaacov, the Yeshiva in Jerusalem where he has been studying for the last year and a half. Daniel, who hails from Palo Alto, California is an actor with a special interest in Shakespeare who showed up at MJE on a random Saturday morning in the Spring of 2019. Although raised in a more secular environment, Daniel has always been troubled with a loud and persistent question: what does it mean to be Jewish? When he showed that fateful Shabbat morning, Daniel told me that he ordered my book (“Beyond the Instant”) online and had just finished it the night before. He was now coming to MJE “for more”. We immediately clicked. Daniel started coming to the MJE minyan on Shabbat, classes during the week, joined us on our trip to Israel that summer, and eventually enrolled in MJE’s year-long Fellowship program. When Covid hit and the world of acting and Broadway shut down, Daniel took advantage of this lull in his career to study Torah in Jerusalem and that’s where he is now.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m really proud of him. The Talmud says that “one may become envious of anyone else, except his child or his student” (Sanhedrin 102b) and so I am delighted to share Daniel’s powerful speech which he delivered just last Shabbat in Jerusalem to his fellow Yeshiva bachurs (students). I hope you enjoy it. I know I did.
ALL-ONE by Daniel Wallach [given to the Second year class on Shabbat with a soap bar wrapper in hand, 12/24/21]
“For this is my goal: to reach that unreachable star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far! To fight for the right without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause. For I know if I follow this glorious quest, that my heart will lay peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest. For I know that all will be better for this: That one man, tortured, blinded, covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage, to reach that unreachable star, ‘till united All-One we are, the whole human race in Astronomy’s eternally tremendous All-One- God-Faith! – Dr. Bronners All-One Pure-Castile Soap. Non Gmo verified. I’ve been buying this same bar of Eucalyptus freshness from the health foods store on Kanfei for well over year now. At about twenty three shekels, it doesn’t come cheap. Yesterday while I wasn’t paying attention to an important shiur, I began to slowly unwrap the newly bought bar of soap I had in my pocket so as to take in that eucalyptus essence I enjoy so much. And then for the first time, as I was ever so slowly tearing the paper apart, making sure not to cause a distraction as I so often do, my eyes began to focus on the fine print where the words of Rav Dr. Bronner found me. They had been in my hand over and over again for a year of my life but only yesterday did my eyes meet them. This ridiculous poem that gave me such joy. A poem about reaching above ourselves towards something bigger. A poem about standing up for what’s right and true no matter what pains the world has in store. A poem about faith in an All-One God.
Gentlemen, I’ve been thinking about the world after yeshiva. Terrifying, isn’t it? There is soon going to be a time when we are no longer in this loving, nurturing, intellectually and spiritually enriching environment. Yes, I will have everyone in this room on speed dial, starting with Rabbi Lynn. Shlomo’s going to approve all of my Shidduch dates, Adam Bernstein is going to suffer my prank calls, And Frank’s going to become my Rebbe. But the world? People? Jews and Gentiles? My own industry? Nature? What does a yeshiva boy make of the world around him?
Every Shabbos we recite chapter nineteen of Tehillim. The perek begins with Hashamayim Misofrim c’vod kol uma’aseh yadav magid harakiya “The heavens declare the glory of Hashem, and the sky tells of the work of his hands”. This passage describes the greatness of Hashem that can be found in the natural world. Yet there’s a dramatic shift in the middle of the perek when it says Toras Hashem Tamima nefesh machkimas Pesi “The Torah of Hashem is perfect; it restores the soul. The testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple one wise”. The Malbim makes sense out of this duality with the notion that Hashem has provided us with two books to study, two sefers with which to come to know him; Creation and Torah. We’ve grown deeply in our study of Torah, but what of the Sefer of creation? What of everything that exists within and beyond the walls of the Beis Medrash? Rabbi Dov Keilson explains the call of Bechinah in his reflections on Chovos HaLevavos Shaar Bechinah. “Bechinah means to observe, to reflect, to examine, to look into, and to see with depth and understanding. It means to do that which we naturally do not do. It means to open our eyes, both literally and figuratively”.
My friends. Make the whole world a Yeshiva! Make a Sefer out of each person you meet. Jew and Gentile. Mine them for truth and beauty even if bitterness is the first taste when you bite into the surface of their persona. Do the same for art, films, and books. What isn’t true will be clear to you. What isn’t for you will become clear to you. Take in every detail and nuance of your commute to work. Go out of your way to make brachas over natural wonders. Let sounds, smells, tastes, colors, weird architecture, strange things, funny faces, and odd animals wash over you like a poem written by God almighty. This is His world. Find Him in everything. Curiosity is not a danger to our Yiddishkeit no matter what some may tell you. Not if one is grounded in truth and torah. Curiosity killed the cat? What a foolish idea. Curiosity killed the cat until it realized it had nine long lives to explore while grounded on four legs. Make a sefer out of his trees, his lakes, and his mighty mountains. Rav Shlomo here told me of a story this week about Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. In the final years of his life, the great leader of German Jewry announced a trip to the Swiss Alps. When asked about why he was undertaking such an exhausting journey at his age, Rabbi Hirsch replied “I may have only a few years left, and when I stand before the Almighty on Judgment Day, I don’t want Him to ask me, ‘Shimshon, why didn’t you see My Alps?”
Rabbi Keilson writes about two faces Yiras Hashem, the fear of God. Yiras Ha’onesh, fear of punishment, and yiras haromeimus, awe of Hashem’s infinite greatness. Bechinah, opening your eyes to everything around you, is so much of the ‘how’ to build this awareness. To build this relationship. The opportunities are endless and Hashem put them there for us to find him. To find the three dimensionality of his oneness. To make the sense of God in our lives almost tangible.
Dr. Bronners All-One Pure Castile Soap. It’s not a perek in tehilllim. It’s not found in this week’s Parsha. It’s not even extrapolated on within the Zohar. It’s just a wrapper of an overpriced bar of soap. A piece of paper I tossed into the trash over and over again. Until I opened my eyes. And read a dumb poem. But still, a poem about the oneness of God. Do you see what I’m getting at? The oneness of God had been right in front of me, sometimes in my very hand! And over and over again I tossed it or turned away because I wasn’t looking. I wasn’t curious. My eyes were shut. I was going about my days passing by all of the opportunities to find Ha Kadosh Boruch Hu.
So now I’m working on this muscle. I’m trying to build awe. Awareness. Bechinah. And when I go out into the world once I leave Har Nof, learning will be what’s sitting on my shtender and everything beyond it. I invite you to share in the same.
Gentlemen, I wish you a merry Shabbos and a gevaldig New Year!