June 23, 2024
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B’roto Yeladav Ma’aseh Yadai B’Kirbo: On the Spiritual Fortitude of Our Young in the Pandemic

One could certainly forgive anyone from feeling somewhat dispirited these days, even as we find ourselves once again during the heady, redemptive days of Nisan.

As such, it seems appropriate to make a modest effort at alleviating some of the communal angst by sharing unequivocally positive developments that have taken place over the course of this most challenging year. The goal of relaying this particular story is not to offer a distraction from the very real pain we have endured, personally, familially and communally. Rather, it is an opportunity to reflect on what is a substantive manifestation of authentic devotion that a group (see opposite page) of young people in our community have demonstrated to our national raison d’etre, talmud Torah, under plainly adverse conditions, and to try to temper some of the immediate and fully understandable concern with optimism borne of a longer=-term perspective.

Over the course of the last year, shifting back and forth from in-person study to Zoom, a group of middle school students have met every single Sunday morning as part of the Herman Jenkelowitz Memorial Mishnah Program at The Jewish Center of Teaneck to study and complete the mishnayot of Bava Kamma and Bava Metzia. They have done so in the very finest tradition of temidim k’sidran, without having missed a single week of study, including over summer and yeshiva breaks. They have done so in the cold, they have done so in masks, and they have done so with distancing. They have done so without receiving any incentives, or grades, or even the doughnuts they enjoyed in pre-pandemic days, but as an expression of commitment to Torah lishma, Torah learning for its own sake, as its own reward.

It is a well-established halachic principle that tefillah during a time of crisis has a different standing than tefillah in ordinary circumstances. For Rambam, the two comprise two completely separate Torah-level mitzvot1. For Ramban, even more dramatically, it is crisis per se that has the potential2 to elevate tefillah from a mitzvah of rabbinic origin3 to one of Torah-level significance.

What is perhaps less well understood is that a parallel phenomenon exists, according to Rambam, with respect to talmud Torah4. To be sure, talmud Torah is always a mitzvah of Torah-level significance, and the capacious scope of the mitzvah, even in its most basic form, encompasses each and every day of a person’s life, to the very last5, and subsumes even an individual in duress suffering from congenital ailments6.

And yet, there are qualitative gradations with respect to the fulfillment of this most cardinal mitzvah. Rambam, in discussing the optimal fulfillment of the mitzvah of talmud Torah, with respect to one who aspires to the keter Torah, the crown of Torah, explicitly notes how this superior fulfillment of the mitzvah7 correlates with those who are prepared to learn Torah under adverse circumstances, at much greater personal sacrifice8. Indeed, Rambam associates this qualitatively superior fulfillment of talmud Torah with a far greater level of numinous bonding with Torah and its Giver, as evidenced, amongst other manifestations of this cleaving to Torah, by more successful retention9.

To be sure, the paragon of this ethic, as described so evocatively in the Talmud, was none other than the erstwhile indigent Hillel. Bereft of even the paltry entry fee to the beit midrash, Hillel was prepared to bear the freezing cold of the winter to listen to the Torah of Shemaya and Avtalyon via an aperture in the ceiling of the beit midrash. The Talmud concludes, simply but dramatically, Hillel mechayev et ha-aniyim, Hillel’s efforts in Torah study oblige even the most indigent10.

While the young men with whom I was privileged to study thankfully did not have to contend with the extreme socioeconomic challenges Hillel faced, though, as mentioned, they too knew their share of highly inclement weather, there can be little doubt that their effort represented a clear fulfillment of Rambam’s notion of the singular value of talmud Torah undertaken under conditions that were far from conducive.

As developed11 so magnificently by our communal polestar, the Rav, zt”l, whose 28th yahrtzeit we will mark this Pesach, our response to crisis, personal or communal, is defined not by posing futile, and ultimately insoluble, questions as objects of fate (goral), but the constructive, productive, resilient posture of a people of destiny (yi’ud). We do not seek to penetrate the inscrutable algorithms of Divine calculus, but rather to take still greater devotion to those values we hold dear, to spiritual purgation and elevation, to refining ourselves in His service.

It is especially heartening to bear personal witness to young people who have intuited the need for this response and who have proven that this pandemic will not break our youth, but, on the contrary, fortify and steel them for a life of unstinting avodat Hashem irrespective of any subsequent challenges life may bring in coming decades.

Learning with them, I often thought of Rambam’s presentation of the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, in which he elaborates on the singular role that a certain special group of the young played in elevating the entire Jewish community during a time of distress, citing the verse in Yeshayahu, “lo ata yevosh Yaakov v’lo ata panav yechevaru… ki b’iroto yeladav ma’aseh yadai b’kirbo yakdishu shimi…12” Indeed, witnessing the spiritual fortitude of our very own young, mutatis mutandis, can and should inspire us all.

II.

While there can be little doubt that this tragic centennial event will be the formative experience of today’s youth, the purely negative associations often attached to that assessment strike me not merely as premature but as altogether unwarranted.

On the contrary, in the unbroken tradition of generations of our ancestors, described by Yirmiyahu as an am seridei charev, we are a nation that has been, and continues to be, defined by resilience. The hard lessons of today’s adversity will, I believe, in every fiber of my being, yield a far brighter tomorrow: ha-zorim b’dimah, b’rinah yiktzoru.

Whether it is with respect to commitment to talmud Torah regardless of circumstances, as manifested so magnificently by this particular group; ahavat chesed, a deep appreciation of the need for intergenerational kindness; va’chai bahem and tzelem Elokim, a life of devotion to advancing public health and the sanctity of life; or hakarat hatov, an instinctive sense of gratitude for life’s true necessities, that had too often been occluded by a creeping sense of entitlement and excess in pre-pandemic times, the capacity of calamity to clarify holds great promise for our next generation.

As we approach the Yom Tov most centered on the motif of intergenerational transmission, we have much regarding which to be deeply optimistic. Chag kasher v’sameach13.


Rabbi Daniel Fridman is the Rabbi of The Jewish Center of Teaneck and Sgan Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Academy of Bergen County.


1 See Sefer Ha-Mitzvot 5, and 59, respectively.

2 The Ramban is admittedly tentative in his formulation of this doctrine.  See Hasagot Ha-Ramban L’Sefer Ha-Mitzvot 5.

3 Reb Chaim assumed that even Ramban would concede that, even if the obligation is rabbinic, the kiyum, fulfillment, is of Torah-level significance.  See Chidushei Rabbenu Chaim Ha-Levi al Ha-Rambam Hilchot Tefillah.

4 Perhaps unsurprisingly, in consideration of Rambam’s understanding of the unique relationship between Torah and tefillah. See Sefer HaMitzvot Mitzvot Aseh No.5.

5 Ad eimatai chayav lilmod Torah? Ad yom moto (Talmud Torah 1:10).

6 Kol ish mi-Yisrael chayav b’Talmud Torah…bein shalem b’gufo bein ba’al yissurin (Talmud Torah 1:8).

7 Mi SheNesa’o Libo L’Kayyem Mitzvah Zo KaRaui V’Lihiyot Muchtar B’Keter Torah (Talmud Torah 3:6)

8 Rambam, Talmud Torah 3:6. Twice within this halacha, Rambam references the role of  tza’ar in this optimal version of the mitzvah.

9 Rambam Talmud Torah 3:12.

10 Yoma 35b.

11 See Kol Dodi Dofek.

12 Yeshayahu 29:22-23

13 I wish to thank Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, who spent his Sunday mornings, during his tenure as rabbi of what was then the Roemer shul,  teaching a previous generation of middle schoolers the mishnayot of Bava Kama and Bava Metzia. The over quarter century that has elapsed since those days has only heightened my sense, as it concerns this limud, that sheli v’shelahem shelo hu.

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