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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Beha’alotcha: The Speaker

Bamidbar: 11: 29

Rabbi Zuckerman was a saintly man. His every word and gesture exuded kindness and fear of God. He knew the name of every man, woman, and child among the membership of Congregation B’nai Joshua, and in many cases, he knew the names of their pets as well. He was always there when a congregant needed him, whether for a question of Jewish law or for emotional support, and for that, they loved and respected him.

There was just one problem.

Rabbi Noah Zuckerman was not exactly a gifted orator. In fact, someone less kind might suggest that he was a downright terrible speaker (I would never say such a thing, of course, but I’ve heard others intimate something to that effect). He had a difficult time staying on topic. He had a droning voice that could drive the most energized listener into somnolence. He often repeated the same amusing anecdotes. He had a habit of speaking for a few minutes longer than was desired. It’s not a pretty picture. Still, despite the fact that Rabbi Zuckerman was oratorically challenged, his congregation adored him, and did their best to ignore his small shortcoming.

The local rabbinical college, The Rabbi Aaron Baer Borovitch Institute (or RABBI as they affectionately called it), had a mentoring program where experienced community rabbis took on younger colleagues for a year to teach them about serving as synagogue leaders. They had been after Rabbi Zuckerman for years to take an assistant rabbi under his wing at B’nai Joshua, but Rabbi Zuckerman always resisted. “What could I possibly teach a bright, young scholar?” he would say, with his usual modesty. But still, the Rosh Yeshiva (The RABBI’s rabbi, they called him) persisted, and finally Rabbi Z. relented.

Rabbi Aryeh Bahar joined the community as the Assistant Rabbi just after Succot and worked closely with Rabbi Zuckerman, advising families, helping at synagogue functions, and working with the youth. Occasionally he spoke at the Hashkamah Minyan or the youth services, but he never spoke in the main synagogue service on Shabbat. Everyone in the community was very impressed with his drashot, for Aryeh Bahar was a gifted speaker, but no one spoke about it openly, for fear of insulting Rabbi Zuckerman.

When it was near the end of Rabbi Bahar’s year at the synagogue, Rabbi Zuckerman asked Aryeh if he would be interested in giving the drasha at the main minyan on shabbat morning. At first Aryeh demurred, but after a little coaxing, he agreed to address the congregation.

It was Shabbat Parshat Beha’alotcha, and Rabbi Bahar chose to speak about the lighting of the menorah in the Mishkan, the topic which began the weekly parsha. First he tried to get the congregation to picture the scene as Aharon went to light the menorah for the first time. He described the menorah itself, made from mikshah zahav, hammered gold, and tried to get his audience to imagine the excitement as the Kohen Gadol went to kindle the lights. Then Rabbi Bahar related how the whole Mishkan was illuminated by the light of the menorah, and from there he built an image of how our lives are illuminated by the Torah. He started soto voce, in a quiet tone, but by the end of his d’var Torah Aryeh Bahar’s voice was booming, and you could feel his excitement bouncing off the walls of the shul. It was exhilarating.

When Rabbi Bahar was done, he stepped down from the pulpit and stood by his seat, waiting for the chazan to start the Musaf service, but a hush had fallen over the shul. You could actually hear someone say “wow” under his breath. Finally, the chazan remembered to go to the bimah and start the recitation of Kaddish, and the service resumed.

After the davening was completed, the congregants rushed up to Rabbi Bahar to wish him a “yasher koach” on his inspiring drasha.

Rabbi Zuckerman also came over to congratulate his protégé. As he walked up to Aryeh, congregants were still praising his speech with ebullience.

“Best drasha I’ve heard in years,” Manny Feingold said.

“What a breath of fresh air,’ Sid Heilbronner added.

“I haven’t been inspired by a rabbi’s speech like that since, well, I can’t remember,” Mirriam Mandelbaum concurred.

Rabbi Zuckerman cleared his throat and all conversation stopped.

“Oh Rabbi, I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you standing there,” Mrs. Mandelbaum said. “You didn’t hear all that, did you?”

Rabbi Zuckerman smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s all good.”

“What do you mean?” Mr. Heilbronner asked.

“In this week’s parsha, when Moshe Rabbeinu feels overwhelmed by leading the entire Jewish people, he asks Hashem for help. God has Moshe bring 70 zekeinim, elders, to the Mishkan and gives them the power of nevuah, prophecy. When two of the new nevi’im, Eldad and Meidad, start giving prophecy in the camp of Israel and not at the Tabernacle, Yehoshua, Moshe’s right hand man, wants to lock them up, but Moshe says Umi titein kol am Hashem nevi’im. Ki yitein Hashem et rucho aleihem. Would that the entire people of Hashem be prophets, if Hashem would but place His spirit upon them.

“Moshe isn’t jealous. He’s glad that the spirit of God is in more people. He wants everyone to achieve closeness to God.

“I feel the same way. I couldn’t be prouder that Aryeh is such a great speaker. I wish more people could be brought close to Hashem by his inspiring words.

“That reminds me of a story,” Rabbi Zuckerman said. “It’s a little long, but I think you’ll like it. Once, in the town of Pinsk—”

“That’s really nice, Rabbi, but I think my wife is calling me,” Manny Feingold said.

“Sorry, Rabbi, I’m invited for lunch, and they’re waiting for me,” Sid Heilbronner said.

“I’ll have to take a rain check on that story, Rabbi. Maybe later,” Mirriam Mandelbaum said.

The congregants fled, and Rabbis Zuckerman and Bahar were left standing alone.

Rabbi Zuckerman patted Aryeh Bahar on the back. “Works every time,” he said.

“I still have so much to learn,” Rabbi Bahar observed.

By Larry Stiefel

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