June 15, 2024
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Finding Inspiration at the Annual Shabbat HaGadol Drasha

After leaving my shul this past Motzei Shabbat and hearing the always inspiring and heartfelt words of my rabbi, Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Aaron, I felt I should write something both about what I heard at the drasha and a bit more about my connection to the minhag of the rabbi’s Shabbat HaGadol drasha.

From about my bar mitzvah years until my early-mid 20s, I always tried to make sure I was with my father on Shabbat Hagadol (and Shabbat Shuva also) at our main shul in Kew Gardens Hills, Congregation Nachlas Yitzchok, led ably to this day by Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum. On Shabbat HaGadol afternoon there was little time to nap as we had to be back at shul only an hour or so after we finished lunch—usually about 30-45 minutes before the Shabbat HaGadol drasha was supposed to begin. Why? Because we had to get there extra-early in order to ensure that we got a seat. By the time we got there, only 30 minutes early or so, it was likely that our regular seats were taken and we would have to find a different spot. There were usually no seats left by about 15 minutes left before the drasha started. Guests would walk in from all over Queens to hear Rabbi Oelbaum speak. The drasha was standing-room only—the hottest ticket in town. The room buzzed with anticipation. Pre-shiur discussions often centered on what was remembered from prior years’ drashot.

Rabbi Oelbaum would walk in with a thick, heavy binder of sources and proceed to speak almost uninterruptedly for approximately three hours, with everyone in attendance hanging onto literally every word. He would often start off with a series of questions—sometimes a dozen or more—about Pesach or some related Torah concept, and then proceed with a mix of stories, humor, insights and fascinating explanations to answer every question he posed. It was an incredible learning and intellectual tour de force as we in the audience tried to keep up with Rabbi Oelbaum and keep all of the ideas and answers together in our minds; it was not easy. I still remember my grandfather, z”l, being there one year and proudly shouting out to the rabbi his own thoughts as to what the rabbi’s next words would be—he was usually right—and how respectfully Rabbi Oelbaum responded to him.

It’s hard to fully describe this experience if you haven’t been there, but I can tell you that even as a typical, bookish, somewhat nerdy teenager, I was never bored or wishing I was back home reading. There was a certain energy in that room that was palpable—and it still is today from what my father tells me. Part of me still misses being there.

Although I have not been able to get back to Queens for Shabbat HaGadol over the past two decades, the memories of those drashot live on within me and I have long looked forward to my own shul’s Shabbat HaGadol drasha given by my MTA, YU and RIETS classmate Rabbi Larry Rothwachs. (One day I will write a separate column about how special he is and how even though he and I used to be peers, and although I am both taller and larger than him, he is now a good number of madreigot above me and is someone I truly look up to on many levels.)

With a completely different style and approach than Rabbi Oelbaum of Queens, Rabbi Rothwachs’ drashot have also had a tremendous impact on me over the past two decades or so. This year’s drasha was no exception. This year, the title was “Reviving the Somnolent Soul of Orthodox Jewry.” The rabbi began by asking the assembled crowd for forgiveness for using the relatively obscure word “somnolent” and explaining why he needed to do so.

Rabbi Rothwachs delved into many diverse sources and ideas presented over the 1.5-hour drasha; the shiur was a home run, as Rabbi Rothwachs addressed both himself and our community in challenging all of those assembled about the need for passion, excitement, “soul” and emunah in all that we are doing as Orthodox Jews.

Of note, Rabbi Rothwachs resolved publicly in the drasha to never take his cellphone into shul ever again, as he cited evidence and studies that show that even the presence of a phone being worn or lying in front of a person significantly affects the ability of that person to focus on tasks, solve problems and think clearly. In a lighter vein, Rabbi Rothwachs also jokingly asked his wife to find him a proper tefillin mirror as he will no longer have the mirror-like screen of his phone to check to make sure his Tefillin Shel Rosh is positioned properly.

I do not think that anyone could have left that drasha without feeling uplifted and more positive and taken by the depth of Rabbi Rothwachs’ passion and desire to be a stronger, better Jew, rabbi and role model for our community. In truth, I feel that way every year after his drashot.

As Orthodox Jews, I find that we are always looking for moments, minutes or even hours of inspiration and reinforcement for our connection to each other and to Yiddishkeit and Torah, and for some, these moments happen multiple times daily. For others, they are few and far between. Some are inspired daily by tefillah or Torah learning, others by baking matzot for Pesach (as some of my friends who go every year tell me) or by grating the maror used in the charoset by hand (a custom of my wife’s family on Erev Pesach). For me, on the Shabbat before Pesach over the past 30 years or so and in the future, I know I can always count on my rabbi’s drasha to be such a moment for me as well. Chag kasher v’sameach!

(Publisher’s Note: As we went to print on Tuesday night, Rabbi Rothwachs informed me that his daughter Shani Benovitz had just had a baby girl and he and his wife are now grandparents for the first time. Mazal Tov!)

By Moshe Kinderlehrer, Co-Publisher, Jewish Link of New Jersey

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