Missing the Rabbi

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22 Feb 2006
Rabbi Shlomo Twersky,ztl, with his son, some years ago.

Most people are highly corruptible. They may have ideals and lofty visions, but very often, they can be deflected off course by their own drives and desires.

The Rabbi was incorruptible. I knew it when I sat across from him during one of our private talks, and I knew it as I watched him speak in front of a group. He spoke slowly, and everything outside of his very presence went on hold. Even a person without much discernment or taste for truth might know that they were hearing something out of the ordinary.

It was a rare exposure to truth. But that wasn’t all. I had known people who called a spade a spade. In the past, I had gravitated to poets and artists who were busy trying to unearth it. But this was different. His truth was inseparable from himself. He was truth. When he made his fried egg in the morning. When he ate it. When he spoke to us in the middle of his breakfast and explained a passage from the prayer service or which blessing to make on oatmeal. When he poured his cup of coffee. He was always himself without any posturing or apologizing.

I was privileged to know him for only nine months, but I virtually lived in his house during that time. Others certainly knew him better and far longer than I knew him. Maybe they have more stories and memories to draw on. But I met him when I was delicately aware as only a new creation is aware.

The transforming had begun over a period of time in Maine, but it accelerated dramatically after I experienced the beauty of one Shabbos in Jerusalem. I had a return ticket back home, and I forfeited it to stay and learn more. Ten months later, I met my husband who proposed that we get married in Denver with the Rabbi who had forged his identity as a Jew.

My journey had taken me from the seacoast of Maine to Jerusalem where being more and more Jewish felt as natural as breathing the air. I felt resistant to this sudden move back to America, but I looked at my husband-to-be, took a deep breath, and believed him when he said that standing in his Rabbi’s house, I would not be leaving Jerusalem. Because being near the Rabbi, I would have my best chance to encounter the greatness of a Jewish soul.

I was not disappointed. In fact, the experience of knowing the Rabbi continues to influence my life and is not diminished by the passage of time.

The things he told me are as searing now as they were at the time they were spoken. I still find myself consulting him by speculating in which direction he would guide my footsteps. I last saw him many years ago, and today I found myself missing him intensely.

It wasn’t only the truth that he taught. He taught profound lessons about loving through the way he loved us. If the truth had some hard edges, he always softened them with his gentle, loving eyes. His gaze was penetrating, but there was so much love welling up in his eyes. I felt like one of his daughters. Like a father, he was showing me what I would need to know to carry me through life.

He didn’t talk about “easy” things. If we wanted the truth, we knew it wouldn’t be easy. But we should wake up looking forward to the battle each day. Not that it was a drudge. He said we should find joy in the battle, and we believed him when he said that the joy was there. Because on his face, there was tremendous struggle, but there was also tremendous joy. The joy that he was alive and that we were alive, and that we were having a real dialogue.

I didn’t want to spend all our Shabbosom at the Rabbi’s table where we were often among thirty or more guests. I wanted to make my own Shabbos, but the Rabbi urged me to come and learn from him just that first year of my marriage. I saw how he poured the wine for Kiddush, and how he gently rested his hands on the velvet cloth that covered the loaves of challah. I watched him as he smelled the spices on Friday nights, and I heard him singing melodies that brought tears to my eyes.

When I told him that I wanted to set right the misconception that Orthodox women are oppressed, he told me that he wished that it was only a misconception. Immediately, he clarified his answer by explaining that there is absolutely no oppression of women in the Torah, but oppression can happen in the course of life’s power struggles. Unfortunately, Torah observant people may also get caught up in these dynamics. He invited me to come with him on an exploration of what the Torah, itself, has to say about women.

His answers were never predictable, hardly ever black and white. I remember him saying that truth is an area rather than only one point.

With his guidance, we found places in ourselves that we never knew existed — reservoirs of strength that gave us greater clarity. A friend from that time in the Rabbi’s house came to visit us in Jerusalem recently, and he told us a story that reminded me what it was like to encounter the Rabbi.

My friend had met the Rabbi when he flew out to Denver for my wedding. A few weeks later he was faced with a vitally important life decision. He had asked various people for advice, and he had heard a lot of opinions supporting one or the other choice. It seemed to him that his whole life depended on making the right decision.

He was unable to decide by himself, and he felt so strongly that the Rabbi would be able to help him that he flew out to Denver again, just a month after he’d been there for my wedding.

They sat face to face at the Rabbi’s dining room table, and my friend presented the pros and cons of choosing one or the other. It took him about a quarter of an hour to lay the whole thing out, and the Rabbi sat silently and listened. Until that moment the Rabbi hadn’t said anything, but then he stood up and slapped my friend on the back, “Well, take a shot at one or the other.” And then he left the room.

At first, my friend was stymied. He wasn’t sure if the Rabbi had really understood his dilemma, but then he reflected on the confrontation he had just experienced and realized that the Rabbi was telling him something he hadn’t expected to hear. The Rabbi was telling him that the choice between one or the other was not the crux of the matter. His own personal growth might not depend so much on the environment he found himself in, but rather on the way he, himself, chose to respond. The Rabbi had swerved him away from obsessing about the external factors and had changed the emphasis to the quality of his inner life and depth of commitment.

At another time, the Rabbi told one of his closest students, who also came to him with a difficult life-decision question: “Listen, my friend. I wish I could tell you what to do, but you have to know that the place of a decision is the loneliest place in the world.”

He was a great Torah scholar and came from a long line of Chassidic Rebbes starting from the Baal Shem Tov. It was clear to us that the Rabbi was a great man, although he was far from famous in the world’s eyes. It was only a few years before he passed away that people in other cities like Los Angeles and Baltimore began to hear of him and invite him to lecture in their communities.

The fifteen or twenty people who were his closest students virtually lived in his house. My husband drove with him to the dry cleaner and worked beside him in the meat-packing house as the Rabbi checked the lungs to see if the animals were fit to eat.

Whether we were baking matzohs, cleaning up after Purim, or scouring the pots, the Rabbi worked with tremendous patience and understanding to bring out the greatness and humanity in each one of us. He never presented the directions on a silver platter. Life isn’t that simple. He stood among us and tried to draw us out, drawing out the essence of each person.

On Thursday nights, we gathered in his kitchen to cook the Shabbos food together, and there was the Rabbi standing over his gigantic cholent pot. He wore a one-piece worksuit that zippered up the front, and it had a fine layer of flour from working on the challohs.

The Rabbi was preparing the Shabbos food with us, and he was also making people. He watched as I struggled to stir a triple batch of cookies and suggested that I use the electric mixer, remarking that I tend to do things the hard way. That simple comment has reverberated many times since that Thursday night and caused me to re-evaluate choices I would make over the years.

The Rabbi didn’t make baal tshuvahs, he made people. He didn’t have to sell the Torah, because he trusted that it was compelling enough to sell itself. What the Jewish world needed was real people who were fulfilling their individual potential instead of being the shadow of what they could be by simply taking on the roles and uniforms of Jews committed to Torah observance.

He took on the job of believing in us and encouraging us forward as we struggled to grow out of our pat identities and build on the best facets of our personalities. In a real sense, he was raising us along with his children and his grandchildren, and we felt it as we sat among his family on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Another time, he explained in a beautiful and succinct way what lay at the bottom of the rampant family problems of our generation. He cited the more recent phenomenon of the woman’s absence from the house where the care of children is left to babysitters and housekeepers. He pointed out that this development was preceded by the man’s exodus from the house, as his career and workplace became the most important factors in his life. The Rabbi said that the woman is just following her husband out of the house. And the solution is not to drag her back to the house, but to get her husband first, restoring the former importance that homelife had in both women’s and men’s lives.

In the Rabbi’s presence, we felt connected to eternal truths. Elsewhere, there might be ready answers to our questions, but here we glimpsed the light of eternity clarifying the issues that troubled us. The Rabbi was always incredibly accessible and giving of himself, even during his last illness.

Standing next to the Rabbi, we felt that we might even be able to shake up the world and change it for the better. One Shavuos night after davening, he turned to the group coming with him to the evening meal. And speaking with tremendous conviction and emphasis, he said, “We can go back to the beginning! We can go back tonight and we can do it right!” And everyone believed it was possible.

In the holy books, especially the Chassidic seforim, we find this concept of attaching oneself to a Tzaddik, a specially holy and righteous person. With the Rabbi, we felt that we stood in the presence of a whole person, a totally “real” person who never, for a moment, took his finger from the pulse of reality.

Through his eyes, we could see soberly and clearly, and the world that often appeared upside-down, could turn right side up. It was a rare privilege, and something that may not happen more than once in a person’s life — to know someone as good and true as this. When I miss him, I feel connected again to knowing what is possible, and that knowing helps me to find the pulse again.

In memory of Rabbi Ben Tzion Chaim Shlomo Meshulam Zusha Twerski, zatzal, Admor of Hornosteipel and Rav of Denver, CO.

Varda Branfman has been living with her family in Jerusalem for the last 22 years. A former Director of the Maine Poets-in-the Schools Program, she now runs workshops in using writing for healing and reaching breakthrough insights. This piece is excerpted from Varda’s book I REMEMBERED IN THE NIGHT YOUR NAME which can be ordered at vardab@netvision.net.il.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.