Rabbi Avraham Genachovsky (1936-2013) was the Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) of Yeshivas Kochav MiYaakov, the Tchebiner Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He was beloved and revered by the greatest rabbis of his time as well as the simplest Jews. His profound understanding of Torah and his tremendous sensitivity to others were the hallmarks of his life. These stories were adapted from the pamphlet Ish L’rei’ehu, October, 2013, and the biography Vayomer Hineni, published by Kol Chotzev.
The bride and groom were ecstatic that the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Avraham Genichovsky, had agreed to perform their wedding ceremony. The rabbi was legendary for his devotion to Torah study and massive teaching schedule, so they knew he needed to get home right after the chupa to prepare for his Torah classes the next day.
After the ceremony was over and the Rosh Yeshiva wished the families well, a small crowd of other rabbis and students accompanied him to the taxi stand that was near the wedding hall. There was a bus stop right next to the line of taxis, and a bus was pulling in to discharge passengers.
Rabbi Genachovsky’s eyes quickly scanned the bus windows, and he suddenly stopped short.
“I must take the bus home,” he said to those next to him.
“But Rebbie,” they protested. “The groom’s father is paying for you to get a cab to take you home right away. It’s so much faster and more comfortable!”
“No, no, I’ll be fine. I must get on this bus. Thank you anyway.”
To the surprise of everyone around him, the rabbi alighted onto the bus with such purpose that it seemed as if there was someone or something on that bus he just had to see.
The bus was packed, but everyone recognized the great rabbi and rose for him, offering their seats. He politely declined, and made a beeline to the one pair of seats where the sole occupant had paid him no attention. It was Yankel, known throughout Bnei Brak as a man with severe psychological problems and poor personal hygiene. Yankel had no family or friends, and was cantankerous and nasty to anyone who approached him.
Rabbi Genachovsky, who obviously had recognized Yankel from the street, approached him carefully. Yankel took up one seat, and had an assortment of plastic bags that spilled over onto part of the other seat in the pair. People were cringing at what Yankel might say, and a young rabbi approached Rabbi Genachovsky and pleaded with him to take his seat. “Not for a million dollars,” whispered the rabbi before he turned to the difficult man seated before him.
“Yankel,” said the rabbi, very gently, standing in the aisle.
“What do you want?!” shouted Yankel grumpily.
“May I sit next to you?”
“No! Can’t you see that I’m taking up one and a half seats?”
People were ready to faint. What a humiliation for one of the greatest rabbis in Israel! Someone got up to intervene, but the rabbi raised his hands as if to say “Don’t worry, I got this”.
“In that case, perhaps you’ll let me squeeze into just half a seat?” said the rabbi with a smile.
Yankel frowned at the rabbi. Finally, he let out a curmudgeonly sigh that sounded like the hiss of a steam engine, and reluctantly made room on the second seat.
The great rabbi sat down, trying hard not to take up too much room and impose on Yankel’s space.
“So, Yankel, how are things going for you lately?” he asked.
“Lousy!” And, to the horror of the other passengers, Yankel unleashed a torrent of nonsense and profanities to the rabbi.
Rabbi Genachovsky turned to Yankel, who was red-faced by now, and said, “Yankel, I’m terribly sorry, but I need to close my eyes for a little while. I may fall asleep, but you can wake me if I miss anything important.”
The rabbi closed his eyes, and Yankel’s stream of obscenities ground to a halt. Yankel felt he should stop, since the rabbi’s eyes were closed. Yankel turned to look out the window.
Ten minutes later the rabbi opened his eyes and noticed he was nearing his home. He turned to Yankel and said, “My stop is coming up next, so I have to go.”
He gave Yankel a little hug and said “It was so enjoyable to see you again.”
The rabbi smiled and rose to go, and Yankel felt respected and important. Only later did the people at the wedding figure out just why the rabbi decided to take the bus.
Once Rabbi Genachovsky had a student who required psychiatric therapy but was too embarrassed to go alone to the therapist. In order to encourage him, the rabbi said he’d go with the young man and stay in the waiting room. While the student was being seen by the therapist, a man he knew walked into the waiting room for the next appointment. Rabbi Genachovsky saw the man recoil with discomfort at having been seen by the rabbi at a psychiatrist’s office. The rabbi immediately went to the man and said “I beg of you; please don’t tell anyone you saw me here.” The man was immediately put at ease.
A young Talmid Chacham passed away and left a widow and small orphans. His nine-year-old son was quite unruly in class and could not retain anything he learned. The problem already began two years earlier when his father had taken ill, and could no longer stay on top of his son’s progress in school. It only got worse when the father passed away.
The mother took her son to the psychologist, who diagnosed the boy as hyperactive with major stress. He recommended removing the boy from school for the lion’s share of the day’s learning, as the boy could not be productive in such an intense setting. Further, he felt the boy needed ongoing monthly therapy sessions with him.
The widow couldn’t afford the expensive therapy, and people rallied to her help to raise the money but didn’t know quite how to do so. The dire situation was brought to Rav Genachovsky, who asked “Is it possible to bring the child to me at the Yeshiva?”
A few days later, the boy appeared at the Yeshiva accompanied by his older brother. The Rosh Yeshiva brought the boy into his room, and sat on the floor. He asked the astounded child, “What games do you like to play? Cars? Planes? Tic Tac Toe?”
They played games for an hour, sitting on the floor. At that point, Rav Genachovsky told the boy, “Ok. You have school, and I have a Yeshiva. So we can’t play games any longer. So, I have an idea; listen carefully. Once a week, I will make up a Torah riddle on a piece of paper, and you will present it as a challenge to your classmates. The following week, you’ll come here and tell me which kids got the right answer, and I’ll give you prizes to give out to all the winners. Ready? Here’s the first one: Explain how it is that you can put something in your mouth without eating or swallowing it, yet you make a bracha on it!”
The boys eyes lit up. “I don’t know.”
The rabbi smiled and said “It’s a shofar!”
The boy was so excited that he ran at top speed to his older brother, and couldn’t wait to share this brainteaser with his buddies.
The weekly quiz was a spectacular hit. Not only did it earn his classmates’ participation in the riddles themselves, but they began to include him in other games and activities for which he had always been an outsider. They started accompanying him on his weekly visits back to the Rosh Yeshiva to get the prizes, and he felt like a million dollars to be the center of attention.
After several weeks, the child changed dramatically. He quickly rose to the top of his class, and positive behaviors took the place of all the negative ones. Now full of self esteem, he no longer needed the assistance of therapists. He was a new person, thanks to the special attention given him by Rav Genachovsky.
Shlomo Horwitz is the founding director of Jewish Crossroads, an educational theatre project which has provided creative Torah programming across the US, Canada, England and Israel. He studied at Yeshivat Sha’alvim and Yeshivat Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, at which he received ordination from Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg. Shlomo is a CPA and is a director of a consulting firm near Washington, DC. He can be reached on his site at www.jewishcrossroads.org. This article originally appeared in Hamodia.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.