It was November, 1938. Dark clouds were gathering over all of Europe, and particularly over the Jewish communities in countries like Poland and Lithuania. Although few foresaw the horrific extent of the Holocaust that lay ahead, everyone knew that those communities were in very grave danger.
One man, a teacher and leader of those communities, found himself in the United States at that auspicious moment. He was preparing to return to his responsibilities back home in Eastern Europe, particularly to return to his students at the yeshiva he led there.
His friends and supporters in the United States pleaded with him not to return. I personally was privileged to know one of those friends, Mr. Charles Fogel, who implored this leader to remain in the safety of the United States. He steadfastly refused. “I belong with my talmidim, with my disciples in the yeshiva,” he insisted.
This leader’s name was Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, himself the foremost disciple of the Chofetz Chaim, the great sage of pre-World War II Europe, with whom you, dear reader, may be familiar from previous editions of Person in the Parsha. Rav Elchonon, as he was known to his many followers, already had many accomplishments to his credit, including several major published works and commentaries on the Talmud.
But Rav Elchonon’s core pride and joy was the yeshiva he created for early teenage youngsters, preparatory to their going on to higher institutes of Jewish learning. The yeshiva was known by the name of the town in which it was located, Baranovitch.
Rav Elchonon insisted upon leaving the safe haven in which he then found himself in order to return to that yeshiva and to those youngsters. He said, “I am their father, and they are my children. A father does not abandon his children.”
What was the source of Rav Elchonon’s strong feelings? He had children of his own, some of whom were lost in the Holocaust, and some of whom survived to become teachers and leaders of a future generation. Why was he convinced that the students of his yeshiva were no less children of his than the ones who were his real offspring?
The answer to these questions is to be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar. “These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses at the time that the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai…” (Numbers 3:1). A simple verse indeed; so much so that you, my careful reader, might wonder what homiletic spin can be given to so straightforward a verse.
It is here where the words of an even more vigilant reader are so insightful. That “reader,” of course, is none other than Rashi, who notes that although our verse promises to list the offspring of both Aaron and Moses, only Aaron’s offspring are enumerated. Peruse the rest of the chapter as scrupulously as you wish, and you will find no mention of the descendants of Moses.
Rashi’s answer is deep and powerful: Moses taught Torah to the descendants of Aaron. That made them his descendants, no less than the descendants of their biological ancestor, Aaron. In Rashi’s own words, “He who teaches Torah to his friend’s child is considered by Scripture to be a parent of that child.”
Rav Elchonon took those words to heart, and he felt for his distant students, threatened by Hitler’s clutches, what a father would feel for his children. Remaining behind in a secure sanctuary while his children were in mortal danger was inconceivable to him and completely out of the question. And so, he returned to Europe and met his ultimate fate in the Kovno ghetto at the hands of the Nazi murderers.
As powerful as this story is, there is a footnote which I was personally privileged to hear from one of those students, my own special teacher, my Rebbe, who survived the Holocaust and eventually did make his way to the United States. His name was Rav Shmuel Dovid Warshavshik, of blessed memory.
When the story of Rav Elchonon’s heroism was told, my Rebbe would tell us that as magnificent as that heroism was, it was only part of the story. The rest of the story, Rav Shmuel Dovid would say, was that “we, teenage boys who were stuck alone in Baranovitch, knew that he would return. We were absolutely certain that he would not abandon us and that he would risk his life to rejoin us. We knew he considered himself a father, and we felt that way toward him. We were his children.”
This is the secret of a great teacher. This is the root of all authentic pedagogy. The ability to instill in one’s students the sense that they are cared for by the teacher no less than children are cared for by their parents. Students who are confident in their teacher’s concern for their well-being are capable of the kind of learning that typified the students of those yeshivot of old.
It is a rare teacher that has that gift. Rav Elchonon was one of them. But Rashi assures us that, at least to some extent, “all who teach another person’s child Torah” have the gift of becoming a teacher-parent.
I close this story, and this teaching from today’s Torah portion, with a reflection on what might seem to be a different topic entirely, the topic of resilience. There is much being written in the contemporary psychological literature about what makes for resilience in people. Why is it that some individuals can endure great trauma, while others fall apart under less severe stress?
One of the surprising findings is that individuals who grow up to be resilient persons were childhood beneficiaries of people in their lives who were not necessarily their parents or close relatives, but rather, mentors or random acquaintances who, even for brief periods, showed them sincere concern and gave them well-intentioned encouragement.
The students of men like Rav Elchonon, and I speak of those who survived the Holocaust, were men of great resilience. The ones who I have been able to interview attribute that resilience to their master and to the sense of his making them feel special.
Few of us, perhaps none of us, are capable of the heroism and sensitivity of Rav Elchonon. But all of us are capable of occasionally approaching a young person in our synagogue or community and giving him or her words of sincere encouragement. You never know. You may be contributing to that young person’s eventual resilience to the challenges of his or her future.
Parents must be teachers. Teachers can be parents. We all can be teachers.