November 20, 2019

My Thursday Nights with Rav Steinsaltz

As I sit here in the Jewish month of Elul anticipating the High Holidays and reflect on my past year, I tend to focus on one experience I will never forget.  While I lived in Jerusalem last year with my family, I received an email from one of my Rabbis – Rabbi Yossi Shanowitz of Central Avenue Synagogue Chabad in Highland Park, IL – with a very simple question: Would you like to study with Rav Steinsaltz?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Rav Steinsaltz and therefore cannot grasp the enormous nature of that offer, let me try to explain it to you.  If you like baseball, it’s like being asked, “Would you like to play catch with Clayton Kershaw?”  Or if you like tennis, it's like being asked, “Would you like to hit with Roger Federer?”  Except it’s better.

Rav Steinsaltz is everything that is right with Judaism.  He’s a teacher of Torah.  He lives Torah.  Simply put, he exudes Torah.

Through amazing Chabad networking, Rabbi Shanowitz introduced me to Rabbi Swerdlov in Jerusalem.  Rabbi Swerdlov introduced me to Rabbi Meni Even-Israel (Rav Steinsaltz’s son and Director of Shefa) and he invited me to study with his father.

Every Thursday night for three months I would do my best to sit in the Shefa building and listen to Rav Steinsaltz teach.  The first time I left my apartment on a Thursday night for the Shefa building, I was curious and nervous… really nervous.  I entered his lecture room and found myself surrounded by different editions of the Steinsaltz Babylonian Talmud and volumes of his Steinsaltz Jerusalem Talmud and copies of his commentary on the Tanya.  All of these sets loom in addition to all of his single volume books.  If you’ve heard of Rashi, whose commentary on the Bible and the Talmud made them accessible to all Jews, then consider Rav Steinsaltz as the Rashi of our time.

The crowd that attended was always made up of men and women, Orthodox and not so much, Ashkenzic (Jews of Eastern European descent) and Sephardic (Jews of Spanish/African/Middle Eastern descent).  Shefa was always a cross section of Israeli culture.  And there was one Conservative Rabbinical student – me. 

A secretary would place a glass cup filled with steaming hot golden brown tea on the table and moments later Rav Steinsaltz would walk out of his personal office and take his place behind the table.  Some nights there were as many as forty people in the room listening to him.  Once, there were only four.  I don’t think it mattered to Rav Steinsaltz.  I think he would have taught if there was nobody there.  Never once did I feel like he was disappointed by low attendance or impressed by a large crowd.  He always seemed excited to teach Torah.  Torah was all that mattered.

My experience with Rav Steinsaltz peeked when he agreed to have a private meeting with my family and me.  Whereas he always spoke Hebrew to me, he immediately spoke English to my wife and kids.  He spoke to us about his travels around America and my upcoming movie and so much more.  He told me, “If I can’t figure out a connection with another Jew, that means I haven’t spent enough time talking with them.”  He sketched an elephant for my kids and gave it to my daughter.  Rav Steinsaltz and my wife and I talked for so long that both of our kids fell asleep.  We told him that we were expecting another baby and I asked him to bless us all, especially my son who was recovering from a bout of synovitis (inflammation of the hip lining).  He smiled and blessed us all with “good things”.  Finally, he signed a tractate of Talmud for me and then one for my parents, which was the only gift I got anybody while I was in Israel.

I will never forget how he made time for my family.  And in this month where I am supposed to humble myself, to take stock in my actions, one needs to only spend one minute with Rav Steinsaltz to understand the meaning of humility.  He is a mental giant of our time, or anytime for that matter, and more importantly he is an absolute mensch.  He is a fountain of Torah without judgment.  I try to read my Steinsaltz Talmud almost everyday and when I do, I always think of him.

We are supposed to read Psalm 27 everyday of Elul where we pray, “Teach me Your way, O' L-rd, guide me on the right path…”  Thank you Rabbi Shanowitz for helping me on my path to Rav Steinsaltz.  And thank you Rav Steinsaltz for helping me on my path to G-d.

Shanah Tovah U’Metukah… Happy and Healthy 5775!

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