by Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky
Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky addressed the CoJDS Summer Think Tank this past July. This essay is based on that speech.
This pasuk from Tehillim seems to be referring to one who studies Torah despite yesurim. The Radak, however, explains that Dovid Hamelech is saying that Hashem teaches a person through yesurim, since a time of yesurim is a teachable moment. The Sfas Emes in Parshas Re’eh says further, that the yesurim themselves teach a person.
We went through a year of yesurim. What can we learn from our yesurim this past year? In particular, as mechanchim, how should we go about learning and teaching the lessons that these yesurim have imparted upon us, our schools, and our talmidim?
We tend to say that suffering is “all for the best” and tell stories of that nature. For example, we would tell a story where wind blew someone’s house down and as he cleared the rubble, he found treasure underneath. While it’s true that everything Hashem does is from the best, this outlook regarding yesurim – that there is always some good hidden somewhere, and the yesurim are but a means to it – is shortchanging ourselves as people who interact with HKBH. Instead, we should seek lessons and teachings from the suffering itself, for these lessons are invaluable. [Yesurim and the word mussar come from the same root.]
Yesurim teach a person that he has strengths which he wasn’t aware of, and show him weaknesses that he hadn’t necessarily known about. Perhaps the man whose house blew down learned more about what he really needs in his house, or maybe he can reflect on how he reacted when he heard the terrible news. Beyond the treasure underneath, there is good in the suffering itself when we are able to learn from it and become better. In this way, it’s truly אַשְׁרֵ֚י הַגֶּ֣בֶר אֲשֶׁר־תְּיַסְּרֶ֣נּוּ יָּ֑הּ וּמִתּוֹרָֽתְךָ֥ תְלַמְּדֶֽנּוּ.
The Kloisenburger Rebbe pushed bochurim to learn more and more. Once, one of the bochurim protested and said to him, “I don’t have the koach.” In response, the Rebbe told him that when he was young, he had been quite frail, and even needed to ask someone to help him carry his seforim. He thought he didn’t have any koach. The Rebbe concluded, however, that, “In the concentration camp I learned something about myself – that I could carry 50 lb. bags of cement!” You see this kind of thing all the time. There are people who never were able to raise a nickel and because of a burden they raised a tremendous amount of money. Rav Yechiel Perr gave a hesped about his father-in-law, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Nekritz. He related that Rav Nekritz was stuck in Siberia during the war, which were the prime years of his youth. Rav Nekritz said about that time, “I may not have learned much, but I learned about myself.”
But the opposite is also often true. Lots of time we seem to be doing well, but if you were to probe, you would find problems deeper down. It’s like a dentist probing a tooth – for a while he can poke and scrape away, but at a certain point he hits something that’s raw and it hurts! This is true, as well, with yesurim. One of the patterns of yesurim is when we realize we’re not as strong as we thought we were. So yesurim bring out what you didn’t know you had and also what you didn’t know you were missing.
The school closures of last year give us an opportunity to reflect, with our students, on what we’ve learned about ourselves. We should try to avoid reflecting too generally – i.e. the idea that “we’re not in control” – but instead focus on some specifics what this experience of yesurim can teach us. The reflection on yesurim is the springboard for tremendous growth.
There are lessons that are taught with words. And there are lessons lived through with our bodies. Hashem has provided those lessons for us; it is our job to add the captions!
Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky is the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington. He is the author of numerous scholarly works in Hebrew and English. Rabbi Lopiansky has a unique teaching ability that lures one into the depths of Chazal, pulling out profound messages as well as inspirational and practical lesson for life. His depth of understanding and broad application of the sugyos provides new clarity and insight into the many facets of Torah.