By Shimmy Blum
It was not long after we made havdala last Motzoei Shabbos and you could no longer walk through the main lobby at the DoubleTree Hotel in Tarrytown, NY. The Grand Siyum Melave Malka at Dirshu’s “Shabbos Kinnus Olam HaTorah” was set to begin and over 1,000 men arrived off cars and busses from Brooklyn, Lakewood, Monsey and other frum neighborhoods to join the 500 people that merited spending Shabbos at the Kinnus.
As the crowd eagerly awaited the doors of the grand ballroom to open, they already got a solid taste of what this event was all about. Shtreimlach with white socks mingled seamlessly with clean shaven yungerleit; bachurim were seen schmoozing with yungerleit and white-bearded Yidden; Sephardim stood side by side with Ashkenazim. Dedicated wives were wheeling babies in strollers in another room while their husbands peered over sefarim; beaming middle aged men stood beside their married sons and sons-in-law who had reached great milestones in learning.
Despite the large size and diversity of the crowd on display, the suburban hotel was permeated by a distinct aura of serenity. Everyone seemed comfortable with each other; everyone seemed relaxed; everyone seemed happy. Although many of the participants have never met each other, they all felt as if they were home—because they were home.
It was an occasion to pay tribute to the thousands of Dirshu participants who go the extra mile in their learning each day, and ended up mastering Shas, Halacha and other areas of Torah. One family. One vision. One goal.
Making The Impossible Possible
A glance at the dais gracing the ballroom highlighted the significance of this first-of-its-kind historic Kinnus. The preeminent rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva in North America, of both chassidshe and Litvishe communities, filled the many seats of the dais. Several seats on the lower row of the dais were graced by some of the prized yungerleit who mastered the premier Kinyan Shas and Kinyan Halacha tests.
HaGaon HaRav Zev Smith, shlita, Maggid Shiur of Dirshu’s Daf Yomi B’Halacha program and Irgun Shiurei Torah, spoke of the pain that Hashem has over one who has the opportunity to learn Torah but does not do so. It can be easy for a person to dismiss his capabilities and believe that it is “ih efshar”—impossible—for him to learn Torah, to learn more Torah than what he has mastered until that point. “Dirshu wipes away Hashem’s tears,” Rav Smith exclaimed.
The Dirshu concept of arranging for an elaborate structure for learning and testing gives over 20,000 Yidden across the globe the incentive not to miss even a single page of their limudim and to thoroughly review every word of it. Suddenly, one way or another, it becomes possible to find the time to learn and review yet another Daf of Gemara or siman in Shulchan Aruch with time that you previously believed did not exist. “What percentage of the hours that Yidden spent being mesayem Shas was done waiting for a train, in the doctor’s office, etc., and other ‘impossible’ times?,” Rav Smith wondered.
Rabbi Smith recounted the words of his rebbi, HaGaon HaRav Avrohom Pam, zt”l, explaining the words of Chazal that “Ashrei mi shebah l’kaan v’talmudo b’yado,” fortunate is he who arrives with his learning in hand. Rav Pam related that if a Yid doesn’t master his designated portion of Torah in his lifetime, his neshama must, R”l, be returned to this world after he passes away. Thus, one who reaches the World-to-Come with his Torah in hand is fortunate to avoid that fate. Rabbi Smith lauded Dirshu for its success in helping Yidden attain—and retain—significant portions of Torah.
Dirshu’s success at helping mainstream bnei Torah and baalebatim tighten their grip on Torah is an inestimable accomplishment indeed, but Rabbi Smith made it a point to also note the amazing accomplishments of Acheinu, Dirshu’s kiruv arm. Acheinu runs a vast national network of Yeshivos, and teenage outreach centers in Eretz Yisrael, where youth from secular and marginally religious homes are brought towards the glow of Yiddishkeit and limud haTorah. Rabbi Smith related an anecdote he recently heard about an Acheinu child who was completely removed from Torah just a short while earlier. Each anecdote is miraculous, but the fact that this story is repeated by over 10,000-fold throughout Eretz Yisrael makes it all the more amazing.
It is not every day that America is graced by the presence of HaGaon HaRav Berel Povarsky, shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ponovezh, but Rav Povarsky undertook the trip to our shores to participate in Dirshu’s Kinnus Olam HaTorah. At the Grand Siyum Melave Malka, the senior Rosh Yeshiva expounded upon the greatness of Torah and the lofty levels it affords its learners to attain.
Rav Povarsky opened his remarks by citing the Gemara in Maseches Berachos that describes Torah learning with the words “mevakshei Hashem,” those who seek out Hashem. The Rosh Yeshiva explains that there are two fundamentally differing levels of learning Torah. There is the elementary level of Torah, where one learns a minimal amount necessary out of fear of transgressing Hashem’s mandate. On the other hand, there are those who learn out of a craving love of Hashem, and always seek out the maximum quantity and quality of Torah that they possibly can—and the reward for the latter is far greater.
“Those who learn Torah with ahava (love),” the Rosh Yeshiva explained, “merit being directly connected to Hashem through it. ‘Yisrael v’oraisa v’kudsha berich hu chad hu,’ the Yidden, the Torah, and Hashem, are all one.”
The Rosh Yeshiva then pondered an intriguing question: The mefarshim teach us that Hashem created the world so that the more necessary a commodity is for every moment of life, the easier it is to attain, e.g. air is universally available, water a little less so, and food even less so. Hence, the question begets, since Torah is the essence of a Yid’s life—“ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu”—why is it not easier to find? Why is it referred to as “yekara m’pninim,” more precious than pearls?
Rav Povarsky answered this enigma based on his previous introduction. He explained that the minimal amount of Torah necessary to live is indeed relatively easy to learn. It is only the elevated level of fully delving into Torah that is more difficult. The Rosh Yeshiva then lauded Dirshu for helping bridge these two levels. He mentioned the passuk and organization motto, “Dirshu Hashem v’uzo bakshu fanav tamid,” and explained the “mevakshim”—the seekers—learn Torah “tamid,” steadily. To them, it is not merely like food, on which you munch on occasion, but like air, which you breathe in constantly. “Dirshu makes it easy to go from the level of yirah to the level of ahava!,” through its pleasant learning and testing structure, Rav Povarsky exclaimed.
The Rosh Yeshiva then reflected on the momentous Shabbos he had just spent honoring the Torah, by combining the principles of the holiness of Shabbos and Torah. He noted that wholesomeness in Torah creates wholesomeness in Shabbos and pointed to the words we recite during Shemonei Esrei every Shabbos by Mincha: “Avraham yageil, Yitzchok yeranein, Yaakov uvanav yanuchu bo;” Avraham and Yitzchak merely rejoice on Shabbos, but Yaakov merits the ultimate Shabbos rest. “’Titein emes l’Yaakov,’ Yaakov had the shleimus in Torah,” Rav Povarsky cited as the reasoning for his special portion in Shabbos.
As the attendees were in the midst of bidding farewell to an uplifting Shabbos and their neshama yeseira, Rav Povarsky turned to Dirshu’s visionary founder, Rav Dovid Hofstedter and expounded upon his immense zechus in strengthening Torah in klal Yisrael. “Reb Dovid, how many neshamos are you feeding?,” he asked. “There is no greater zechus possible.”
Within minutes of hearing the above words of inspiration, the entire crowd found itself expressing their joy by forming lively dancing circles around their tables. The screens around the ballroom began playing tidbits from the Dirshu World Siyum at Yad Eliyahu Stadium in Eretz Yisrael this past summer. The sight of klal Yisrael’s most preeminent gedolim and 13,000 dedicated bnei Torah, dancing animatedly to the special melodies composed in honor of the Siyum, was enough to raise attendees’ eyes in nostalgia.
It was not long before the orchestra and choir on stage at the DoubleTree at Tarrytown began singing those same songs. Ruvi Banet, who helped conduct the music and choirs in Yad Eliyahu, was doing the same right in front of our eyes. The piercing voice of Shloimy Daskal choreographed the energy and emotion of the assembled as the signature compositions were played and sung: “Mevakesh,” which features the passuk of “Dirshu Hashem v’uzo,”etc., as its chorus, and “Dirshu Hashem,” which features the words “Ashrei mi she’amalo baTorah” as its chorus.
The uniqueness of the sight we were reveling in, was explained by words of insight that followed. HaGaon HaRav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Zichron Moshe of South Fallsburg, stepped up to the podium and opened his remarks by calling the Kinnus, “a true Torah gathering.”
Rav Elya Ber then began describing the significance of this historic event within the context of the historical turmoil in the world around us. The Rosh Yeshiva spoke of the physical damage that the recent storms have afflicted upon our entire region, as well as the “ruchniyusdige tsunami” we face with the sophisticated and relentless traps that the yetzer hora is using to ensnare our generation.
With the compounding challenges that we are facing, what is the antidote?
With this question in mind, Rav Elya Ber expounded upon the famous words of the Gemara in Maseches Kiddushin, “Barasi yetzer hora, barasi Torah tavlin,” Hashem created the Torah as an antidote to the yetzer hora. He cited that when Mashiach comes and the yetzer hora will be slaughtered, Hashem will say, “V’gam b’einai yafleh,” it is also a wonder in My eyes. Even Hashem will be baffled at how klal Yisrael overcame a yetzer hora that went well beyond his call of duty to cause Yidden to sin.
The Rosh Yeshiva cited the words of the Vilna Gaon zt”l, who explained that when a Yid’s heart is overtaken by Torah, his yetzer hora is partially transformed into a yetzer tov and complements the person’s natural yetzer tov, utilizing the yetzer hora’s aggressiveness positively—thus making it far more effective.
“In previous years, when the yetzer hora had a narrow focus, our Torah was able to be effective even with a narrow focus on a few blatt,” the Rosh Yeshiva summed up. “With today’s broad yetzer hora, we need a broad Torah; we need to finish perakim and Masechtos!”
Rav Elya Ber explained that Dirshu is the perfect medium to help people acquire a broad knowledge in Torah. It allows you to retain lots of material through chazara, but also requires you to learn and relearn it thoroughly, so that the grasp is real and comprehensive.
Appreciation For Learning
Underscoring the unique diversity of the assemblage, the Viener Rav, shlita, of Williamsburg, followed Rav Elya Ber and delivered a distinctly heartfelt address. “This is a personal simcha for me,” he exclaimed. “My son, grandsons, and many yungerleit in our kehilla keep up with the Dirshu program.”
The Rav praised the accomplishment of Dirshu, which incentivizes constant review, so that yungerleit expend tremendous toil in learning and use every spare minute to learn Torah. He acknowledged the enormous challenges that fathers with daunting schedules face in accommodating so many hours of learning, but focused his derasha on giving chizuk to those in the Dirshu program to continue with their mesiras nefesh and reap the rewards. “No one regrets taking part in the program,” he summed up.
The Rav spoke about the special zechus that the wives of Dirshu participants have by giving up precious hours of their husbands’ help and time, and told them to view the refined Torah nature of their home and children as the most immediate reward. He spoke of how every yungerman who submits himself to acquiring such broad Torah knowledge and constantly takes the next step in learning should be valued by all around him as a potential gadol in the years to come, and should utilize his talents to give shiurim, become a posek, etc.
Next, the Rav spoke of how the concrete knowledge and growth offered to yungerleit through Dirshu’s various programs is crucial for them to appreciate the greatness of their devotion to learning. He stressed how necessary this feeling of satisfaction is by relating an anecdote of a yungerman whose father supported him in Kollel for a decade, who then expressed his desire to join the business world because “you can’t become a millionaire in Kollel.” The father replied, “Did I support you for a decade so that you should believe that earning a lot of money is more precious than being able to learn lots of Torah?”
“The Chasam Sofer writes that someone who is young in years but acquired chochma (wisdom) from elders is considered a zakein (elder),” the Viener Rav summed up, giving chizuk to the audience. “You may be young in years, but you are mature in chochma.”
In conclusion, the Rav expressed words of chizuk and appreciation towards Rav Hofstedter. He related the words of the Chasam Sofer who said that Yitzchok intended to give the beracha of wealth to Esav because he expected him to support Yaakov’s Torah learning. Rivka Imeinu, however, understood that Esav would not use his wealth for such upstanding purposes and plotted that Yaakov receive the beracha, so that both the “Yissachar” and “Zevulun” come from Klal Yisrael. “Rav Dovid is not only a Yissachar for himself, learning, and writing sefarim,” the Rav stressed, “but he is also the Zevulun that supports so much Torah for others.”
The clock was already moving towards late evening, but you would never know that, judging by the faces of the attendees, who seemed like they just couldn’t get enough. As the event began drawing to a close, it was time to highlight the highlight: the Siyumim on Shas and halacha that thousands of yungerleit have accomplished through Dirshu in recent years. The audience sat spellbound at the brief audio-visual presentation of the Dirshu World Siyum in Eretz Yisrael, displaying the Siyum made by HaGaon HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman, shlita, and the Kaddish recited by HaGaon HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita.
The Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva, HaGaon HaRav Malkiel Kotler, shlita, was honored to recite the Siyum Hashas Kaddish in honor of all the Dirshu mesaymim. The crowd then erupted into festive dance, as the lead mesaymim left the dais and joined the inner circle with the Gedolei Yisrael.
The final speaker of the evening was Rav Hofstedter, offering his view of the historic manifestation of his vision. Rabbi Smith introduced Dirshu’s founder and relayed that he had been requested not to speak about him—but insisted on mentioning him anyways. “Rav Dovid, you are Dirshu; you are the heart and soul of the organization,” he said. “You are not only the ‘Nasi’ of Dirshu; you are the ‘noseh’—you carry the organization in the honor of Torah and its learners.”
When Rav Dovid gracefully took the podium, it was reminiscent of his well known address in Yad Eliyahu at the Dirshu World Siyum, and his words on Motzei Shabbos echoed the sentiments he expressed in the Eretz Hakodesh:
Rav Dovid wondered why it was specifically in our generation, weak and under the weight of unprecedented nisayonos, that merited such a renaissance of “Shas Yidden,” not only amongst “illuyim,” but across a diverse cross section of klal Yisrael? How is it that we merited seeing “the greatest kavod HaTorah in memory” during our era at the recent Siyumim, when the notion of royalty and honor is virtually extinct? How is it that during the newest Daf Yomi cycle, there are presently over 10,000 Yidden across the globe taking the monthly Dirshu tests, including on Daf Yomi B’Halacha, the “new Daf Yomi”?
Rav Dovid answered by citing the example of Sarah Imeinu. Sarah had a very challenging general life, but regarding overcoming her particular spiritual struggles, her years were “kulam shavin l’Tova,” all equally good. The passuk teaches us that Sarah passed away in Eretz Canaan, which the Zohar teaches us connotes tumah, to highlight her victory over the negative forces. He then cited the Ohr HaChaim who says that one who overcomes great nisayonos reaches immensely high levels.
Rav Dovid concluded that it is thus in our generation, in a world steeped with tumah, that those who seek to overcome the challenges and toil in Torah reach greater levels than ever before. “The ‘pekel’ (bundle) of challenges is heavy, but this Siyum and the previous one in Eretz Yisrael show us that the soldiers put it on their knapsack and go into battle,” he declared, before issuing a rallying cry to all of klal Yisrael. “Klal Yisrael will always succeed; the only question is who will be on the side of victory.”
The rallying cry was apparently heard loud and clear by those in the ballroom. The clock was past midnight, but all of those who did not have to make a bus home erupted in festive dance with no end in sight. The joy of Torah eclipses everything else. “Me’at min ha’or doche harbei min hachoshech;” a ray of light overcomes all darkness . . .