One of the tragic consequences of the hurricane that ripped through New York and New Jersey was the loss of thousands of sefarim and Torah manuscripts to flooding. Three trailers’ worth of these sheimos was accumulated just from the Rockaways and the Five Towns. When Rav Yaakov Bender, rosh yeshiva of Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, was informed that these trucks would be headed to upstate New York where their contents would be buried according to halachah, he asked that one of them make a stop at the yeshiva so that a levayah could be held with the participation of the talmidim, rebbeim, parents, and community members.
Shortly after 9 o’clock on a blustery, overcast Sunday morning, well over a thousand students, from kindergarten through kollel, gathered outside the yeshiva campus to say Tehillim and hear members of the hanhalah put the event into perspective. The back of the truck was open, revealing the pile of bags and loose sefarim, remnants of what were once proud residents of bookcases in hundreds of Jewish homes.
Rav Zevi Trenk, menahel of Mesivta Chaim Shlomo, referred to the public burning of 24 cartloads of the Talmud which took place in France in 1242. That catastrophe, which occurred during the week of Parashas Chukas, is seemingly alluded to in the Targum Onkelos of that week: “Da hee gezeiras Oraysah—this is a decree of the Torah.” The reason for a tragedy of this magnitude is something beyond human understanding, Rav Trenk explained it is a Heavenly decree that we must accept without question. At the same time, he emphasized, we must be cognizant of Hashem’s kindness, that the damage wrought by the hurricane was on material things, on “wood and stones,” and that not one member of our communities perished from the storm.
Rav Shlomo Avigdor Altusky, rosh yeshiva of Beis Medrash Heichal Dovid, emphasized that with the loss of these holy sefarim there is now a deficit of kedushah in the world. This void must be filled with more Torah learning and by approaching its study with a heightened seriousness.
A poignant and heartbreaking moment, one that brought home the depth of the loss, occurred when a visibly emotional Rav Moshe Lerer, a yeshiva grandparent who lost all of his sefarim when the hurricane hit his Belle Harbor home, led the massive crowd in Tehillim. Among the priceless possessions he lost were letters handwritten by the saintly Chofetz Chaim over 80 years ago.
Eventually, the truck’s doors were closed and the vehicle began to move. The driver took it slow for about a block, allowing the talmidim and rebbeim to quietly follow it, accompanying the holy cargo as it began the last leg of its journey.
Rav Bender later explained that the purpose of this levayah “was to give the children an understanding of what it means to have a sefer. People in K’lal Yisrael over the years were moser nefesh to learn from one sefer. Today, with so many sefarim available, sometimes we tend to lose the value of what a sefer is.” He expressed the hope that the talmidim would now learn to cherish sefarim, to treat them with more reverence, and to kiss them when putting them away.
“Losing a sefer is like losing part of our being,” Rav Bender concluded. “The children will go away with a very strong understanding of [this value]. Holding this levayah was l’halacha correct, and in chinuch ha’banim it is certainly a very big help.”
After watching the truck drive off into the distance, the talmidim made their way to their classrooms and to the beis midrash, where they opened their sefarim—whether Alef Binah, Gemara, or Kovetz Mefarshim—with a heightened sense of awe and purpose, beginning a new week of learning Torah and increasing holiness in the world. v