This past Friday night, I’m sure everyone who davened at Kehillas Zichron Yaakov came home from shul and spoke about the d’var Torah recited before Maariv. I’m also sure I’m not the only one whose wife asked her husband when he walked in from shul if davening was over already. Why? Because the speech consisted of an excellent thought from the Brisker Rav, that was repeated – from start to finish – in under 90 seconds.
A rabbinical colleague related that, before he was a rabbi, he was once asked by the shul rabbi to deliver the Friday evening d’var Torah before Maariv.
It was the week of Parshas B’Shalach. He began by quoting the pasuk that states that the Jewish people stood trapped between the sea and the approaching Egyptians. At that point, Moshe began to pray. Rashi quotes the midrash that states that G-d replied to Moshe, “This is not the time for lengthy prayers. The nation must proceed.” My colleague then said, “This is not the time for lengthy speeches. Now is the time to proceed.” And with that, he motioned for the chazan to proceed with Barchu.
The crowd was delighted. And the rabbi never again asked him to speak on Friday night.
It’s a difficult balance to strike. Everyone is looking for inspiration, but no one wants to sit through long speeches.
So, when people discover someone who can inspire in a short amount of time, they won’t let him go too easily.
In Camp Dora Golding, we have achieved that balance. Rabbi Meir Erps, a noted educator and dynamic storyteller, shares a three-minute “bullet drashah,” which contains a powerful story and a great lesson. The 600 campers, who have just recently eaten kokosh cake and chocolate milk for breakfast (Kiddush is recited between Shacharis and K’rias HaTorah), listen with rapt attention. By the time they start getting edgy, the speech is over, and we are well into Musaf.
My zeide, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn z”l, was not only a scholar of note, he was also sharp-witted and understood people very well. When he and my bubby arrived in America after World War II, they moved to the then fledgling but burgeoning community of Lakewood. My zeide was a student of the illustrious Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, before the war, when Rav Aharon was rosh yeshivah in the town of Kletzk. While living in Lakewood, my zeide would travel and speak on behalf of the young yeshivah and on behalf of the Vaad Hatzalah, which was under the leadership of Rabbi Eliezer Silver.
In the early 1950s, my zeide and bubby spent a Shavuos on the Lower East Side of Manhattan so that my zeide could deliver the pre-Yizkor appeal at the Anshe Slonim Synagogue at 172 Norfolk Street.
The well-known shul was in an august and imposing building, boasting hundreds of seats, noted cantors, and choirs. At that time, the shul was searching for a new Rabbi. By the time my zeide got up to speak, it had already been a long davening. He shared a brief, poignant thought, and then said to the assemblage: “My friends, I could easily continue speaking for another half hour, extolling the virtue of Vaad Hatzalah and the vital work they do. But I know that you are all aware of its importance. In addition, I’m sure – like my wife – your wives prepared wonderful meals that are waiting for you after davening. Let’s consider it as if I spoke for the extra half hour, and everyone should contribute to this vital cause.” With that, he sat down.
It was the most successful appeal the shul ever had.
That night, the leadership of the shul set aside their long list of potential candidates and offered my zeide to be the Rabbi of the prestigious shul. The rest is history. He became the Rabbi for over 20 years, until the shul closed its doors in 1974.
I remember one Shabbos morning during my youth, when our family hosted a rabbi in our community and his family for the Shabbos s’udah. He was distinguished and well-known, and his lectures were delivered with passion and emotion. However, they were not known for their brevity.
During the s’udah, amidst the other topics of discussion, my mother mentioned that her father was also a community shul rabbi. Then my mother added that her father always said that speeches cannot be too long, otherwise you’ll lose the attention of the congregation. My father’s looks and gentle kicks under the table didn’t help. The rabbi in our home laughed good-naturedly. The following Shabbos, his speech was as long as always.
I must admit that as a shul rabbi for over a decade, it is very hard to strike the right balance. Every rabbi wants to inspire by conveying an important lesson, which is best brought out with stories to illustrate, and other points of reference. It is an ongoing arduous challenge to balance content with attention span. But it is a balance that every rabbi must strive for.
In an age of “quick chizuk,” such as Meaningful Minute and WhatsApp groups that convey one-to-five-minute divrei Torah, that challenge becomes all the more pronounced. (It’s axiomatic that one doesn’t become a scholar from brief inspirational clips. Scholarship and erudition are the result of effort, exertion, and being able to sustain attention, often during long lectures. Bursts of inspiration are like a match that ignites a flame. That fire needs to be fueled so that it can develop into a more substantial and enduring fire. The purpose of this essay is surely not to minimize or downgrade the value and need of lectures. It is only to reinforce that in our fast-paced world, bursts of inspiration are invaluable.)
I wish I could still personally glean from my zeide’s wellsprings of knowledge of Torah and interpersonal dealing with people. He passed away when I was eight years old. Yet, his legacy continues to inspire me, and he remains one of my foremost role models in life.
I cannot fathom how a person who suffered so much loss, and was an orphaned refugee, could have emerged with such a jovial personality and contagious vivaciousness. His love for Torah and for people largely defined him, and all who knew him testified to that.