[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]
At one point during my trip to Israel last week, I walked past Netzach Yisrael, the yeshiva where Rav Gustman, zt”l, was the rosh yeshiva for many years.
Rav Gustman was talmid and then chavruta of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz decades ago, in the World War II era of the Mir Yeshiva. It’s reported that the two of them had a game they played in the wee hours of the morning, when they were tired: One would mention a page number, and the other would launch into a listing of the topics discussed on that page in every volume of the Talmud.
Rav Gustman went on to head yeshivot in New York and Israel. He authored talmudic commentaries published under the name Kuntresei Shiurim, and was a world-class talmid chacham. For more about Rav Gustman, look here and here. He passed away about 15 years ago.
So here’s my “not exactly a gadol story” story, involving Rav Gustman:
One Shabbat afternoon some twenty years ago, I was sitting with a group of friends at Seudah Shlishit, in a Rechavia apartment down the block from Netzach Yisrael. It was during my first year of post-high school yeshiva in Israel. One of my friends mentioned that Rav Gustman was a staunch proponent of wearing a hat for davening; one could not be part of the yeshiva if he did not wear a hat for davening.
I, at the time, was a young punk who, needless to say, did not wear a hat for davening. [I do now, but that’s another story.] I had learned the sources on my level , and thought I understood them, and felt the need to defend my stance. So, I accepted the inevitable dare: To ask Rav Gustman why he required a hat for davening.
We trooped down the block to Netzach Yisrael; they were between Minchah and Maariv, and the legendary Rav Gustman was sitting at his shtender. I was, of course, quite intimidated, but Rav Gustman’s son-in-law – I believe his name was Rav Michel Bernike – encouraged me to go ask my question.
So I skittered up to the Rosh Yeshiva and hesitantly asked, “האם יש חיוב ללבוש כובע לתפילה? [Is there an obligation to wear a hat for prayer?]”
Rav Gustman eyed me for a moment, then said, “כן. [Yes.]” And I skittered back to join my friends and apprise them of the guidance I had received.
Of course, this was not sufficient; we had to push one step further, and I took the bait because I was young and foolish. I went back to Rav Gustman and asked, “האם הראש ישיבה יכול לתת מראה מקומות על זה? [Could the Rosh Yeshiva give source references for this?]”
To which Rav Gustman replied, “אני לא יודע. [I don’t know.]” And I skittered back, never to return. That was it.
Clearly, when Rav Gustman says, “I don’t know,” and particularly on an issue of straight halachah, not to mention part of his platform, he doesn’t mean to claim ignorance. “I don’t know,” in this case, meant, “Go away, kid.”
To this day, I wonder what punishment I will receive for having wasted the time, breath and attention of Rav Gustman. More than that, I wonder what I deserve for having wasted the opportunity to speak to a giant of the previous generation. I could have asked him anything in the world – and this was what I came up with. I was such a dork.
Silver lining: At least the experience was valuable for me on one level: I’ve learned to be patient with kids who remind me of what I did at their age.