[After a two-week hiatus, this week's Haveil Havalim is here]
Last week, I spent two days at YU in a conference for the future members of the YU Torah miTzion Kollelim in Chicago and Toronto, and at one point I had the opportunity to address a group of students from RIETS (the rabbinical school affiliated with YU). Knowing that I was following 5 or 6 significant speakers and this was only a brief lunch, I didn't want to speak for any length of time, but I did want to leave them with an impression of what they could accomplish, were they to join a program like ours in the future.
I thought of two stories, one positive and one somewhat negative. I went with the positive one, talking about how I initially entered YU's semichah (ordination) program only in order to have a program of structured Torah study while pursuing a Masters in Computer Science at NYU, and how I decided midway through to go into the rabbinate, and how this has allowed me to make a difference (I hope) for many people in various communities. Of course, I'll never know how I might have altered lives had I taken a different track – I likely would have finished WebShas by now! – but I'm satisfied with my decision.
Here's the negative one, that I didn't tell: After my junior year in high school, prior to shipping off to Kerem b'Yavneh in Israel, I spent a summer in a program of Torah study. I was still finding myself at the time. My hair style owed something to Buster Poindexter or Elvis. Pretty much every day that summer I wore a jeans jacket on which I had hand-painted a New York Rangers symbol. Clearly, I felt I had something to prove to someone.
As part of the program, younger and older students were paired to learn together in the afternoons. One of the rebbeim took me over to an older fellow one day during the first week, and asked him to pair up with me.
This guy had a reputation for bekius – for covering a lot of ground, very quickly, and having a great memory for it. I suspect we would have learned well together; I was always more into that kind of study (intimidated by the complexity of in-depth analysis, I think). I had completed mishnah a couple of years earlier, and thought of myself as somewhat capable. This fellow didn't agree, apparently. With me standing there, he looked at me, presumably taking in my hair and clothes, and laughed and declined.
Dissed. I was put out, to say the least. It soured me on the chavrusa I ended up having, and it contributed negatively to several decisions I made in the months and years that followed.
I actually know that person today. He's a senior figure in a leading yeshiva, quite respected for his learning, and we have occasional dealings. I've never gone back to him with the story, though; recalling it to him 20+ years later seems petty. But I haven't forgotten it, and the way I felt.
The moral of the story, to me, is more than just to be nice to people. It's to remember what that older fellow could have accomplished, had he said Yes, and what he instead accomplished by laughing and declining. I try to use this as positive motivation when offered the opportunity to learn with people, or to teach.
As I said, I went with the more positive story when I spoke to the group last week… but I think there is an equal amount to be learned from the latter one.