Monday, October 09, 2006
Rav Shlomo Freifeld, Maker of Souls
Today is the 17th of Tishrei, and the 16th yahrzeit of HaRav Shlomo Freifeld, founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Shor Yoshuv in Far Rockaway, NY, which was one of the first yeshivos to have a program for Baalei Teshuva [‘returnees’ to Judaism]. Many years ago I was privileged to have learned in Shor Yoshuv, and I am very appreciative of my years there. It would be impossible to give a full appreciation of the Rosh Yeshiva in the space here; a wonderful eight-page article about him appears in this week’s English Mispacha Magazine, (Sukkos 5767 issue). Entitled “Wings with which to Fly – the Gifts of Rav Shlomo Freifeld ztz”l,” it is well worth reading. There is also a book of his teachings entitled, Rabbi Freifeld Speaks published by ArtScroll. Some excerpts from the Mishpacha article appear below, along with material found on the internet.
One of my favorite stories about Rav Freifeld Zt”l is this one, which shows the great care he took to connect with each and every one of his talmidim.
Ben Richards (name has been changed) grew up in the 1960s in Brooklyn hating every minute of city life. He dreamed of living with nature, planting, farming and connecting with the outdoors. The fact that his parents were Orthodox Jews did not really bother him. He needed his freedom. So at 17 he packed up and traveled thousands of miles to the Blackfeet Indian reservation in Montana. While there, he majored in wildlife biology at a local college and learned from teachers on the reservation. Later he joined another reservation in South Dakota. For years he plowed the soil, ate his own produce and lived on the land.
Continuing his quest for more knowledge, he heard about a woman living in Ogallala, South Dakota, the matriarch of the Sioux Indian Society, who possessed legendary insight. He decided that despite the trip – which would be across prairies and hills without road signs or even roads – he would make the journey.
After two days of traveling alone, unsure if he was even heading in the right direction, he finally arrived. But when he approached the woman, she would not help him. “You are not one of us,” she said. “You can never be like us, you don’t belong here.”
“But I have lived on reservations for years. I know your culture, I know your language, and I practice your customs. I feel part of…”
She interrupted him. “If you were Christian, I could understand. But you are a student of the Holy White Rock Man (which Ben later understood as a reference to “When My Glory passes by, I shall put you (Moshe) in the cleft of the rock” - Shemot 33:22). You are not one of us. Go back to your roots. That’s where you belong.”
Confused and dejected, Ben didn’t know what to do. After all his travels, he was being told to go back to the same world he ran away from! He decided to listen to her and within days was back in New York. He asked around for anyone who could give him guidance.
The name Rav Shlomo Freifeld, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Shor Yashuv in Far Rockaway, NY came up. Ben drove out to the Yeshiva, tucked his ponytail under his shirt and made his way in. He was led to an office and began talking with Rabbi Freifeld. Rabbi Freifeld immediately began asking Ben about catching deer, identifying elk tracks and other mechanics of hunting. Though the conversation only lasted twenty minutes, the topics ranged from the Hungarian Navy to South Dakota Indian reservations.
The next morning when he returned, a large crowd was gathered in the Beit Midrash for a Bris Mila. Ben stood in back until Rabbi Freifeld noticed him and asked his son-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Halpern, to bring Ben to the front. Ben was touched that Rabbi Freifeld even recognized him, but wished he hadn’t watched the actual procedure.
Over the next few weeks, they talked for hours on end. One time while they were sitting in the office, Rabbi Freifeld was called out for something. Left alone, Ben got up and began looking at all of the sefarim (Torah books). Then he noticed something unusual. There seemed to be some sefarim lying on the floor! These were holy books and surely didn’t belong on the floor! He picked them up and saw that they were in fact not sefarim, but rather books about Indian culture and reservation! “It was then,” Ben says, “that I realized how much my rebbe really loved me.”
Ben went on to study at Shor Yoshuv for years, where he saw first hand that Jews don’t have to look anywhere else for the salvation and life we are all looking for.
The Shach (Y.D. 81:26), quoting the Hagaos Ashiri, tells us that the ingestion of non-kosher food items has two effects: (a) It changes one’s character traits, and (b) it causes damage to people in their old age. What type of damage in old age is not clear, but in all probability it refers to the mental infirmities that we often associate with old age.
But let us explore a bit the change in character traits that the Shach discusses. Could there be any association with the current problems of struggling teens and youth and non-kosher meat consumption? Or, conversely, is there an association between remarkable spiritual growth and the cessation of eating non-kosher food?
Rav Shlomo Freifeld, zt’l, once asked someone, “Do you know why the 1960s produced a plethora of baalei teshuva? Because in the 1960s a number of people became vegetarians. When this happened, they stopped consuming non-kosher foods, the timtum ha’lev [blockage of the heart] stopped, and they were open to true spiritual growth.”
From an interview with R. Pesach Krohn:
“Then there's a shul in Frankfurt, you have to see it to believe it, it's the most magnificent shul you could possibly imagine. It has been restored and the only reason it had been saved is because the German lieutenants and generals lived on that block and they didn't bomb that block so the outside of that shul was preserved. When you come in, again R. Ephraim Tenenbaum pointed it out to me, he said, "Look at the Aron Kodesh [holy ark]" and I saw something that I've never seen on an Aron Kodesh before, and I'm positive that it doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. The pasuk [verse] - instead of saying, "Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov [How goodly are your tents, O Jacob]," or "B’veis HaElokim Nahaleich B’ragesh [into the House of G-d we will go with feeling]," or these types of pasukim that talk about a shul - it says "Lo Amus Ki Echyeh," – I will not die, but I will survive. I told over a vort [short saying] that [someone] told me from Rav Shlomo Freifeld. He says, "Lo amus," I will not live a life of death, "ki echyeh," while I am alive. In other words, I am going to accomplish every day. I told over that vort right there in that Beis Medrash as soon as I saw that pasuk on that Aron Kodesh. I was so happy I was able to take something from Rav Shlomo Freifeld, it was tremendous.”
The remainder is from the [English] Mispacha Magazine, Sukkos 5767 issue
It’s the way they utter the word, “Rebbe.” It’s like a bittersweet song, one of longing mixed with delight. The intonation of the word, the reverence and passion with which they say it, hints at the emotion expressed by Chazal that ‘tov ata l’Yisrael mei’av v’eim,’ you, Rebbe are more precious to us than a father and a mother. Indeed, for the talmidim of Rav Shlomo Freifeld, he was all that and much more: a father, a mother, and a best friend. He was Rebbe.
A CONNECTION WITH THE SOURCE OF ALL LIFE
But he did far more for these boys than merely teach them how to read, or to daven; he taught them how to live, how a Yid thinks. He had an early morning seder with a talmid, simply to shmooze [chat]. “I would come to his house at five-thirty in the morning, and we would have a coffee together, chatting about various events in the news. He didn't preach, he just shared his perspective on these issues.''
Similarly, a talmid recalled how through these mundane conversations, Rebbe connected him with life, and ultimately with the Source of all Life. “Sometimes, on a 'slow day,' he would tell one of us, or a group of us, to jump into the car. We would drive, often to Biegeleisen's sefarim store on the Lower East Side, sometimes up into the mountains, enjoying his company. Rav Shmuel Brazil, who eventually taught an entire generation the sound of songs permeated with neshama [soul], recalls the spirited singing on those trips, as Rebbe would teach them old niggunim. Rebbe would also simply chat with them, but ''his entire conversation was layered with meaning and depth, and he knew how to slip his message in to these conversations, changing us through the slower, subtler process. It made us into Yidden.”
TISHREI WITH RAV FREIFELD
They [his talmidim] will never forget that Rosh Hashana, when at the completion of the tefillos, as a wave of joy and optimism washed over the crowd, he asked them to sing. The melody that burst forth from the assemblage was like no other, an ode of gratitude and prayer. The Rebbe pulled his tallis over his face, and with superhuman strength, rose from the confines of his wheelchair to a place above time and space. He began to dance alone, as hundreds of talmidim, children that he created, fostered and raised to greatness, were spurred on to sing louder. He was parting from them amid joy. Not long after, he was niftar [passed away].
They will never forget his lofty optimism on Yom Kippur, when he would sit, surrounded by his talmidim, singing and dancing until to the early morning, exulting in the atmosphere of purity that only a newly cleansed neshama can sense. He would sing all sorts of songs, among them a song that one of the bachurim had brought from Eretz Yisrael, with the words “od tireh kama tov yihiyeh bashana haba.” When he would sing those words, expressing the promise for a better year, tears would flow down his cheeks, for that was his mission; next year will be better, we will grow, we will never look back.
Another experience that will forever be seared on the hearts of his talmidim is Simchas Torah morning, the one time a year that he would daven before the amud. Then, the wellsprings of gratitude within him would burst forth, and he would cry out the words of Hallel, weeping profusely.
Yehi Zichro Baruch - May the Rosh Yeshiva's memory be for a blessing!