The Waters From Which I Drank: In Memory of Rabbi Yosef Tendler–Rosh Mechinat Ner Yisrael

NOTE: I generally proofread and edit the articles that I write, so that they will be easy for the reader to understand. This article though is quite different – it is a stream of consciousness I experienced in the aftermath of Rabbi Tendler’s death, with which I hope to fulfill the words of our Sages: “Words that come from the heart – enter the heart”.

Rabbi Yosef Tendler, of blessed memory.
Rabbi Yosef Tendler, of blessed memory.

Ner Yisrael. Those words stir inside of me deep feelings, both special and conflicting. Feelings of enlightenment and of confusion. Of growth and of failure. Of clarity and of darkness.

Although I am a proud graduate of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, I am no poster child for the institution. Throughout the five years I spent there, I learned more than I have ever learned in my entire life. I met brilliant minds the likes I am doubtful I shall ever meet again. I learned under Rabbis of such high caliber and stature, that I shudder at the thought that I share the same title.

On the other hand, I struggled there more than I have in any other place. I struggled with learning how to learn – and to this day thank my mentors and role models for helping me become accomplished in that regard. Yet I also struggled with maintaining my world view, in a place where only one view was tolerated and accepted. I struggled with listening to speeches from the same authority figure who the previous night had disbanded my Chassidic gathering or ceremony of thank to Hashem for giving us a State of Israel to call Home, due to the classic Lithuanian yeshiva opposition to such things.

Thus, even though I may share different ideas or understandings than than that of my former yeshiva, I have always been very careful to fulfill the famous folk saying, “never throw a stone into the well from which you drank”. To this day, I remain indebted to the outstanding institution and staff which took me under it’s wing and helped mold me into who I am still becoming today.

For years, I didn’t know what to do with these feelings. Should I simply ignore the inconsistencies? Should I pretend to have not been affected? Should I give thanks for that which helped me, and simply refrain from speaking about that which seemingly did not? This dilemma came to an abrupt halt when I received the latest news from Baltimore – our Rosh Mechina, Rabbi Yosef Tendler, had passed away. Reeling from this news, it took me a few days to sort out my thoughts – and yet, I still don’t have complete clarity – but that which I did sort out, I would like to share with you.

I first met Rabbi Tendler when I was just over thirteen years old. I had heard about Ner Yisrael for many years, and a few summers prior, had met a student from there whom I quickly realized was the kind of person I so wished to become. With this thought in mind, I took a flight to Baltimore to undergo my “farher” – an oral, entrance examination at the hands of Rabbi Tendler, on any Talmudic texts I had studied prior to my arrival.

I recall sitting there before him, just a kid, wondering what he could ask me already. The young man being tested before me had already finished a tractate or two of Talmud, and had just been grilled by the brilliant and analytical mind of the Rabbi. When asked how much Talmud I had studied – I answered truthfully, naively thinking that it was an accomplishment – “three pages of Talmud”. Rabbi Tendler asked me if I had studied any commentaries, and I replied proudly “yes, a few Rashi’s here and there” – even though Rashi is the most basic of commentators on the text.

A few weeks later, I received a letter in the mail. I was accepted to Ner Yisrael for ninth grade, one of the nation’s most prestigious Talmudic boarding schools! Rabbi Tendler had seen through the possible failure of a test – and realized that there was what to gain for me in his school, and without prejudice, welcomed me in as a student.

Today, I sit here a stones-throw away from the Western Wall. Though I may have found myself a Rabbi more on the same page as myself, and maintain a humble position of authority in my own right – I still wonder back to what would have been, had I not gone to Yeshiva, God forbid. It was these thoughts that led me to realize, that the guiding principles which I received from my Rabbi, HaRav Yaakov Peretz shlit”a, were already being formulated in my young mind by the giant that Rabbi Tendler was. What are these principles?

Emet, Yosher, Va’Tzeddek. Truth, straightforwardness, and righteousness. The three words which us students of Rav Peretz strive to live by. There are a few stories which I learned these traits already from Rabbi Tendler, long before I had reached the walls of Jerusalem.

Emet – Truth. Rabbi Tendler wasn’t phased by modern Jewish stigmas. While so many Jews might look at the external aspects of people: clothes, kippas, shirt colors; Rabbi Tendler saw right through to a persons soul. He recognized a genuine heart where others saw flaws. He always spoke the truth, and strove to find the objective truths in this world, all the while rejecting and teaching us how to reject the false subjective ideas the world around us would spin.

We all remember the many students Rabbi Tendler allowed into the Yeshiva, most of whom were not exactly a natural choice for a Yeshiva of its kind. These were Rabbi Tendler’s “special bochurim” – the ones who had nowhere else to turn, or were just beginning their journey into Judaism. The hours he would dedicate to learning with them, to speaking with them – I am not sure they still make educators as heartfelt and as true to their teachings as Rabbi Tendler.

I recall being in his car on the way back from New York City. We had just finished baking Matzot for Pesach under his supervision, and most of the guys in his van were tired and dozing off. Those few of us who were lucky enough to stay awake, experienced an entire of evening of living and breathing Mussar. Two stories sticks out in my mind:

We were driving by a billboard for an expensive sports car. Rabbi Tendler turned to me and asked, “Why do people buy such expensive cars, when these drive just as well?”. I replied, “They are much better and last a lot longer”. The Rabbi asked me to disprove what I had just said, as if it were a passage in the Talmud. After a few moments of silence, he replied, “The same people who buy these cars, buy new ones every year! They don’t buy them for their quality – but rather to impress people.” Rabbi Tendler was teaching us that impressing others with our physical posessions and causing others to be jealous, was the antithesis of what the Torah taught us to strive towards as God-fearing individuals.

In the same car ride, we passed by another billboard for an extremely high-end, men’s watch. There was a half-naked lady laying down in quite a seductive position, holding the watch. While other rabbis would have ignored it, Rabbi Tendler again turned to us and asked, “What are they trying to sell – the woman or the watch?”. He then proceeded to share with us deep thoughts about how the world around us has turned women into objects as opposed to deep and intelligent human beings without whom the world would not be complete.

Yosher – Straightforwardness. I remember having a discussion with one of my friends in a different Yeshiva, about a boy who was thrown out for breaking the Yeshiva’s rules. The boy’s father came to the Rosh Yeshiva and presented an extremely generous donation to his institution, after which immediately the boy was invited back. Ironically, this was the same week that a similar event occurred in our Yeshiva, yet with a completely different outcome.

There was a bright young man studying with us in Yeshiva at the time. He was caught violating one of the Yeshiva’s rules – nothing terrible – one for which the punishment was quite severe. Rabbi Tendler summoned this boy to his office, had a heart-wrenching discussion with him, and asked him to promptly leave the Yeshiva. Why is this story so special? This boy was none other than Rabbi Tendler’s grandson.

Rabbi Tendler lived a life which had no double standards. He practiced what he preached, and taught us to do the same. He lived by the Torah and breathed it’s commandments. He was an example of straightforwardness – even in situations where people in his place would have bent the rules a little bit. He was truly one who walked on the Path of the Straight.

Tzeddek – Righteousness. As an educator, there are deep questions that arise when dealing with students. Some questions are minor, yet others carry with them a heavy burden. Sometimes, the incorrect decision by an educator can totally destroy a student’s life. There is always one story that sticks out in my mind when I think about these questions, one that Rabbi Tendler shared often, about his own Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, of blessed memory, Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood:

At the time Rabbi Tendler was in Yeshiva, it was a big deal to be in such a place. Most people in those days went to public schools, as the Jewish community in America was still recoiling from the War and rebuilding itself on this new soil. It was for this reason that Yeshiva students were held to higher standards than they are perhaps held to today.

A few students had found a horrific discovery under the mattress of their roommate – a stash of magazines that were not exactly of the Kosher variety. These students immediately hurried to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Kotler, and shared with him the terrible news. “Throw him out!”, they cried, shaking with rage at the fact that one of the students in their midst had stooped to such a low.

Rabbi Kotler thought for a moment and replied, “Not only will this student stay in our Yeshiva, but I demand that you put those magazines back exactly where they came from and never mention a word to him about this incident!”. Noting their shock, Rabbi Kotler shared with them a fundamental belief of his. “This boy cries when he davens. He is fighting an internal battle with himself. He knows where he is and also where he can reach. So long as he struggles, I can respect him and his struggle. Yet, the moment he stops struggling – I will ask him to leave.”

Rabbi Tendler shared this story with us a few times over my years in Yeshiva, and said that he held true to this teaching as well. Many times, when struggling with a friend or student – this story comes to mind. It is a principle of mine that I hope to stay true to for as long as I live – one who’s roots are from the study hall of Rabbi Tendler.

Perhaps a more personal story:

Unlike any other yeshiva in America, Ner Yisrael has a long standing system, wherein every grade finishes an entire Tractate of Talmud – no small feat – and must take a final exam on it on the final day of school. This test was called the “Masechta Bechina”. In twelfth grade, this test was even more crucial to us, and not just a grade. In order to receive a diploma, one had to pass the test.

My twelfth grade was a pivotal year in my life, though not without much struggle. This combined with “Senior-itis” was not a good combination – especially when it came to studying for this exam. On my last day of high school, after a grueling three-hour test, I put down my pencil and handed in my test – not certain that I had actually passed, and braced myself for the trouble to follow. To make matters worse, I wasn’t just in any class – but was studying directly under Rabbi Tendler for the first time in my high school career.

The same day, Rabbi Tendler quietly called me to his table, and handed me my test with a surprisingly passing grade. He told me, “I know you are smart bochur and you learn well – so I stopped when I reached this grade”.

You see, as honest and truthful and straightforward as Rabbi Tendler was – he was a genuine human being, and constantly maintained the character trait of righteousness. He saw beyond numbers and grades, beyond test scores and exam results – he knew that not everyone was perfect on paper, but everyone was a gem in real life – and he treated every single one of us as such.

Rabbi Tendler – when I came to visit you this summer, after a few years of not seeing you, I was nervous. I wanted to thank you so much for everything you had done for me and for the entire Jewish people. For your dedication and unfaltering faith in each and every one of us, whether or not we saw it at the time. Much had changed though – I had become a rabbi, opened up my own Yeshiva, and held a position at another Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Even more than that, you had changed – you were sitting in a wheel-chair, attached to an oxygen tank, and sitting on your front lawn with your daughter who faithfully cared for you.

Rabbi Tendler, Rebbe – you didn’t remember my name – but I am certain that the Jewish world will never forget yours.

May his righteous memory always be remembered.

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