Reb Yoel Kahan has always been known for his unique teaching skills. Even while still a yeshivah student, he demonstrated an outstanding ability to explain chassidic concepts. For this reason, he was chosen to deliver a series of underground shiurim on the Tanya in the Lakewood yeshivah.
Why underground? Well, Lakewood is one of the foremost yeshivos in the country, but it favors the Lithuanian approach to Torah study. Needless to say, Chassidus is not on the curriculum, and the entire mystic dimension of Jewish knowledge is not emphasized. While the administration knew of Reb Yoel’s weekly shiur , it wanted no official association with it.
Reb Yoel’s teaching skills soon attracted a following. There were many students who enjoyed the ideas of Chassidus. Others felt intimidated by the thought of attending the shiur, but would speak to Reb Yoel before or afterwards.
Among the latter was one of the yeshivah’ s more advanced students, a brilliant young man who would often ask Reb Yoel questions regarding Talmudicpassages. Although Reb Yoel tried to convince him to attend the shiur , he refused.
The students who did attend told Reb Yoel that this student was well respected, and that his presence would greatly enhance the other students’ respect for the shiur , and so Reb Yoel persevered. But there was no way he could change the student’s mind.
One day the student asked Reb Yoel if an audience with the Rebbe could be arranged for him. Reb Yoel agreed; he was certain that after yechidus , the student would be willing to study Chassidus.
The student wanted to see the Rebbe urgently, but appointments for yechidushad been arranged months in advance. Nevertheless, Reb Yoel prevailed upon Rabbi Chodakov, the Rebbe’s personal secretary, to allot one minute of the Rebbe’s time at midnight the following Monday.
When Reb Yoel told the student that he had been able to arrange yechidus , but only for a minute, the student replied that a minute would be sufficient.
Shortly before midnight that Sunday, he arrived to see the Rebbe. Reb Yoel was waiting for him, and advised him of the procedure for yechidus. Shortly afterwards, he entered yechidus.
The minute passed… and so did five minutes… ten minutes….
Rabbi Groner, the Rebbe’s secretary, entered the room several times to see if perhaps the student was taking the Rebbe’s time unnecessarily, but each time the Rebbe motioned to him not to interfere.
After an hour, the student emerged, still deep in thought. Despite Reb Yoel’s request for an explanation of what had transpired, the student offered a polite but brief good-bye and headed back to Lakewood.
In the subsequent weeks, Reb Yoel tried to engage him in conversation, but he was avoided, or would receive only terse replies. Understanding that for some reason the student no longer desired his company, Reb Yoel turned his attention elsewhere. Ultimately, he lost touch with him entirely.
One day, while Reb Yoel was walking down the street, he heard a car beeping and someone calling his name. He looked around, but saw no one he recognized. A driver was obviously trying to get his attention, but Reb Yoel could not understand why. And how did the driver know his name?
The stranger had long curly hair, and if he was wearing a yarmulke, it wasn’t obvious. How did he know Reb Yoel? And what did he want from him?
Reb Yoel approached out of courtesy.
“Do you remember me, Reb Yoel?” the driver asked.
“No,” confessed Reb Yoel.
“From Lakewood … years ago. My name is …. We used to talk. You arranged for me to come to the Rebbe.”
Reb Yoel remembered.
“Can we arrange a time to study Chassidus? ” the driver asked. Reb Yoel agreed.
And so they studied once a week for several months. Reb Yoel hesitated to pry into his student’s private life, and the man did not volunteer information. Their time together focused strictly on the ideas of Chassidus and their application in our Divine service.
After Reb Yoel saw that his student was becoming absorbed in the learning, he felt it appropriate to speak a little more personally.
“There’s something that’s been puzzling me,” Reb Yoel told him. “I’m not asking you about what happened between Lakewood and the present time, but I am still curious about that yechidus years back. What happened? And why didn’t you want to speak to me afterwards?”
The student explained that he had discovered a difficulty with a particular Talmudic passage, and that no one in Lakewood had been able to resolve the question. He had heard that the Rebbe was a Torah genius, and hoped that the Rebbe would be able to help him.
“That’s why,” he said, “I was happy with a minute of the Rebbe’s time. I figured that if he could resolve the difficulty, it would be possible in a minute, and if not, then anything longer would be a waste of time.
“It didn’t even take the Rebbe a minute to resolve the question,” he continued. “Within 45 seconds, I was getting ready to leave, perfectly satisfied with the answer I had been given. But the Rebbe called me by name.
“ ‘…,’ he said, ‘Do you study Chassidus?’
“I explained that I did not. Not that I had anything against Chassidus, but it just wasn’t for me. I was doing well in the study of the Talmud and its commentaries, and saw no need to change my pattern.”
“The Rebbe explained that the study of Chassidus is important, for it leads to Yiras Shamayim, ‘the awe of G‑d,’ which is necessary to protect one’s Torah study. ‘Without the study of Chassidus, ’ the Rebbe explained, ‘a person can lose sight of the G‑dliness of the Torah. And if that happens, his entire pattern of observance can erode.’
“I told the Rebbe that I could appreciate his premise in theory, but was not worried. With G‑d’s help, I had been successful in my studies. My observance was steadfast. I could see where I was going, and did not understand why I should change path in midstream. And most important, learning any new discipline takes time. Why should I take time away from Torah and invest in a new path?
“The Rebbe continued to press his point, but I remained unmoved. I was doing well and saw no reason to change.”
“Then the Rebbe paused, a faraway look in his eye. He said: ‘When a yeshivahstudent does not learn Chassidus, it might happen that one day he will walk into the study hall and take offense at another student’s petty remark. It will disturb him, and he won’t be able to concentrate on his studies. In his idle time, he will do such and such [a mild transgression]. That will lead him further, and the next day, he will do such and such [a more severe transgression].’
“The Rebbe continued, describing a chain of ten different transgressions. ‘And then,’ the Rebbe went on, ‘being an honest person, the student will not be able to reconcile his conduct with study at a yeshivah, and he will depart. From that point, it will not be long before he loses contact with his Jewish roots entirely.’
“I was aware that I had taken an hour of the Rebbe’s time, and didn’t see the point of going further. I told the Rebbe I would think about the matter and left.
“That’s why I didn’t speak to you afterwards. I felt that if I was going to think honestly about the Rebbe’s words, I didn’t want anyone pressuring me into accepting them.
“After thinking the matter through, I decided to stick with my original position. I was doing well in my studies. Why should I start a different course?
“And so I continued to avoid you. I knew that you would not let me ignore the Rebbe’s words, and would bring up the matter continually. I didn’t want that. I wanted to get on with my studies.”
Reb Yoel had been listening attentively, but didn’t know whether to pursue the matter further.
Without prompting, the student continued: “Several months afterwards, I confronted a particularly difficult passage in the Talmud. I labored on it for days. Finally, I thought I had a resolution. Satisfied with myself, I went from the library to the study hall. There I saw two other students discussing the same passage. ‘I’ll try my explanation on them,’ I thought.
“I did, and they didn’t accept it. One of them even ridiculed my whole approach.
“That was hard for me to accept. I had labored on the subject for days, and not only was my explanation not appreciated, it was rudely dismissed. I left the study hall in a huff.
“Afterwards, I couldn’t get my mind back on my studies. Maybe I was tired after having worked so long, or maybe I was still agitated about what the other student had said, but I felt I needed to take the night off. And that night I committed the first of the transgressions the Rebbe had mentioned.
“From that night on, my life wasn’t the same. The pattern the Rebbe described unfolded. Each of the ten transgressions he had mentioned occurred, just as he had said they would. And then I left yeshivah. And from there … well, I don’t have to go on. You can see my lifestyle.”
Reb Yoel didn’t know whether to ask him why he had suddenly decided to study Chassidus. Sometimes a story has to be given time.
But the student went on. “I had strayed so far from Yiddishkeit that although I married a Jewish girl, we didn’t raise our children with any knowledge of their heritage. In our house, there was neither Shabbos nor Yom Tov. We didn’t even go to shul on Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur.
“One day, my son came home from school upset. ‘Daddy,’ he told me, ‘somebody called me a dirty Jew. What’s that? Are we Jewish? What does it mean?’
“I was at a loss to answer him. Yes, somewhere in the attic, I still had some volumes of the Talmud. I could probably still explain some of the arguments to him. But those were laws about damages and rituals; they wouldn’t answer his question.
“I told him that we would find time to talk about the matter, and changed the subject. But it bothered me. Why couldn’t I think of something to tell my son about being Jewish?
“The next day, when I went to the newsstand, I saw The Jewish Press. I thought maybe I would be able to find something there that I could tell my son.
“While flipping through the pages, I saw an announcement of a farbrengen with the Rebbe. Maybe I would find an answer there. I jotted down the address, and noted the date and time. It was late, but I resolved to stop in for at least half an hour.
“I remembered 770 when I entered. I took a place in the back of the room and focused on the Rebbe. Although it had been years, I still understood Yiddish, and was able to follow what he was saying. And I was surprised. He was repeating the same concepts that he had told me at yechidus ! He was saying how even a person who is proficient in the study of Talmud should study Chassidus , for Chassidus endows a person with the fear of G‑d. ‘Without the study of Chassidus, ’ the Rebbe explained, ‘a person can lose sight of the G‑dliness of the Torah. And if that happens, his entire pattern of observance can be easily eroded.’
“After half an hour, I left. It was late, and I wanted to get home, but I knew I was going to come back. There was something about the Rebbe that attracted me. And I couldn’t help but marvel at the coincidence of hearing the same words that I had heard years before.
“I kept buying The Jewish Press , waiting to see when there would be another farbrengen. When I saw the advertisement, I set aside the date.
“Again I found a place in the crowd of chassidim. I could see the Rebbe, but I doubted he could see me. Again, his message was familiar. ‘A student may protest that he is doing well in his study of Talmud. Why then should he begin the study of a new discipline?’ And he continued, using the same arguments he had used years before to emphasize the contribution Chassidus can make to a person’s Divine service.
“I felt that this was more than coincidence. Twice I had come to see the Rebbe, and twice he spoke about the same subject he had spoken about years before, using almost the same words! I felt he was speaking to me personally, but I couldn’t understood how he could have picked me out in the crowd, or how he could have recognized me, considering the way I now looked.”
“The next time I went to a farbrengen was the last night of Pesach. This time there was no microphone, so I had to work my way in among the chassidim to hear. As I reached a place from which the Rebbe’s voice was audible, I heard him say: ‘When a yeshivah student does not learn Chassidus, it might happen that one day he will walk into the study hall and take offense at another student’s petty remark. This will disturb him and he won’t be able to concentrate on his studies. In his idle time, he will do such and such. That will lead him further and the next day, he will do such and such.’ The Rebbe went on, mentioning the same ten sins he had mentioned then.
“I felt that it was far more than coincidence. But I still was not sure. How could the Rebbe have seen me? And why would he speak directly to me among so many people?
“I made up my mind to wait until the farbrengen was over and join the line to receive kos shel berachah from the Rebbe. I resolved that if I could detect any sign of recognition in his face, I would start studying Chassidus.
“As I came before the Rebbe, his face broke out in a wide smile. ‘…,’ he called me by name, ‘Maybe the time has come for you to begin studying Chassidus ?’
“That’s why,” he said, looking Reb Yoel in the face, “I sought you out.”
From To Know And To Care by R' Eli Touger