Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Match That Set The World Ablaze

Watching people a few hundred feet up in the air, walking or bicycling on a string that a newborn could wrap its pinky finger around has always astonished me. Regardless of the science behind it (using a long pole as a means of forcing one's center of gravity onto the string) does nothing to subtract from the magnificence of the act. Therefore, it's these performers that take my breath away when I have the opportunity to see them walking the tightrope.

But, as wondrous as it is to see actual tightrope walkers perform, it cannot be compared to seeing someone who walks that string every day, in every aspect of their lives. A true ben Torah, in my opinion, is someone who accepts and includes everyone and everything, but in the proper proportions, balancing.

In the world we live in, specifically America, it's impossible to cut one’s self off completely from their surroundings. Yet, accepting it wholly, or even being complacent about it, is the most dangerous thing a person can do to their neshama. Balancing the world of Torah and America is difficult, to say the least. So when I meet someone who I see walking that fine line, I'm in awe and, of course, aspire to be like them.

But that's only one string that people are capable of walking along. There are those who are balanced regarding people as well. They not only get along, but are best friends with everyone. Religious and irreligious alike, girls, guys, children, adolescents, rabbis, middle-aged, the entire spectrum. They love, and are loved by, everyone. When their name is mentioned, smiles alight on everyone in hearing range as they all can't help but enthuse on how wonderful, special and remarkable this person is, to them, in a personal manner.

Finding a person who can walk one of the aforementioned strings is a rarity in and of itself. Finding someone who walks them both, on a daily basis? I never would have thought it possible.

I've had the pleasure of knowing many people who have walked one line or the other, but never both. Never. Being a native Canadian, living in America, unmarried, I've met hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Not once did I meet someone who I thought was "doing it right" in the way I described above.

Then I met Mo. Moshe Yehuda Berkowitz A"H. He was the tightrope walker I had given up looking for, thinking that no such person existed. He was, Mo. The fun-loving, perpetually happy, serious learner, king of chesed, master of selflessness, who loved everyone and was loved by all.

I heard Mo's father speak on the first yahrtzeit of Mo's passing and was startled by the succinctness and brilliance of what he said. "Chein: a small word with a big meaning." Mo had chein like none other. Everyone who had the zechus to spend time with him was entranced by him. His rebbeim, his peers, his friends, his students- simply, everyone. He was famous in Brooklyn in the best way possible. An amazing person, and an even better Jew.

Mo's father said something else that's still resounding within me. "It was as if he was here tonight." And for a moment, I knew exactly what he meant. One of the many associations people have with Mo was his boundless energy. In all the time that I knew him, I never heard him say once that he was tired (that most favorite refrain of anyone his age). When he walked into a room, there was a change in the room; a stronger pulse than had been there previously. Be it in the beis medrash, at a wedding, in the car, or in the dining room, everyone knew that Mo was around. That was the feeling at the hachnasas sefer Torah and Siyum. The energy that was Mo, that we all miss so enormously, had fleetingly returned to be with us again.

Amongst Mo's many endeavors to propagate Judaism, he was an active participant at NCSY. Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, regional director of NY NCSY , shared a story with an incredible interpretation and how it relates to Mo. He told us that he was once in Aberdeen, Scotland to give a lecture. After the lecture, someone approached Rabbi Lightstone and asked him to come by his house to look at his sukkah. Of course, Rabbi Lightstone accompanied him to take a look, all the while wondering why this man had built his sukkah June time, the time that Rabbi Lightstone happened to have been there. The man's sukkah was flawless, every chumrah that existed this sukkah had. When questioned, the man explained that 1) He built his sukkah so early because there were no other rabbis scheduled to visit and he wanted it checked out and 2) He had taken out all the books he could find on the halachos of how to build a sukkah and merely followed it.

Rabbi Lightstone followed up this amusing, yet amazing story with a question. Why doesn't the Torah say specifically to be a good person? Isn't being a good person one of the most important things? Rabbi Lightstone answered that if the Torah had written such a command, we would all read a book. But a book isn't good enough. We need a living, breathing book, a role model to read, see and aspire to be like. Mo was that role model. Mo was that book.

Illustrations are innumerable, but one in particular was related to us at the siyum that night. At an NCSY shabbaton a few weeks after Mo passed away, the goal of 1,000 hours to be learned in his memory proved laughable as close to 25,000 hours were committed. A role model sans pareil.

One of the most difficult challenges I have ever faced was the balancing act. I try to walk the fine line of being the Jewish American, living as a Jew, a ben Torah, while simultaneously accepting that living in America is not like living in a shtetl, and somehow making it all work. It's a challenge, and one I suspect I will not overcome for a long while yet. Mo, on the other hand, did it, did it right, and did it seemingly effortlessly. When it comes to people as well, I have yet to accept everyone completely, as they are, and still love them. Mo, again, walked that line of being accessible, and in touch, with everyone.

The last speaker that I heard that night was Rav Fischel Shechter, a well-known face within the walls of Ohr Yitzchok, a place Mo called home with good reason, as a lot of his life truly did revolve around the yeshiva. Rav Shechter pointed out that the two mitzvos that we have a chupah by are by a wedding and a hachnasas sefer Torah. These two mitzvos are the first and last mitzvos in the Torah: p'ru u'r'vu and writing a sefer Torah. It's up to us, it's our responsibility, to make a chuppah for the rest of them.

As is brought down in Chazal, each and every one of us is a letter in the Torah. By doing mitzvos and living our lives as good Jews, we light up our letter and our letter shines. Rav Shechter quoted the Derech Hashem that says that sometimes the reason that a neshama comes back to this world isn't to brighten his own letter, but to brighten others'.

That's Mo. His entire life was about chesed and helping others in any way he could. It may have been about Judaism, sometimes it was just schoolwork, firsthand I experienced his hand in shidduchim, and in life, Mo was there.

Amongst the many reasons, undoubtedly, that Mo was here, was to shine light into others' lives. He succeeded, more so than even he could possibly have fathomed while he was with us. Now it's up to us to perpetuate everything he was, in ourselves. He jumpstarted many of us, now we have to take what he taught us and grow on it, so we can one day soon be rejoined with him with the building of Moshiach, bimheira biyameinu amen.

(This article is the unedited version that appeared in The Jewish Press on January 15, 2012 in the magazine insert.)