Fifteen Minutes of Fame
וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים וגו’ … כב-כ
The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh writes that the prohibition against abusing a convert or someone who came from a distant land is rooted in a Jew’s expression of solidarity with another Jew. He is no worse than any other Jew and must never be made to feel worthless or even less worthy. Every Jew is special and must be treated as such.
A new student arrived at Yeshivah Shor Yoshuv after a long and difficult yeshivah career. As a child, he had been diagnosed with severe learning disabilities, and even as a teenager, he had great difficulty reading English or Hebrew. He wasn’t even sure what he was still doing in yeshivah but he decided to give Shor Yoshuv one last try.
The Rosh Yeshivah, R’ Shlomo Freifeld ZT”L recognized the boy’s difficulties immediately and treated him differently. He spent hours with him, listening to him try to read – and it was hard! But R’ Shlomo, always the optimist, encouraged the boy. “I don’t think you realize this,” he once told him, “but with all your reading difficulty, I believe that you possess a razor-sharp mind. We are going to make you into a talmid chacham!”
R’ Shlomo found him a suitable chavrusa who would work on his understanding of the topic matter, rather than the actual reading. And it worked. As the boy began to understand the sugya, he would memorize the words by heart so that it seemed as if he had no problem reading the words. It was a difficult road for him and he would need to exert himself three times as much as his friends would with little to show for it; they were completing entire masechtos and he was finishing lines. Every time he felt like he couldn’t go on, he would come to R’ Shlomo and the Rosh Yeshivah would charge him with an appreciation of his unique challenge, and a confidence that he would ultimately triumph.
It took a number of years but eventually the bochur had mastered the first seven blatt in Mesechta Chulin, word for word. R’ Shlomo had tested him on each and every line and knew that he knew it perfectly. It was satisfying to have finally accomplished something in learning and the boy felt good about it, but it wasn’t until later, at an engagement party for one of the bochurim in the yeshivah, that he truly felt the fruits of his labor.
The festive celebration was held in the Rosh Yeshivah’s house and the room was jammed with people. There were also several distinguished Rabbonim in attendance and they were speaking with R’ Shlomo about the Yeshivah.
R’ Shlomo’s eyes gleamed. “Let me tell you. We have bochurim here who are literally gaonim, true geniuses,” he said.
The illustrious guests looked on with interest as R’ Shlomo searched the room with his eyes. His gaze rested on his student, the boy who learned to live with, and overcome his learning disability. R’ Shlomo studied him for a moment and then gestured him forward. “Heibt uhn tzu zuggen – start to say a gemara. Let’s see, how about … Mesechta Chulin?”
The boy closed his eyes and began to recite the words that had become his through blood, sweat and tears. “Hakol shochtin, U’shechitasan k’sheira.” He started gathering confidence as he rattled off line by line, questions and answers.
The room grew completely still as the guests watched the spectacle with rapt interest. Daf beis became daf gimmel, gimmel turned to daled, and still, he was going strong. Minutes passed and the bochur showed no signs of letting up, saying each word clearly and lovingly. The distinguished Rabbonim were visibly astonished by this American boy who seemed to know the words of the gemara by heart and with perfect precision.
A full fifteen minutes passed until the boy quickly approached the end of the seventh daf, the extent of his knowledge. Just as he said the last word, R’ Shlomo held up his hand. “Genug, enough – you showed them what we have here.”
The student later recalled, “Those fifteen minutes erased fifteen years of humiliation and suffering.”