APPROXIMATELY 46 years ago, when I was a student at Yeshiva University, I sat for an exam with Rabbi Mendel Zaks.
On one level, the scene was surrealistic, perhaps even absurd.
Sitting behind the desk was this wizened, elderly, European sage, whose countenance bespoke deep wisdom and a natural, embracing, soothing kindness.
In the front of the table was a young man — me — born and raised in the American West, far removed from the world of Rabbi Zaks and incapable of fathoming the extent of his knowledge of Torah.
On one level, the encounter made no sense: What could the one person understand of the other?
But since he was examining me to determine whether I was ready to enter the class in Talmud that I aspired to — since our encounter was framed by the transmission of the heritage of the Jewish people — all absurdity was transcended. This, despite facts that were obvious to me: Rabbi Zaks knew how little I knew. And I knew that he knew.
Consider: We students opened the Talmud and read and translated and explained. Rabbi Zaks, however, had no open volume in front of him. Yet, he corrected every error a student made. Rabbi Zaks knew it all by heart.
Despite my awe and fright in his presence, I must have explained with a sufficient degree of accuracy whatever it was I was asked to read and translate.
Compared to his level of knowledge, I must have seemed like I was demonstrating proficiency in the Hebrew abc, the aleph-bet.
Yet, he passed me.
He admitted me to the class.
This wasn’t about me personally. Countless other young men who appeared before him to take the entrance exam manifested a similar chasm between their knowledge and that of Rabbi Zaks.
Rabbi Zaks was the son-in-law and successor of the legendary sage of East European Jewry, called the “Chofetz Chaim” after the name of his famous book on the laws of leshon ha-ra — slander, talebearing, and lying. Rabbi Zaks was the person to whom the other sages of his time turned in order to mediate any dispute between them. He was trusted as a sage’s sage. Like his father-in-law, he was a cut above, a survivor of the destruction of the beautiful world of nobility of character that was his life’s breadth.
WHY did Rabbi Zaks pass these young men?
Why did I experience, under his ancient gaze, my personal crossing of the Red Sea just a half-century ago?
What was he thinking?
I did not ask myself this question until decades later. At the time, I was simply relieved to have passed the exam. Now, with the benefit of hindsight — occasioned by the 40th anniversary of Rabbi Zaks’ passing — here is what I surmise Rav Mendel Zaks must have been asking himself.
What could possibly be the intentions of the Creator of the Universe? I do not know why all of the budding scholars and pietists in whose midst I was living only a short while ago were taken from this earth. How did I end up sitting across the desk from young America boys, earnest but ignorant, raised more on baseball and the Beatles than on Talmud, speakers of English and not of Yiddish, so different from me!
How did it become my fate to pass judgment on the academic level of young men who are entirely removed from the levels of Torah study to which I am accustomed?
Indeed, the scene is absurd.
This, or something like this, is what Rav Zaks must have asked himself. And the following, I surmise, is what he must have answered:
I am not in charge of the Creator of the Universe. It is of no moment that I cannot grasp His intentions. If He has brought me from the material poverty and spiritual wealth of Radin, my home in Lithuania, to the material wealth and spiritual poverty of New York City, it is not for me to ask why. It is for me to say: Let the study of the Torah start anew!
If this is the way it is to be, I am not to ponder the great chasm between me and the young men sitting before me. Rather, I am to take a step toward bridging that chasm. It is mine not to ask why; it is mine to do.
AND so, with a gentle gesture — my fright was not caused by anything he said or did; quite the contrary, he was the picture of kindness — Rabbi Zaks indicated that I and my cohorts had passed the entrance exam.
Dear Rabbi Zaks: I am eternally grateful for our freighted encounter, as memorable as it was brief, nearly a half century ago. My only regret now is how little I understood of you then, and how much I wished I would have known enough then to speak with you at length. O how you could have illuminated people and places and the internal workings of institutions and decisions that are now forever closed to me.
Alas, this conversation will never take place.
But something so much more important did happen. You, along with many others, reached out from behind the universe of discourse and spirituality that I could not fathom — you reached out to touch me and others, to inspire us to delve into the secrets of eternity, the secrets of the Torah.
How grateful I remain for that single, brief, beautiful encounter, in which, if nothing else, I had the privilege of gazing into your enormously wise, kind eyes, full of knowledge that, truth to tell, I will never be able to fathom.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News