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Pliable as a reed, piercing as lightning

There is only one person who could console me for the loss of my deep, deep friend and teacher, Rabbi Nathaniel Lauer.

And that is Rabbi Lauer himself.

He left me to get through this one by myself.

I cannot.

• • •

When our older daughters enrolled in Beth Jacob High School of Denver, they kept bringing home stories of a teacher who was a curious and gifted listener, a deeply empathic person, able to hear out teens embroiled in their angst, respecting their point of view, engaging with them with a certain dignity and respect, meeting them where they were.

And more stories: Of a teacher who was philosophical, penetrating and deeply challenging, filled with insights and original thinking. The term “thinking out of the box’ seemed to be devised for him.

I had to meet this man myself.

• • •

In 1992, I published Illuminating the Generations: From the Middos [Traits] of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to the Musar Thinkers of Our Time. It set forth the insights of the Musar masters on the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Genesis.

It was as much Rabbi Lauer’s book as mine.

He critiqued every chapter, every word.

His vast knowledge and acuity served to alter, refine, reject, edify, enlarge or confirm what I wrote.

How could I take in the Patriarchs and Matriarchs without Rabbi Lauer?

So many of his students had said the same. But what I “heard” could not rise to what I met, in person. He cultivated creativity in others — and more. Amidst the most serious encounters with the towering founders of our people, the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, Rabbi Lauer sometimes noticed an inflection in a commentary that made him smile infectiously. His chuckle was contagious. To plunge into his fountain of wisdom was also to access a profound joy as we studied the Torah.

• • •

After Rabbi Lauer left Denver in 1994, our relationship shifted to the telephone.

I could not scribble fast enough. His words tumbled out. It wasn’t shorthand I was missing. It was capacity. Idea piled upon idea. Connection added to connection. Source upon source.

I could not keep up because I could not follow.

His mind encompassed so much Torah!

It just flowed out.

I had many conversations with Rabbi Lauer over many years. Whatever it is we started with, we always ended with his insights.

But he did not put it that way.

The way he put it, he was only conveying the teachings of his own teachers.

“Look up Shiurei Da’as here, look it up there.”

His pith, his being, drew from the teachings of his teachers in the Telshe yeshiva in the books they wrote, titled Shiurei Da’as.

• • •

In his way, Rabbi Lauer was a holy man, because knowledge of Torah conveys holiness, if the knowledge is deep enough. If it penetrates to the pith.

So it was with Rabbi Lauer.

To the pith.

So much knowledge, so much creativity, now gone. If knowledge of G-d is the end goal of Torah study, then what happens when a person full of knowledge of G-d returns to G-d? It would take Rabbi Lauer to explain this.

What happens to us, left behind, so bereft; no longer able to channel all that knowledge of G-d that was his, no longer able to listen to him expatiate on Rashi, Mizrachi, Midrash, Tanach, Maimonides, Nachmanides, Maharal — his list was endless?

• • •

His fresh way of looking at the tradition in which he was staunchly grounded carried over to life. He had a new way of looking at situations. His immense knowledge was interwoven with who he was. There was always something rich in what he conveyed, whether the focus at hand was a text or a life quandary. When you walked away from a conversation with Rabbi Lauer, you had a new way of looking at things, even if you thought you had grasped them before.

It wasn’t just Rabbi Lauer. He and his wife Nancy, a veteran preschool teacher who introduced our youngest daughter to the joys of Judaism, were role models. They opened their home on all occasions, including super fun, lively and “happening” Purim feasts. Guests might include the prestigious Rabbi Moshe and Hadassah Kahn and the ever dignified Levines. The rabbi and his wife lived the teachings of the Torah that they taught.

• • •

Like all of us, Rabbi Lauer was not born with an inborn intellectual advantage. Like all of us, he was born as an empty slate. How he filled it up!

How he painted from such a bright yet subtle palette.

How his passion penetrated your resistance to make you aspire to do the same.

How his knowledge did not overpower, but inspired.

How he mastered the pedagogical craft.

He left his long time position in Denver for Detroit 28 years ago; even so, countless former students need hear only two words, “Rabbi Lauer,” to feel validated as students of Torah.

It was hardly easy for him to become a student himself. He was open with me about his struggles with dyslexia — he had to overcome a lot — which makes his razor sharp critical thinking and mastery of the Jewish sacred textual tradition all the more amazing.

• • •

Where is his voice now?

Rabbi Lauer, I need your guidance and your trenchant challenges to my thinking. I need the dialogue.

Still, still, I fill with gratitude. I was privileged beyond measure for all the time you gave me, for all the teachings you quoted, for all the role modeling, for the deep, deep concern you had that, if I were to write and publish words of or on the Torah, I get it right.

You cared so deeply that all your students get it right.

Which meant, not taking the easy route.

Not regurgitating.

No, you wanted your students to think, to see something, say something, fresh — fresh, yet fully loyal to the tradition.

You wanted your students to be curious, to engage with the Torah, to relish its wisdom and love its lifestyle, not just to do and say the right thing.

Your own great teachers, before whom you stood in awe even decades after their passing, saw your own loyalty.

That is what is gone now.

A slice of Jewish spiritual history in pure form.

I cannot believe I shall never be blessed with it again.

I will not.

But I will remember.

I will be blessed to remember.

Just two words, “Rabbi Lauer.”

They will trigger the memory.

Of my friend who remained my teacher, always accepting of others but never of rote learning.

He was pliable as a reed, piercing as lightning.

Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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