A Conversation with Rav Hirshprung Outside the Ohel

Locked outside of Montefiore Cemetery late one Yud Shvat, Rabbi Binyomin Cohen found himself in the company of Rav Pinchos Hirshprung, who started a conversation he’ll never forget.

By Rabbi Binyomin Cohen – Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedola Melbourne

On the tenth of Sh’vat 5710 (1950), the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, also known as the Rebbe Rayatz, passed away. The next day he was laid to rest in the Montefiore Cemetery, situated in Cambria Heights in the New York borough of Queens. Some months later, a small, roofless building, known as the Ohel, was erected around his grave, in order to accommodate all those who came there to pray.

The stately and impressive main entrance of the cemetery was located on Springfield Boulevard. However, the close proximity of the Ohel to the cemetery’s side entrance on Francis Lewis Boulevard ensured that the overwhelming majority of those visiting the Ohel entered the cemetery through its side entrance. This consisted of a modest pair of wire gates, which provided the only opening in an extremely long wire fence, running along the entire side of the cemetery. Once through these gates, it was a very short walk to the Ohel.

In Sh’vat 5711 (1951) the Rebbe gave specific and explicit instructions to the Chassidim as to how the day of Yud Sh’vat – the yahrtzeit of his father-in-law and predecessor – was to be observed. One of the directives was that each Chosid should write a special pidyon nefesh (a term used by Chassidim to describe a written note containing an individual’s requests for the Rebbe’s blessing) to be taken on the day of Yud Sh’vat to be read and placed at the Ohel. Most of the Chassidim would therefore first daven shachris on Yud Sh’vat at 770, Eastern Parkway (especially since the Rebbe himself acted as shliach tzibur on this day) and afterwards travel to the Ohel (a journey of about forty minutes) in order to read their pidyon nefesh.

In the year 1972 (5732) I had, for some reason which I can no longer recall, been unable to go to the Ohel on the morning of Yud Sh’vat. Somehow or other, the delay stretched into the afternoon, and therefore, by the time we arrived at the Ohel, daylight was already fading.

The car pulled up at the side-entrance of the cemetery on Francis Lewis Boulevard and I climbed out into the biting wind of a bitterly-cold January day. Clearly, at the Ohel of the Rebbe there are more important things to think about than the weather, so I immediately headed for the entrance in order to proceed to the Ohel.

To my surprise the gates were closed. A closer inspection revealed that they were securely padlocked. I was certain that there was some mistake. On all my previous visits to the Ohel I had invariably found the gates wide open. Why were they now locked? I started pushing and rattling the gates in an attempt to open them.

As I stood trying to gain entry, another car pulled up a short distance away, and Rabbi Pinchos Hirschprung, the Av Beis Din (senior Rabbinic authority) of Montreal, got out. Not a Lubavitch Chosid in any formal sense, Rabbi Hirschprung was nevertheless quite close to the Rebbe and travelled to New York several times a year in order to participate in his farbrengens. He would, no doubt, be present at the Rebbe’s farbrengen later that evening, and was meanwhile using the available time to visit the resting-place of a tzaddik on the day of his yahrtzeit.

Rabbi Hirschprung stood next to me as I continued in my efforts to open the gates. I was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a young man on the other side of the gate i.e. inside the cemetery. Apparently a security guard, he wanted to know why we were shaking the gates. I replied that we needed to go to the Ohel and could not understand why the gates were locked.

“The whole cemetery closes at five o’clock every day of the year, ”replied the guard curtly. “Now is already well-past official closing time.”

Glancing at my watch, I saw that it was only a few minutes past five. I pleaded with the guard to open the gate and let us into the Ohel for just a few minutes. He flatly refused to do anything of the sort, and, pointing to something strapped to his belt, added, “Don’t try to climb over the fence. If you do, I will shoot you.”

I was not sure whether Rabbi Hirschprung’s life experiences had included having a gun pointed at him, or whether he even understood what the fellow was saying. I, however, had definitely never been threatened in this way and found the man’s aggressive reaction totally misplaced. I had, after all, never had the slightest intention to scale the fence, but had merely asked him to open the gate.

The guard remained standing on the other side of the gates and continued to glare at us menacingly. Having no interest in prolonging a pointless dispute, we backed away from the gates and resigned ourselves to the unfortunate reality of our situation. There was no way that we were going to get inside, and we had come here for nothing.

I was totally dispirited and dejected. It was Yud Sh’vat and I had missed out on reading my pidyon at the Ohel. I had wasted at least two precious hours on a futile journey, and was not sure whether I was angrier with myself or with that uncooperative and belligerent guard. In addition, I was now acutely aware of the unpleasant weather. The temperature was sub-zero, a bitterly cold wind was blowing, and the snow was descending with a vengeance. There was nowhere to take shelter, and we were completely at the mercy of the elements. The fellow who had dropped me off at the Ohel had expected me to be here for at least half an hour and had meanwhile gone off somewhere else. No doubt he would soon return, but in the meantime it was pretty unpleasant.

Nowadays, the scenario is vastly different. The establishment, over the last twenty odd years, of a whole complex of buildings and facilities near the Ohel, has meant that every visitor is well cared-for. Food and drink are freely available, as are spacious, comfortable areas to learn, daven or relax. None of this existed in the seventies. All that we could see was a long, dark, lonely street. Every detail of our surroundings was totally cheerless and my mood was correspondingly becoming blacker by the minute.

All of a sudden, Rabbi Hirschprung turned to me and asked in his heavily-accented Yiddish, וואס לערנסט דו?, “What are you learning?”

I was rather surprised that the Rabbi could find no more appropriate circumstances than our present ones to hold such a discussion. However, not wishing to appear rude or disrespectful, I replied immediately. “Bava Kamma Daf Yud Alef”, I said, referring to the Masechta of Gemara which I was at that time learning every morning in Kollel.

Rabbi Hirschprungs eyes lit up. “Bava Kamma Daf Yud Alef!” he said excitedly, and started to repeat out loud every single word on that particular page, together with an accompanying explanation of his own consisting of quotes from the classic commentaries.

If I had been previously slightly surprised, I was now totally amazed. Not by the Rabbi’s expertise. It was, after all, common knowledge that Rabbi Hirschprung had committed to memory the whole of the Babylonian Talmud and its commentaries, as well as countless other works. He could thus quote entire passages by heart with the same degree of accuracy as if he were reading from a book. Even in the pre-war Poland where he had been born and raised, and where expert Talmudists could be found in almost every shtiebel, Pinchos Hirschprung was known as something unique.

What was really amazing me was the spectacle of an older Rabbi, standing on a desolate, dark street in freezing weather and a biting wind, totally and enthusiastically involved in the Torah he was repeating and completely oblivious of all else. The snow was falling on him, but he didn’t seem to be aware of it. His feet must have been like blocks of ice, but he apparently felt no discomfort. Looking at his smiling face and listening to his impassioned voice, you would have thought that he was standing in a large, packed Beis Midrash delivering a shiur to attentive listeners who eagerly absorbed his every word.

When confronted with such obvious enthusiasm, it is difficult to remain indifferent. When in the presence of unbounded energy, it is almost impossible to retreat into a shell of dejection and depression.

Vigour, warmth and excitement are contagious, and serve as a light which naturally dispels much darkness. Looking at the Rabbi, much of my gloom lifted.

For sure, we always have something about which we can moan and groan. There is never any shortage of physical challenges and spiritual setbacks upon which we can choose to focus if we are determined to remain in a cocoon of pessimism. However, being together, albeit for just a short while, with someone who breathed a passionate and unflagging commitment to Torah and its learning, refreshed, revived and invigorated me.

The frustrations of the past hour faded into the background. My car had at last returned, and I entered it in a fairly upbeat mood. Yud Sh’vat was once again the day of inspiration and encouragement which it was meant to be.

The above incident demonstrates the power of Torah study in even the most unlikely places. What is perhaps of slightly more relevance to us, is the fact that the question “What are you learning?” was on Rabbi Hirschprung’s lips wherever he found himself and with whomever he was talking. He saw it as his life’s-task to engage other Jews in the study of Torah and found the words “What are you learning?” a remarkably useful vehicle through which to achieve this goal.

After all, the Rabbi did not ask people, “Are you learning?”, but rather, “What are you learning?” The difference between these two questions is far more than one word. They express, in fact, two entirely different approaches in our interpersonal communications.

“Are you learning?” implies that there is a distinct possibility that you are not learning Torah at all. The person being asked might well find such an implication both demeaning and offensive. In addition to this, the whole question sounds like an attempt to interrogate the other person in order to subsequently pass judgement on his behaviour. No wonder then that such a question would tend to arouse a fairly negative reaction from the one to whom it is directed.

Conversely, the question, “What are you learning?” manages to explore the same ground with none of the associated negativity. No-one is suggesting, or in any way implying, that maybe you do not learn any Torah. On the contrary, the form of the question clearly implies that you are in fact learning, and that the motivation behind the query is not a clumsy attempt to belittle you, but rather to enter into a discussion with you as an equal.

Rabbi Hirschprung could of course be supremely confident that, regardless of what the other person would reply, he would be able to fully respond with an encyclopaedic analysis of that particular Torah topic in all its details. Very few, if any, of us are capable of feeling a similar degree of confidence. Nevertheless it would be a pity were we to be reluctant to initiate a discussion of Torah topics for fear of exposing our own limitations. We are, after all, happy to initiate conversations about such important matters as the weather, local politics and the economic situation, despite our having little real in-depth knowledge of any of these. We manage to feel comfortable, despite our understanding of these matters rarely rising above the most superficial level, and the question therefore poses itself, “Why should Torah be any different? Why does Torah rarely form even part of our everyday conversations? Why can we not ask another Jew what he is learning, and use his response as a springboard for some sort of discussion of a Torah topic of mutual interest?”

I am not sure what the answer to these questions is, and am by no means certain that I wish to find out. A far more productive exercise would be to change the facts on the ground by making at least a modest effort to include Torah as a topic of conversation.

We are told that the Mitteler Rebbe expressed the wish that when two of his Chassidim met each other, they should engage in an enthusiastic discussion of the deepest concepts of Chassidus. If we are, for some reason, incapable or unwilling to go quite so far, let us at least not discard the message completely. Sharing Torah insights on all levels will be of the greatest benefit to the individuals concerned and the community at large.

Reprinted from Perspectives Magazine Issue 20

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