This letter is dedicated to the memory of my first rebbe, Rabbi Gavriel Beer. When I first met Rabbi Beer, he was the rabbi of our local synagogue and principal of its Hebrew school. He was also a noted activist in Agudath Israel of America, a major branch of the international Chareidi organization which was founded by the Chofetz Chaim and other leading Torah sages. Rabbi Beer’s yahrtzeit is on the Seventh of Teves, which begins this year on Monday evening, Decembr 13th.
I was a frail child, and the doctors felt that the New York City neighborhood in which we were living was not good for my health. They therefore suggested that my family move to a healthier New York City neighborhood by the ocean. As a result of their recommendation, my family moved from a housing project in downtown Brooklyn to a housing project in Rockaway Beach, Queens. I was then eight years old.
After we moved, my mother took me and my younger sister, Devorah, on a walk to the boardwalk by the ocean. It was only one block from our apartment, and on the way, we passed a synagogue called “Temple Israel.” My mother saw their sign which stated that registration was open for their school, and she decided to enter the synagogue to get more information. She discovered that this was an Orthodox synagogue, and although our family was not Orthodox, she registered us for the “Sunday School” of the synagogue.
My mother, like my father, was a progressive social activist, and she never received a formal Torah education; yet, something in her soul made her feel that we should begin to study Torah and learn about our heritage. A year later, I was studying in the afternoon Hebrew school, and the rabbi of the synagogue, Rabbi Gavriel Beer, who was also my teacher, told my parents that I was a good student who should be given the opportunity for further Torah study at a “yeshiva” – a term which is used in North America to refer to a Torah-committed day school and/or a school of advanced Torah studies. Rabbi Beer therefore recommended that I leave public school and start to attend the Hebrew Institute of Long Island (HILI), which was located in the neighborhood of Far Rockaway, about three miles from our home. My mother felt that further Torah study would be good for me, and she persuaded my father that I should not be deprived of this opportunity. (Later on, my sister also enrolled in a Torah-committed day school, the Beth Jacob of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.)
Rabbi Beer and his family moved to Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem in 1969, two years after the Six Day War. Bayit Vegan is a Torah-committed neighborhood on a high mountain in the southwest of Jerusalem, overlooking the Jerusalem forest. When I moved to Bayit Vegan in 1989, I reconnected with Rabbi Beer and his family, and I was often a guest in their home for Shabbos and the Festivals. He and his wife, Rebbitzen Chaya Beer, may she live and be well, later moved to Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem.
A number of years after I was reunited with Rabbi Beer in Jerusalem, Rabbi Beer revealed to me why he was especially motivated to speak to my parents about sending me to a yeshiva. He told me that he was very moved by all the acts of loving-kindness that my parents did, including my mother’s ongoing assistance to the elderly people in our housing project. Most of the elderly people were Jewish, and Rabbi Beer knew some of them from the synagogue. Rabbi Beer then told me:
“I felt that a boy who grew up in a house of loving-kindness would flourish in the house of Torah.”
What is the connection between a house of loving-kindness and the house of Torah? The beginning of the answer can be found in the following Torah teaching which serves as a basic principle of the Torah path:
We are created in the Divine image with the capacity and responsibility to emulate the Divine loving-kindness.
As the Chofetz Chaim wrote:
“Scripture records (Genesis 1:27) that, ‘God created the human being in His image.’ The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One – to do good and act with loving-kindness with others; moreover, it is written in Scriptures, ‘Hashem is good to all and His compassion is on all His works’ (Psalm 145:9), and ‘He gives food to all flesh, for His loving-kindness endures forever’ (Psalm 136:25).”
The above teaching is cited in the Chofetz Chaim’s work, Ahavath Chesed – Loving Loving-kindness (Part 2). The title expresses the idea that we should love to do acts of loving-kindness, and this idea is expressed in the following proclamation of the Prophet Micah:
In this work, the Chofetz Chaim discusses Torah teachings that stress the great importance of chesed – acts of loving-kindness, and he also discusses various mitzvos of chesed that are found in the Torah. I recall that both of my parents were especially impressed by the great devotion to mitzvos of chesed that they noticed in Torah-observant communities, including visiting the sick, comforting and assisting mourners, helping the needy, and providing hospitality.
Rabbi Beer brought me to the loving house of Torah. I am therefore full of gratitude to him for this great act of chesed.
I will conclude this letter with the following words from a daily morning prayer
“Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance, for with the light of Your countenance You gave us, Hashem, our God, the Torah of life and a love of loving-kindness” (Shemoneh Esrei).
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen