Monday, August 20, 2012

A Beautiful Siyyum HaShas You Didn't Read About (Until Now)

Rav Chaim Dovid Kowalsky
In this past week's B'sheva, Yedidya Meir wrote a beautiful daf yomi story that I want to share, in which he quotes a letter he received from a reader.

Our grandfather, Saba Yaakov, has already completed two cycles of the Daf Yomi. From the time that he retired, about fifteen years ago, he decided to dedicate his time to Torah study. Despite the fact that he did not grow up in the Yeshiva world, and despite the fact that he spent most of his life supporting his household, slowly but surely Saba Yaakov accumulated skills in learning the pages of the holy Gemara with regularity. Not a day passed that he didn't learn the Daf - first with a Steinzaltz and later on in the regular shiur of Rav Bortman in Kiryat Mutzkin. Even during the second Lebanon War, when the residents of the [Northern] cities were shelled, and Saba Yaakov found himself exiled to his son's residence in Petach Tikvah, he joined the shiur in the "Hadar Ganim" neighborhood for a month, and was beloved by the members of the Kolel.
Over the past three years, Saba Yaakov's health has taken a turn for the worse. He's had a pacemaker implanted, his legs are full of fluid, and he can no longer leave the house to attend regular tefillot or the Daf Yomi shiur. His physical deterioriation affected his mental state. We watched as Saba Yaakov deteriorated, and saw no resolution to the problem. He simply stopped grasping to the "Tree of Life", and we feared that from that point onward, the road would be short, God forbid.
Then, like a final lifeline, Saba Yaakov discovered Rav Kowalsky and the website of "Meorot Hadaf Hayomi." Hidden away at home, Saba Yaakov plunged back into the Sugyot of the Talmud as Rav Kowalsky, with a unique sweetness and grace, via the computer screen, breathed life back into [our grandfather]. One shiur, and then another, and then another - returned to Saba the will to live. Rav Kowalsky became his virtual best friend. Saba spent three or more hours each day with the Rav - and just try and interrupt him during the shiur. No conversation with Saba did not include a word about the Rav or his young son Shmulik, who would ask wise questions during the shiur.
On the occasion of the [recent] Siyyum Hashas we decided to surprise Saba - who never leaves the house, and lives in the four "inches" of Rav Kowalsky. We tracked down Rav Kowalsky's phone number in the hopes that he would find a few moments in his busy day to record a personal video greeting. [When we reached him], the Rav asked where Saba lives, and when he heard the answer - Kiryat Chaim - he said, "I'm on my way to the north for a family vacation. What's the address? Rather than record a greeting, I'll come in person."
So, yesterday, exactly at 1:00pm, when Saba was preparing for his regular learning with his virtual "Rebbe", a knock was heard at the door. So that he would not grow overly emotional, Savta Chaya prepared Saba in advance telling him that an important guest was scheduled to arrive and visit him. Saba demurred, "Who could be more important that my daily learning with Rav Kowalsky?" and he turned back to the computer.
I still cannot find the words to describe the emotional meeting between teacher and student - who despite having never met felt so close. The Rav sat in Saba's home for more than half an hour. They discussed Sugyot in Shas, Saba's birthplace in Romania - Saba was beside himself with pleasure. They departed warmly - but not before the Rav begged Saba to bless him and his son Shmulik.
Many important leaders in Israel benefit from Rav Kowalsky's shiurim - from his well-known shiur in the Azrieli Towers to the last shiur he delivers each night. Yet, on his trip to a family vacation, he made the effort to come, greet and give honor to his last student. I write this letter without asking [the Rav's] permission, because I'm not entirely sure that he'd be happy about this publicity.
Tens of Siyyumim of the Shas took place recently in Israel and around the world; events adorned by the Gedolim of Israel, impressive meals and wonderful momentos for those who completed the learning. Yet, fortunate was the eye that saw the Siyyum of Saba Yaakov with his no-longer-virtual Rav.