This story was originally published in the print edition of Yated Ne'eman that was put out in Israel around 24 years ago. It is one of the classic Chaim Walder stories, with a gripping, smooth flowing plot, and also important lessons to teach.
There are many lessons to be learned from this story. For those who know a "Reb Eliahu" or a "Shimon" the lessons will be obvious, though not necessarily easily learned. However for everyone, and perhaps the most important lesson, is about the importance of siyata deShmaya in any small success that we may achieve.
* * *
It was early in the morning, the end of a long Shavuos night. Many of the members of the Shaarei Tzion shul looked in amazement at the rare scene that unfolded before their eyes. The elderly and stern Reb Shulem Ruzin, often called a yekeh because of his origin and character, was conversing with a fifteen year old boy, and had not only closed his gemora for that purpose, but had even permitted himself to laugh with him.
Reb Shulem's fellow worshipers, who had grown accustomed to seeing him bent over his gemora the entire Shavuos night, oblivious to his surroundings, had never in their lives witnessed such a scene. Reb Shulem wasn't a particularly gregarious person, and it was rare to see even a smile cross his lips. The strange blend of Reb Shulem, pausing from his studies and laughing with a fifteen year old boy who could have been his grandson, heightened the already whetted curiosity of the onlookers.
One of the few young people who had remained in the shul the entire night told the older congregants, who had arrived in time for shacharis: "The boy and his father entered the shul at midnight. The two spoke with Reb Shulem at length. At a certain point the father left, while the boy remained behind, continuing the conversation."
Had you, the reader, taken a peek at the boy, you wouldn't have believed your eyes — even though you are still not familiar with the characters of the story. This is because the youth didn't look at all like a child who had been raised in a chareidi family — especially not one headed by a well-known avreich. But from the boy's determined expression, everyone understood that he was "one of those cases." All nodded their heads as if to express their sympathy for the famous and distinguished rav whose lot it was to be the father of the youth with the shaggy tuft of hair capped by a tiny yarmulke.
* * *
A few hours beforehand — quite close to midnight — Reb Eliyahu, the youth's father, had sat in the Divrei Moshe shul. Watching his son scamper between the benches where Torah scholars leaned over their gemoras, Reb Eliyahu's heart broke.
The boy was obviously in his teens. He was relatively tall and appeared more mature than other youths his age. His features, which until a year and a half ago, had been so refined, had suddenly changed, but still hadn't assumed their final form. Reb Eliyahu knew that the same was true about the boy's personality. He sensed that his son was undergoing a transitional phase, whose end was hard to predict. In the meantime, Reb Eliyahu had to rely on nothing more than rumors, and on what he perceived intuitively. The overall picture was far from encouraging.
He looked at his son, scampering from bench to bench, making jokes — probably about himself, in his latest self-defensive style — and ignoring the occasional hints of the learners who tried to brush him off with "veiter, veiter." Shimon would try to stretch a conversation as far as possible. However, as soon as he noticed someone else whom he could engage in mundane talk, he would, as suddenly as he had begun the conversation, end it, and pop off to the next bench. Reb Eliyahu watched as Shimon approached the next pair of study partners, heartily tapping one of them on the shoulder. He heard him say: "I understand that you have a question in learning!"
Reb Eliyahu saw and even heard them laugh. Indeed there was nothing funnier than the sight of Shimon, scampering all night from the tea room to the benches and then offering learned men solutions to complex Talmudic problems. Reb Eliyahu himself might have laughed at the sight, but no joke regarding Shimon seemed funny to him — for Shimon was his son.
Shimon was his most brilliant and promising son — the son from whom he had expected so much, the son who, even as a young child, had delighted him. He had once been the student whose talents all praised, the brightest, most intelligent boy in the class. All raved about his abilities, and especially over his astuteness. Shimon was so clever that Reb Eliyahu studied with him alone for a few hours every Shabbos, much to the dismay of the other children in the family who complained that their father played favorites.
And they were right. He had indeed played favorites, because he truly enjoyed studying with Shimon, and relished the thought that if Shimon displayed such unusual talent at so tender an age, then a glowing future certainly awaited him.
Reb Eliyahu never doubted that Shimon would become a lamdan. He believed that Shimon was mature, and it seemed to him that even during childhood, Shimon had already displayed independence of thought. Even then, he had discerned Shimon's serious character, his never ending curiosity and his uncanny ability to perceive subtleties which adults did not even know existed.
Above all, Reb Eliyahu was familiar with Shimon's outlook and believed that the youth was destined to become a true leader in Israel. Shimon could distinguish between proper and improper behavior, between genuine piety and sham. Reb Eliyahu delighted in the penetrating perception of his son, his mature perspective and the yiras Shomayim manifest in his views.
Sometimes, Shimon would denigrate certain people. Although Reb Eliyahu would censure him for this, his rebukes were not stern enough, because in essence, he usually had similar opinions. When Shimon would point this out to him, Reb Eliyahu would reply: "First of all, one may not say everything he thinks. Second of all, there is a difference in our ages!"
Reb Eliyahu began to recall his past efforts to instill his son with yiras Shomayim and correct hashkofo. He had directed most of his energies toward training the child to think properly. Aware of Shimon's brilliance, he had always felt that it was best to focus on the child's intellect, rather than on his feelings. "The moment this child thinks, he also feels," he would tell his wife. "As soon as I explain a view from an intellectual point of view, he internalizes it.
He recalled how he had explained the logical aspects of mitzvah observance to him, and how carefully kashrus had been observed in their home — so carefully that whenever a celebration was held in the cheder in honor of a siyum, a holiday or even a birthday of a fellow classmate, it went without saying that Shimon's mother would prepare the refreshments. All knew why — although the reason had originally been revealed only to the principal and Shimon's teachers, behind closed doors.
However in a way that no one could explain — most likely as a result of Shimon's quick grasp of things — the reason became public knowledge. Soon everyone knew that Shimon's parents didn't want him to eat food products whose hechsherim they didn't trust implicitly. Of course, they didn't disqualify the kashrus of the kitchens of Shimon's classmates. But their strong yearning to observe the mitzvos in the most meticulous manner possible, led them to impose strictures which eliminated even the slightest possibility of Shimon's ever consuming even a tiny morsel of food that had not been prepared according to the highest standards of kashrus.
Reb Eliyahu recalled how proud he had been of his wife for her dedication to that aim. The fact that the principal also lauded her, further contributed to his good feeling.
But now, the thought of the chocolate bar without a top hechsher which he had found only a week before in Shimon's closet, plummeted him back to doleful reality, with a loud bang. How had something like that happened? How had Shimon, who had been trained to be so careful about kashrus, purchased a chocolate bar with a hechsher on which his parents did not rely?
Worse than that, Reb Eliyahu knew quite well that the chocolate bar, like other aspects of Shimon's behavior, was only an outward sign which pointed to the existence of a problem far more serious than the disregard for kashrus. His son, Shimon, was losing his emunah. True, he still wore a yarmulke, and tzitzis; but he made light of his prayers, of the blessings and of the mitzvos in general.
From the moment the Evil Inclination had lodged itself within Shimon's heart, not a day passed without its conquering more territory, causing Shimon to degenerate steadily.
When Shimon first entered yeshiva ketana, the mashgiach had given Reb Eliyahu glowing reports of the child's diligence and scholastic achievements. However, a number of months later, the mashgiach merely greeted Reb Eliyahu with "hello" and no more.
Reb Eliyahu was perplexed. Yet he tried to repress his qualms, fearing what he might hear if he asked the mashgiach for information about Shimon. However, quite soon, the mashgiach summoned Reb Eliyahu to the yeshiva.
At first, he mentioned problems such as Shimon's lateness to prayer services as well as certain social problems. But then he complained about the "rebellious atmosphere Shimon creates in the class." He had no complaints regarding Shimon's scholastic progress.
Of course, Reb Eliyahu discussed the matter with Shimon. However Shimon explained the reason the administration had made such charges. He criticized the teacher's level and inability to control the class. He drew a picture in which, instead of teaching, the rebbe concentrated on petty matters such as the social problems of the students. Shimon claimed that by relating to those childish problems, the teacher lowered the level of the entire class. "We're in yeshiva ketana. Yet the class is on a fifth grade level!" he said.
Reb Eliyahu listened to his son's explanation, and told him that children are unqualified to pass judgment on teachers. However, Reb Eliyahu's protest was weak, and his attitude made a deep impression on Shimon's soul.
In ensuing discussions with the mashgiach, it became clear that there were many social problems in Shimon's peer group. However, the mashgiach pointed to Shimon as the instigator of the contention in the class. "He has a cunning that is quite uncommon in boys his age," the mashgiach said. "He has a rare power of persuasion. He maneuvers everyone — myself included — forcing us to act according to his whims. He gives instructions, which certain students obey — while he himself remains at the sidelines," said the mashgiach. "He's one of those cases, and I advise you not to be so complacent. I advise you to stop idolizing him, and to explain to him what it means to be a novol bereshus haTorah."
Hearing this, Reb Eliyahu rose and refused to continue the conversation or to speak with the mashgiach again. If that weren't enough, during the forthcoming days, he did not stop criticizing that "avreich who thinks that he knows something about education." Repeatedly, he told his wife, his married children, his sons-in-law, and even his friends on the yeshiva's staff, about the mashgiach who had called Shimon a novol bereshus haTorah.
"Whoever uses such expressions to describe a student is unworthy of being a mashgiach," cried Reb Eliyahu, who did not trouble to quote the mashgiach accurately, and to say that the mashgiach had only recommended explaining the meaning of the concept, "novol bereshus haTorah" to Shimon. Reb Eliyahu was not careful about where he spoke or with whom, and his words were absorbed by the already sensitive ears of his son Shimon.
* * *
From that moment, Shimon began to degenerate at a rapid pace. His behavior in the yeshiva grew worse, and the administration decided to dismiss him. Reb Eliyahu overturned worlds in order to prove that the yeshiva's staff did not know how to deal with adolescents. "It's a fact that they can't control the class and have made a scapegoat of my son whose excellence needs no proof," he said.
As a result of Reb Eliyahu's pressuring, Shimon was permitted to return to the yeshiva, under very strict conditions. Shimon complained that these conditions lowered his prestige in the yeshiva. His father tried to bolster his spirits, explaining that everyone undergoes difficult trials in life. "As long as I know that you are right and think highly of you," Reb Eliyahu said, "you should be pleased."
But Shimon complained that he had lost his desire to learn. As a result, a new charge was added to the list of complaints against him. The teachers claimed that in addition to the social problems Shimon caused, the boy's laxity in his studies had a detrimental affect on the other members of the class, lowering their level too. Slowly, Reb Eliyahu learned about the friends Shimon had made within the yeshiva and outside it, too, and about Shimon's overall degeneration, and he began to feel that his own life had fallen apart.
Reb Eliyahu approached gedolei Torah and wept: "They've stolen my child." He brought proofs to indicate that Shimon was an excellent student. He cried bitterly — shedding genuine tears, tears of deep anguish over his high hopes which had been dashed quite rapidly by his beloved child who had been "cast into the abyss" by inexperienced mentors. He was willing to do everything — yes everything in order to turn back the wheels of time and to return Shimon to his former state. But apparently, the matter was no longer under his control.
And if the reports weren't enough, Reb Eliyahu could also see the signs of degeneration in Shimon, in the form of the unsuitable friends Shimon brought home, and in the snatches of telephone conversations Reb Eliyahu overheard, and in Shimon's overall lack of enthusiasm. How had this serious and bright son become a shallow, irresponsible youth — and so quickly?
Reb Eliyahu tried to do what he could: he screamed at Shimon. When Shimon overstepped his bounds and behaved in a manner which did not suit a youth from a Torah observant family, his father exploded. Shimon in turn shed his normal filial respect, and answered him freshly, using blunt language that left Reb Eliyahu startled and pale, wondering where Shimon had learned such behavior. Reb Eliyahu lost control of himself, and vented his pent up emotions on Shimon — the cumulative emotions of many months of suffering. At last, he turned to his other children and cried: "Don't associate with him. I don't want him to ruin you too."
From that point on, the relationship between Shimon and his father changed drastically. They did not speak to each other, except on the rare occasions when Reb Eliyahu lashed out at Shimon, spewing forth biting comments about the child's behavior and personality.
At first, Reb Eliyahu's cynical remarks caused Shimon to shrink in pain. But quite rapidly, he adopted a strange line of defense. Instead of trying to refute his father's charges, he would agree with them, in a casual, genial way, and he would even add various self accusations. In that manner, he managed to project an image of a rebel who simply didn't care what others said about him.
However, sometimes this line would fall, and Shimon would then burst out in pain. Anyone with even the most minimal understanding of human nature, would have realized that these were the outbursts of an injured soul — but Shimon's family apparently had no such understanding. They understood behavior and not feelings, and Shimon's behavior was growing worse from day to day.
They learned how low Shimon had fallen, from his new friends — some who came from "good families," others from broken homes. Reb Eliyahu would shame Shimon for associating with such friends, ripping him apart with cutting remarks like: "Birds of a feather flock together," and "Tell me who your friends are, and I'll tell you who you are!"
Shimon would respond sharply too, and suddenly Reb Eliyahu discovered another side of the critical judgment he had cultivated and had so enjoyed — a more unpleasant one, especially when it was turned against him.
At first, Reb Eliyahu tried to grapple with his son, verbally. In time, though, he realized that it was beneath his dignity to bicker with a teenager. From then on, a cold, impervious curtain divided the two. Although both appeared indifferent, in their innermost beings, they were deeply pained. Occasionally, Reb Eliyahu would burst out angrily, and for some reason it seemed to him that his son, in his own way, enjoyed those scenes.
"You're fresh! You'll be the death of me," he would warn Shimon, who would only behave even more brazenly, in response.
Because of his behavior and unsuitable companions, Shimon was expelled from the yeshiva, and Reb Eliyahu had to scurry around the country, disgracing himself and pleading with other yeshivas to accept his son. Reb Eliyahu would tell everyone about the "watchmen" [i.e. Shimon's teachers] who had failed their tasks. When he said this, tears would stream from his eyes. In the face of his pain and sincere words, he managed to find a yeshiva to accept Shimon.
But Shimon did not change. The transfers from yeshiva to yeshiva only harmed him and contributed to his degeneration. Thus, after a number attempts, Reb Eliyahu again found himself standing at the sidelines and observing his son's degeneration. Reb Eliyahu knew quite well in which direction Shimon was headed. He was bitterly aware of what lay at the end of that road, yet he wondered where it had begun?
He soon found a clear answer to his question, and sounded it at every available opportunity, saying that Shimon's downfall was caused by the faulty approach of his teachers. Yet deep down, a voice whispered to him, telling him that even if this was so, their error was only a reaction Shimon's behavior, while hundreds of other students in that very same yeshiva had remained yirei Shomayim.
The question Reb Eliyahu asked himself was: why has all this happened precisely to my son, who was raised , since childhood, to observe the mitzvos meticulously and to truly, truly fear Hashem? Why davkaShimon?
"When did all this begin,?" he mused. "When did the first signs become evident? Perhaps the key to the mystery lies in the answer to these questions?"
From the corner of his eye, Reb Eliyahu saw his son stretched out on a bench, his feet resting on a chair, in a carefree manner, and his heart writhed in pain. He buried his head in his hands, in order to avoid glimpsing the scene.
* * *
In that position, Reb Eliyahu recalled an incident that had taken place a while back. He had clearly recalled it on other occasions, too. However, whenever the recollection flashed across his mind, he would repress it, pushing it to a far corner of his psyche.
Memories of that incident began to disturb him from the moment he heard the first complaint against his son. Yet for some reason, he had never paused to analyze the affair or to deduce that the person who made the complaint may have been justified. The reason for this was that Reb Eliyahu did not think particularly much, or, to be precise, did not think anything at all of that person. "Just a baal habayis," Reb Eliyahu would tell himself — an old, and simple man who had delivered a lecture on Shimon's future and on the shoddy chinuch Reb Eliyahu was giving the boy.
Subconsciously, Reb Eliyahu sensed that the incident was threatening him in some way. He knew that if he took the warning seriously, then it would become clear that he — and no one else — was responsible for Shimon's degeneration.
But Reb Eliyahu could not restrain his thoughts. They surged forth and eluded his control.
The incident had taken place three years beforehand, when Shimon was twelve years old. At that time, Shimon was an outstanding and diligent student, whom all had praised — all accept Shulem Ruzin.
Shulem Ruzin was an elderly and well-liked teacher in the cheder. He had actually stopped teaching many years prior to that incident, except for the one hour a day during which he taught general studies, as a reminder of days gone by.
Despite his advanced age and geniality, Shulem the schreiber controlled his class with an iron hand. No one knew why, but most of the students both loved and feared him at the same time — most of them, we said, but not all. Every year, there were one or two students who would bear him a grudge, either clandestinely or openly.
The reason for this was Reb Shulem's wont to try and correct the flaws of those students whom he felt required such treatment. Reb Shulem wasn't impressed by high grades or by a student's status in the peer group. He carefully scrutinized the behavior of each of his students, and when necessary would point out their faults to them. When the student in question happened to be top ranking or particularity popular — one whose faults other teachers preferred to overlook due to his achievements — Reb Shulem would find that he had acquired a sharp opponent within his very classroom.
From the beginning of the year, whenever Shimon jumped to answer a question which others had found difficult, Reb Shulem would reprove him, telling him that such behavior was rooted in arrogance, a trait which, in Reb Shulem's opinion, Shimon had far more than his fair share.
This was the first time in Shimon's life that he had encountered a teacher who didn't glorify him, but rather put him in his place. And Shimon was hurt, very hurt.
But he didn't say a thing to his father. He waited for an opportune time.
And that time arrived.
One afternoon, after lunch, Shimon complained of a headache and remained home for an extra hour. The next day, at precisely the same time, Shimon again refused to return to school.
On the third day, his mother sensed that something was wrong, and questioned him about his behavior. Shimon did not answer her.
In the evening, Reb Eliyahu tried to urge him to speak. It was clear to him that Shimon was hiding something. After much cajoling, Shimon finally blurted out: "I don't like Reb Shulem's class!"
"I have a reason!"
Reb Eliyahu pressed, and Shimon agreed to say the Reb Shulem used "street language" in the classroom.
"For example?" Reb Eliyahu asked.
Shimon did not reply.
His parents tried to persuade him to repeat the expressions Reb Shulem had used, but Shimon remained silent. Reb Eliyahu pressed, and at last Shimon relented, and quietly said: `Lately Reb Shulem has begun to tell `a joke a day.' Every day he tells a joke which lowers the level of the class, such as..." He then repeated one of Reb Shulem's jokes, imitating him precisely, and assuming the serious expression of Reb Shulem, who did not smile even when he told jokes.
The joke was about two car thieves dressed as policemen who stopped someone who was driving a very fancy car. The "policemen" forced him out of the car, and drew a circle on the road warning the driver to remain within it. While they were busy taking the car apart, the man was laughing hysterically. "What's so funny?" the policemen asked when they had finished. "When you weren't looking, I stepped out of the circle three times," he replied.
Even though Shimon's parents understood the joke, they didn't laugh at all. In their opinion, it shouldn't have been told in a class by a rebbe. As if to complement their thoughts, Shimon declared: "I can't study under such a teacher."
Reb Eliyahu and his wife did not reply. On the one hand, they were relieved, and even amazed by the remarkable piety and sensitivity of their son. On the other hand, they knew that they had to solve the problem.
They retreated to their room, and discussed the issue. A difficult dilemma faced them. On the one hand, Reb Shulem's offense wasn't that serious. On the other hand, they had a sensitive and unusual child who had imbibed the special sanctity and purity which prevailed in his home environment. Would it be right of them to ignore the child's request? From an educational standpoint, could they overlook the pleas of a pure hearted child who didn't want to hear jokes or expressions which, though not harmful, were still far from refined?
"How will we be able to train him to be G-d fearing and sensitive if we ignore his request?" Reb Eliyahu's wife asked.
"Perhaps we should discuss the matter with the teacher," Reb Eliyahu suggested.
They waited until their son went to cheder, and at the end of Reb Shulem's lesson, called the school's office.
Reb Shulem was summoned to the telephone, and quietly listened to the complaints of Shimon's parents.
When they had finished speaking, he said: "Do you think that he doesn't want to attend my class because of the jokes?"
"What other reason could there be?" Reb Eliyahu asked.
"You have a very clever son," Reb Shulem said. "Perhaps the cleverest student I have ever had, and I have had thousands."
"But something in his neshomo requires a bit of correction..." Reb Shulem added with hesitance.
Reb Eliyahu's blood began to boil. "My son complains that you tell unacceptable jokes in class, and you say that his soul requires correction?"
Reb Shulem calmly continued, "But you still haven't answered my question: Do you think that he doesn't want to come to class because of the jokes?"
"You're wasting my time. I see that I'm not getting through to you. You'll hear from me!" cried Reb Eliyahu as he slammed down the receiver.
It took Reb Eliyahu and his wife two days in which to find the time to make an appointment with the principal. In the meantime, at his father's request, Shimon remained at home. Once in the principal's office, they told him the entire story. An investigation which they had conducted revealed a few more of Reb Shulem's expressions. They closed with: "You know my son, and are aware of his refinement. We have the right to demand that such a person not teach him."
To their surprise, the principal did not accept their charges. "I also don't feel that jokes of any sort should be told in class, and I'll point that out to Reb Shulem. But there's absolutely no connection between his jokes and the terrible mistake you made by keeping your son home in blatant protest of the teacher's behavior. You've committed an educational error of the highest degree! Reb Shulem has been a teacher for decades, and a special one too. He has a very keen understanding of child psychology. If he determined that there is a hidden reason for your son's complaint, then there must be such reason. And if you ask me, I know precisely to what Reb Shulem is referring.
"For your own good, I want to tell you that your son isn't as refined as you make him out to be. He's a child who tries and actually manages to control his class, often at the expense of weaker students. He does that cleverly, though, and sometimes causes an entire class to regress, not to mention the damage he causes individual students. His pretexts are always of a "spiritual" nature, so to speak. One day, he can demand that the class ostracize a child who spoke in the middle of davening. On another occasion he will taunt a child whose father works and, in Shimon's opinion, doesn't study enough Torah. He mocks the social status and even the origins of certain students.
"The only teacher to notice this was Reb Shulem, and since the beginning of the year, he has been trying to help Shimon improve his character traits, or at least to lessen the havoc Shimon wreaks in the classroom. For quite a while, Shimon has been trying to lower Reb Shulem's prestige among the students, but has failed, so far. Now he is attempting to harm Reb Shulem through you, in the same way that he pits his classmates against each other. Do you think that I will allow this to take place?"
Reb Eliyahu and his wife were stunned.
Reb Eliyahu reflected. His thoughts were in a turmoil. But I know Shimon so well, he thought to himself. I see how carefully he observes the mitzvos. I am familiar with his yiras Shomayim. True, at home he is also critical of his brothers and even of his parents — where ruchniyus is concerned. But his behavior stems from the fire which burns within him. Shimon is destined to greatness, and the man seated opposite me, who calls himself a principal, yet obviously hasn't the slightest understanding of education, thinks that he can teach me — Reb Eliyahu — how to raise my son?
Outwardly, Reb Eliyahu lost control of himself, and shouted at the principal: "With all due respect, Reb Shulem is a general studies teacher, and I have a right to demand that he not try to be a mechanech. His job is to teach my son 2 + 2, and not to make remarks about the child's personality. Improving the character traits of students is the job of the rebbe, and not that of a simple schreiber."
Reb Eliyahu finished his diatribe, and the principal rose. Quietly but firmly he said: "I listened to you, now it is your turn to listen to me! Your son will remain at home for three days as a punishment for the chutzpah he displayed by not attending Reb Shulem's class. At the end of that period, you will have to apologize to Reb Shulem. If he accepts your apology, Shimon will be permitted to return to the cheder."
Reb Eliyahu and his wife left the principal's office, pale and angry as could be. But Reb Eliyahu was not one to throw in the towel. He would not let this principal, who knew absolutely nothing about education, destroy his son. It was not his own honor that he sought to protect, but the upbringing of his son, which was being trampled — his son, whose only sin was his refinement.
Reb Eliyahu tired to involve the local rav, as well as various people in the yeshiva's administration, in the affair, and even managed to persuade some of them to side with him, something they did when he described the expressions Reb Shulem had dared use in class. However, most of them excused themselves, saying that they would not interfere with the principal's decisions.
In the meantime, the three days passed. During that period, Reb Eliyahu and his wife encouraged their son, and even told him stories about gedolei Yisroel who had suffered bitterly because they had staunchly upheld their views, even in the face of highly powerful elements. At the end of the three day period, Reb Eliyahu called Reb Shulem, and, in a monotone, sounded his apology. Of course, he stressed that the apology was forced, and that he was making it for Shimon's sake.
Curtailing him in the middle of this forced apology, Reb Shulem said: "If you don't feel that it is necessary to apologize to me, then I'll forego the whole ceremony. However, I have one request: Please listen to what I have to say.
"I understand you," Reb Shulem began. "Your son says things which are pleasing to your ears. And indeed, which father wouldn't be delighted by a son who displays such obvious `piety,' while the person who has criticized him is merely a simple schreiber who teaches 2 + 2.
"However, I am teaching him, in the same way that I have taught thousands and I am telling you that your son's criticism of me does not stem from the positive powers of his heart, but from the negative ones.
"At home, Shimon hears much criticism about everyone in the world. He has grown accustomed to scorning others and to thinking very highly of himself. But all this only strengthens the negative powers of his heart.
"Now he is using these powers in his behavior which appears wholesome and justified to you, while his true purposes are rather unsavory. If you don't stop him now, one day the negative aspect will break out in a quite natural way — but against you! Listen to what a simple schreiber, who understands just a bit about child psychology, has to say."
At that point, Reb Eliyahu cut Reb Shulem short, and in a cold and official voice, he declared: "Thank you for your advice. I hope that my son won't hear any more jokes in your class."
Yes, with such blunt words, Reb Eliyahu ended the conversation, to which Shimon had been privy from beginning to end.
Of course, there was no need for Shimon to guess with whom his father sided.
* * *
Reb Eliyahu awoke from his reveries with a start. Only now, three years after that conversation, was he ready to admit that Reb Shulem, the simple schreiber, had been right. At that point, he began to review his son's past behavior, only to discover that Shimon always had a problem with middos, and had developed precisely as Reb Shulem had predicted.
Now, as he looked at Shimon, Reb Eliyahu knew that Reb Shulem's warnings had materialized in full. He was keenly aware of the wall which had formed between him and his son, of the rift between them. He was aware of the clever and cynical way which Shimon reacted to his biting criticisms, and knew that Shimon was behaving toward him in the same way that he — Reb Eliyahu — had behaved toward Reb Shulem. How had the "simple" schreiber's predictions materialized to the "T"? How?
Guilt feelings overcame Reb Eliyahu. He had known all along that Reb Shulem was right. But Reb Eliyahu's arrogance and pride had not permitted him to listen to the words of a simple schreiber.
Soon, his guilt feelings grew so intense that they threatened to break his heart. Making a split second decision, he rose. Walking over to Shimon, he said: "Come with me."
Shimon was astonished. His father hadn't said a word to him in months, except for a few caustic and biting remarks he had made about Shimon's friends. Shimon wondered what his father wanted.
"Where are we going?" Shimon asked.
"Do you know where Reb Shulem Ruzin, the schreiber, lives?
Shimon appeared surprised. "What's up?" he asked.
"I want to speak with him!"
Shimon told him the address, and his father asked him to accompany him.
Midnight. The two walked silently through the quiet and empty streets. Reb Eliyahu assumed that Reb Shulem was studying in the synagogue beside his home. They tried to locate him in a few synagogues. At last they found him in a small beis medrash on a side street. As soon as they entered, they saw Reb Shulem, who had stopped teaching because of his advanced age. He was bent over a gemora, his eyes half closed.
Reb Eliyahu motioned to Shimon to follow him, and Shimon obeyed.
They sat down opposite him. Shulem was surprised to see his former student and assumed that the man with him was Shimon's father.
"Good Yom Tov," Reb Shulem said.
"Good Yom Tov," Reb Eliyahu replied. "I came especially from our neighborhood in order to apologize to you."
Reb Shulem appeared surprised. "For what?"
"You surely understand why."
"I assume I know to what you are referring. But it seems to me that you already apologized."
"Woe to such an apology," Reb Eliyahu murmured. "Now I would like to apologize from the depths of my heart."
Reb Shulem fell silent. He glanced at the father, and then focused his gaze on the face of the son — on his shaggy tuft of hair, which was not typical of the members of Shimon's family — and let out a long "Yes." He understood.
"We were blind," Reb Eliyahu said. "We were deaf," he added. "How could we have been so blind? How were our eyes so impervious?" Tears welled up in Eliyahu's eyes. The surprised Shimon turned aside.
"Is the crisis that acute?" Reb Shulem softly asked.
"It is worse than your blackest predictions."
"But he still has a yarmulke on his head," Reb Shulem commented.
"But what's under it?" Reb Eliyahu replied. "My son Shimon is gradually losing his emunah. We see him degenerating before our very eyes, but can do nothing to stop him. My son, Shimon, who I so praised, my son, Shimon, from whom I expected so much, is drawing away from me. He is drawing away from the pure source which nurtured him. He still wears a yarmulke and even a hat. But I'm thoroughly familiar with his neshomo. I am aware of all that he does."
Reb Eliyahu wept genuine tears, while his sensitive son buried his head in his hands.
"My son is standing at the top of a steep slope, or perhaps is already at its midpoint," Reb Eliyahu continued. "I know what lies at the bottom of that slope, but can do nothing to stop him. I have already asked all of the gedolim, and rabbonim for blessings, but these blessings haven't materialized yet. I decided to come to you, because the words you said three years ago still ring in my ears. Perhaps you already understood the boy's neshomo then, and will now be able to correct it. Please forgive me for what I said against you at that time. Like a pauper on the door, I am appealing to you for help. Perhaps you know how to bring my beloved son back to me, my son who is part of my soul. I have failed. My approach is wrong. He doesn't listen to my criticism of him. He scorns me. My beloved son, who had so much yiras Shomayim has gone down the drain. The fact that my heart is so broken doesn't bother him a bit. What will become of me? What will become of him?"
Reb Eliahu paused, but Reb Shulem did not reply immediately. He merely gazed at the father and the son, who, seated side by side, did not look at each other, their faces reflecting all of the sorrow in the world.
Reb Shulem understood. He saw the father's suffering, but he knew that Reb Eliyahu was not aware of the tremendous pain his words had caused Shimon. Reb Shulem knew. He knew that Shimon cared. He knew that Shimon was disturbed by his father's suffering. However, Shimon's heart was also shattered.
"I forgive you will a full heart," Reb Shulem said.
Reb Eliahu continued. "But forgiveness isn't enough for me. I know that the key to the mystery is in your hands. Tell me how all this happened. Tell me how a child who was a tzaddik and a lamdan, praised by all, became a difficult child...and disappointed..." Reb Eliyahu did not want to utter the word which was on his tongue. "How can he be so hardhearted, so brazen? How can he ignore my requests, my pleas. How?"
Reb Shulem stopped Reb Eliyahu because he saw Shimon's face returning to its former impenetrable state.
But Reb Eliahu continued. "Tell me, what did you see that I failed to see? If I erred — as I apparently did — tell me so in front of my son. Anyway, he doesn't respect me. I have nothing to hide from him."
Reb Shulem was silent for a few moments. Then he began to speak:
"Listen: Your son Shimon is very clever. He is talented and quick witted. He grew up in a home in which all of the mitzvos are carefully observed, and in which sharp criticism is heaped on anyone who does not do the same.
"Shimon absorbed both these attitudes: the strict regard for mitzvah observance and the sarcasm. If I am guessing correctly, at your Shabbos table you not only discuss Torah thoughts, but also display contempt for people whose behavior does not meet your approval. Your conversation is sharp, cynical and deadly. Isn't that so?"
Reb Eliyahu and his son looked at Reb Shulem in surprise. Their glance said: "Is Reb Shulem also among the prophets?"
Reb Shulem continued, "That was the way you shaped the child's outlook. At a very young age, he knew how to express himself on very important topics, in a clear and often very pointed way. As a child, he knew how to think like an adult, to believe like an adult, and to spurn other views like an adult — and perhaps even more sharply than the average adult.
"However, man's inclination is evil from his youth. Withering criticism, even if it achieves what it is intended to, and fills the positive parts of man's heart, nonetheless it is liable to arouse the evil region of his heart, too — the yetzer hora. One must be very careful when sounding criticism, just as one must be very careful when he uses a very powerful drill. One can build with such a drill. One can kill with it too.
"Already, at the beginning of the term when Shimon was in my class, I noticed the force with which Shimon could hurt his friends. He was quite adept at nullifying and disgracing his fellow. When I first noticed it, I didn't know where he had learned that `art.'
"I began to understand the source of his behavior when I saw the cake which he brought to the cheder. Quite casually, he made sure to tell his friends that his mother doesn't rely on the hechsher of their parents. Of course, a parent should make sure that his child doesn't eat food products whose kashrus is uncertain. However, it is forbidden to let a child feel that this meticulousness stems from contempt for others. What does a child absorb when raised that way? What feelings does he cultivate?
"I saw that Shimon was developing bad character traits. However, because he was afraid of the criticism you would heap on him at home, in his clever and cunning way, he managed to maneuver things in a way which would bring you to admire him for precisely the behavior that should have been censured. Thus, instead of attacking his friends and gaining control over them in the ways that young boys usually do, he preferred to use "spiritual" pretexts. And as you know, one who behaves that way is called a novol bereshus haTorah.
"I was the only one who noticed this, and when I mentioned it to him, my words really hit home. Had I been his father or his rebbe, I am nearly certain that I would have overcome all the obstacles, and would have managed to convince those responsible for him to counteract his negative behavior and to channel the vast amount of positive content he had absorbed — and he was brimming with many good things — in a positive direction.
"However, you didn't listen to what I said. In your eyes, I was a simple schreiber. Due to your critical attitude, which surely also includes a sizable amount of pride, you failed to fulfill the dictum: "From all who have taught me, I have grown wise." You did not think — and perhaps did not want to think — that a simple schreiber could show you what others did not notice.
"As a result, I was pushed into being one who spoils things instead of one who corrects them. The backing and support the child got from home for his clever manipulating proved to him that his way would succeed. He was careful, for the rest of the year, not to tangle me again. However, as I understand, and I have been following his development over the years (as I do with all of my students), he has continued along the same path until now.
"Think!" Reb Shulem told Reb Eliyahu. "How many people were ever portrayed in your home in a positive light, or as worthy of admiration? You criticized most of your son's educational authorities. The moment a child is raised in an such an environment, and is taught that one can direct sharp and poisonous criticism against a teacher, a rebbe or a ram, why shouldn't he eventually criticize his father too?
"The reason the children who come from relatively simple homes are more G-d fearing than Shimon is that they did not receive such training. `The fear of your teacher [should be ] like the fear of Heaven,' and when one is accustomed to criticizing those greater than he, there is no telling how low he will fall. The guileless, who are taught to respect those who study Torah and not to denigrate them, grow up with healthier attitudes toward themselves and their surroundings. The fact that you have come to me, indicates that you, Reb Eliyahu have reached the same conclusion. Isn't that so?"
Reb Eliyahu looked at Reb Shulem, and then back at Shimon, who was listening attentively to his former teacher. Immediately, Reb Eliyahu saw that Reb Shulem had spoken the truth.
Reb Eliyahu recalled his past behavior — his habit of disparaging anyone who disagreed with him. He recalled how he had secretly been delighted when Shimon had emulated him, scorning all unworthy elements. Suddenly he felt a deep need to rush home and tell his entire family that he had erred. "Who knows," he thought. "Perhaps my other children will make the same mistake. Of course, Shimon is my brightest child. He knows how to express himself and how to disqualify other views, something which definitely explains his behavior toward me. Yet who knows?"
A long silence prevailed. At last Reb Eliyahu said: "And what shall we do now?"
"Do you trust me?" Reb Shulem asked.
"Of course," Reb Eliyahu assured him. "You saw for yourself..."
"Then return to your studies and leave Shimon, my former student, here. Ok, Shimon?"
Shimon nodded an eager "yes," feeling that precisely this schreiber could help him out of his deep emotional entanglement, and even improve his complicated relationships with his father.
And so, at four a.m. one could see the two — an elderly man of seventy plus, and a fifteen year old youth — standing in the doorway of the shul and laughing like children. Their eyes were tired, yet contented. A relieved expression covered the young boy's face, and a victorious and pleased one, the man's. At that point, Reb Shulem knew that he had removed the obstacles that had accumulated on the path he had begun to build three years beforehand. Now, all that remained to do was to embark on the long, but certain journey toward the chambers of Shimon's heart.
This is a true story. The details, of course, have been changed in order to obscure the identity of the true protagonists. Today (i.e. 24 years ago), "Shimon" is studying in a yeshiva gedola. With Hashem's help, he managed to overcome the difficult hurdle that almost toppled his spiritual world. The journey back was not easy. The Shavuos night discussion with the schreiber, and those which followed, opened a line of communication between Shimon and his father, and drained the youth of the poison that had accumulated in his heart. All this had a calming effect on him, too.
From a brusque young man, who had used his acrid tongue in order hurt his friends, Shimon became a refined person who is a pleasure to be with. From that point on, Shimon began to build himself. Through middos correction, he returned to the Torah world.