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Reflections on a Presidential
Chavrusa: Lessons from the
Fourth Perek of Brachos
T here is a photograph that
hangs between the Gottesman
Library and the Glueck
Beit Midrash that shows President
Richard Joel, former Vice President
Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph
Senior Vice President, Yeshiva University

Jeff Rosengarten and me sitting at a
table on the upper floor of “the beis.”
At one point, rumor had it that it get on a daily basis: the overwhelming I do not recall whether it was
was a posed picture, set up to make experiential gestalt that inheres Torah immediately after that study session
it look like we were learning; in fact, study in such an awe-inspiring place, or soon thereafter, but the President
however, we had opened a volume of surrounded by the melodic cacophony and I committed ourselves to finding
Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and were of several hundred chavrusa pairs whatever time we could to learn
experiencing, for the moment, the alternately yelling at or with their together be-chavrusa in the newly-
bracha that so many of our students study partners, mentors and Rebbeim. consecrated beis midrash. We chose to
start with the fourth perek of Brachos
for a variety of reasons, and the
lessons that we shared about Torah
and life could fill volumes. There are
a number of lessons President Joel
has taught us over the years that find
resonance through this chapter as
well. For now, in honor of the yom
tov that celebrates matan Torah, and
in honor of my mentor, friend and
chavrusa, I present the following six
divrei Torah.

1. Ask questions

One of the lessons President Joel
constantly taught was the importance
of asking questions. When we
approach a Mishna, we use the same

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
technique; so for example, the first to the challenging statement, tefillah 4. We can both be right, even
four words of our first Mishna beg begins with sunrise in order to though we disagree
understanding: connect geula, redemption, with
The Gemara details a lengthy debate
.‫השחר עד חצות‬ ‫תפלת‬ ‫ מתני׳‬tefillah. The question, then, in and of
itself provides solutions to two of our as to the source of the daily tefillos,
Mishna: According to the Rabbis, the
questions above: a) it sheds light for whether they were established by
morning prayer may be recited until
us that tefillah refers to the Amidah, or our ancestors, tefillos avos tiknum,
Shemoneh Esrei, not the Shema; and or whether they derived from the
‫—תפלת‬Which prayer in the morning b) that the day begins at sunrise. sacrificial services, tefillos keneged
is being referenced? The entire tmidim tiknum. Proofs are cited in
morning service? Are we continuing Although the Gemara seems to
support of both sides, but in the final
the discussion in the previous perakim be challenging and questioning, analysis, both answers are accepted:
about the Shema? The berachos it is simultaneously fleshing out
our ancestors established the tefillos
before and after? Yes, the third perek the halachah and ironing out the
and the Rabbis related them to the
parenthetically discusses some details details by suggesting and proposing sacrificial services.
surrounding tefillah, but it is not made solutions! Though President Joel
always welcomed questions and This combination of the two sides,
clear at the outset what it signifies
enjoyed parrying through give and however, need not have been
until we arrive at this perek.
take, he also insisted that we question, necessary. At one point, the question
‫—השחר‬What does morning mean? look for answers, and focus on is raised for the position supporting
Is it until the fourth hour or midday solutions and not just the problems. the ancestors’ origination: “from
as the Mishnah debates? Moreover, where do we get Mussaf (the
when does the morning begin? additional service)?” In our study,
3. It’s not enough to be right
‫—עד‬Even a seemingly unassuming we suggested that it seems one could
word, “until,” must be examined, as The Gemara in Berachos on 28b, posit a linguistic parallel between
the Gemara later wonders whether details several provocative incidents this additional prayer, Mussaf, and
it means “up to” or “up to and between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yosef, one of the descendants of
including.” Yehoshua, where the former, the Nasi Yaakov, as they seem to share the
of the Sanhedrin at the time, forces same root. Later, we found that the
‫—חצות‬What is the definition of Or Gedalyahu on Moadim (page
the latter to admit his erroneous
midday? How do we even understand 146) suggests the same idea — that
opposition, thereby embarrassing
time? Can an hour mean something perhaps we can learn about Mussaf
him. The situation grew so intense and
different from one season to the next? from Yosef. Thus, we might have
dire that eventually Rabban Gamliel
Is time truly fixed or can it fluctuate truly been able to derive all of the
needed to be deposed from his
depending on the month and time of tefillos from the Avos. However, the
position. As President Joel points out,
year? Moreover, why must prayer be Gemara did not give such an answer,
“Ok, so you’re right. It’s not enough.”
delimited to a set time? Might there be possibly preferring to teach that at
It is not enough to be right, one must
a chance for a do-over? times, a beneficial solution might
act righteously as well. Often people
are blinded by their drive to win, to derive from approaching a dilemma
2. It’s not enough to ask be accurate; the lesson we can learn via two directions and solving it while
questions; recommend from The Gemara , as emphasized by providing the opportunity to benefit
solutions President Joel, is that one needs to from both sides. Thus on a daily
also focus on how to work toward a basis, we hearken back to the original
The very first words of the Gemara on united goal, not to fracture the whole prayers of our ancestors while also
the aforementioned Mishna present in the process of working toward a connecting our actions and service to
a challenge: ureminhu, a citation that better answer. the Beis Hamikdash.
seems to contradict the Mishna, or at
least introduce a dialectic not at first
apparent in the earlier text. According

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777
5. With respect 6. Tocho Ke-Varo
Deriving Ethical Messages
President Joel has always promoted President Joel often comically quotes from Talmud Study
a harmonious approach in discourse, a UJA fundraiser who once remarked, R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg
as he says, “to disagree agreeably.” “The absolutely most important HaDarom (Vol. 19, pg. 178),
We can profoundly disagree on thing to develop is a sense of personal writes that until R. Yisrael
major issues, but we must do so in a integrity. Once you can fake that...” This Salanter, ethical development
respectful manner, appreciating the approach, which certainly was meant in and the study of Gemara were
tzelem Elokim, the Godly image of jest, is not often lived in jest. Especially treated as two separate realms.
all those with whom we engage. The when we contrast this notion to the R. Yisrael Salanter stressed the
Gemara in Berachos 27b, explains Gemara (Berachos 28a) that states that importance of finding ethical
that a person cannot daven behind Rabban Gamliel only let someone who messages in one’s study of
his Rebbe, as this would perhaps was “tocho ke-varo” (literally “his inside Gemara, the mussar bahalacha.
make the Rebbe wait for the student is like his outside”) into the study hall. This idea is consistent with
to finish praying before the Rebbe President Joel would often posit that R. Yisrael Salanter’s general
may finish his own Amidah. In fact, an essential leadership quality is to be approach to studying Torah. In
the Gemara says that a person who honest with yourself about who you Ohr Yisrael (no. 27), he writes
would daven behind his Rebbe causes are — and to share that wholeness with that the mitzvah of mastering
the Divine presence to be distanced others; to make yourself vulnerable is Torah supersedes the mitzvah
from B’nei Yisrael. Thus, not just one’s to make yourself truthful. In order to to constantly study Torah. The
intentions, but one’s actions matter, lead, people must see you as genuine. mitzvah to constantly study
and respect and consideration must be In order to advance a cause, your team Torah would not provide an
given to the context within which one must trust that you are wholeheartedly allowance for someone to seek
stands. committed. In order to affect others, out a means of improving the
Based on this and a series of related people need to believe in you as you quality of one’s studies such as
discourses in the Gemara, we truly are. This sixth lesson represents travelling to a yeshiva in another
discussed the dialectic between those the value of a role model. By taking town or sleeping more in order
who are b’nei Torah and those who time to learn in the beis midrash, to focus. It is only because of
are b’nei yeshiva. The former is to be President Joel showed that the role the mitzvah to master Torah
lauded for his dedication to Hashem’s model of “lay kodesh” that he so often that one can spend less time
timeless Torah teachings and ideas; spoke about is best exemplified by studying in order to focus on
but the latter attains an even higher President Joel himself.  the quality of one’s studies.
plane, as a ben yeshiva also recognizes With these few and humble lessons, However, this is only true when
the prerequisite respect for a Rebbe my intent is to display some of my the individual is someone who is
and his place within the context of the world, having merited a deep and working on ethical development
place of study, the place of prayer. As meaningful relationship with a man and yirat shamayim (fear of
we find ourselves leaving the period who has been a mentor, a friend, heaven). If one has mastered
of Sefiras ha-Omer — a period when and a source of inspiration for many the Torah but did not use that
we mourn the lack of respect of the years. As our professional relationship as an opportunity to become
students of Rabbi Akiva for each other evolves I will cherish our chavrusa a refined individual, it would
— and as we head to the yom tov of even more, as we continue to try to have been better to focus on
our acceptance of the Torah, we must find ways to learn together. Thank quantity. Talmud Torah is not
note the importance of this notion of you President Joel, not just for simply a means of collecting
kavod, respect. And as President Joel transforming Yeshiva into the beacon information. It is part of a
would often begin his rejoinders, it is it is today, but also for who you are process of becoming a complete
worth emulating his guidance, “with and for allowing me to greatly benefit individual who lives the ideals of
respect…” from a relationship with such a the Torah.
remarkable person — and chavrusa. Torah To Go Editors

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary • The Benjamin and Rose Berger CJF Torah To-Go Series • Shavuot 5777