R’ Yosef Weingarten is an old friend of mine. He originally hails from Brooklyn, as do I, and we learned in the same yeshivah for a few years. Though our paths separated for a time, we were eventually reunited when he moved to Eretz Yisrael and took up residence in Kiryat Sefer. My family has since relocated to Eretz Yisrael as well, and since our personalities have much in common, it was almost inevitable that our paths would cross and we would become close friends.
R’ Weingarten and I teach in a few of the same schools, and we seize every opportunity that comes our way to strengthen the bonds between us with – you guessed it – a fascinating story or two.
R’ Weingarten, you see, is one of those people to whom things happen. And if they don’t happen to him, then they happen to his brother-in-law or his cousin or his friend. In fact, six of the stories included in the last volume of It Could Have Been You were heard from him. That’s his most recent phone call came as no surprise.
After the usual preliminaries, he informed me that his immediate family had recently enjoyed a reunion at one of their homes, for the first time in ages.
“You never get together?”
“We do, but this was the first time in a long time that every single one of the siblings and our spouses got together without any kids.”
“So what happened?” I asked, knowing that something special must have transpired at the gathering: first, because he was calling me, and second, because he is R’ Weingarten and special things are always happening to him.
“Well,” he said, “during the course of the evening one of the assembled happened to mention that he had read one of my stories in one of your books.”
“ ‘How come all the good stories happen to you, Yosef?’ he wanted to know.
“Before I could answer,” said R’ Weingarten, “one of my brothers-in-law spoke up. ‘Stories happen to everyone,’ he said.
“ ‘Not to us,’ lamented the others.
“ ‘But they do. You just have to keep your eyes open wide enough to see them.’
“ ‘What do you mean?’ chorused the family.
“ ‘I’ll give you an example of something that just happened to me,’ my brother-in-law said, ‘and then you’ll understand what I mean.’
“And this is the story he told us.”
As you know, we live in Ashdod, which is not that distant from the southern part of the country. There are many communities – moshavim and kibbutzim – within a half-hour radius of our home. Places filled with well-meaning, traditional Jews who are crying out for someone to come and teach them what it means to be a Jew.
For years, I’d heard about people my age who were traveling around to the neighboring communities teaching people and making a difference in their lives. And then, one day, I decided that I wanted to get involved. I wanted to teach these people Torah and try to light a spark in their souls. So I got in touch with one of the organizations that sends people out, and before I knew it, I’d begun traveling around giving shiurim and chizuk to many, many people – some of them much older than I am. Not that that matters; when it comes to Torah learning, a person’s age isn’t important.
The whole thing has given me tremendous satisfaction, because I’ve witnessed amazing change. I’ve seen it happen before my very eyes. I’ve met people who weren’t keeping any mitzvos at all, and who, not long after we began learning together, started taking on certain mitzvos that they’d never cared about before. It’s astonishing to see!
A few months ago, one of our neighboring communities – a place called Gan Yavneh – was preparing to celebrate a hachnosas sefer Torah that I decided to attend.
Now, of you saw some of the citizens of Gan Yavneh walking down the street, you probably wouldn’t spare them a second glance. Many of the men don’t wear kippahs outside of a shul, and as to the rest of their families. . . Enough said. But the sight of those same people at a hachnosas sefer Torah, the joy shining in their eyes and the smiles on the faces, can melt a heart of stone. They dance with the Torah in a way we should be privileged to dance even on Simchas Torah! There’s something real there, something genuine and beautiful.
There was a truck with a loudspeaker blaring a stream of music powerful enough to shake the ground. Candles for everyone to hold. Candies for all the kids. Gan Yavneh went all out! I took part in the festivities from start to finish. I sang and danced and partook of the seudas mitzvah. It was a magnificent evening, and I enjoyed myself to the fullest with all the people I knew so well. These were men I learned with. These were the ones to whom I taught Torah. It was only fitting that we should dance together as they escorted a brand-new sefer Torah into its permanent home.
When it was all over, I turned to leave. I walked out of the shul and down the street in the direction of the nearest bus stop. And that was when I ran into Tzachi.
Tzachi lived in Gan Yavneh. Past middle age, he was old, tough, and work hardened, with leathery skin darkened by years of constant exposure to the burning Middle Eastern sun. He worked as a gardener for the local municipality and did his job diligently, tending to the flowers and shrubbery with devotion and attention to detail. I didn’t know Tzachi very well, but I liked what I did know. I crossed the street and that he was holding hands with two children: a set of twins, a boy and a girl, about six years of age.
That’s nice,” I commented.
“Spending time with the grandchildren.”
I was confused. “They’re not?”
“Well then, how are they related to you? Because they look just like you. I mean, without the mustache, obviously – “
“Very funny,” he said, allowing a smile to cross his lips. “Actually, these two little squirts are my kids.”
“What?” I was genuinely taken aback.
“That’s right. They are my twins and they were born six years ago.”
“I guess they’re your youngest kids, right?”
“You have younger children?” This conversation was taking a turn for the mysterious. Tzachi was much older than my father had been when I was born. Talk about bnei zekunim!
“They’re my only children.”
“Wow, that’s wonderful,” I breathed. “And you only had them six years ago? That means you were –“
That’s right. I was much older than your average first-time parent.”
We stood together on a narrow, winding street in the south of Israel and shared the moment.
“There’s a story here,” he said. “Want to hear it?”
“If you really want to get it off your chest,” I replied with a smile.
My wife and I were married about three decades ago. We were happy and satisfied with our life. We’d been married about two years before we started getting nervous. Most of our friends who had married at around the same time were already parents. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves visiting the local doctor’s office.
The next few months passed in a flurry of appointments and tests. Sometimes we had to travel a few hours to a hospital in a far-off city, but we didn’t care. We were willing to do anything and go anywhere for the blessing of having a child. We did everything the specialists told us to do, but nothing worked. After a few years of this, we came to the realization that we were probably not going to be blessed with children.
I’ll never forget the moment the doctor looked us in the eye and said, “You should know that you are never going to have a baby.”
We left his office. Outside, I turned to my wife and said, “I know that he said what he said, but we’re not finished yet. We haven’t even started. We’re going to do whatever it takes to have a baby!”
She nodded her head.
Over the next few years, the two of us did everything within the realms of possibility to have a child. We visited the greatest rabbis in the country for a blessing and waited in line to see a host of mekubalim from the most obscure cubbyholes in Eretz Yisrael. We davened at countless holy grave sites and tried to take on every segulah that we heard about. We never stopped hoping for salvation. But it didn’t happen.
And all the time, I could hear that doctor’s voice in the back of my mind: “You should know that you are never going to have a baby.”
So the years and the decades passed, and we finally gave up the fight. We were already much older, and nothing had worked. How many times can you set yourself up for disappointment?
“Then what happened?” I asked him.
“Then Rav Biton returned to town.”
R’ Assaf Biton is a ba’al teshuvah who grew up right here in Gan Yavneh. After learning for many years in the kollel of R’ Ovadiah Yosef in Yerushalayim, he began coming back to us every Shabbos. A local boy had become the rav of our shul.
R’ Biton is a very smart man, and he possesses a certain clarity through which he views the world. We got to know one another, and I found myself liking and respecting this rabbi, though he was young enough to be my son. Anyway, one day I was standing next to him after davening, when he turned to me and asked if we could walk home from shul together.
“Why not?” I replied.
We walked in silence for a minute or two, and then our young rabbi turned to me and said, “I know that you still haven’t given up hope.”
“What gave me away?”
“Your eyes when you look at the children in shul. Your eyes when you help drape a tallis over the boy who says ‘Anim Zemiros’ before the aron kodesh at the end of davening.”
He was right. I hadn’t given up hope.
“There is nothing we want more in the world,” I told him. “The problem is, the doctor pretty much gave us a guarantee that we will never hold a baby in our arms.”
R’ Biton smiled. “Tzachi,” he said, “I have an idea.”
“Honored rabbi,” I replied, whatever idea you’re thinking of, we did it. We’ve done everything, gone everywhere, seen everyone. We are masters of the notion of possibility.”
“You haven’t tried this idea.”
“O.K., what is it?” I was curious despite myself.
“There are many segulos in the world, many beautiful ideas and concepts to try. But the most important thing in the world is Torah. Do you study Torah?”
I had to shake my head. The truth is, I had never studied Torah. I wouldn’t have known how to start. My avodas Hashem began and ended with davening in shul. Who had the time or inclination for learning?
“Tzachi, it’s time for you to do some learning.”
“Rav Biton, I’m sorry. I’d love to tell you that I’ll start tomorrow, but I know it’s not going to happen. I have no experience in learning. I’m an older man already. I’m no Rabbi Akiva. Forget it.”
“Fine,” he said. “Don’t come to a shiur. I have a different idea. What if I come to your house every Sunday and gave a shiur in your dining room? Would you do me the honor of letting me come to your home to deliver a shiur to the men in your neighborhood? Of course, you will participate as much as you can. But even if you don’t participate at all, I am sure that the merit you’ll receive in Heaven will serve as a great merit for you and your wife. So what do you say?”
I thought about it for a few minutes.
“I’ll have to ask my wife,” I finally said. “But I’m pretty sure she’ll like this idea.”
For the next year, R’ Biton came to our home every Sunday and delivered a shiur that became very popular in our neighborhood. I set up before he arrived and cleaned up after he was done, and though it took me a few weeks to make the decision, it wasn’t too long before I was taking a seat at the table, sefer in front of me, and listening along with the others to the words of Torah being taught in my home. They filled my soul with comfort, delight, and warmth. They made me happy. They made us happy.
A year later, my wife and I were blessed with twins.
Quite a few individuals honored us with their blessings and words of wisdom at our son’s bris. But there was one unexpected visitor the asked to address the assembled.
I looked at that man who had stated with such assurance, “You should know that you are never going to have a baby,” and I wondered, What could you possibly have to say? But he stood up and said, “My friends, Tzachi and Malka came to me years ago, and though I’m embarrassed to admit it, I told them then that they were never going to have a baby. More than that – I told them it was impossible.
He was quiet for a second, reflective.
“I was wrong. Doctors can be wrong. I don’t know how or why, but I’m glad they showed me that I was mistaken. Mazel tov to you all! May we merit sharing many happy occasions together!”
As we shook hands, I thought to myself, Maybe you don’t know how it happened, and I certainly don’t know for sure, but there’s one thing I do know.
Nothing happened until I opened my home to Torah learning.
R’ Biton still gives the shiur in my home every Sunday. And I sit and I learn, and it fills me with simchah and brings nachas into our lives. And that’s my story.
I thanked Tzachi for sharing it with me. And then my bus pulled up, and I waved to him and his adorable twins as it roared off into the night.
“When my brother-in-law finished telling us his story,” R’ Weingarten concluded, “there wasn’t a sound in the room. He gave me a small smile, and then he said, ‘Nu. Yosef? Do you think this will make it into one of those books you all seem to like so much?’
“ ‘Sounds about right,’ I told him. ‘Sounds about right.’ And then I called you. So what do you think?”
“I think you have competition, that’s what I think. You’re not the only one with stories anymore. You’ve just been eclipsed!”
“You like it?”
“It’s precious, just precious. Bottom line – it’s all about the Torah.”
As heard from R’ Yosef Weingarten of Kiryat Sefer
*All names were changed except for the rabbis’.
(Reproduced from I Have an Amazing Story for You! by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer pages 77 – 84, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)