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Kirk Douglas turned 99 December 9




One of the great actors of the 20th century, Kirk Douglas, describes in detail his early life in his first biography, “The ragman’s son”. Kirk, whose real name is Isser Danielovitch, was born to Jewish parents, and grew up as a poor child in Amsterdam, New York.

In an interview with on his 83rd birthday, Kirk revealed that being blessed with a sharp mind, he did extremely well in his Cheder studies. All the Jews of his community wanted to collect money to send him to a yeshiva to become a rabbi.

This frightened and terrified Kirk immensely. He did not want to be a rabbi; he wanted to be an actor! The community was insistent. Kirk himself testified that he had to work extremely hard to not to go to yeshiva.

With honesty and introspection, Kirk discusses how for well over 70 years he neglected his Jewish heritage. Kirk never entirely lost his connection to his Judaism, and rediscovered it almost 70 years later in the 1990s.  In another book of his, “Climbing the mountain”, he details his eventual renewal with his heritage and his affiliation to “Aish Hatorah”.

However, Kirk, in refusing his community’s offer, raised an excellent question that needs investigation.

Imagine a person goes out and interviews people on the street. The interviewer has but one question. “Would you like to go and study in a yeshiva?”

A fair amount of people would answer: “People attend medical school to become a doctor. One enrols in law school to be a lawyer. Yeshivas are places where people learn to become rabbis!! I don’t want to be a rabbi and therefore for what purpose do I need to learn in a yeshiva?”

This answer requires careful investigation. Is such a claim true?

Are yeshivas designed only to produce future rabbis or are they built for a broader audience?

In the parshah of Vayigash which we read two weeks ago, we find a fascinating answer to this question.

Immediately before Yaakov’s emotional reunion with Joseph after so many years of being separated, Yaakov together with his family makes plans to take up residence in an area of Egypt called Goshen.

To pave the way for their settlement there, Yaakov sends Judah first to prepare the area. “He sent Judah before him to Joseph to instruct ahead of him in Goshen and they came to the land of Goshen” (Bereishis chapter 46, verse 28).

Rashi, the foremost Torah commentator, based on a Midrash in Bereishes Rabba, explains this cryptic verse to mean that Jacob sent Judah to establish a yeshiva in Goshen. Once this was accomplished, only then would Jacob would settle in Goshen.

Jacob thus made it eminently clear for future generations that while it is important to find lodgings that will be comfortable, it is vital and critical to have a yeshiva close by.

One would think that Yaakov wanted a yeshiva only for tribes such as Issachar who were full time dedicated Torah scholars.

However the Midrash continues: “Rabbi Nechemia said that Jacob sent Judah to prepare for him a house of study where he could instruct Torah and where the tribes could study the Torah”. The implication of this part of the Midrash is that from here we see that everybody needed to learn Torah- not just the outstanding scholars of Jacob’s family.

To fully appreciate the above statements, we need to understand what exactly is a yeshiva? Why is it so important that every Jew learn in one?

Tragically, so many people have a limited and stereotyped understanding of the function of a yeshiva. Furthermore, as a result of ignorance and lack of knowledge, they are deficient in their understanding of what Torah is and why it is studied in a Yeshiva setting.

A yeshiva is not just a place to memorise facts from a book. A yeshiva is a place where a person learns how to live as a Jew. It would be unthinkable for one to practice as a lawyer without immersing in legal studies at law school. How could a surgeon perform a surgical procedure without being fully absorbed for years in the intricacies of anatomy in medical school?

So too, for a Jew to live a holistic, fully integrated Jewish life, one needs to spend time in a yeshiva.

The Torah that a Jew learns in yeshiva is not bible stories or religious laws that has to be kept or else. Nothing could be farther than the truth.

Torah is Hashem’s instruction booklet for maximizing each moment of life and infusing it with meaning and pleasure. Studying Torah equips a person with the tools to enjoy life and get the most out of it. No other body of wisdom transforms you into a “mentch”, a person of superlative moral stature. At a yeshiva, the atmosphere is permeated with self improvement and real, personal growth. Torah learnt in a yeshiva helps you to realize your potential into reality. The result of this is immense joy since you become the person you always wanted to be: Yourself.

So many thousands of people can testify that the best years of their life were those that they learned in yeshiva. Google the word “Yeshiva” on the internet. You will see that there are literally thousands of yeshiva’s catering to people of different age groups and backgrounds. Programs range from weekly to monthly to yearly. Courses and curriculums are tailored to suit the student’s interest.  Do not just take my word for it. Go visit a yeshiva in action and you will see all this in action and more.   

So is accessing the world of the yeshiva going to make you into a Rabbi?

For some yes, for most it will not.

The vast majority of people who have entered the world of the yeshiva are knowledgeable as to the what, why and how of Jewish life. Most importantly, they have absorbed from a yeshiva the beauty, splendor and magnificence of what being Jewish is all about. The yeshiva has prepared them for a lifetime of exalted living. 

When they pursue their professional careers, they have the confidence that they will act as proud, educated Jews in whatever situation they may find themselves in. There is no greater sanctification of Hashem’s name than that.

Do yourself a favour. Take the time to spend some time in a yeshiva. It will be the best decision you will ever make.

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