Many years ago, I explored a new yeshiva at a transition point in my life. I was barely 19 years old.
I quickly came to learn that the senior students were organized in a kind of hierarchy that reflected their respective degrees of erudition and their relationship to the world-famous dean of the school. I was somewhat impressed by all of them, but one in particular stood out for me.
He was about 25, of medium height, thin and wiry. He had a precision to him which resulted from his carefully measured movements. The words that came out of his mouth were few and deliberate; and his comments, short and to the point.
I was fascinated by him and began to inquire about his background. I soon learned that he was the wunderkind of the school. But in early adolescence, he had found his studies extremely frustrating. He was not as bright as his peers, had great difficulties in following the give and take of Talmudic passages, and couldn’t handle the bilingual curriculum.
At the suggestion of his high school’s guidance counselor, he made a trip to Israel to study there. While there, still frustrated, he sought the blessing and counsel of the famous sage, Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, more commonly known as the Chazon Ish.
This great man, then in his waning years, encouraged the young lad to persist in his studies, but to limit the scope of his daily efforts to small, “bite-sized chunks” of text.
I befriended the young man, easily five or six years my senior, and attempted to enlist him as my study partner. But I soon discovered that his keen intelligence and the broad scope of his knowledge were far too advanced for me.
Although I did not learn much Talmud from this fellow, I did learn a most important life lesson. I learned that one can overcome his limitations if he persists in trying to overcome them. I learned that one could undo his natural challenges with a combination of heeding wise counsel, becoming inspired spiritually, and devoting oneself with diligence and dedication to the task.
It was much later in life when I realized that I could have learned the same important life lesson from this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, and from no less a personage than our teacher, Moses, himself. This week, we begin the entire Book of Deuteronomy. Almost all of this book consists of the major address which Moses gave to the Jewish people before he took his final leave from them. “These are the words that Moses addressed to all of Israel…” (Deuteronomy 1:1).
Just six months ago when we first encountered Moses, back in the Torah portion of Shemot, we read of how Moses addressed the Almighty and expressed his inability to accept the divine mission. Moses stammered and stuttered and suffered from a genuine speech defect.
How surprising it is, then, that in this week’s Torah portion, albeit 40 years later, he is capable of delivering the lengthy and eloquent address that we are about to read every week for the next several months! How did he overcome his limitations?
These questions are asked in the collection of homilies known as the Midrash Tanchuma. There, the rabbis speak of the astounding power of sincere and sustained Torah study. They speak too of the effects of years of practice. And they emphasize the healing which comes about from a connection with the One Above.
We seldom contemplate the development, nay transformation, of the man who was Moses. But it is important that we do so, because, although we each have our unique challenges and personal handicaps, we are capable of coping with them, and often of overcoming them. We all can develop, and we all can potentially transform ourselves.