Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr shlit”a really needs no introduction. Longtime rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Derech Ayson of Far Rockaway, as well as a descendant of the Alter of Novardok zt”l, Rabbi Perr is known for his signature, incisive style, especially apparent in his mussar va’adim.
Mind over Man is based on Rabbi Perr’s daily va’adim in Sefer Madreigas Ha’adam, the work recording the Alter’s discourses. An excerpt from this engaging, thought-provoking book appears below:
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My father was a rav in a mostly non-Jewish neighborhood in South Ozone Park, down Rockaway Boulevard. Every year on Memorial Day, they held a big parade with soldiers and boy scouts, music and drums. At the end of the parade, there would be an official ceremony with speeches and prayers. My father was invited every year to deliver a prayer at the event.
One year when I was young, I walked with him to the parade. Noticing the time, I said, “Dad, you’re going to be late.”
Uncharacteristically, he responded, “I want to be late.” This surprised me, because he was a meticulous person and a stickler for being on time.
He explained that the first time he had been invited to the parade, he was unaware that other speakers would also be delivering prayers. As the program began, he was sitting on the podium, and a priest got up and asked everyone to rise while he delivered his prayer. My father sat immobile with his tall, old-style yarmulke perched on his head, while perhaps a thousand people in attendance rose, every eye staring at him. It was the most difficult moment of his life. From then on, he made sure to arrive late to avoid experiencing that again.
The story shook me up. After regaining my breath, I said to him, “Dad, you had no heterto stand up?”
“Stand up for avodah zarah? Chalilah!” End of conversation.
Many years later, I received a telephone call from Rabbi Brafman while I was out of town. The new chapel in St. John’s Hospital was being dedicated in memory of Dr. Henry Rheina”h, and the ceremony was scheduled for Sunday morning. The problem was the timing: People like to daven at nine o’clock on Sunday, then they go home and read the Times, and by time they would be done with breakfast, the dedication would be over. It would be an embarrassment for a Jewish chapel to be dedicated without a Jewish crowd present. So a rabbi in the community called Rabbi Brafman with his solution. Naturally, how do you fill out a crowd? Get some yeshivah bachurim; they have nothing to do, they’re only learning.
The rabbi argued to Rabbi Brafman that a chillul Hashem would result if the bachurimdidn’t show up to fill the room.
I said to Rabbi Brafman, “There will probably be a priest at the dedication, and he will request that everyone rise for his prayer. If so, people might stand up for avodah zarah,chalilah!” My father’s words echoed in my ears as I said this.
Rabbi Brafman relayed my message that the bachurim may not attend. So instead, they recruited other people, and, of course, everyone stood up for the priest’s prayer. When I came back, I went to see the rabbi responsible for the fiasco. “How could you be machshil Yidden to stand up for avodah zarah?” I asked him.
He confessed that it had not occurred to him, and told me that as soon as he saw the priest enter the room, he sneaked out. “And what about all the Yidden you left behind?!” He had no answer.
I want to emphasize the point of the story. Do not think that my father was a very tough person, capable of withstanding the heat from a thousand pairs of staring eyes. I tell you, he was nothing of the sort. He was a soft, shy person, generally seeking to be liked by people. But you must know when to be soft and when to be tough.
I’ll demonstrate with another story: My father was asked to speak at the levayah of an irreligious man. The speaker before him recounted how the deceased had lived a life of struggle and now was at peace and bliss from all his labors. When it was my father’s turn to speak, he got up and gave a rejoinder, stating firmly that since the deceased had lived without Shabbos, kashrus, and Yom Kippur, he was now being brought before the Kisei Hakavod to account for his actions.
This was very harsh talk, especially before a crowd of irreligious Jews, and it was totally unlike my father’s general behavior. He later explained his reasoning to me: “The man spoke kefirah, claiming Leis din v’leis Dayan—‘There is no Judge and there is no judgment’ (see Bereishis Rabbah 26:6), implying that someone who grew up well aware of the Torah and then chose to ignore it is exempt from his final judgment. How could I stay silent?!”
Shyness is a heter to pass on speaking at your friend’s aufruf. But is shyness a heter for not speaking up for truth and Yiddishkeit?! There is a thing called principle, and when it comes to a real principle, you have to be like iron. But when it is not a principle, you have to be soft.