Where Middos Make the Difference
Some thoughts about my rebbi, Rav Naftali Friedler
Here’s something way out of character for this publication. I’d like to offer a few biographical thoughts about my late rebbi, Rav Naftali Friedler ז”ל. It may now be 25 years since he died and 35 years since I last sat in his shiur, but memories of R’ Friedler are still vivid in my life and, hopefully, actions.
This won’t be a standard bio where we explore the subject’s early life, career, and accomplishments. It also won’t be a non-standard bio where I seek to visualize R’ Friedler’s surprising generosity, ability to prepare talmidim for challenges decades into the future, delicious sarcasm and harsh warmth. Instead, I’m going to focus only on one theme: what I glimpsed of R’ Friedler’s remarkable middos. And in particular, his profound consideration for others.
I’ll begin with R’ Friedler’s 1988 resignation as Rosh Yeshiva in Ner Yisrael, Toronto. That move was for many reasons a deep disappointment, as R’ Friedler saw this position as the most important of his career. While he had many significant accomplishments along the way, by stepping down, R’ Friedler was effectively abandoning his efforts to shape the yeshiva to match his vision. The fact that much of what he had accomplished would almost certainly be dismantled or redirected by his successor must also have been a source of personal pain.
Given the tensions and pressures felt by both R’ Friedler and his successor R’ Gavriel Ginsburg ז”ל, we could have easily been subject to a protracted period of political infighting and turmoil. Judging by the sad experiences of many other Torah institutions, the chaos could ultimately have resulted in the destruction of the yeshiva itself.
Instead, we were witness to leaders who focused exclusively on the greater good. Not only was the transition peaceful and drama-free - despite consequential shifts in the day-to-day running of the yeshiva - but the spirit of cooperation continued for years. After the untimely passing of R’ Ginsburg in 2003, control of the yeshiva was shared by the sons-in-law of both R’ Friedler and R’ Ginsburg. And 20 years later, Ner Yisrael is still run by both R’ Uri Meyerfeld and R’ Meyer Greenberger.
One particular memory I have from that period was of R’ Friedler’s first visit back to Toronto after moving to Monsey. One weekday morning, he entered the bais hamidrash and sat down with a gemara. One or two members of the kollel - his former talmidim - soon walked over to speak with him. But when a few others followed, R’ Friedler quickly rose and walked out, commenting “This isn’t my bais hamidrash.”
R’ Friedler missed his talmidim greatly and he would have loved to spend some time speaking with them. But it would no doubt have caused R’ Ginsburg discomfort had he come in and witnessed most of the kollel enthusiastically speaking with their former rebbi.
R’ Friedler once commented to me how someone had just told him the reason why, 20 years earlier, his oldest son-in-law - R’ Meyerfeld - had chosen not to learn in Brisk immediately after his wedding. Instead R’ Meyerfeld had remained in Lakewood for a couple of years before moving.
After thinking about it, I found this astounding. R’ Friedler clearly had an opinion on the subject: he felt that going to Israel before their first children were born would be easier for the young family. But not only had he not pushed the point at the time, he never even asked why his son-in-law chose that path. It was only 20 years later that he found out, and then only through a casual comment from a third party. I believe that he had wanted to avoid even the appearance of pressure.
If I might rephrase that: Give your children/talmidim the space to mature on their own. And don’t interfere with their marriages.
One final memory. For a short time before I was married my parents lived near the old Beth Jacob shul, where I would daven for mincha/maariv. However, being the important yeshiva bachur I was so sure I was, I would walk out of the beis midrash for the ten minutes following mincha while Rabbi Burak gave a shiur in Mishnayos Bechoros to whoever remained inside. Trust me, I wasn’t doing anything important for those ten minutes. I guess my ego needed stroking.
At the time, the move to the new yeshiva campus was not yet complete, and R’ Friedler still lived near Beth Jacob. One evening, he came to shul. As soon as mincha ended, R’ Friedler sat himself down right next to Rabbi Burak and focused his attentive eyes on the rav for every moment of the shiur.
He was no doubt already familiar with the content. But the lesson of his concern for the rav’s honor and for the importance of the shiur itself was not lost on me.
I don’t believe I’ve ever walked out on a shiur under such circumstances since.
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