Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

23 Iyar 5765 - June 1, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Lion

by Chaim Walder


"Where's your heart? What do you want from him, poor thing."

When Aryeh heard those words, he knew that he would always remember them — and not only them, but also the place he had heard them, as well as the day and the hour.

He would remember them despite — or perhaps because — those words weren't addressed to him, and weren't even supposed to reach his ears. They were said about him. By chance, the sensitive and good-hearted Shmuel Zakai had addressed them to Yitzchok Bloom, the bochur who was causing Aryeh the most trouble. The two had spoken near the coat rack. They had no idea that the subject of their conversation was on the other side of the rack, hidden by a curtain of jackets.

"`What do you want from him, poor thing?' Me, Aryeh Kahanovsky, `poor thing' ?" Aryeh flared.

For a moment, he didn't know who had offended him more, Yitzchok or Shmuel. After much thought, he concluded that even though Shmuel hadn't offended him at all he, Aryeh, had been hurt to the core. Because that was the moment he realized how low he had fallen so soon.


Aryeh Kahanovsky had all the makings of a leader. He was smart, charismatic, articulate and witty. Since childhood, he had succeeded both scholastically and socially. He also had a special conversation-style which caused others to imitate him, and a unique ability to shape the social status of the rest of his classmates.

When he entered high school, these qualities became even keener. He was admitted into the best yeshiva, one that accepts very few applicants. In general, all those who were accepted into that yeshiva would be warned in advance, by their friends, that it was difficult to cope with the social pressure there. Aryeh hadn't been warned because he wasn't the type who had to be warned. He was of the type that others were warned of.

Not that he made other's lives miserable or caused anyone trouble. Aryeh was too self-confident to look for glory at his fellow's expense. Just not being noticed by him was sufficient to make someone feel bad — and he really did have eyesight problems that eye doctors don't treat. He simply didn't see those he didn't want to see.

However, those he wanted to see got an exciting pal, who was loads of fun to be with. Quite rapidly, and rather effortlessly, Aryeh became the yeshiva's leading bochur.

One so socially self-confident is liable to permit himself to say whatever he pleases, since he knows that if his facial expression hints that he is serious, everyone nods to him with serious expressions and all agree wholeheartedly with whatever he says. By the same token, when his facial expressions hint that he means to joke, everyone bursts out laughing, certain that something funny has been said.

A number of Aryeh's phrases became popular in the yeshiva. One of them was smay-ach (his form of somei'ach) and when he tripled the "s," making it sound like s...s...smayach, it became a real trademark.

From the moment s...s...smayach was coined, it could be sandwiched into any topic, without any connection to the topic under discussion or to the question or answer at hand.

"What's going on in the dining room?"


"What did the Mashgiach say?"

"Something s...s...smayach!"

A s...s...smayach phone call — a s...s...smayach study session — a s...s...smayach headache!

S...s...smayach,s...s...smayach, s...s...smayach!

A stranger listening to such a conversation might think that he wasn't in a yeshiva but in a different kind of institution. Lots of visitors or new bochurim got the shock of their lives when they heard this lingo. But the shock would pass quickly when they saw that this was the yeshiva's vernacular.

Not too many said, "It's not my style, and doesn't suit me." Instead, they joined the bandwagon.

Aryeh also coined another phrase: "Flip me." Flip me the butter; flip two flights to my room; flip what the Mashgiach said, and then another phrase and another, until inadvertently, the yeshiva had its own language , devised by none other than Aryeh Kahanovsky.


It took the staff a while to realize that this state of affairs was negative. At first, it was hard to define the problem because it was merely boyish "in" jokes, a phenomenon which on the surface didn't seem problematic.

It was the mashgiach, Rav Moshe Ehrlich, who finally pinpointed the problem when he said that many of the yeshiva students were losing their independent personalities, their private styles, and were becoming Aryeh's twins. He related that when he was young, a bochur in his yeshiva had influenced the others to study halocho between sessions. But his mashgiach gently directed each student to study a certain area, not davka halocho, and not davka according to the order determined by that charismatic bochur.

"A yeshiva," Rav Moshe said, "is a place where a student's personality is fashioned, under the guidance of the staff. It's wrong to let laziness take over by sweeping the boys in one particular direction."

He then compared the phenomenon to a lazy eye, saying: "Some children exert only one eye, causing the other one to weaken. To enable the inactive eye to develop, the active one must be covered for a while."

In this case, the mashgiach suggested that Aryeh either stop devising new phrases — either of his own initiative or as the result of various artificial or external activities. After that, the mashgiach summoned Aryeh for a talk. But it wasn't successful, because Aryeh did not really understand what was wrong with his style of speech, and why he was to blame for the fact that the other bochurim imitated him.

The mashgiach tried to explain over and over again but Aryeh didn't understand — or perhaps hadn't wanted to understand. Despite his status and personality he was still too young and inexperienced to see the picture from a perspective other than his own.

Whatever, Aryeh didn't change his style or call a halt to his various language games. Thus, when the staff met again they realized that they were in a dilemma. They had no excuse to expel him because he always came on time to sedorim and even remained in the beis medrash after the seder had ended. His conduct was also good and he had many excellent traits. However the staff saw the fact that he had such a following, as harmful and perhaps incorrigible.

At that point, certain efforts were made to restrict Aryeh's influence. But they just functioned like boomerangs. This was because, like Aryeh, the other bochurim didn't understand what the staff wanted from him and they were irked by its attitude toward him. As a result, Aryeh's rating only increased, even though he made no effort to incite his friends against the staff.

After consulting with one of the gedolei hador, it was decided that in this case, no action was the best action. Because Aryeh was about to graduate from that high school, it was decided to let him remain there but not to accept him into the yeshiva gedoloh associated with it.

That wasn't such a blow to Aryeh. Only fifty percent of the students who studied in the high school were accepted into its yeshiva gedoloh. Even though Aryeh was one of the yeshiva's leading students, it didn't seem unusual that the yeshiva gedoloh's administration had felt that he was suited for a different yeshiva.

Nonetheless, Aryeh was a bit disappointed at not having been accepted into the yeshiva gedoloh. However, he understood the connection between the mashgiach's comments and this decision. He was also smart enough not to cause a fuss. He applied to another yeshiva on the same level — or even a higher one, some say — and was accepted.

Aryeh finished the year on a good note, and parted from his ramim and mashgiach in a friendly manner. Deep down, he understood that they had been kind to him, even though they had strongly opposed his style. They had chosen the method of "the right hand draws close," and not that of "the left rejects."


During Elul in the new yeshiva, Aryeh concentrated on his studies with great hasmodoh and made very few social contacts. He preferred to familiarize himself with the social group before joining it and conquering it.

The winter zman arrived and the hardened expression he had displayed when he had first arrived in the yeshiva softened. Then, too, he began to make social contacts.

One day during lunch he asked a bochur at his table: "Can you flip me the butter?"

"Flip what?"

"The butter. Flip it to me."

Six faces glared at him with raised eyebrows, as if to say: "Who's that kook? Why isn't he in madhouse?

"I mean pass me the butter," he explained. "Flip, in my lingo means pass me, and other things too, such as `come,' `explain.'

"Aha," someone replied with a concerned look.

"Or flip me the svora," he continued.

"Ah, we got it," one of them, Yitzchok Bloom, replied. "And I think you should flip outta here."

Everyone at the table burst out laughing. So did Aryeh. However he felt that something was wrong. They didn't understand his style. He had to do a bit of explaining, but not then. Perhaps at the next meal. In the meantime, he laughed, for the first time in his life only outwardly.

At the next meal, he said: "That scrambled egg is really s...s...smay-ach."

Everyone looked at him, and then at each other, and continued to eat in silence.

"Don't you mean somayach?" someone dared to ask.

"No s...s...smay-ach. That was kind of a concept in my high school."

All of the other bochurim stopped eating. They understood that a new type of patient had come their way and it was as if they were interested in getting to know him, before they would lose him to another type of institution — a closed one.

"Tell me, " Yitzchok Bloom picked up again. "What you mean by a s . . . s . . . smay-ach scrambled egg. I realize that there's a short circuit between us, but don't know how serious it is."

"Look here," Aryeh said, thinking that the chevrah had finally begun to understand. "S...s...smay-ach is a kinda concept, without any connection..."

"Without a connection?"

"No. I mean that it has a particular meaning. When you say: I have a s...s...smay-ach headache, it means that it's a very bad one. And when you say that the levaya was s...s...smay-ach, you mean something else."

"Tell me, are you normal?" Bloom asked.

Aryeh turned pale. At that moment he realized that from the beginning no one had understood him and that he had made an absolute fool of himself.

"Forget it . . . Just keep on flippin'. You didn't understand me. I muffined."

If Aryeh had wanted to make his yeshiva mates laugh, he had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. However, it wasn't the type of laughter he had known and loved. It was the laughter of boys who were watching the strangest character they had ever seen, trying to explain his strangeness to them. Go tell them that an entire yeshiva had spoken that way every single day. Go tell them how popular he had been only two months before.

But Aryeh wasn't going to tell them a thing. He understood quite well that he was just getting into deeper trouble, and that it was time to stop.

He bentched, and got up from the table. Then, after he had taken a few steps, he heard someone whisper: "He finally flipped," followed by rolling laughter.


Aryeh's tzoros had just begun. Quite soon, he heard the words he was so proud of having invented, being uttered in the corridors in the most humiliating manner possible.

"Be careful; he's muffining." "Can I flip a few words with you?" "Here's the s . . . s..smay-ach."

Aryeh soon discovered that self-confidence is as fragile as fine glass, and that when it breaks you can't paste the fragments together. Not only that, but you must cope with the glares and jibes of the passerby who tread on the shards left by you.

Aryeh also learned that charisma is fleeting. He had grown used to the fact that all of his jokes were greeted with roaring laughter and admiration. But now, no one understood him or even wanted to understand his humor, or anything else he said.

He interested the bochurim like a neggel-vasser washing cup, with one difference — no one laughed at the cup. Suddenly he understood, from the wrong angle, those bochurim who had tried to make jokes, only to be put down by his heavy coughs and those of his friends, or worst of all by a long silence, followed by: "You've finished? That was mammesh s...s...smay-ach."

He knew that sometimes their jokes had been funnier than his but that humor, like self-confidence and social status, blows with the wind. He found it hard to define the matter, but understood that now he was on the wrong side of the map.

The funny part of it was that he had never known that there was a wrong side, a place where no one accepts you or wants to hear your wisecracks or jokes

For the first time in his life, Aryeh felt what it meant to be a nonentity, a zilch. As the days passed, he grew more and more despondent, until he felt that there was nowhere left to fall . . . until the following fall, proving to him that emotional sorrow has no limits.

Suddenly Aryeh was unable to sleep at nights. Until then, he had always fallen asleep the moment his head had hit the pillow, but now he would spend hours lying awake. In such a sleepless state though, feelings which he had never before experienced until then cropped up — fears, phobias, endless sorrow and depression

There were nights during which Aryeh would feel terribly alone. At such times, he would chew over the events of the past day, and the humiliation he had undergone, and even worse, the disregard of his peers who acted as if he simply wasn't there. He was overcome by terrible fears of the night during which he hoped morning would dawn, knowing though that morning would bring more pain and sorrow in its wake.

In the end, Aryeh decided to stop using those phrases which had been his trademark, and to pretend that he didn't know that they were laughing at him as a result of them. He hoped too, to hit on another style. Thus one time, he would imitate Dovid Cohen, and on another day Reuven Levi. However they noticed that and they just teased him.

At that point, he understood what the mashgiach in his previous yeshiva had been driving at. Aryeh realized that he was now forced to regard himself as nonexistent, and had to behave like someone else in order to be anything.

However, the situation was still unclear to him. Many new things had occurred during those weeks, and most of them had no explanation. The straw that broke the camel's back struck him on the day Shmuel Zakai had said: "Where's your heart? What do you want from him, poor thing?"

He had reached rock bottom, and couldn't fall lower than that.


Aryeh left the yeshiva and began to wander about aimlessly. He felt that he needed answers to what had happened to him within such a brief time.

His feet led him to the yeshiva in which he had studied for three years. He knew that the only person who could answer him was the mashgiach.

When he arrived at the yeshiva, he was greeted by a bunch of bochurim who ran over to him, crying: "How are you? Why haven't you kept in touch? What's doing? S..s..s..may- ach."

"Where's the mashgiach?" he asked, with a voice that indicated that he wasn't the same Aryeh, not even a shadow of himself. In the end, he found the mashgiach, and when he sat down beside him, pleasant memories flooded him — memories of a past which was no more. Tears welled up in his eyes and he struggled to hold them back.

The mashgiach was stunned. He realized that a totally different Aryeh was seated before him, no longer an aryeh (lion), not even a caged one, but rather a beaten and disgraced cat. The mashgiach, who knew how to identify students who had a strong sense of self- confidence, had never known a boy as self-confident as Aryeh, and he was shocked now by the extent of its depletion.

Aryeh spoke about his experiences in the new yeshiva. He described the good beginning, and his intention to flaunt his old-time style. Then he depicted his downfall and the crushing of his status and self-confidence.

"How is it possible that all I built throughout my life was destroyed in just a few months?" he asked the mashgiach.

The mashgiach consoled him, then asked if he could speak with him openly.

"What did you build?" the mashgiach then asked. "You said that all that you built was destroyed in just a few months. "Tell me. What did you build throughout your life?"

"I built a social group. I became a bochur with initiative, a bochur who interested everyone — one who managed to influence everyone, to make everyone laugh, to convince everyone to accept his opinions."

"How did you accomplish that?"

"I don't know. I never planned it, and therefore I can't really tell you how it happened. It just happened."

"It just happened," the mashgiach repeated. "Boruch Hashem, you no longer believe that `my strength and the might of my hands did all this.' But you're still far from truly understanding the inyan.


"Listen carefully," the mashgiach continued. "You're at a turning point in your life, and can learn much from your experience. In the past, you were highly admired for your personal style; yet within a very short time, that style became a cause for jeers. Now tell me honestly: whom do you understand better, those who admired you or those who make fun of you?"

Shutting his eyes, Aryeh just asked the mashgiach to continue.

"It's hard for you to answer. But the very fact that you haven't answered shows me that at least you understand both sides equally, and in the worst event, you understand the latter better than the former. Now let's go on to the next question. The bochurim in both yeshivos received approximately the same chinuch and have similar backgrounds and styles. How is it possible that some of them so admire you, while others make fun of you?"

"I think I didn't do a good job at presenting the inyan in my new yeshiva. They aren't used to my lingo, and think that I'm a nut."

"That makes my question even more pointed," the mashgiach continued. "How can the very same bochur be considered a nut — excuse me — by one group, and a big wheel by another?"

"I thought about that myself a lot too," Aryeh replied. "I feel that I had a status which suddenly collapsed. But I don't know what that status was.

"I'm not a youngster, anymore," the Mashgiach slowly explained, "and have taught generations of students. I know from experience that concepts such as `social group' and `self-confidence,' are fragile and unstable. I want you to close your eyes and tell me how you felt when you learned that the boys in your new yeshiva were laughing at you and thought that you were weird."

In his mind's eye, Aryeh returned to the difficult experiences: "I felt that in one moment I had fallen from the top of a high mountain into a deep pit. I tried to muster my strongest powers in order to impress them, but couldn't find such powers within me. They had simply vanished, evaporated. I felt weak, like someone on the periphery. I had never felt like that before."

"Vanished. . . Evaporated? Perhaps they never existed at all. Did you ever feel that you had special powers?"

"Of course I did," Aryeh replied. "I felt that everyone listened to me, and thirsted for my every word. I thought that when I went home for Shabbos that they missed me and that they were really happy when I returned."

"Listen to what you are saying, Aryeh," the mashgiach continued. " `Everyone listens; they miss me; they're happy.' Not you, but they! Your strengths were actually those of others and didn't originate in you. The moment others stopped adoring you and, worse than that, began to mock you, you were merely left the way you had always been. Nothing was taken from you, because you never had it in the first place."

Aryeh knew that the mashgiach was right, even though it was difficult for him to swallow what he had said, in light of his having once been so admired. Aryeh understood suddenly that he had once led because his peers had decided that he was a leader — and had stopped leading because they had decided otherwise. "So I guess there's no such thing as self- confidence," Aryeh commented sadly.

"I didn't say that," the mashgiach replied. "Of course there is. Self-confidence is a feeling which leans on something solid, realistic, existing and of value. The first condition for possessing self-confidence is that a person be certain of himself and that he believe that he excels in at least one area. After this condition has been fulfilled, society's opinion of him is still significant. But if a person depends only on what society thinks of him, his self- confidence is phony — a false charm which is doomed to fade.

"Self-confidence depends, then, on what a person thinks of himself and on what others think of him. At first a person tends to lean on what others think of him. From that starting point, he formulates his opinion of himself. But if he persists in leaning on others, he will soon find himself without a personality, without independence. He won't behave in a certain way because he believes it is right. Instead, his personality will revolve on the axis of society's opinion of him and, as a result, he will forfeit his own personality.

"That's what I tried to explain to you when you were in high school — but you didn't understand then. I was afraid that I was allowing a very large group of boys to cancel their personalities and independence for the crazes of one boy, who they imagined was a social leader. Obviously you have many qualities which caused you, and not anyone else, to occupy that position. But you derived your power from the group and they derived their power from you, while by all normal standards each should have striven to develop independent strengths.

"By mistake, all along you thought that you were the leader. But actually you were like a clown in a circus who provides the crowd with what it needs. You were dependent on your social group no less than it was dependent on you. This can be proved by the fact that when you found yourself in a group which for some reason didn't particularly like you, and even began to mock you, you understood that all your former popularity was nothing but a bubble."

Aryeh wanted to ask another question, but the mashgiach stopped him. "I think we've spoken enough today. Go back to your yeshiva, and we'll continue our conversation another time," he said.

Aryeh returned to his yeshiva as a different person. Most important was that he was glad that he had lost his status, his influence, his charisma. He hadn't wanted to be a magician, and wasn't interested in exerting power over others. He had only wanted to influence others positively.

At that point, Aryeh knew that no person or discussion could have hit the bull's eye as quickly and with such an impact as the humiliation he had undergone. Scrutinizing himself, he now understood that he indeed had power, but that he had hidden it for the sake of a long-term extended performance as a clown in a circus, as the mashgiach had said. Now he wanted to maximize his own potential, and wondered how he could do that.


Aryeh underwent a difficult time during which the boys in his new yeshiva, who didn't know that he had changed, continued to tease him. Some of them used him as a ladder on which to mount a stage, and/or as the script for a performance, just like the old Aryeh had done.

It was the end of the winter zman during which he had conducted numerous soul-searching talks with the mashgiach, who had noticed the great change in his former student. At the end of one of their meetings, he asked Aryeh: "What are you going to do next zman?"

"I'll continue to try and maximize my potential," he replied.


"In my yeshiva."

"I don't think that's a good idea," the mashgiach replied. "True, you tried, and managed to correct yourself a bit, but you don't have the power to change the entire world in one minute. You're burnt out there, because other puppets appear on its stage."

"What exactly does kvod HaRav mean to say?"

"That you have to come home."


"To the yeshiva which is your home, to the one you should have been accepted to in the beginning, but weren't because you still hadn't undergone the misery you suffered this past winter. Now that you have changed so drastically, and have actually emerged from slavery to freedom, I will recommend, without any qualms, that our yeshiva accept you. I am 100 percent certain that you won't harm anyone, neither yourself nor your friends."

Aryeh went home, to the yeshiva. His friends were his old ones; but he was a totally new person. From a caged Aryeh, he had become Aryeh Kahanovsky, the Aryeh he should have been from the onset.


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