A Tribute to Rav Binyamin Tabory z"l

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

The transition from elementary to high school was quite a jarring one. My school day was some two-and-a-half hours longer, added to that was another five hours of school on Sunday, not to mention that we started school—limudei kodesh only—a week before Labour Day. 

We, and I speak first and foremost about myself, were a rowdy bunch, more interested in sports than in Gemara. Yet by the time I graduated from high school, I had begun to take my learning very seriously, and had no problem with the 15-hour days of yeshiva in Israel. 

Much of the credit for my growth in learning must go to our Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Binyamin Tabory, z”l, whose sheloshim we commemorate next week. In his honour, I share a few personal and incomplete reflections[1].

Rav Tabory made aliyah in the early 1970s, and his four years of shlichut to Toronto corresponded to my four years of high school. There have been many shlichim over the years who have come to teach in Toronto, yet I think it’s fair to say that very few, if any, reached his level of learning. Even as young, immature high school students, we recognized his phenomenal knowledge—he was still only in his early 30s—and great teaching ability. Coupled with his sharp wit, his sense of humour, his breadth and depth of knowledge, and his encouragement of excellence, his influence was profound.    

It is amazing what one can accomplish in just 10 minutes a day. We covered a great deal of material in his 10-minute devar halacha that he gave, in Hebrew, every morning after davening.

We gave our rebbeim, shall we say, a run for their money. Rav Tabory soon took over our Gemara shiur. We immediately recognized that this teacher was different. I recall his opening shiur on masechet Sukkah when he told us—I believe he mentioned the Vilna Gaon had said this as a child—that the letters of the word “sukkah” reflect the three types of sukkah one can build. The (printed squarish) samech represents a sukkah of four walls, the three-sided kaf represents a sukkah of three walls, and the heh represents the sukkah that can be built with only two-and-a-half walls. A few dapim later, when the Gemara discusses round sukkot and the like, Rav Tabory brought in a Ph.D. math student from the University of Toronto to offer his insights in understanding the Gemara’s use of pi. I found this synthesis of Torah U'mada quite powerful, as it showed me the connection between Torah to the broader world. 

Rav Tabory’s commitment to, and love of, learning was immense. I remember him telling us that he could not survive learning only two hours a day. At the time, I thought that was crazy; but BH, today I fully understand. Yet as central as learning may have been, he stressed that being a mensch was vastly more important. I recall him once asking, Does it really matter if you know one blatt less or more? It will make little difference years from now. But being a person of integrity—that is what matters.

Through his many stories, he introduced us to some of the great leaders of the day, many of whom spoke at the Yeshiva. We were introduced to the three great Aarons: Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, z”l, and Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, z”l. It was in his shiur that we first heard of the kuntresei shiurim of Rav Gustman, z”l and were told of the accomplishments of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. And of course, he gave over much of the Torah of his Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, z”l. 

Or Chaim was, and I believe still is, the only Bnei Akiva yeshiva outside of Israel. All of our Jewish Studies teachers were shlichim, some of whom barely spoke English. I would estimate that some 30% of the people I went to high school with now live in Israel. I recall Rav Tabory’s comment that it is “our world” that struggles with the legacy of Theodore Herzl. For the “secular Israeli”, he is a hero whose herculean efforts led to the creation of the State of Israel; it’s hard to imagine a greater hero than that. For others, he was an assimilated Jew who wanted to create a new Jew, one far removed from observant life. He would have been just as happy with a bunch of German-speaking Jews in Uganda. It is we who can (and must) see both sides and to a certain degree agree with both, who must learn to live with the tension.

It was during my high school years that the Toronto Blue Jays began play. Our Rosh Yeshiva was a great baseball fan, and had tremendous bekiut in all things baseball. When the Yankees made their first visit to Toronto I, not surprisingly, went to Exhibition Stadium to cheer on the Blue Jays (who won that game). But I did not expect to see Rav Tabory and his wife, Naomi, sitting five rows behind us. Somehow, I had the sense that she did not quite share his enthusiasm for the game. Rav Tabory drove us home afterwards; living two blocks from each other as we did, this was one of the many lifts I got from him.

His son, Rav Aviad, told me that his father actually got his position at Yeshivat Har Etzion due to baseball. Trying to convince his nephews to visit Kever Rachel with him, he promised that if they did, he would take them to see someone who had an even greater bekiut in baseball than he. From Beit Lechem he, as promised, took his nephews to meet Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l. Rav Aharon asked Rav Tabory what his plans were. Responding that he was finishing up in Toronto and not yet sure what he would be doing back in Israel, Rav Aharon invited him to come to the yeshiva. The rest, as they say, is history. 

There is much one can learn from baseball. I recall Rav Tabory’s comment on one of the tochechot that we read this past Shabbat. “You will grope at midday, as the blind man gropes in the dark, and you will be unsuccessful in your ways”. What difference, he asked, does it make to a blind person whether it is day or night? Rabbi Tabory answered by recounting how, in the days before night baseball, as the sun was setting, a batter (I don’t recall who) had to face Bob Feller, who had a wicked fastball. He came to bat holding a candle, hinting to the umpire that it was time to call the game due to darkness. The umpire asked him instead if he really thought holding a candle would allow him to see the pitch better. He answered, No, I can’t see his pitches in any event, but at least he will be able to see me, and not hit me. To a blind person, it may not make any difference if it’s day or night, but it does to those who help the blind. 

As I think about his terrible illness, handled with such dignity and faith, I recall his discussing the pasuk we will read in a couple of weeks: “A faithful God, without injustice; He is righteous and upright” (Devarim 32:4). He told us that it is impossible for a human court to ever mete out perfect justice. It is impossible for them to consider all the implications of their rulings. When we punish a criminal, is that fair to his family? G-d, on the other hand—in His infinite yet inscrutable wisdom—acts with perfect justice. 

There is no greater nechama than having children (and grandchildren) follow in one’s path. We have the zechut to have had Rav Aviad speak on behalf of Torah in Motion. Moreover, as Rabbi at Camp Stone, our children have had the benefit of learning with him, linking another generation through Torah. May Naomi, and his children Adina and Rav Aviad find comfort, and may all be blessed with long life.

I last saw Rav Tabory z”l about five years ago, when his illness was in its early stages, but he had limited mobility and was confined to a wheelchair. When we arrived to visit, he was learning Torah with one of his many chavrutot. Rav Tabory’s life was a life dedicated to learning and teaching Torah. I feel privileged to have been his student. Yehi zichro baruch.

 

[1] As adults looking back some 40(!) years, we run the risk of putting an adult spin on an adolescent’s experiences. Nonetheless, even if my memory does not have perfect recall, to the best of my knowledge every word above is true.