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Rabbi Moshe Weiss

6 March 2024

My father must have had big aspirations for me. The very first time I was at a private audience with the Rebbe – along with the rest of my family – he told the Rebbe: “I want him to be a rosh yeshivah!” In 1966, I was just six years old, and had only started kindergarten the year before in Los Angeles. But back in Hungary, where my father was originally from, the biggest aspiration that a father could have was for his son to grow up to become the head of a yeshivah.

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The Rebbe looked at me and said, “First he should become a Torah scholar, and then vet men zen vos zein biznes vet zein – we’ll see what his career will be.”

That statement of the Rebbe set the tone for the rest of my life. I would often think about it and my father would regularly quote it too. Eventually, with the Rebbe’s blessing, I became a Chabad shliach while simultaneously running a business, which means that there are often tremendous pressures, or enticements, to spend more time with my work. “Nope,” my father would always insist at times like these, “you have to spend a few hours learning Torah every day. The Rebbe said that first you have to be a Torah scholar, and then you’ll be in business.” So I make sure to spend a few hours studying Torah every day, and it has been a tremendous blessing in my life.

As I grew up, my father kept up his high educational standards. When I was ten or eleven years old, he wasn’t happy with the curriculum at the day school I was attending. So he hired an elderly gentleman to be my private tutor for Jewish studies in the morning and then I would take a bus to school in the afternoon for general studies. The school wasn’t thrilled by this – and their Hebrew teacher was a little offended – but my father wanted the best for his son. He even tried to persuade the principal to send his son to be my study partner but, of course, that didn’t work.

I didn’t like this new arrangement. My tutor was very kind and he tried to make the whole thing as pleasant as he could – but it was boring. I did what I was told, but I really didn’t enjoy it.

After seven weeks of this, we came to New York to spend Simchat Torah with the Rebbe. In our audience, my father proudly told the Rebbe what I was doing. He reported that I was advancing in my studies with my tutor, and he enumerated which chapters of the Mishnah I was proficient in.

The Rebbe looked at my father and asked him sternly: “And who are his friends? Who is he learning with?”

“I don’t really have anybody else yet,” my father admitted. “I’m working on some people.”

I vividly remember the Rebbe’s response. “A person can only study Torah in the place he desires,” he said, quoting the Talmudic dictum. “A child needs to have a friend. If you can get him a friend, good. If not, I [would] take him out of there and put him back into the yeshivah.”

I felt relieved. And after a few days, my father put me back in school. Scholastically, I would have achieved more with the tutor, but with his incredible sensitivity, the Rebbe understood that it wasn’t healthy for a little boy to be so alone, and he made it his business to express his opinion on the issue quite forcefully.

After I got married in 1983, my father continued to push me to excel in my Torah studies. While most young Chabad men spend a year or two in an institution for advanced Torah study – a kollel – after marriage, my father wanted me to learn for three years.

During my first year in kollel, the Rebbe instituted the daily practice of studying a portion of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (his fourteen volume magnum opus on Jewish Law) in order to finish the entire work within a fixed period of time. Beyond simply learning the meaning of the text, the Rebbe wanted classes and lectures to be held to further develop the study of Rambam. At the kollel, each week one of us would deliver a discourse on a current theme in the Rambam. This went on for some time.

Once, the fellow who was supposed to speak that afternoon came over to me. “I wasn’t able to prepare something to say. Would you do me a favor and give the class instead of me?”

At first, I turned him down; I hadn’t prepared either. But then it occurred to me that I did have something to share. In that week’s Rambam, we had been learning about the garments that the high priest wore in the Temple, and I had come across something on this subject from Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchik of Brisk, one of the great Lithuanian rabbis of the 20th century.

“Actually, I did learn something interesting on the topic,” I mused. “And I can present it along with one of the Rebbe’s talks.”

“Fine! Whatever it is, just say something,” implored my friend.

Now, I don’t know if it was out of envy that I was able to speak on the fly, or just good-natured fun, but when I got up to speak, there were certain members of the kollel who began to aggressively challenge my presentation by asking a lot of questions. It wasn’t enough to ruin my day, but the way they kept interrupting me was inappropriate and shouldn’t have happened. I got through my forty-five minutes, said what I had to say, and then I sat down.

That night, the Rebbe held a farbrengen in 770. I didn’t know that there was going to be a public gathering that day, but after the evening prayers, the Rebbe came out to speak. There was not a large crowd, and the Rebbe began by connecting the farbrengen to events on the Jewish calendar.

Then the Rebbe started talking about the concept of scholars who clash in their study of Torah. Sometimes, he said, when scholars dispute Torah matters, they can unintentionally go overboard. The Talmud tells us that Torah concepts are often clarified through heated debate, but one has to be careful that it is done with humility and love.

I stood there shocked, as my peers in the small crowd began looking at me.

Later, two fellows came over to apologize. “I didn’t say anything to the Rebbe!” I assured them. Not only that, but as far as I knew, nobody else had told the Rebbe either, so it was amazing that the Rebbe felt the need to address what had happened. It goes to show how careful you need to be about someone else’s feelings.

Thank G-d, in the years since, I’ve been able to keep up my studies, although I don’t know that I’m the Torah scholar the Rebbe expected me to be. Then again, my father would often quote another thing the Rebbe once told him: “A thief is not someone who knows how to steal, but someone who actually steals. So too, a Torah scholar isn’t someone who knows Torah, but someone who actively studies Torah!”

Rabbi Moshe Weiss serves as the director of Chabad of Sherman Oaks, California, while also involved in numerous business and investment ventures. He was interviewed in September 2011.