Sometimes we only find out about certain people after they die. But then, when we hear stories about them from their family, friends or students, we realize that there had been a giant in our midst and we didn’t know about it.
This was how I felt when I read the many tributes about Rabbi Moshe Kahn zt’l – who taught Gemara and Halacha to thousands of women over a period of more than four decades. Additionally, since just a few days after Rabbi Kahn died I stayed in the home of Rabbi Ely and Chana Shestack – who was one of Rabbi Kahn’s students, and the fact that just three days later I taught at Stern College where Rabbi Kahn had taught for over four decades, and the fact – as evident from the many messages that were posted in various whatsapp groups to which I belong – that many of my colleagues at Midreshet Lindenbaum and Matan were students of Rabbi Kahn, I quickly gained an appreciation of at least some aspects of the huge contribution and impact of this remarkable individual.
Upon his death, some of Rabbi Kahn’s students somehow intuited how to channel their pain. However, there were others who were overcome by their feelings of pain and loss, and this brought me back nine years ago when my teacher, Dayan Gershon Lopian zt’l, died.
At that point I, like many other people, was overtaken with sadness, and I too was unsure how to respond to his loss. But then I listened to a shiur by Rabbi Yisroel Reisman on a related topic – which then inspired me to deliver a shiur titled ‘The growing pains upon the death of one’s teacher’ and to constructively channel my feelings of loss. And this is why, over the past few weeks, I’ve shared my transcript of that talk with a number of Rabbi Kahn’s students.
Having explained all this let us now turn to today’s daf (Nazir 14a) which, in the midst of its discussion about the laws of Nezirut, raises the following question: אֲמַר כְּמֹשֶׁה בְּשִׁבְעָה בַּאֲדָר מַאי – ‘What if someone said, “like Moshe on the 7th of Adar” – what would be the law?’. According to some commentaries, the question being raised here is how to interpret this cryptic comment since the 7th of Adar is both Moshe’s birth-date and death-date. Given this, when someone makes this proclamation are they making reference to the joyousness of Moshe’s birth? Or alternatively, are they alluding to the fact that they wish to adopt Nazirite practices as a way of channeling their feeling of loss upon reflecting on the death of Moshe?
Reading these words in today’s daf reminded me of the various recent conversations that I’ve had with Rabbi Kahn’s students, as well as my initially conflicted feelings upon the death of Dayan Lopian, and the fundamental question of whether, upon reflecting on a teacher who has died, do we focus on our feelings of joy having been privileged to have been taught by them, or are we filled with feelings of loss given the fact that they are physically no longer alive?
My answer, as I explained in the talk that I delivered nine years ago, is as such: ‘when a teacher passes away, we should not only grieve for their loss from this world, but also, for the wasted opportunities that we could have maximised to learn more from them during their life; we shouldn’t just focus on their absence, but also on what they brought to the world and what we should have learnt from them while they were alive. Yet by dwelling on their greatness while grieving, this enables us to continue to be inspired by their teachings despite their death. Accordingly, the pain of their death is counterbalanced by a greater drive for spiritual growth to follow in their footsteps, and this increase in spiritual aspiration enables the bond between student and teacher to be strengthened.’
I bless all those who were privileged to learn from Rabbi Kahn to be able to harness their pain to motivate growth, so they can transform the groaning pains that we often feel when a teacher has died, into growing pains.