By Rabbi Meir Kessler – Jewish Recovery Center
Tonight we will be commemorating the first Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski obm. A year ago tonight, The Jewish Recovery Community lost its greatest advocate and supporter. The wider Jewish World lost an extraordinary Scholar, Teacher and Author and the world at large lost a spiritual giant who spent his entire adult life repairing countless broken souls of every race and creed, with love and compassion, one soul at a time.
I am not attempting to memorialize someone of such stature in a short post. I want to just share a memory which I hope to explicate and use to reflect on Rabbi Twerski’s life and legacy.
Let me set the scene:
The year was 2015. It was a Shabbat morning and we were gathered together at the Hilton Hotel in Deerfield Beach for the 4th annual JRC Retreat and Shabbaton. Rabbi Twerski so graciously accepted our invitation to join and spent the weekend with us.
It was a Shabbat Mevorchim, the Shabbat in which we bless the forthcoming month and Rabbi Twerski was honored with Reciting “Birchas Hachodesh,” The Blessing for the new Month.
There is a prayer that is recited in many congregations right before the blessing of the new month it reads as follows:
May it be your will Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that you inaugurate this month upon us for goodness and fr blessing. May you give us long life – a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life in which there is fear of heaven and fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame nor humiliation, a life of wealth and honor, a life in which we will have love of Torah and fear of heaven, a life in which our heartfelt requests will be fulfilled for the good. Amen.
As he began reading this prayer aloud in Hebrew, Rabbi Twerski began choking up and crying through every word. There were about 200 men and women in the room. Most of whom do not regularly attend Synagogue services, many who cannot read or understand Hebrew. You could hear a pin drop.
Rabbi Twerski was about 85 years old at the time, most if not all of the requests listed in that prayer were seemingly already fulfilled in his life so I don’t think he was crying for himself. Rather he was praying for all of us standing there with him, many of whom he knew personally and was familiar with the struggles and challenges they were facing.
By the time he was done there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. The moment I’m describing lasted about 5 minutes. But everyone present, Jewish or otherwise, Hebrew readers and non Hebrew readers, those who pray regularly and those who hardly ever pray, all experienced what can only be described as the rawest form of heartfelt authentic prayer before God.
While this memory is quintessential Rabbi Twerski, it is also quite paradoxical as was his life as a whole.
How did this saintly Rabbi, the scion of a great Rabbinic family and Hasidic dynasty manage to impact and transform the lives of such a large number of people from backgrounds as far removed from his as possible?
Why was it that people who seemingly had no connection to faith or religion found his message so relevant and impactful?
I can’t offer a definitive answer, but maybe some plausible explanations.
Whenever Rabbi Twersks delivered a message it was always done with utmost humility peppered with self deprecation to boot. This made him a highly effective ambassador for Divinely inspired truths to any and every audience.
He was saintly but so human, spiritual yet so practical, broken and self deprecating but so whole and joyful, soaring but so truly down to earth and humble. You saw in him all the things that make a person great, yet he would always remind you that he wasn’t, and you knew he really meant it.
The loudest voices and influences in our world are so hollow, fake,and arrogant. Many of the people we interact with regularly are no different. So when people of any background are presented with unadulterated truth accompanied by uncorrupted humility and administered with sensitivity and love, is it really any surprise that would be drawn to it?
A moment of history.
Communal awareness on issues relating to addiction, mental health and spousal abuse are now a given in the observant Jewish community. But because it has become so normalized by now, people tend to forget what it took to get here and who got us here.
The simple truth is that we got here in large part because of Rabbi Twerski’s unrelenting pursuit of truth, and his pioneering efforts to change the prevailing culture of silence and suppression on these matters inside the observant Jewish community.
It took decades for his message to finally break through and today the revolution that he began has won the day. As today there are dozens of organizations specifically dedicated to dealing with these challenges within the observant jewish community, but it all began with Rabbi Twerski.
It’s important to note that when he began his campaign, he stood alone. He was threatened, vilified and ostracized but he stood his ground fearless and unwavering. The ideas and positions of those who attacked him have by now been relegated to the ash heap of history, but it was a long and difficult battle that he fought on behalf of us all, to get us to where we are today.
Rabbi Twerski’s life presents so many life lessons and examples that each of us can take away and apply in our lives.
To those of us who knew Rabbi Twerski and personally benefited from that relationship tonight and tomorrow would be a good time to study some Torah in his memory and to resolve to better ourselves or change one thing in an area of our lives where we can glean inspiration from his.
May his memory be a blessing to us all.
והקיצו ורננו שוכני עפר במהרה בימינו ממש!
Great article Rabbi Meir Kessler!
an old chavrusa who you also helped out at a time of need.
May you go mechayil elchayil, Rabbi Kessler. You do amazing work.