I wanted to share some of my feelings regarding the recent loss of Rabbi Yona Munk, a”h, who passed away this year on Hoshana Rabba. The genesis of my relationship with Rabbi Munk can be attributed to a shul announcement. A number of years ago during Shabbat davening at Shomrei Emunah, Rabbi Weinreb concluded his sermon by stating that “one of our own,” Rabbi Munk, had completed a sefer, which was now for sale at a local sefarim store. Rabbi Weinreb noted that the sefer, entitled Hegei Yona (Thoughts of Yona), was written in Hebrew and contained a number of creative insights on the parsha. This routine announcement, a transition to Mussaf for most of the kehila (congregation), opened a window for me to more serious and engaging learning.
I knew two things about Rabbi Munk. The first was that he davened about four rows in front of me. The second was that no seat could really contain him. I have a vivid image of him, Chumash open in one hand, the other hand pointing to a pasuk, sharing some insight or question with a fellow traveler, head shaking in satisfaction and wonder as he returned to his seat, as if an issue bothering him for the past decade had finally been resolved, only to lead to another question requiring immediate investigation. His entire body appeared to flow and tremble with Torah.
While I had recently started attending Rabbi Tvi Goode’s wonderful Yesodei HaTorah program to begin learning Gemara, I had zero insights into the parsha of the week and only moderate enthusiasm for learning Torah. To make matters worse, my command of Hebrew was only average, forcing me to rely on English translations, which had the dual effect of reducing the joy of learning and limiting the scope of learning opportunities.
Rabbi Weinreb’s announcement had the feeling of an opportunity, and I conceived a plan sometime before Aleinu. I would purchase Rabbi Munk’s sefer and attempt each week to manage its contents. Any questions could be directed to Rabbi Munk. Was it possible that an author, a scholar, would not entertain questions about his own work? I did not consult with Rabbi Munk about my scheme, justifying it by means of a contemporary aphorism: that it is better to act first and ask forgiveness later, a strategy that of course speaks more to political expediency than to Torah values.
I purchased the sefer the next day, which included separate sections for each parsha, divided into five to seven divrei Torah. My intention was to learn one dvar Torah each week on Thursday evening, assuming that I would ask Rabbi Munk questions two days later, on Shabbat. Armed with a Ben-Yehuda dictionary, I went to work for about three hours trying to make sense of his writing. Pleased with my effort, if not the outcome, I introduced myself to Rabbi Munk on the following Shabbat, informing him that I had purchased his sefer and could use some help clarifying a few matters. I even showed him a copy of the book, like a child providing evidence to the veracity of his intentions. He was delighted with the opportunity to assist, and we spent about 10 minutes reviewing words and concepts, getting to the pshat (meaning) of his argument. He encouraged me to come to him each week with questions. The plan was in motion.
Each successive week brought progress. I became more comfortable with the rashei taivos (acronyms) and more aware of the questions and answers embedded within the text. I started to appreciate the considerable scope and breadth of Rabbi Munk’s knowledge, integrating mefarshim (commentators) on the Torah with text from the Gemara, and his incredible love of Eretz Yisrael. Upon seeing him one Shabbat, I noted what an excellent question he posed on a difficulty in the parsha. I remember his laughter to this remark, putting his arm around my shoulders, and responding, “All of the mefarshim ask that question.” Who knew? I suspect this was a bit like our eight-year-old son telling Derrick Rose that he appreciated his ability to get to the basket.
Nevertheless, a subtle change was developing in our interactions. Rabbi Munk began to augment his own responses with commentary from other mefarshim, and an unknowing bystander might conclude that we were having a genuine two-way Torah discussion. In fact, as he sensed my sustained interest in learning Torah, our brief conversations became more detailed and involved, and he often illustrated specific points with entertaining and often moving stories from his own life. I was in the presence of a skilled and thoughtful teacher.
While reflecting on these days, I can consider the domino effect it had on my exposure to the traditional sources. Some might appreciate that listening to the Rolling Stones, for example, ultimately directs us to Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters. Bob Dylan leads not only to the music of Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson but to Fitzgerald, Louie the King, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame – lehavdil, of course. But what I am trying to say is that Rabbi Munk’s sefer, together with our weekly discussions, provided a clear pathway to learning the major mefarshim on the Torah. Mitzva goreret mitzvah; talmud Torah goreret talmud Torah.
It was about four months into this learning project when I informed Rabbi Munk that I was starting to read the footnotes, which often brought a related or sometimes divergent opinion from one of the major mefarshim, like the Ramban or the Sforno. “You are reading the footnotes?” he replied, all of a sudden with a more serious and determined look in his eyes. “That is very good; that is very important.” Teachers might note that there are few good substitutes to positive reinforcement.
At this point, there was little preventing me from learning the original sources, with the exception that I had no original sources. The antidote was to spend time on Shabbat with a Mikra’ot Gedolot in the Shomrei Emunah beit medresh, reviewing the commentary of relevant mefarshim cited that week in the footnotes of Rabbi Munk’s sefer. A benefit to a large shul such as Shomrei Emunah is that it includes many people that can answer questions on the mefarshim. The difference was that now I could ask questions from a position of strength, not weakness, a distinction that is sometimes undervalued in education circles. I was no longer the “one who could not even ask a question.”
Our short meetings after Shabbat davening continued throughout the year. Rabbi Munk always listened intently, clarifying the primary arguments, shaping my (not infrequent) misunderstandings, and of course, adorning our interactions with personal stories and aggadeta that had the cumulative effect of placing an entire issue in better perspective. I had the fortune of sharing many of these words of Torah with families in Baltimore that invited me as a guest for Shabbat.
This important year demonstrated that engaging and meaningful learning was accessible. In an age in which we are often overwhelmed with many beautiful works of Torah, the best approach for me was to remain local, taking one peirush at a time, learning the vocabulary and nuances of the author, and using this foundation to broaden my areas of study. I have used a similar strategy with the major mefarshim. This experience was also a reminder that many scholars live in our midst. Perhaps every shul in Baltimore has congregants who have written and published sefarim or manuscripts of Torah, individuals who are standing at a kiddush fully open to discussing their work. Because these precious resources may be significantly underutilized, I wonder if a reasonable community project might be to develop a list of sefarim written by Baltimore authors.
When I returned from work on Hoshana Rabba, my wife informed me that she had bad news. I told her that I would take the good news first. “There is no good news,” she replied, “Rabbi Munk passed away.” “True that,” as our daughters might say. In fact, they were listening to our entire conversation. “Who is this Rabbi Munk,” they wanted to know, “and how did you know him.”
That evening in the sukka, we discussed Rabbi Munk and his influence on my learning. I read from his sefer on the chagim (also entitled Hegei Yona), and taught them about Shemini Atzeret, and how our Rabbis have struggled to understand its independence from the holiday of Sukkot. We discussed a parallel approach suggested by Rabbi Munk that used the Ramban as a foundation to compare Shemini Atzeret to Shavuot (also called Atzeret). Just as Shavuot is a unique holiday yet can be understood as the culmination of Pesach and sefirat ha’omer (i.e., a long Chol Hamoed), so might Shemini Atzeret be perceived as a culmination of the purifying mitzvot of Sukkot.
The limited number of mitzvot specific to Shavuot and Shemini Atzeret may illustrate HaShem’s general approach in the midbar and conquest of Eretz Yisrael: initially relying on miracles to develop our connection to Him, and slowly removing these public revelations over time as we gain a better appreciation of the world He has created and directs.
To paraphrase Rabbi Munk, Shemini Atzeret is a day dedicated to our spiritual independence and faith in Hashem, a day that we use our freedom to serve Hashem without any special assistance. This is similar, he wrote, to a mother teaching her child to take his first steps, first encouraging him to hold her skirt, then removing her support and allowing him to walk on his own – and perhaps, I realize now, like a teacher helping his student take his first steps in learning our primary sources, sharing time and energy with him, and providing him with the skills required to learn independently and to transmit Torah to his children.
We have lost a true scholar and a wonderful teacher.