Stories & Memories of Rabbi Zalman Baras

By: Mendy Karp March 10

My Teacher Solved the Chinuch Crisis

There is truly too much to say about Rabbi Baras. Never can I remember a man who so deeply touched the lives of those who met him, whether they knew him for years, had the privilege of being his students, or even people who met him only once.

I keep seeing messages today of people who barely knew him, and yet remembered so clearly how touched they were by his warmth, his unusual emmeskeit which shone through in his very demeanor, his beautiful smile which he gave to each and every person he met.

I remember the first time I spoke to him as a shy 8th grader, he reacted like I had just made his day by gracing him with my presence.

It’s really foolish and futile to try to describe him. So many have expressed the same sentiment, he was truly a gift from Hashem to us, for the years in which we were so lucky to know him. Hashem decided to package a bit of his infinite goodness and put it on this earth.

It was almost like his neshama never quite fit in this world. Sheker just couldn’t sit with him, he just didn’t have the keilim for so much of the cynicism and coldness of this world. He looked at the world with different eyes, and when he looked at you, you felt he found your best self, your purer self.

There is no point in extolling him. He wouldn’t appreciate that, and for everyone who knew him even slightly, there is no need. He was Rabbi Baras, and that’s the only true description.

What I do want to share is something which I hope will be a useful for us to continue his life. There is so much discussion these days about chinuch, everyone believes we have a huge problem, and everyone has a thousand solutions, and so many of them are valid and necessary.

But I want to discuss how for me and so many others, Rabbi Baras solved the chinuch crisis.

When I entered mesivta, I was coming from a day school. In my mind, (and mouth as well, as I was not shy in sharing my views with others), Yeshiva was a prison in which they attempted to brainwash you into accepting a old restrictive way of life. I told my modern orthodox friend in all sincerity that I wished I could go with him to high school, since they had a playstation and a competitive basketball team.

I entered yeshiva determined to challenge everything I was taught. I refused to be a mindless sheep following the crowd of ancient conformity. I recall telling at least one of my teachers openly that I expected to be in college in a few years, perhaps frum. (Years later another teacher related to me that he had said to Rabbi Avtzon privately, “what does Mendy have against the Alter Rebbe? What did the Alter Rebbe do to him?”)

There was someone I didn’t account for in my plan, and that was Rabbi Baras. I can’t say he changed my life right away, but from the first day when he put a bunch of nervous 9th graders at ease with his smile and caring, it just made it harder be antagonistic. As a close friend with a similar journey told me, “I saw Rabbi Baras and I realized if that’s a chossid, I want to be a chossid.”

He showed us, better than any speech or even farbrengen, that being a chossid means to be someone who truly lives a life of kindness and heilikeit. We simply saw his devotion. We sensed even before we found out, the hours and hours he would put into each gemoro lesson, going over it again and again so he we would be able to explain it to us in a way we could grasp. Its hard to put a finger on exactly what happened, but when you have emes standing in front of you every day, a Yid who you knew had no personal agenda whatsoever, and just wanted and would do anything with all of his heart and soul for you to learn a little bit more, or to feel a little happier, it slowly melted any cynicism you had.

Yet for a long time, the change he affected was subtle and under the surface. I was still not ready to buy in fully. He showed my heart that chassidus is warmth, kindness, and light, I saw that a chossid is happy and truly alive, and yet in my mind, I was still very unsure if this wasn’t a big elaborate cult I was stuck in.

Then came shiur beis. By now I was earnestly searching to find out what was the real truth. Every day in his Tanya shiur, I would vigorously challenge almost anything he said. In my mind I was I was searching for the truth as well as fighting a noble battle of defending my classmates from eternal culthood.

Yet not only did he not lose his cool or get defensive, he would encourage me with a smile, accept any challenge, and answer to the point, showing us time again the beauty and depth of chassidus. I think maybe the turning point came when a very chassidish friend of mine confronted me once saying “Why do you have to attack everything he says? It’s really not good!”

Well, I thought perhaps he had a point, maybe it was not fair to Rabbi Baras and everyone else in the class. So I asked Rabbi Baras after the next class about it. His response? Though I don’t remember his exact words, I’ll never forget his message and how it affected me. “Mendel, Farkert! You liven up the class, you make it real. This is what makes it interesting and exciting, it’s a genuine search for answers.”

“But Rabbi Baras, are you sure? Others are telling me…”

Now he looked at me almost sternly, “Let me decide that. I’m telling you you must continue.”

Well what could I say? I imagine in so many yeshivas I would have been made to feel rebellious, a nuisance, or a threat. Who could have blamed him if he would’ve said, “Please at least keep it till after class.”

Instead I felt valued, cherished. He wanted me there. He needed me and my questions. And he wasn’t afraid or threatened, he knows he has the emes and he can stand up to anything.

For the first time in my life I couldn’t wait to bounce out of bed in the morning and head to class. I tried to follow his instructions and continue to attack, but somehow it got harder and harder. Without quite noticing, I began to transition from combative skeptic to inquiring chossid.

I wasn’t alone. Bochurim would speak with each other about getting a high from Chassidus. As a 20 something baal teshuva who joined Rabbi Baras’s classes with us would say, “In Rabbi Baras class, you don’t just learn Chassidus, you saw it alive in front of you.”

When it came Pesach vacation, we requested from Rabbi Baras that he continue to teach us throughout via conference call, (needless to say he agreed.) This happened again in the summer, and even the next year in shiur gimmel, when Rabbi Baras was no longer officially our teacher, we lobbied successfully that he teach us shaar yichud vehomaenu on Sunday night , (instead of us learning bechavrusa as we did the other nights of the week.)

Even when we left yeshiva, his caring continued with the same vigor. When I would tell him years later about my life, whether a milestone I had attained, or a struggle I was going through, I felt he cared more than I did. I would hesitate to tell him something that I knew would make him cringe, and part of my motivation to succeed was the joy I knew he would get from it.

One would imagine him as soft and gentle, and yet there were times when he would show an incredible gevura. I remember him actually shouting on two occasions. Once he gave a silenced the zal by shouting “Shulchan Aruch says talking between the beginning of kadish and yehei shmei raba is like talking during kedusha. If we are going to pick and choose what parts of Shulchan Aruch we listen to, then we are changing and compromising the Torah!”

Another time, a student had made some loud joke in the middle of a very relaxed seder in the beis medrash, to which everyone laughed. Suddenly Rabbi Baras shouted with incredible force and not one ounce of hesitation, “This is bitul Torah b’rabim!” Bochurim scrambled to find their sefarim.

How did such a gentle frail person show such strength? Since his strength, kindness and humility came from the same source, his total devotion to Hashem. Ever since then, I have his voice ringing in my head when I’m tempted to reply during kaddish.

So what can we learn from Rabbi Baras about solving the chinuch crisis?

When our students have true examples of teachers who love them completely and truly dedicate their lives to living the ideals and teachings of chassidus, together with a wholehearted devotion to the success of every student, so many, of our issues in chinuch would be well on their way to being solved. The students always know who the teacher really is. With Rabbi Baras, we knew, that his one agenda was the emes. We saw how he often overworked his frail body because of his devotion. Everyone was impacted by him, whether consciously or subconsciously.

And when our students see that bitul and caring in us, they will accept our gevura, because they will know its not someone trying to impose his ego on us, but rather a true servant of Hashem.

We fail to understand how this happened when The Rebbe himself gave him a brocho for long years Chassidishe years. Parents have told me their children don’t really grasp and believe the news. “How can it be? The Rebbe gave him a brocho?”

There is no answer, but let’s at least all help lengthen his life, by greeting a few extra people with a bit more warmth, by living a life a bit more devoted to emes, by showing our students, friends, families that there really is no end to our love and devotion to them. There is no question Rabbi Baras will continue to shep nachas from all of his hundreds of children, until we see him with the Geula!

Please help support Rabbi Baras’s precious family. He gave everything for others. Let’s show him our appreciation by taking care of his children.

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