A Talmid Remembers
I remember the first time I heard Rav Bulman speak. I had only been learning at Ohr Somayach for a few months. An older student who knew Rav Bulman from his first tenure at Ohr Somayach, before he moved to Migdal HaEmek, told me not to miss it. Perhaps he sensed that I would relate to his passion. I remember this stockily built man, with a handsome grey beard, standing at the bima. I strained to hear his opening words. And then all of a sudden, a booming voice rang out. Tears were flowing down his face. I sat there stunned, mesmerized, soaring.
And so it was every single time I heard Rav Bulman speak. His shiurim on tefillah, on the chagim, his Shabbos night drashos in a packed bais midrash. My heart sang when I heard him speak. My neshama was on fire and I knew that his Torah was my Torah. He would often start slowly, translating a few phrases of a photocopied sheet he had passed out, in his beautiful Rav Bulman way. Mesillas Yesharim, Megillas Esther, the Yom Kippur davening. Then midway, we would suddenly be launched out of our tiny shiur-room, to another world. Thered be stories of his days as a young rabbi in Far Rockaway, or of rabbis in an age gone by, or someone who had called him yesterday in dire circumstances. Then hed relate it to the events of the day, to us and our lives, and to the lives of Jews in Israel and the diaspora. Id sit there, not wanting the shiur to end. Nor did he.
If a student would arrive late at a shiur, he would interrupt to point out an open chair. He would wait until everyone was comfortable. But one time, in a beginners shiur, some student, maybe a little put off by the environment, got up and walked out, as he might have in a regular class in college. Rabbi Bulman paused for a few seconds and then slammed his fist on the table and boomed out: I reject that! The Torah needs to be respected. No one murmured or moved. He did not look for honor, but he demanded it of the Torah.
He loved his talmidim. Each one was so precious to him. He knew where we were coming from. And he had a vision of where we were going to. Clearer than our own vision. And that is why we always sought him out for advice. And it sounded so right when he told us. He was a beacon for us who had left our moorings and were seeking direction.
He was a dreamer. He had a vision of the Jewish world that was so appealing to us. It may not have been realistic. But we baal teshuvas are dreamers, too. We had given up a world which had no answers, only cynical questions. We too dreamed of changing the world, of spending our lives immersed in Torah and living life to the fullest. We related to his dream.
I was college educated; Rav Bulmans eloquence was so thrilling, because it showed us that the Torah did not have to be compromised intellectually. Orthodox Judaisms positions on difficult issues like chosen-ness, womens rights, democracy. They were masterpieces in his hands. Even if we couldnt articulate them the way he did, we walked upright and proud with the knowledge that yes, the Torah will stand up for its position unashamedly.
He opened my heart and mind to the Chumash. I would walk out of Rav Bulmans shiur with such a profound sense of admiration for the commentators on the Torah. We were humbled by the words of Rashi, the Ramban, the Malbim, the Ohr haChaim haKadosh, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, but it was much more than that: in Rav Bulmans shiurim we were overcome with the sheer beauty of the Torah. We felt so grateful to have been given a chance to appreciate it.
He made the Torah so alive and real for me. I was already shomer Shabbos when I arrived at Ohr Somayach, but living in Eretz Yisrael, he taught me to live and breathe the Torah of Eretz Yisrael. Every parsha was a secret door waiting to be opened to a new way of understanding the world and especially the tumultuous events of the mid 1990s. The Oslo accords, the Rabin assassination, the bus bombings I saw all these events through his eyes - with the clarity of a Torah sage.
He was the only person I knew who could break out into a nigun in the middle of his shiur to make his point. And then the tears would flow as we sat there watching a man from another world, bringing his world to ours.
He was a link for so many of us to a world we never knew existed until we walked through the doors of Ohr Somayach. He was our bridge not only to the yeshiva world of Eastern Europe but to the talmidei chachamim and simple Jews who had once inhabited it.
His words resonated with me. I wanted to live the Torah life that he spoke of that he dreamed of. I knew it was impossible to live with the passion he did. He was so much larger than life. And he had lived in an age that we could only imagine. But a little of what he lived for, remains in my heart. And will always remain. I will do all I can to pass on that passion, that love of Torah, Eretz Yisrael and Klal Yisrael to my children and my students. For you Rabbi Bulman, I will. For you.
Zev Kahn is the Associate Director of Outreach at the Chicago Community Kollel. He was a student at Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Yerushalayim for six years, graduating from the Ohr Lagolah program which trains young rabbis to work in outreach in the Diaspora. Zev can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org