By Rabbi Mordechai Burg
In Judaism, a name is not merely a handle by which we call each other. A name is a reflection of our essence. Somehow when we meet people we can see how their name suits them perfectly. Chazal say that when parents name their baby they get an extra measure of divine inspiration to choose the name that is right for their child. So with that in mind allow me to introduce you to Yosef Chaim. If ever there was a child that embodied this name it is him. Yosef Chaim means to add life, and this Yosef Chaim has life coming out of every pore in his body. His smile is electric and he has a personality to match. If there is a good time happening you can be sure Yosef Chaim is in the middle of it. He’s the type of kid you want to be stuck on an elevator with. And, he has a heart of gold.
Kids like Yosef Chaim don’t have it easy in school. Sitting still for hours on end is impossible. You can’t cage people like Yosef Chaim. There is no cage he wouldn’t break out of in minutes and all the while with that wonderful, mischievous twinkle in his eyes. The sad reality is that these types of kids get massive amounts of negative feedback. In school, they drive their teachers crazy because they are constantly disrupting the class. Impulsivity is part of their nature and they often make bad decisions because they don’t recognize that their actions have consequences. Bad decisions that they repeat over and over again despite the negative impact. They don’t necessarily have appropriate boundaries which can make friendships challenging. Their lack of filter makes them at once hysterically funny and exceptionally chutzpadik.
I love Yosef Chaim. He reminds me of… me. My mother called me this week to tell me that she was ordering food from one of the local caterers for Shabbos. When making her order she said her last name was Burg. The caterer asked, “As in Matt Burg’s mother?” (Yes, I grew up as Matt Burg). My mother replied in the affirmative. It turns out that this caterer was once upon a time my RebbI in sleepaway camp. Thankfully, sleepaway camps do not have parent-teacher conferences but everything catches up to you eventually. Thirty-plus years later my mother found out about my behavior during learning groups. As you can imagine, I did not get a good report. I am 42 years old with children of my own and yet when my mother called me to tell me that she met my RebbI from camp I knew I was in trouble. When my parents would come home from parent-teacher conferences I would pretend to be asleep. In the morning I would only have to face them for a couple of minutes before I went to school. Giving myself twenty-four hours before facing the music was just a good strategy. If I could arrange to be somewhere the following evening, even better. Time was my ally. Towards the end of my schooling experience, all pretenses were off the table. I wouldn’t bother going to sleep and my parents wouldn’t bother being upset. We had both given up. I would ask my parents how it went and they would roll their eyes and say, “ The same way it always goes. Your teachers think you have a lot of potential if you would only focus.” To this day I am allergic to the word potential. I wasn’t an easy kid. I had to leave my first school at the beginning of fifth grade. In eighth grade, I got in major trouble again but thankfully my new Yeshiva, Yeshiva Darchei Torah, showed me a lot of love and patience. My parents were involved in founding the high school I attended and somewhere inside of me I believe it was an insurance policy against my future behavior. So yea, me and Yosef Chaim are kindred spirits.
When I heard the news that fifteen-year-old Yosef Chaim was making a siyum on Bava Kamma, I immediately called him to wish him a Mazal Tov. I was so happy about his success! But Yosef Chaim did more than just finish the Masechta, he did it with six chazaras. And he knows most of the masechta by heart! This would be an enormous accomplishment for any of us but for someone like Yosef Chaim, it is bigger than summiting Everest. Yosef Chaim’s parents made a blowout rooftop siyum. Everyone chipped in making tons of food and desserts. Yosef Chaim’s brothers spoke by the siyum. His older brother, a serious Ben Torah in his own right, encouraged Yosef Chaim to keep shteiging. His younger brother, the sweetest kid you will ever meet, told him that he was his role model. Yosef Chaim was shining. His already winning smile looked like it would jump off of his face. And then Yosef Chaim got up to speak. I knew it would be a funny speech. What I did not know is how meaningful it would be. Yosef Chaim said that his accomplishments were due in large part to his mother’s teffilos. With his exceptional wit and his trademark smile he remarked, “You would think my mother works at Kever Rachel based on the amount of time that she spends there davening for me.”
I spent a long time thinking about that joke. Behind every joke there is at least a kernel of truth.
With all the negative feedback that Yosef Chaim has received in his life, the knowledge that his mother was always behind him davening for his success won the day. We all have people that love us into being. People that are with us no matter what we are going through. Family, Rabbeim, teachers, mentors, counselors, friends, their love lives inside of us. Life takes courage. As we journey through life facing the terrifying unknown, we draw from the wellspring of the love that has been gifted to us. Yosef Chaim carries his mother’s teffilos in his heart. Beyond the siyata dishmaya that those teffilos certainly brought to Yosef Chaim, a mother’s tears inspired her son to be the best version of himself. With every trip to Kever Rachel, there was a clear message being sent to Yosef Chaim about his value and capabilities. Far from the “potential” my parents heard about during PTA, Yosef Chaim has people in his life who believe in him. Could there be a more beautiful expression of a mother’s love?
New insights should always lead to new expressions of gratitude. So here are some quick thank you’s to the people who loved me into being when I was growing up. I have been blessed with amazing parents and a beautiful family who have done everything they could to support me, even through some really trying times. Their love can be felt in everything that I do. To Rabbi Kraus, Rabbi Glenn, Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman, and Rabbi Grossman, my elementary school Rabbeim from 5th through 8th grade, Mrs. Gloria Katz and Mr. Tohn, my 5th and 6th-grade teachers, Rabbi Simcha Stern, a standout camp counselor, Rabbi Avi Rosner an older chavrusa and mentor, Mr. Richard Altabe, my elementary school principal, summer boss, mentor and so much more, Rabbi Yaakov Bender shlit”a, my Rosh Yeshiva who lifted me up when I was down, all of you touched my life in ways that I cannot begin to express. Thank you.
There is not a small amount of vulnerability in this article but it will all have been worth it if even one person asks themselves, who needs my teffilos? Who needs my tears? Who needs me to love them into being? And maybe as a bonus, who davened for me? Who cried for me? Who loved me into being? Don’t forget to thank them. All the courage you have called upon in your life, all of the bravery you have shown, grew from the seeds of love that they planted inside of you.
Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com