Reb Yoel Kahan has always been known for his unique teaching skills. Even while still a yeshivah student, he demonstrated an outstanding ability to explain chassidic concepts. For this reason, he was chosen to deliver a series of lectures on the Tanya in the Lakewood yeshivah.
Reb Yoel's teaching skills soon attracted a following. There were many students who enjoyed the ideas of Chassidus. Others felt intimidated by the thought of attending the lecture, but would speak to Reb Yoel before or afterwards.
Among the latter was one of the yeshivah's more advanced students, a brilliant young man who would often ask Reb Yoel questions regarding Talmudic passages. Although Reb Yoel tried to convince him to attend the lecture, he refused.
One day the student asked Reb Yoel if an audience with the Rebbe could be arranged for him. The student wanted to see the Rebbe urgently, but appointments for yechidus had been arranged months in advance. Nevertheless, Reb Yoel prevailed upon Rabbi Chodakov, the Rebbe's personal secretary, to allot one minute of the Rebbe's time at midnight the following Monday.
Shortly before midnight that Sunday, he arrived to see the Rebbe. Reb Yoel was waiting for him, and advised him of the procedure for yechidus. Shortly afterwards, he entered yechidus.
The minute passed... and so did five minutes... ten minutes....
After an hour, the student emerged, still deep in thought. Despite Reb Yoel's request for an explanation of what had transpired, the student offered a polite but brief good-bye and headed back to Lakewood.
In the subsequent weeks, Reb Yoel tried to engage him in conversation, but he was avoided, or would receive only terse replies. Understanding that for some reason the student no longer desired his company, Reb Yoel turned his attention elsewhere. Ultimately, he lost touch with him entirely.
One day, while Reb Yoel was walking down the street, he heard a car beeping and someone calling his name. He looked around, but saw no one he recognized. The stranger had long curly hair, and if he was wearing a yarmulke, it wasn't obvious.
Reb Yoel approached out of courtesy.
"Do you remember me, Reb Yoel?" the driver asked.
"No," confessed Reb Yoel.
"From Lakewood ... years ago. My name is .... We used to talk. You arranged for me to come to the Rebbe."
Reb Yoel remembered.
"Can we arrange a time to study Chassidus?" the driver asked. Reb Yoel agreed.
And so they studied once a week for several months. After Reb Yoel saw that his student was becoming absorbed in the learning, he felt it appropriate to speak a little more personally.
"There's something that's been puzzling me," Reb Yoel told him. "I'm not asking you about what happened between Lakewood and the present time, but I am still curious about that yechidus years back. What happened?"
The student explained that he had discovered a difficulty with a particular Talmudic passage, and that no one in Lakewood had been able to resolve the question. He had heard that the Rebbe was a Torah genius, and hoped that the Rebbe would be able to help him.
"It didn't even take the Rebbe a minute to resolve the question," he continued. "Within 45 seconds, I was getting ready to leave, perfectly satisfied with the answer I had been given. But the Rebbe called me by name.
" '...,' he said, 'Do you study Chassidus?'
"I explained that I did not. Not that I had anything against Chassidus, but it just wasn't for me. I was doing well in the study of the Talmud and its commentaries, and saw no need to change my pattern."
"The Rebbe explained that the study of Chassidus is important, for it leads to Yiras Shamayim, 'the awe of G-d,' which is necessary to protect one's Torah study. 'Without the study of Chassidus,' the Rebbe explained, 'a person can lose sight of the G-dliness of the Torah. And if that happens, his entire pattern of observance can erode.'
"I told the Rebbe that I could appreciate his premise in theory, but was not worried. With G-d's help, I had been successful in my studies. My observance was steadfast. I could see where I was going, and did not understand why I should change path in midstream.
"The Rebbe continued to press his point, but I remained unmoved.
"Then the Rebbe paused, a faraway look in his eye. He said: 'When a yeshivah student does not learn Chassidus, it might happen that one day he won't be able to concentrate on his studies. In his idle time, he will do such and such [a mild transgression]. That will lead him further, and the next day, he will do such and such [a more severe transgression].'
"The Rebbe continued, describing a chain of ten different transgressions. 'And then,' the Rebbe went on, 'being an honest person, the student will not be able to reconcile his conduct with study at a yeshivah, and he will depart. From that point, it will not be long before he loses contact with his Jewish roots entirely.'
"I told the Rebbe I would think about the matter and left. After thinking the matter through, I decided to stick with my original position. And so I continued to avoid you.
"Several months afterwards, I confronted a particularly difficult passage in the Talmud. I labored on it for days. Finally, I thought I had a resolution. Satisfied with myself, I went from the library to the study hall. There I saw two other students discussing the same passage. 'I'll try my explanation on them,' I thought.
"I did, and they didn't accept it. One of them even ridiculed my whole approach. I left the study hall in a huff.
"Afterwards, I couldn't get my mind back on my studies. And that night I committed the first of the transgressions the Rebbe had mentioned.
"From that night on, the pattern the Rebbe had described unfolded. And then I left yeshivah. And from there ... well, I don't have to go on. You can see my lifestyle."
"I had strayed so far from Judaism that although I married a Jewish girl, we didn't raise our children with any knowledge of their heritage.
“One day, when I went to the newsstand, I saw The Jewish Press. While flipping through the pages, I saw an announcement of a farbrengen, a Chassidic gathering, with the Rebbe. Maybe I would find an answer there. I jotted down the address, and noted the date and time.
I remembered 770 when I entered. I took a place in the back of the room and focused on the Rebbe. And I was surprised. He was repeating the same concepts that he had told me at yechidus! He was saying how even a person who is proficient in the study of Talmud should study Chassidus, for Chassidus endows a person with the fear of G-d.
"After half an hour, I left. It was late, and I wanted to get home, but I knew I was going to come back.
"The next time I went to a farbrengen was the last night of Pesach. I made up my mind to wait until the farbrengen was over and join the line to receive kos shel Berachah, when the Rebbe would pour from his cup of wine into the cups of the chassidim. I resolved that if I could detect any sign of recognition in his face, I would start studying Chassidus.
"As I came before the Rebbe, his face broke out in a wide smile. '...,' he called me by name, 'Maybe the time has come for you to begin studying Chassidus?'
"That's why," he said, looking Reb Yoel in the face, "I sought you out."
(Excerpted from To Know and to Care by Rabbi Eliyahu Tauger, published by Sichos in English.)