26 Tammuz 5763
Lessons From the Life of My Father ztl
By Rav Yehudah Bulman
HaRav Nachman Bulman ztl (1925-2002) was a gadol of world renown. For over fifty years he served his people faithfully in his many roles as Rabbi, Rebbi, teacher, speaker, writer, translator – and a passionate, loving leader to Jews of all walks of life.
Of particular interest to our JemSem readers is the fact that, over the years, Rav Bulman ztl was the inspiring and unforgettable teacher of thousands of talmidos. In his last years he was the heart and soul of Darchei Bina seminary. He cared deeply about each and every talmida as though she was his own daughter.
In honor of the Rav ztl’s first yahrtzeit, 26 Tammuz 5763, we have asked Rav Yehudah Bulman shlita, one of the Rav’s sons, to share with us a few lessons from the Rav’s life.
My father ztl had many qualities, and, admittedly, many of them don’t seem applicable to our lives. What can be learned from the fact that someone was a genius or that he was blessed with a beautiful voice? But, as he might have taught, there is no point in writing about somebody if there is nothing to be learned from that person’s life. We have no choice, then, but to attempt to learn from his unique life, even if those lessons seem applicable only to somebody who was born a talented genius, to chassidishe parents, in the Lower East Side, in the 1920’s.
I. Speaker, Teacher
My father ztl was a phenomenal speaker. By the time he was nineteen, his Yeshiva had already sent him for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to a community in Delaware to be their “Rabbi” and speaker. But his power of speech began much earlier. A classmate of his from elementary school remembers my father, at age nine, walking down the hallway in school with a group of kids following him to hear his chochmos.
When he spoke, he used his own niggun. It was his own tune and special tone. He would start very softly, but suddenly he would roar passionately to get his point across. He often cried in the middle of a speech. Indeed, his eloquence was riveting. Where did he learn to speak? It was a gift.
But, then, what can we learn from it? We can learn that if we have been blessed with a talent, we should use it for avodas Hashem. What do I mean? Isn’t it obvious that gifts should be used for avodas Hashem? The answer is that it is not that obvious if your talent could be used for other, more popular things. My father once told me that he could have turned out very differently had he followed the route taken by many of his classmates. With his talent, he had plenty of options. If someone decides early in life, “I’m going to give my life to klal Yisrael, and to avodas Hashem,” that is something we should learn from.
He did not use notes when he spoke. On the rare occasion that he did use notes, his points all fit on one short piece of paper, and it was not even an outline – it was just a list of few pesukim or ma’amarei Chazal. My brother pointed out that whenever my father spoke – no matter what the forum or the occasion – the kernel of what he had to say was always a ma’amar Chazal or a passuk. The basis for his remarks had to be a d’var Torah. This is why he could speak about current events, and somehow it sounded like Torah. Because it was. He would see every event through the lens of a passuk. This is the second lesson: If we do have to speak or comment about some topic, we should pause to think of how the Torah might relate to the issue.
The third lesson from his speaking ability is that d’varim ha-yotz’im min ha-lev, nichnasim el ha-lev. Much of his secret in speaking was that he put his heart into it. We all have to communicate with people, but if we want to influence people positively, we have to talk with our hearts, not just our minds.
II. Ba’al Teffila, Menagain.
He was a beautiful ba’al tefilla. He davened with a combination of a soaring voice, a haunting nusach, and an overflowing heart. How can that be replicated? It can’t. But we can learn from him to daven with our hearts – “Rachmana leeba ba’ee”, “The Merciful One wants our hearts”.
One day (I think this was in 1992), I walked into his study and I saw that he was very excited about something. What had put him in such a good mood? He told me about a sefer he had just read that gave an eitza on how to improve one’s davening. The technique was to focus on a maximum of three or four words of the Siddur at a time. With genuine joy, he told me, “I tried it, and it really works!” That day I learned an important lesson – beyond the technique – that a Yid struggles his entire life to become a better Jew. Here he was at almost seventy years old trying to improve his kavana. That is something we can certainly do. We can struggle.
III. Mechaneich – Educator
He was a master mechaneich. “I am a teacher,” he would often say. In fact, he considered teaching his main occupation. Whatever he was doing, it was to be mechaneich. For him that meant to exercise the primary meaning of “chinuch” – to set people up for life. R’ Yitzchak Chai Yosef (a former member of his kehilla in Migdal HaEmek) told my family an amazing story of how my father made him into a teacher. For weeks, my father tried convincing R’ Yitchak that he must become a teacher. How did my father know that this fellow could be a good teacher? Because one time, on Shabbos, my father saw him organize and direct the kids of the shul as they were preparing for the shul kiddush. He saw how he related to the children. “Ah,” my father said to himself, “this person is going to be a mechaneich; this person can be a leader!” Finally, just two days before the new school year, my father pulled him aside, and said to him, “Yitzchak, you’re starting kitah Bet (second grade).” This man never had any training, but he very quickly grew into the job. Today this man is a star teacher. How did my father see this? Because he was a mechaneich.
To be the mechaneich he was, my father needed several characteristics. He had to recognize potential in people, and he had to know and understand other people. To understand them meant to see them as human beings who are inconsistent, to see where they were coming from, and to see where they are headed. His words on this topic are more powerful than mine could ever be, so let me quote him directly. Here he was discussing the idea of taking small steps towards stronger observance (it is part of a long essay, written in 1961, about his early years in the Rabbinate):
When my own people say: “But Rabbi, everybody says we are hypocrites.” I give them this example: Two people are on a ladder and one is on one rung and the other is on another rung. Who is on the higher rung? You will say the one who is on the highest. Actually, it all depends which way the two people are facing. If one is facing up and the other one is facing down, it is only a matter of time before they change rungs.
So it is with these people – perhaps, they are not hypocrites, only inconsistent – a blessed inconsistency. Would not that more should become a little more inconsistent. For, when they become blessedly inconsistent, there is tremendous achievement.
– Hebrew Day School Education, p. 164
He understood that people are people and that they are not perfect. We are inconsistent. But there is a “blessed” inconsistency that is the mark of someone who is trying to improve, of someone heading in the right direction.
Perhaps what we could learn from him as a mechaneich, is that we should accept the fact that we are sometimes inconsistent, yet we must know which way we are headed.
IV. His Efforts at Self-Knowledge
My father ztl was on a constant quest to discover his true self. One of his favorite pieces in the Meshech Chochma was on the words Lech lecha, which the Meshech Chochma explained meant that Hashem told Avraham to literally, “Go to yourself” – go to Eretz Yisrael so you can discover who you really are. (This vort, especially the way he elaborated on it, captured much of his attitude towards living in Eretz Yisrael, but that is beyond the scope of this essay).
An extension of his search for self was his merciless self scrutiny. I remember him telling a group of seminary girls at a shana bet mesibat siyum: “Don’t trust yourselves. You think you know who you are, or you think you’re doing the right thing. Question yourself. Who says your motives are pure? who says you’re doing the right thing?” He was not just preaching, it was the standard by which he lived his life.
V. Blending the Parts
What happens to a Jew who constantly searches for Truth, constantly seeks his true self, and constantly struggles to become a better Jew? He becomes a Jew who rejoices in mitzvos, for each one is a victory.
And what happens to a Jew who understands and accepts the fact that humans are inconsistent – as long as they are headed in the right direction – and who understands that his motives may not be pure? He becomes a Jew who is truly nichna (subservient) to Torah and talmidei chachamim; he will show utmost kavod to lomdei Torah; he will be mivakesh shalom; and he will be a bridge between all types of Jews.
My father ztl was all of this, and more.