We meet many people throughout our lifetimes, but only a rare and unique few change us for the better. These people make us feel confident, motivated, and loved. They fill us with happiness and comfort us when we are troubled. They inspire us not only through their words, but through their actions as well. Rabbi Shimon Cohen, zt”l, was one such person in my life.
Looking back at my time as his student in Magen David Yeshiva, it’s very difficult to put into words what an icon Rabbi Cohen was – as impossible as trying to describe color to a blind person. He made you feel special, and important. You wanted to please him with the right answer – not only because he’d usually throw you a treat from his candy closet, but because you wanted to make him proud. He cared about his students, and loved every one of them as if they were his own children. If he sensed that one of them felt stressed, he’d suddenly be behind him to administer a massage.
Seeing Rabbi Cohen smile made everyone around him smile. Whenever we crossed paths, he’d always come over to me first. Each time he’d give me a hug, pinch my cheek, and ask how I was doing. As I grew up, I came to discover many other people had the same experience with him. He made everyone around him feel like the most importantperson there was, always with a smile on his face, and that legendary twinkle in his eye. He truly exemplified the virtues of “V’ahavta L’reiacha Kamocha”– loving your fellow Jew.
In the Talmud, we learn the concept of “Mitoch SheLo Lishma, Ba Lishma”–meaning if a person initially develops good behaviors for the “wrong” reasons, eventually he will begin to undertake those same behaviors for the “right” reasons. For over 30 years, Rabbi Cohen led the Youth Minyan at Congregation Beth Torah. His love forchildren was evident in the enthusiasm of their Shabbat prayers. Walk in on any Shabbat morning, and you’d see happiness on the faces of children and parents alike. Many of those children may have started out praying with kavanahstrictly to get tickets and candy from Rabbi Cohen, but eventually they gained an appreciation for the sweetness of tefillahitself. The minyan has produced many community leaders over the years, due in no small part to the impact Rabbi Cohen had on his congregants from an early age.
There have been many stories about Rabbi Cohen’s genuinely caring nature. One story that accurately illustrates this was retold at his levaya. One Sukkot on his way home from shul, Rabbi Cohen spotted one of his talmidimcrying outside. He went over to the boy and asked what was wrong. The boy showed the Rabbi his new etrog, and how the “pitom”broke off (this makes the etrogunsuitable for use). Rabbi Cohen wiped the boy’s tears away, and assured him that he’d bring the boy a beautiful kosher etrogthe next morning. The boy was grateful, but anxious, and asked if Rabbi Cohen could bring him the new etrogthe same night. Seeing how troubled this boy was, Rabbi Cohen assured him that he’d do his best to bring the etrogthe same night. Later, as Rabbi Cohen walked over to the boy’s house, he felt strong pains in his chest, and had to constantly stop along the way, until he reached the boy’s home.
That same night, Rabbi Cohen underwent triple bypass surgery on his heart. After learning that the operation was a success, he told his friends, family, and students that it was only successful in zechutof the kindness he performed for that boy. As Rabbi Cohen explained, the etrogsymbolizes the heart of a person. Because he took such care with it, Hashem blessedhim with a positive outcome in the surgery of his own heart.
I don’t know where I’d be today without the spiritual and
awe-inspiring influence of Rabbi Cohen and I believe the same goes for the thousands of other talmidimhe guided in his lifetime. What I do know is that he motivated me to be better than I was, to appreciate Hashem’s mitzvotas treasured jewels to be held close, and to keep smiling and enjoying life for all it has to offer. May his memory be a blessing for his countless students, and all of K’lal Yisrael.