The Time Machine
When Yonason ben Shaul, heir to the throne of Israel, witnessed both the heroism of Dovid as he faced the giant Golias and the humility of Dovid after his victory, we read that “the soul of Yonason became bound to the soul of Dovid.” Yonason had never even spoken to Dovid, but he could not fail to recognize the nobility of spirit that was the essence of the future king.
Such was the persona of Dr. Lester Zeffren, who projected the qualities of majesty and humility so forcefully that no person of spirit could resist his magnetism or not devoutly wish to revel in the splendor of his presence.
How does such a person flourish in a world of spiritual and moral mediocrity?
Dr. Zeffren loved to recount how his mother would become deaf whenever he began complaining about his teachers in school. She didn’t argue, lecture, or rebuke; in fact, she didn’t appear to notice at all, thereby silently overruling his objections.
It was hard to imagine that Dr. Zeffren, whose head resembled a cue ball, could have ever sported a stylish chup. But it wasn’t hard to imagine how, when he phoned home from yeshiva to complain that his rabbis were violating his rights by insisting that he get a haircut, the connection suddenly failed so that his mother heard none of his protests.
But parents only lay the foundations. True character must be cultivated and fashioned from within.
In his short story The Time Machine, Ray Bradbury writes of two young boys who visit their wizened neighbor, listening to reminiscences so vivid and detailed that they felt they were transported back to another age. Lester Zeffren was such a time machine, taking us back not to places or events but to a world where integrity, respect, discipline, gratitude, and human dignity were not merely ideals but part of the fabric of civil society.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get to hear me speak in shul yesterday,” he said to me one Sunday morning. “I talked about the time I joined the board of the Academy. We were young, eager, idealistic, and committed to making a difference. We were going to overhaul the system and make big changes. We had the greatest of intentions.”
He paused for dramatic effect, then continued:
“And we knew nothing!”
Of course, youth is wasted on the young, as is the wisdom of experience that the young have yet to acquire. But Lester’s voice, a lone echo holding back the gathering darkness, filled me with hope. What else could I do but step forward and wrap my arms around him?
Lester never passed up an opportunity to express his admiration and appreciation for teachers of Torah, and he constantly admonished me to persevere against the community’s growing inexplicable resistance to instilling Torah values in their children.
“Your father is a great man,” he told my son in shul. “He holds this community together. Do you know that?”
My son, about seven years old at the time, nodded solemnly, without an ounce of comprehension on his face.
But Lester wasn’t finished yet.
“And he suffers! You’re lucky to have him as a father.”
Of course, that was the way Lester talked to everyone. But unlike so many who seek to ingratiate themselves through flattery and empty compliments, you knew that Lester meant every word he said.
Which is not to say that Lester Zeffren had a pollyanna outlook on the world. He was as critical in his views as anyone, and never shy about arguing his position. But he did so with such sincerity and authenticity, such intellectual and moral authority, that even those who despised his opinions couldn’t help but admire him. He was from another age, and even at that an anomaly: a man who could fearlessly speak his mind and retain the respect of all around him.
Even in medicine, he was a rare breed. When I mentioned my reliance on chiropractic — a sure way of drawing the scorn of “real” doctors — Lester simply remarked, “If it works, it’s better than conventional medicine.”
But there could be no compromise in the way he administered his practice. “Lester will never become rich,” commented one medical colleague. “He cares too much about his patients to shortchange them.”
In an age of non-judgmentalism, political correctness, and touchy-feely educational philosophy, in a generation of moral equivalence and moral anarchy, Lester Zeffren was our lifeline to a saner and nobler time. Now that he’s gone, our connection with the past grows ever more tenuous, and our hope for the future grows ever more desperate.
May his family take consolation from the giant footprints he left behind, and may they be comforted among the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson