Monday, December 25, 2000
Rebbi for America: HaRav Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg, zt'l
by Mordecai Plaut
Shema Yisrael - December 25, 2000
The Mishnah (Bovo Metzia 33a) says that one should return a lost object to one's rebbi before returning the lost object of his father, "for his father brought him to this world, but his rebbe, who taught him chochmah, brings him to the life of Olom Haboh."
In our times, children grow up in environments that are suffused with Torah and yiras Shomayim. In Yerushalayim, Lakewood, Bnei Brak and Baltimore, and many other communities, with Hashem's mercy, the children of the chareidi community today can imbibe the basics of the path to Olom Haboh from numerous sources.
In the postwar generation, many of those who grew up and came of age in the 50's, the 60's and even the 70's, were not so fortunate. Even those who grew up in homes where they were educated to keep Torah and mitzvos and did not lose their basic observance along the way, could go through life without having tasted the sweetness and truth of Torah and without truly recognizing and following the real derech Hashem.
Those who came to maturity in those days and were zoche to become bnei Torah, know and understand from their own experiences what it means to have a rebbi who brought them to chayei Olom Haboh. Most can think back and see how things could have turned out terribly different, if the right rebbe had not brought them to the derech Hashem.
Outside culture was powerful and the Jewish community then was weak. The lure of the street and the university was strong. The temptation of American wealth was almost overwhelming. The vital links to the deep Torah tradition were in ruins. The Jewish community was dominated by the secular and anti-religious. The emes was truly rare and almost impossible to find.
It was in this context that the Rosh Yeshiva zt"l, HaRav Yaakov Weinberg, Rebbi, stepped in and brought so many to chayei Olom Haboh, who would have otherwise almost certainly have joined the American rat race to the be'er shachas.
Speaking at the 53rd annual convention of Agudas Yisroel of America in November 1975 (and later reprinted from the Jewish Observer in ArtScroll's A Path Through the Ashes), the Rosh Yeshiva observed: "Since 1945, Klal Yisroel can never be the same. Our areas of function, the nature of our feelings, the nature of our problems, the methods we employ to solve them, even our very feelings have undergone a permanent change because of Churban Europe. Not only has the focal point of Klal Yisroel been transferred from Europe to Eretz Yisroel, which brings with it a host of challenges, problems and shifts in perspective; not only have we lost our centers of vibrant Jewish life, with all the ramifications this must have on ourselves and our children for all generations to come; but we have lost our prime source of living Yiddishkeit. We must now struggle on a different level not only to understand the hashkafah, the philosophic outlook of Torah, but even to properly experience the simple awareness of our existence as Jews. Thus, our children are more impoverished than all preceding generations, for they cannot draw from this reservoir of a continuous, ongoing Jewish existence per se. The continuity has weakened and we must now recreate it."
And that is exactly what he did.
His Links to the Past
For the postwar generation, the Rosh Yeshiva reconstructed the link between American Jewish youth and the flow of tradition, the living Jewish essence that had been so cruelly and suddenly cut off by the Nazi legions. It is this link to the vital core of Torah life that is so important; and it is by no means guaranteed even among those who keep mitzvos.
It is, as he might have said, perfectly clear that he could not serve to link the younger generation to the mesora without being thoroughly grounded in it himself. In fact, his own connection was very broad and very deep.
The Weinberg family is from the Slonimer chassidic dynasty, a Lithuanian chassidus. The approach and relationship of the Slonim chassidim to Torah has been similar to the classical Litvishe approach. The founder of the dynasty was HaRav Avrohom ben Yitzchok Mattisyohu Weinberg, the author of Chesed LeAvrohom and Yesod Ho'avodah, who was the rosh yeshiva in Slonim before he became rebbi. His teachers in chassidus were HaRav Noach of Lachowitch and HaRav Moshe of Kobrin.
The Slonimers always had a special closeness to Eretz Yisroel. Every erev Shabbos, and on other occasions, they made a special collection of Eretz Yisroel gelt to support the yishuv there.
Even before he was bar mitzvah, the Rebbi sent his grandson Noach, along with a group of "Anash" from Slonimer chassidim, to Tiveriya in Eretz Yisroel in order to build a Torah yishuv.
The project took hold in Tiveriya. The chassidim contributed to the Torah development of the whole area. R' Noach grew up in Tiveriya. He became engaged in Tammuz, 5631 (1871), and in the "Roshei Perokim" drawn up on 3 Tammuz of that year, his future father-in-law promised him five years of kest. The wedding was on erev Shabbos parshas Toldos 5632 (1872).
On his engagement, his grandfather, the first Slonimer Rebbe, wrote him a note with important advice: "To my grandson the chosson Noach n"y. Mazel tov to you. From now on strengthen yourself and forcefully brace yourself to enter into avodas Hashem, as the posuk says: ". . . Bnei Yisroel are avodim to me." And this is impossible without the gevurah of conquering your yetzer. The main thing is first of all to purify your thought, and to worship Hashem with deed, word and thought. Temimus, simcha and zerizus are the guardians of avoda; yirah and ta'anug are the wings of avoda; and prayer from the heart and toil and steady learning of Torah are the gates to Heaven. But with all this [you need] entreating and supplicating before Hashem yisborach. There is no need write more because you have, Thank G-d, your teachers in front of you. And the foundation stone is to be shomer habris. (signed) AB"Z (Ovicho Zekeinecho) Avrohom
Among R' Noach's children were R' Yitzchok Mattisyohu, R' Avrohom (who was born in 1889 and became the Slonimer Rebbe in 5715-1955) and a sister Bubba who married R' Yoel Ashkenazi who was related to the Satmar family. R' Noach was niftar in 5687 (1927).
R' Yitzchok Mattisyohu had an intensive Torah education from a very early age. He was a big ba'al kishron and a talmid chochom, but also very practical.
He married at a very young age and his first wife passed away while giving birth to his son Yosef. His second wife bore him another son, Avrohom, before they were divorced. He struggled for several years raising his family by himself, but then he heard of a great tzaddik and talmid chochom who lived in Tzfas named Rav Avner Lorberbaum, a direct descendent of the famed Nesivos Hamishpot, whose oldest daughter Hinda was ready to be married. R' Mattis went to Tzfas to speak to him, and ended up marrying the daughter himself. He was in his early thirties at the time.
He married off his oldest son soon after. R' Chaim Yosef Dovid ("Yossel") married Pearl Lider of Yerushalayim in Adar, 5672 (1912). In those days and in that community, everyone married young. R' Chaim Yosef Dovid was about 16 years old at his marriage.
R' Mattis had a son and daughter by his second wife in relatively tranquil times. Chava, that daughter (today she is Rebbetzin Pincus), says that she does not know exactly how old she is, but they kept better track of the age of her older brother R' Moshe who was born in 1910, and she is a bit younger than he. Her treasured first memory is of her father and grandfather R' Avner learning together while rocking her.
World War I was raging in Europe, and times were very rough for the yishuv in Eretz Yisroel. A significant portion of the regular income of the Jews of Eretz Yisroel was composed of donations from chutz la'aretz such as the Eretz Yisroel gelt collected in Slonim. The severe disruption of the communities that was caused by the war made it difficult to collect the regular monies and impossible to send whatever was collected to its intended recipients.
Life in Eretz Yisroel was also disrupted as the Turks, who were allied with the Germans, used the area as a base of operations, and the presence of the army and its movements were very disruptive. The Turks also imposed taxes and other restrictions on Jews, especially those who were citizens of hostile powers.
R' Mattis had built a mill on the Jordan River near Tiveriya. His main customers were the kibbutzim in the area -- some of the earliest -- who brought in their wheat for milling.
Many of the area kibbutzim were far from religion. R' Mattis had a horse and he used to visit the kibbutzim to circumcise the children, unannounced. Although the kibbutzniks would not call a mohel, they did not usually refuse his services when they were proffered for free.
The Slonim community in Tiveriya founded a learning kollel near the hot springs there and the tomb of Rav Meir Ba'al Haness. Rav Noach was involved as was R' Mattis and other members of the Slonim community in Tiveriya, including R' Mattis' good friend R' Osher Werner. The mill was powered by the waters of the Jordan. Where the water entered the mill to turn the water wheel, it flowed strong and fast. The currents apparently brought fish to the area, as they had a perennial problem with the Arabkes (Arab women) who came to sneak in to catch fish. R' Mattis was concerned that someone might get hurt and he posted signs and even mashgichim whose job it was to keep out the Arabkes. All this did not prevent one of them from getting her hair caught in the machinery and getting severely injured or killed. This brought the wrath of the Turkish authorities down on R' Mattis, despite his efforts to avoid just such an accident.
Some said that the Turkish authorities had their eyes on the mill even before the incident. In any case, this incident gave them an opportunity: If they executed the owner they could take over his property. R' Noach's second wife, Mumma ("Aunt") Brocho, was a citizen of Russia, and she wasted no time in traveling to Yerushalayim where she prevailed upon the Russian consul to go to Tiveriya to free her step- grandson -- which he was able to do.
The European powers had all established consuls in Eretz Yisroel as part of their grand designs on the crumbling Ottoman Turkish Empire. Each consul had wide powers under Turkish law, and they watched over their citizens jealously.
Once World War I began, however, and the Ottoman Turks were at war with the European powers, all of the old power that European consuls enjoyed disappeared. The authorities began to arrest those who had been freed because of the intervention of a foreign consul, and R' Yitzchok Mattisyohu hastily fled for Alexandria with his close friend R' Osher Werner. This was in 1915.
From the relative safety of the Egyptian port (which was under British control) they wrote to the Slonimer Rebbe for advice. R' Mattis thought that the war would not last long, and he wanted to sit it out in Alexandria and return to his family and community in Tiveriya after it was over.
The Rebbe wrote him back that he was mistaken. The war would be a long one, and he should not expect to be able to return soon. He advised him to take the next ship out for America.
It is hard to imagine any other circumstances that would have brought R' Mattis to America. Although the streets of America held a strong attraction to many who were concerned about parnossa and material wealth, for a Yid like R' Mattis the well-known spiritual dangers of America made it very unattractive, to say the least. However, under the circumstances he had little choice, and on top of that he had the advice of the Rebbe. The Torah community of America and the English-speaking world was immeasurably enriched by his move.
The trip took a long time under the wartime conditions. They had little to eat, but R' Mattis and R' Osher had a gemora and they did not care if the food was sparse or monotonous.
R' Mattis' family was left behind, and things were not easy for them. There was real famine in Eretz Yisroel, and thousands of Jews died of hunger. This was true all over Eretz Yisroel. The Yerushalayim community in particular has bitter memories of that period, as the Zionists seized control of all the money that did trickle through from chutz la'aretz and refused to release it to those who remained faithful to the traditional ways.
In Tiveriya, Rebbetzin Hinda Weinberg proved bold and resourceful, perhaps pushed by the circumstances. Her sister Esther got her a machine for making woolen stockings and other warm clothing. It gets quite cold in those areas in the winter, and there was a big demand for warm clothing. After making them, she took them herself, at great risk, to Syria to sell. She came back with flour, a scarce and precious commodity in those days in Eretz Yisroel. They used the flour to bake large loaves and measure the pieces into which they cut them, so that everyone could be fed.
Living in Tzfas
Left alone, Rebbetzin Weinberg spent most of her time in Tzfas with her own family. Chava's childhood memories are not of a harsh or difficult time. She remembers sitting in those days on Shabbos afternoon in the large window of their house that led out to the courtyard, as her mother, grandmother and aunt softly sang G-tt fun Avrohom at shalos seudas time.
She also remembers the early snows of the winters in Tzfas. Tucked warmly into her mother's fur jacket, she would listen for her older brother Moshe walking home from cheder in the dark. The cheder boys were nervous about walking home by themselves in the dark, and they used to carry torches and sing Ho'aderes veho'emuna to keep up their spirits.
From time to time the family went to visit their relatives in Tiveriya. To do so, they had to organize a shayoro, a small caravan to travel by mule or donkey. These caravans were led by local Arabs or by one of the Sephardic Jews. The family had to be ready early in the morning, for the journey took them a full day (today it takes less than an hour). As evening fell they could just make out the twinkling lights of Tiveriya in the distance.
The Struggle in America
R' Yitzchok Mattisyohu had to struggle to establish himself in America. Working on Shabbos was out of the question for him, but it was not easy to find work during the rest of the week for someone who was not willing to come in on Shabbos. In those days all of America worked five and a half days, including half a day on Saturday. It was not until much later, in the 1940's, that America went on the current five day workweek that made things so much easier for those who keep Shabbos.
So R' Mattis tried many things. One of his ideas was to start a small dairy to supply cholov Yisroel. He found someone who had a place in the mountains that he called "Har Sinai." That man used to rent out rooms in the summer to those from the city who wanted to escape the oppressive heat. R' Mattis tried keeping some cows on his place, but it did not work out.
After many trials, R' Mattis eventually opened a wholesale trimmings store on the Lower East Side on Bleeker Street. Since he owned his own business, no one could tell him to stay open on Shabbos. He became known for his scrupulous honesty in business.
But it was not only shemiras Shabbos that was important to him. R' Mattis was determined to live even in America just like he had in Tzfas and Tiveriya, in terms of kedusha and taharo, and in this he very much succeeded.
Still, it was six long years, and 1921, before he could send for his family to join him.
Today, Rebbetzin Pincus still remembers the trip well. They first went to Jaffa where they stayed a few nights at a hotel near the beach. They boarded the ship for the two-week trip to America. On board they had to make do with salads and eggs.
As they approached the American shore, the young Chava recognized her father waiting for them. Although she had been too young to remember him the last time she saw him, before he fled, the resemblance between him and her older half- brother Yossel was so strong that his identity was unmistakable.
The reunited family set about building Yiddishkeit in America, both on a personal level and in the community.
R' Mattis was described by his son-in-law, Rav Avrohom Pincus, as a kodosh and a tohor. He was determined to live in the arba amos shel halacha even in America of those days, when shemiras Shabbos was the big nisoyon for many Jews, and there was not even any dream left of such rarefied kedusha. R' Mattis created and lived in a veritable teivas Noach in the turbulent waters of the yetzer hora of America.
As one stunning indication of his achievements, he did not look out of his own arba amos. He lived within the arba amos of Hashem and learned Torah constantly. There are many anecdotes connected with this, and as incredible as it seems to one who did not know him, it was part of life for his family. The Rosh Yeshiva used to tell how he always knew that he could avoid his father if he remained silent in his vicinity. R' Mattis would simply walk right by, completely unaware that his son was standing there.
Rebbetzin Pincus tells that she once left their house just as her father was approaching. In a mischievous mood, she blocked his path. Her father moved to one side to go around her. She quickly moved over as well. R' Mattis tried once more, but then suspected something. He looked up, saw that the woman was his daughter, and they both had a laugh.
R' Mattis learned at every opportunity that he had. In between customers in his store, he opened a sefer.
On Sundays, which was not a business day in those days, he used to go around to collect Eretz Yisroel gelt, with a leather valise. While speaking with people about the money, he also spoke to them about Shabbos, learning and kashrus.
He was also deeply committed to bringing up his children in the path of Yisroel Saba, and did not spare effort nor expense to realize this.
His daughter was the only American to go learn with Soroh Schenirer in Cracow. R' Mattis wanted to send her almost as soon as she arrived in America, but her mother insisted that she wait until she was 18. Rebbetzin Pincus remembers that her father used to pay her a dollar for each perek of Pirkei Ovos that she learned -- and that was in the days that a dollar was a dollar.
Showing his combination of business acumen and commitment to Torah learning, R' Mattis developed this approach of giving rewards for his children's learning, and to each the offer was different, as they discovered only years later when they compared notes. R' Noach remembers that he was also offered a dollar a perek, though his sister Chaya was offered the princely sum of five dollars. Recognizing his older son's abilities, R' Mattis offered R' Yaakov only ten cents a perek!
He felt this a very effective method of chinuch and wrote his son Yosef in Eretz Yisroel to offer his own children financial incentives to learn Torah (their families were both about the same age).
One can imagine that the sons got a lot of attention. Although he sent them to the best schools he could find, he did not spare himself in learning with them as much as possible. On leil Shabbos they davened in the Nine Unninetzik shul on the Lower East Side, and R' Mattis learned with his sons for two to three hours before they all went home to their seudas Shabbos.
A Trip to Eretz Yisroel
In 1931 (5691), Mrs. Weinberg went to Eretz Yisroel to visit her family. She left her oldest son Moshe in America. Her daughter Chava was in Cracow, the only American student of Soroh Schenirer. She took her two younger sons with her, R' Yaakov, who was eight at the time, and R' Noach, who was just a baby.
In Tiveriya, the young Yaakov was tested by his father's family almost as soon as he arrived. They were surprised to see that he had mastered two masechtos. When he was asked who taught him, he answered, "My father."
At first he went to cheder in Tiveriya, until a certain incident that he often retold in later years. Outside the cheder one day, a woman's clothing caught fire and she screamed for help. She burned to death. The rebbi of his class said they could not go to help her because she was a woman. The young Yaakov refused to go back to learn with that rebbe, since he displayed the obvious trait of a chossid shote, and he could not bear to learn Torah from such a person. "This is not Torah," he said. "If he does not do what the Ribono Shel Olom wants, I cannot learn with him."
Altogether, they spent three years in Eretz Yisroel. For a time R' Yaakov learned in the famous Yerushalayim cheder Eitz Chaim.
He was young and at first the yeshiva did not want to even interview him. For one thing, they said, he is American. For another, he is very young. They could not do anything about the first but to at least make the second less obvious his mother bought him an older boys' type hat (a cappalootch or "super"), so that he would not appear so out of place.
Materially the life was very simple, even as it was spiritually rich. It was still the time of the old-time Yerushalayim shel ma'alo.
The young boy lived with his older half-brother. He slept on the floor. The school day was from eight in the morning until eight at night. He used to say that breakfast in those days was bread and onions, while supper was onions and bread. Even in later years, material comforts meant nothing to him and those years certainly taught him that one can survive without material comforts.
Back in America, he went to Torah Vodaas, and then to the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva started by HaRav Dovid Leibowitz, now in Forest Hills. R' Mattis liked the fact that they hardly had any bein hazmanim, learning through Tisha B'Av, just like in Eretz Yisroel.
When he got older he went to Yeshivas Rabbenu Chaim Berlin under HaRav Yitzchok Hutner, zt"l, where he became a star talmid.
Rav Hutner said of him that he has a tefisa and a schnellkeit in kishron that are unparalleled. HaRav Aharon Schechter quoted HaRav Hutner as saying that he had a shtarker kop.
Rav Emanuel Feldman, formerly of Atlanta and now of Yerushalayim, recalls that when he went to the high school of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin in 1942-43, Rav Hutner gave him special attention since he knew his father from Slobodke. Every young bochur was assigned an older bochur who took care of him, making sure that his needs were met. The younger boys had their older mentors to turn to when anything bothered them. Because of Rav Hutner's special relationship with the senior Rav Feldman, Rav Hutner assigned R' Yaakov Weinberg to be R' Emanuel's mentor.
When R' Emanuel arrived and went to greet Rav Hutner, the rosh yeshiva told him, "I have arranged for you a special young man to take care of you." Then he introduced him to R' Yaakov, the top bochur in the beis medrash.
R' Emanuel Feldman eventually met up with R' Yaakov later at Ner Israel in Baltimore, and much later they became mechutonim when R' Yaakov's daughter Miriam married R' Emanuel's son Ilan, now the rabbi of his father's former shul in Atlanta.
As the star talmid of HaRav Hutner, R' Yaakov was sent to a weekend rabbonus at the tender age of 19. He received semichah from his rosh yeshiva in 1944, at the age of 21.
A Time of Transition
In June of 1945 (5705), R' Yaakov Weinberg wed Chana, the only daughter of HaRav Yaakov Yitzchok Halevi Ruderman, zt"l, one of the Alter of Slobodke's star talmidim, who had founded the Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore. Only a few weeks later, R' Yaakov's father Rav Mattis was niftar at the too-young age of 68.
R' Yaakov moved to Baltimore and his father-in-law's yeshiva, where he spent the rest of his life in harbotzas Torah, aside from a seven year period in the branch of the yeshiva in Toronto. His brother R' Noach, who later founded his own yeshiva Aish Hatorah in Yerushalayim, regarded his older brother as his rebbi and followed him to Baltimore.
R' Yaakov continued learning and soon began to say shiurim in Ner Israel. R' Nachman Kline, a close talmid of HaRav Ruderman in those days, recalls that the Rosh Yeshiva told him that he should go to his son-in- law's shiur. "You will hear things like you never heard before." He told other people that others make two or three shiurim from what his son-in-law says in only one shiur.
During the shiva, the family received a letter from a woman who lives in an isolated community in St. Mary's County, Maryland, a two hour drive from Baltimore. The correspondent was the daughter of someone who heard classes from Rav Weinberg more than 40 years ago. For seven years the young Weinberg couple would drive two hours each way to give classes (both of them) in that isolated Jewish community. The writer merely wanted to express her gratitude for that effort so long ago, and to say that there are now three frum generations as a result of that effort.
In those days the community in St. Mary's County built a shul. Everyone pitched in and even Rav Weinberg climbed up to bang in some nails on the roof. He never held himself above or aloof, but was a part of things with everyone else.
Once Rav Weinberg's son asked his father which were the best times in his life. Without hesitation he answered the period of the Chabura in Ner Israel and the years in Toronto.
By any measure, the Chabura was a remarkable phenomenon. A group of about 18 outstanding young students were selected, and put together in a special room with a devoted rebbe to learn and develop. They spent the whole day together, but separate from the rest of the yeshiva. HaRav Weinberg said shiurim in Bovo Kama and in Pirkei Ovos with the commentary of the Chossid Yaavetz. Everyone who participated remembers it as a time of tremendous, stimulating growth.
It is evident from a partial list of the talmidim just how much they grew, for many went on to great achievements of their own: HaRav Yochanan Zweig (rosh yeshiva in Miami), HaRav Moshe Hochman (a rosh yeshiva in Toronto), HaRav Nochum Lansky, HaRav Simcha Soloveitchik, and HaRav Uziel Milevsky, zt"l. This, again, is only a partial list.
In 1964 (5724), HaRav Weinberg went to the branch of Yeshivas Ner Israel that had been established a few years earlier in Toronto where he served as rosh yeshiva until 1971 (5731).
During that period many talmidim from the main yeshiva in Baltimore went to Toronto for various periods in order to learn with the Rosh Yeshiva there. He said many shiurim including, for a time, a daily shiur in Chumash in which he went slowly, posuk by posuk, analyzing and treating everything carefully and thoroughly. It was a relatively small yeshiva (the high school was the larger component) and there was an opportunity for those who wanted to learn from the Rosh Yeshiva to do so.
After that he returned to Baltimore, as the Toronto yeshiva became independent. He spent the next 28 years in the Ner Israel yeshiva in Baltimore, the last 12 of them as rosh yeshiva after his great father-in-law was niftar in 1987 (5747).
As the American Torah community developed, the function mentioned at the beginning of the first part, of linking those who grew up in America with the living wellsprings of the Jewish mesora, became less critical because now there are so many different ways in which everyone is connected. However, he had much more to give, and in his whole life he constantly gave more and more to his talmidim and everyone who came in contact with him.
A Selfless Individual
With his remarkable intellectual gifts, it would have been easy for him to dominate people. Thus, it is all the more impressive that no one ever felt that the Rosh Yeshiva was imposing himself on them even in the slightest way.
The fact is that his whole approach to living was based on a thoroughgoing and deeply rooted conviction and understanding that his efforts should be properly directed towards the outside, towards others. He stressed and lived the fact that a person's overall goal is to be an eved Hashem, a human tool of Hashem who lives to fulfill Hashem's will. Translated to the interpersonal level, this meant that he lived for his talmidim and was interested only in their benefit.
He once told a talmid: "You are interested in `why,' but I am interested only in `what.' "
"Why" did not matter to him. He made himself like a midbar to simply accept whatever Hashem wants, without question, without seeking any further basis behind it. Even to search for a "why" implies that there is some other standard, some other measure for what to do, and this is often where a person's self comes in. For him, there was nothing there.
He was an original thinker and had many ideas, and conceived many plans. However, once he was convinced that rotzon Hashem was otherwise, he accepted that and simply worked with the situation as it was. He no longer harbored any thoughts of "what if" or "if only." Once it was clear to him what the rotzon Hashem was in a given situation, he did it with all his powers and to the fullest of his abilities.
As one example that was cited by several people, when he came to their chasuna, he came early and stayed on. No one doubts that he had other things to do, other pursuits that might seem to be "higher" or "better" than sitting at a chasuna. But once it was clear that he was going, he went to fulfill the rotzon Hashem behidur, not grudgingly or sparingly.
There were some ways in which he was very different from our generation. He was so abstracted from his physical needs, so far removed from normal physical desires, that in this aspect he seemed not of our times.
Once, when giving a shmuess in Mesilas Yeshorim, he was talking about a certain taava, a physical desire. He said that it was an absurd taava, something beyond the desire of normal people. Searching for a proper analogy, he finally came up with, "It is as absurd as saying, `He sat down and ate a quart of ice cream by himself.'"
This certainly caused some raised eyebrows among the talmidim listening to him. They understood the point he was trying to make, but the example he chose taught them more about the Rosh Yeshiva than about the Mesilas Yeshorim.
He Used to Say...
It is important not only to give a sense of who he was, but also, in memoriam, to try to give over some of the important lessons that he taught. Certainly all of his students carry these ideas with them in everything they do, but this is an appropriate venue to set them down so that they will be more widely available. Especially in view of the fact that he left so few written works, is it important to try to record and publish some of the valuable insights he taught.
Many of these teachings were so important to him that they could be prefaced with the introduction of so many mishnayos of Pirkei Ovos: Hu hoyo omeir . . . Almost everyone who had significant contact with him has heard them. Others, however, were not as widely known. All are nonetheless part of an integrated, consistent, coherent approach to his life's task of being an eved Hashem.
There is a story told about Vilna of more than 200 years ago. In those days it was often difficult to get arba minim for Succos, which had to be imported over long distances from other climes.
One year, it was almost impossible to get an esrog in Vilna. In fact, there was only one. The Vilna Gaon was the unquestioned godol hador and even he did not have an esrog for Succos. His talmidim did their best to secure the esrog for their master. They offered the possessor of the single Vilna esrog that year large sums of money -- but he turned them down. He did, however, make them a counteroffer: He would give the Gaon his esrog, if the reward for the Gaon's fulfillment of the mitzvo went to him, instead of to the Gaon!
It was a steep price and a very unusual one. The talmidim were not sure how their master would react. When they told him of the price for the esrog, he accepted immediately and radiated great joy, exclaiming, "Now I will be able to fulfill this mitzvo completely lishmo!"
Another, similar, story is told about a great Chassidic Rebbe. One time he announced to his followers that it was decreed in Heaven that they had, for one reason or another, lost all chance of any reward in Olom Haboh. The Rebbe declared his happiness about this state of affairs to all of his followers, for the reason that henceforth he could worship Hashem purely lishmo.
The Rosh Yeshiva would explain that he has no historical information about either of them, but based on the content of the stories the first is proper and correct, but he could not accept the second as valid.
Hashem created the world in order to give us reward, he explained. This is the purpose of His Creation, and this purpose must be fulfilled. But Kaviyochol had no particular person in mind when creating the world, and it makes no difference for His purpose who receives the sechar. Thus, it serves Hashem's purpose just as well if the original owner of the esrog receives the reward for a mitzva as if the Vilna Gaon himself receives the reward. Nothing is lost; the mitzva is fulfilled and Hashem gives someone the reward for that mitzva. The Gaon, who was only concerned with what Hashem wants without any concern for himself, could properly rejoice that he could do the mitzva purely lishmo, as long as someone was getting the reward.
If the reward is lost entirely, if no one gets it as in the second story, then Hashem's purpose in Creation of giving out sechar is not brought to fruition. If the reward for the good deeds is simply lost, then this is occasion for mourning not rejoicing, since Hashem's purpose has been frustrated, not fulfilled.
Sechar is Our Relationship
Since the desire to reward us is the basis of Creation, its nature and procedures are important. The Rosh Yeshiva insisted that the reward that we get for the good things that we do is not a "mechanical" sort of built-in response to our deeds, but rather a reflection of the consequent nature of our relationship to the Ribono Shel Olom after we have done what He bid us do.
Some say that the world is simply set up in such a way that there is an automatic response, in the spiritual realms, to our deeds. When we do what Hashem wants us to do, we are showered with the reward for their performance. The Ramban, however, says that the reward that we get for mitzvos is really a neiss.
The Rosh Yeshiva taught and explained that when we do Hashem's will, it enhances our relationship with Him. The reward that we get comes from this enhanced relationship.
The reward is there, and we must strive toward it. Yet we strive for it not in order for us to have it, but in order that the Ribono Shel Olom can give it to us, as we know that he wishes to do. When the Vilna Gaon fulfilled the mitzva of arba minim he knew that there was an attached reward and that Hashem wanted to give this reward. Yet it was not important to him that he be the recipient of the reward.
This is a complex idea, but the Rosh Yeshiva once illustrated it himself beautifully.
For the Sechar or Because of the Sechar?
A talmid once asked him about the posuk in parshas Vayeiro (Bereishis 18, 19) in which Hashem says of Avrohom Ovinu: "For I know of him that he will command his children and his household after him, that they will keep the derech Hashem to do tzedokoh and mishpot in order that Hashem can bring upon Avrohom all that he has spoken about."
This posuk, the talmid wondered, seems to fly in the face of the well-known principle that we should serve Hashem as slaves who work without thought of reward. Hashem commends Avrohom Ovinu because He knows that Avrohom Ovinu will send his children along the derech Hashem so that they will get rewarded. How is that reconciled with the charge to serve Hashem as an eved who serves without wanting any reward?
HaRav Weinberg explained it by analogy. He goes to visit his mother in Williamsburg, and whenever he comes, she insists on feeding him and obviously takes great pleasure in doing so. At first he protested. "Mother, why do you insist on serving me? I've already eaten enough."
"Do you think I want to feed you just because you are my son?" she asked rhetorically. "Not at all! I want to give you to eat because you are a talmid chochom!"
"If my mother were only interested in feeding me because I am her son, then if I have had enough to eat, she would have no interest in feeding me. It is all the same to her, as long as if I have enough to eat. However, since she wants to feed me in order to give pleasure to a talmid chochom, then she must be the one to feed me. I must eat her food.
"Since then," he told the talmid, "I make sure to finish every morsel of food. I am eating because it brings my mother pleasure for me to eat her food, but I am not eating for the pleasure of the good food." (Heard from HaRav Eliyohu Baumwolspiner)
Chazal say that the relationship between parents and children is analogous to the relationship between people and Hashem, and that is what we are trying to exploit here. We must serve Hashem in order that Hashem may give us the reward that He has promised, but we do not serve for the reward itself but in order to fulfill the will of Hashem which is that we receive the reward.
On the Subject of Sechar . . .
In the third perek of Hilchos Teshuvah the Rambam discusses the fact that everyone has zechiyos and avonos, and the way these are weighted and counted against each other, so that an individual and a country and the whole world are either tzadikim -- if they have more zechiyos -- or reshoim -- if they have more avonos.
In the third halocho the Rambam writes: "Whoever regrets the mitzvos that he did, and waives the zechiyos and says to himself, `What have I benefited in that I did them? Would that I had not done them,' has lost them all, and they do not mention for him any merit in the world, as it says, `The righteousness of the tzaddik will not save him on the day of his rish'o' (Yechezkel 33) -- this must be referring to none other than one who regrets his earlier actions."
What could this mean? Chazal always say what a great chiddush it is that teshuvah erases the sin, but here we apparently see that it applies to mitzvos as well. Moreover, generally Hakodosh Boruch Hu's consideration of good deeds is greater than His punishment for bad deeds (middo tovoh merubo). So how can it be that simply regretting one's mitzvos will fully cancel them out?
Consistent with his understanding of sechar as being of fundamental importance in the Creation, the Rosh Yeshiva learned here that the Rambam does not mean to say that the person loses the sechar of his good deeds if he regrets them, only that in such a case they are not taken into account when reckoning his status as a tzaddik or a rosho. The original sechar is preserved for him and will be given to him in one form or another, but once he rejects his earlier acts they are no longer included in the balance of all his deeds.
This is in fact evident from a closer reading of the Rambam. He writes: ". . . and they do not mention for him any merit . . ." This "mentioning" refers to the accounting that is done for each person, to determine whether he is a tzaddik or a rosho. Also, the posuk refers to "the day of his rish'o" which is consistent with this interpretation, meaning the day on which he is judged a rosho, the day on which an accounting is made of his zechiyos and avonos, and he is found a rosho since he loses those zechiyos that he regrets. (Heard from HaRav Simcha Cook.)
Only the Truth
The Rosh Yeshiva was always focused on the truth, even when it may not have been the most comfortable way to look at things. He was prepared to talk and act in ways that often sounded strange to others, when he knew that his way was the truth.
One instance was the case of a particular shidduch. The parents of a girl of marriageable age came to ask him about a particular young man, and he told them it was a good shidduch and they should pursue it. Someone from the side of the bochur came to ask about the same shidduch, but the Rosh Yeshiva told him that he did not know if he should pursue that offer.
Those who heard about both answers thought that the combination was strange, but the answer was simple: it was clearly good for the young lady, but not so clear that it was good for the young man. It was not a case of the Rosh Yeshiva taking a bold stand for truth, but simply that he was unwilling to answer any other way than to tell each what was exactly best for him or her.
To Reach the Soul
His goal with his talmidim was not just to impart knowledge but to elevate them. The truth that he wanted to give over was much deeper than what many people give over.
At one time, a certain talmid used to go to him to ask him questions consistently after every shiur that he gave. He confided in someone that the talmid was very krum and he thought that he could straighten him out, but he was not sure if he had the time and strength that were necessary for the task.
This is not the worry of someone who could not answer the questions that he was being asked, even to the satisfaction of the questioner. HaRav Weinberg certainly had no difficulty in merely answering the surface questions posed by that bochur. It is clear that his eye was on something deeper: he wanted to reach out to the talmid and to correct the roots in him that were leading him to ask such unnecessary or misguided questions.
Sometimes he volunteered remarks that seemed unprompted and unmotivated, almost like an oracle. He once told me, "You know Mordechai, you have to keep on thinking. Don't stop, but always push on and deeper."
I did not see why he said that. I did not understand what he could have seen in me that showed him I had such a problem, if I did in fact have such a problem.
However, I accepted the criticism and worked in the direction he indicated. Many months later I did see the wisdom of his remark and how it was excellent and important advice for me -- though I could never figure out how he could have known to tell me.
What is the Mitzva of Emunah?
The Rambam counts the mitzva of emunah as the first of the 613 mitzvos. As the Ramban explains, the gemora seems to imply this in saying that the two mitzvos we heard from the Ribono Shel Olom (and not Moshe Rabbenu who told us 611) were Onochi and Lo yihiye. The Bahag, however, does not count this mitzvo as one of the 613. The Ramban explains that this is because it is the presupposition of all mitzvos. How can there be a mitzvo without a metzave? Thus it cannot be an individual mitzva by itself.
What does Rambam hold?
The Rosh Yeshiva said that the emunah that is presupposed by all the mitzvos is not the content of this mitzva. Rather that emunah is presupposed by this mitzva as it is by all other mitzvos. This first mitzva however, is to make our emunah stronger and stronger. To work on our emunah and to develop it. This is something that can be done without limit. (Heard from HaRav Moshe Hochman)
The Rosh Yeshiva in particular worked very hard on the Rambam in all the halochos in Sefer Maddo among which the mitzva of emunoh certainly occupies a prominent position.
He worked on emunoh but it was within Torah and bederech HaTorah and not relying on any outside tools.
He once commented to a talmid that there are many people who are temimusdik in their approach to emunoh. They simply have emunoh peshuta and do not ask any questions. They simply are mevateil da'as to the Ribono Shel Olom. This approach we can understand.
But someone like the Chazon Ish, he explained, is amazing. He knew all the questions and worked on them, but still came out after all that with such a perfect and wholesome emunoh. This is truly remarkable. (Heard from HaRav Nochum Lansky)
Time and again the Rosh Yeshiva would stun us. One could never know how he would react. One could have prepared a gemora so carefully, and worked on it so hard, only to sit on it with him and find out that he missed the main point. As HaRav Mordechai Blumenfeld put it, no matter how much you had prepared, "He would show that you hadn't begun to think about it."
But this did not only apply to divrei Torah. It was also true in derech eretz. Telling him over the apparently simplest story could be an adventure. He would often find some completely overlooked aspect that was critical, and put the whole thing in a new and surprising light.
This was a consequence of the fact that his yiro preceded his chochmah, as Chazal say it must. His wisdom was based on his fear of G-d, and grounded in everyday life, where this is important. His chochmah showed him not just how to think, and not just how to act, but even simply how to be. He created full, wholesome and "real" people. (Heard from HaRav Yochanan Zweig)
No, Yitzchok, You're Wrong
One of the most elusive, but significant, elements of the avoda of the Rosh Yeshiva was his constant, patient chinuch of his talmidim. It was something he was always ready to do, and something that he did willingly, over and over, whenever he had the opportunity. He would speak with them, elicit their comments, patiently analyze them, and develop the ideas that he wanted to convey using them. There was an interplay between the rebbe and the talmid that was, however, extremely elusive and difficult to capture. It was not the sort of thing that one took notes of, nor even recorded on tape.
Nothing can better convey this experience than an example. However, these were usually personal lessons, tailored to the talmid in question and the circumstances that were at hand, and by their very nature they did not lend themselves to any sort of recording or preservation.
I have, with considerable thought and effort, constructed an illustrative example. It is an imaginary dialogue in which a talmid of the Rosh Yeshiva is trying to convey some basic ideas about his rebbi to a student of his own. The talmid, in talking with his own talmid, uses the techniques that he learned and absorbed from his own rebbi, the Rosh Yeshiva. It is based on a story about the Rosh Yeshiva that several people who were very close to him told me, assuming that it happened as given here, and certain that in any case it reflects the way he acted. This exercise displays the Rosh Yeshiva and how he lived -- and what we can learn from him in our own lives. (I will note the true facts at the end.)
Yitzchok, I want you to think about the following story. Now listen carefully.
Some years ago, a relative of the Rosh Yeshiva lost a son who passed away well before his time, leaving behind a young family ranging from 2 to 10 years old.
The Rosh Yeshiva and the Rebbetzin went to be menacheim ovel. There were other people there when they arrived. After sitting for some time, the Rosh Yeshiva rose and said, "I have some people to talk to," and left the room.
No one knew where he went. He was gone for a considerable time. Only later did they find out that he had sought out the little orphans, and taken them to a room where he sat with them and discussed what had happened to them at their own level.
Now, Yitzchok, I want you to think carefully about this story. What do you think it shows?
-- I think that it is a beautiful story that shows that the Rosh Yeshiva was a man of deep feeling.
If that is what you think, Yitzchok, then you are wrong. Completely wrong.
If that is what you understand, Yitzchok, then you do not understand the first thing about the Rosh Yeshiva.
It is so clear, Yitzchok, that this story shows something entirely different. This incident shows the Rosh Yeshiva's brilliance.
It shows how he was able to grasp a situation, to see it from all sides, and to find the key point, that crucial element that everyone else missed, but that is -- once he showed it to us -- absolutely essential to a proper understanding of the situation and, now in retrospect, we feel should have been obvious to everyone.
Surely you see that, Yitzchok. Obviously the ones most in need of attention and the gemilus chassodim that is the very essence of nichum aveilim which was the whole purpose of the Rosh Yeshiva's trip, were the young orphans. Yet everyone is naturally distracted because they know the adults better.
Even hearing about the story we are stunned and impressed. That is brilliance, Yitzchok, absolute brilliance.
But now, is that all you see in that story, Yitzchok? Don't you see anything else? Is it just pure brilliance? Is that all you see here?
It's not enough. Yitzchok, you must go deeper. If you stop here, you've left the Rebbi in the league of brilliant minds, but it could still be with thinkers like Aristotle, who were geniuses but could at the same time be corrupt and degenerate. If that's where you stop, Yitzchok, you have not yet captured his essence.
What is remarkable here is the object of Rebbi's brilliance. It is not an abstract principle that he discovered, in the realm of pure knowledge, that can be polished and displayed and repeatedly admired, but it is a truth of life, a truth of deed, a truth that left the world a better place after it was discovered.
The Real Story
This story that was told about the Rosh Yeshiva was based on a similar true event, however in fact the idea of speaking with the young orphans was not the Rosh Yeshiva's but his daughters'. They thought about it in advance and arranged it as soon as he came.
The Rosh Yeshiva went to them in a side room, he made the children at ease and invited them to ask him whatever was on their mind. The children were most concerned about their departed father. Is he happy? they wanted to know.
This was a difficult question. It would obviously pain them to know that their father was unhappy, but on the other hand how could he leave them? The Rosh Yeshiva told them that their father was happy, but he missed them.
This went on for some time. The children asked; the Rosh Yeshiva comforted and explained.
At the end the young widow, who was present, exclaimed, "I know it helped the kids, but it helped me more." The young children later said that the Rosh Yeshiva sat with them with kindness and patience, and talked about their new situation and their father.
The truth is certainly beautiful enough.
To Call Out Besheim Hashem
At the Chag Hasemicha the Rosh Yeshiva spoke about the nature of a yeshiva, based on the Rambam in Hilchos Avodas Kochovim (1:3). It is the chapter in which the Rambam recounts the history of the idea of avoda zorah and the way Avrohom Ovinu developed on his own and recognized the truth of his Creator at the age of 40. As soon as Avrohom Ovinu recognized this he started to argue with the people of his city, Ur Kasdim. He was miraculously saved from the king there who wanted to kill him, "and he got up and called out to the whole world loudly to tell them that there is one G-d for the whole world who should be worshiped." He eventually reached tens of thousands whom he taught, each according to his own understanding, and "he implanted in their hearts this great principle."
Avrohom passed on this task to Yitzchok who in turn passed it on to Yaakov. "And Yaakov Ovinu taught all of his children, set Levi aside, and appointed him the head, and set him in a yeshiva to teach the derech Hashem and to keep the mitzvos of Avrohom."
This was what the Rosh Yeshiva saw as the purpose of a yeshiva: to teach the derech Hashem. All must be brought closer and upward. The staff of the yeshiva must spread this great idea and implant it deep in the hearts of the talmidim. Kiruv kerovim, reaching those who need to be reached, is as important as kiruv rechokim.
This is what a person must dedicate himself to do. To serve Hashem, by being an eved Hashem and prominently by calling out to the whole world in general and to each talmid in particular, to bring him to the derech Hashem. (Heard from HaRav Nochum Lansky)
There is certainly much more to say, and perhaps there will be other occasions. The avodas Hashem of an odom godol in more than 75 years can certainly not be contained in 10,000 words. Chaval al de'avdin, velo mishtakchin.
Tehei nishmoso tzerura betzror hachaim.