Written during the Sheloshim by Rabbi Eliyahu W. Ferrell
WHAT THIS IS NOT
If the reader is expecting a hesped for Mori V’Rabi, Zatzal, HaGaon Rav Gershon Yankelewitz, Zatzal, this article is not the place to turn. This is not a hesped, because it cannot be a hesped. Even 25-plus years after meeting Rebbe, I remain woefully unqualified to assess and describe the essence and definition of someone of so seraphic a stature, someone whose level of spiritual and moral accomplishment is of so totally a different order and magnitude. The most that such as I can do-perhaps even must do, lest it be lost-is share some of the memories and impressions that I am fortunate enough to have.
TORAS CHESSED AL LESHONO
Rebbe was already well into his seventies when I came to him in my mid-twenties. I was one of the older boys in the shiur. There we were, a cadre of Yankee Doodle Dandees, most (if not all) lacking a particularly strong learning background (including myself). We had all been placed into a shiur that was known as a venue for creating and enhancing the capacity to make a laining on a blatt Gemara. Rebbe would patiently explain the shakla v’taria, wanting only that we should understand and enjoy the Gemara.
This and more. Despite the gap-nay, chasm-separating his accomplishments in learning and our own, Rebbe offered to learn with anyone who wanted to come to his office during hachanah seder. I do not here refer to Rebbe agreeing to serve as a sho’ail u-maishiv, graciously answering the difficulties you encountered during preparation for shiur. That would have been an invaluable chessed for him to bestow, but that is not all that Rebbe offered. Rebbe offered you a chevrusaschaft. He would guide anyone who came to the office step-by-step through the Gemara, the Rashi, the Tosafos. Despite my weak background and ties to a culture of pizza and television, I had enough brains to take advantage of this opportunity. Given the Rebbe’s gaonus and my own meager capacities, it must have been like learning with a hamster. But never, never, did Rebbe betray the slightest irritation or speak with an air of arrogance or condescension. I would be surprised if I’d hear that his chevrusas in Radin or Mir were treated with more derech eretz.
TO BE UNKNOWINGLY UNKNOWING
What I find so distressing is my attitudinal posture in those days. When Mori V’Rabi, HaGaon Rav Aharon Kahn, Shlita, found out that I was in Rav Yankelewitz’s shiur, he told me that my rebbe was “an Adam Gadol Me’od.” I took Rav Kahn’s word for it, as I was equipped neither to deny it nor to affirm it. In the ensuing decades, realization began to dawn:
Let’s see. I came to the shiur in 1987. Given Rebbe’s age, he had been cleaving to the Gemara since before 1920. That means about 70 years. He had learned by the Chofetz Chaim and Reb Yerucham of Mir. He was a Mirrer talmid when they went to Vilna, Kobe, and Shanghai. His levels of Tikkun HaMiddos and Yiras Shamayim were, even then, staggering.
Chaval! I didn’t understand what it meant to be in such a person’s shiur! And I didn’t grasp what it meant to have such a person all to myself before shiur! And double-chaval: I did not even realize that I did not and could not realize what it meant!
A WINDOW AND MORE THAN A WINDOW
When I paid a shiva call on Rebbe after the Rebbetzin, Zichrona L’V’rachah, passed, he mentioned something that the Chofetz Chaim said. I did a mental double-take: He didn’t see this in a sefer-he heard it as a talmid in the Yeshiva of Radin. And as I listened to Rebbe read and explain Reb Yerucham’s sichos in sefer Da’as Torah, it would have been worthwhile for me to keep in mind: He probably heard this MiPiv Kadsho as a Mirrer talmid, long before the ink landed on the page.
For upwards of 60 years, you could go to Yeshiva University or the Bronx and speak to a person who spoke to the Chofetz Chaim. You could shake the hand of someone who shook the hand of Reb Yerucham of Mir.
This and more. Rebbe was like a rip in the very fabric of the space and time itself. He was a gateway to a place and an era long since eradicated by the German Amalek. Romantic visions aside and massive defections notwithstanding, pre-war Europe encompassed a world of tzaddikim and gaonim, of roshei yeshiva and wagon-drivers who knew Shas. And Rebbe represented it at it very best.
At the same time, it must be emphasized: Rebbe was not merely a doorway. Rebbe’s value was and is meta-historical. That is to say, Rebbe was an Adam Gadol Me’od, period. If he had never discussed Europe, if you didn’t know he was from Europe, even if you could have replicated him in the guise of someone born and bred in the States, he still would have been infinitely precious. I experienced him as a mighty mountain of kedushah. Every pore, every cell, was a Torah-pore and a Torah-cell. His only ratzon was Retzon Hashem. His only bias and agenda was, “What is the Torah’s approach?” He had clearly scrubbed himself clean of any middah ra’ah; his behavioral repertoire contained no artifice, no pettiness, and no hanhagah inimical to the seichel. He was, in the fullest and most authentic sense of the word, a radiant Torah personality.
A FINAL WORD
If I could talk to Rebbe now, I would say the following:
Rebbe, we’ll miss you so much. We’re so impoverished now. We lack your consummate embodiment of goodness and truth. We are bereft of the access you afforded us to a destroyed world that contained so much kedushah. Daven for us, so that the ruach of Torah that radiated onto us, and the words of Torah that you placed in our mouths, not ever disappear from our mouths, the mouths of our progeny, and the mouths of their progeny. And may we see you very, very soon, at the time of Techiyas HaMeisim, with the coming of the Go’ail to Tziyyon, bim’heirah v’yameinu, Amen.