By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
It was during those heightened few moments just before the seudah on leil Shabbos, when all of creation seems more alive, tinged with the colors of Shabbos. I, along with the other simcha guests, entered the elegant room for the seudah, and together, we sang a greeting to the malachim.
As we welcomed the Heavenly angels, as if on cue, everyone filed by the illustrious Yid at the head table, the Telzer rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Stein zt”l of the broad smile and glowing countenance.
All across the world, fathers bentched their sons, and there as well, in the large dining room of Reb Michoel Rottenberg’s home in Lakewood, everyone who was present lined up and bent before him so he could place his hands on their heads.
His hands. Hands flowing with holiness and ahavas Yisroel, a fountain of bracha that he directed to others, to talmidim and bnei Torah and all sorts of Yidden.
The air around him was sweet and fragrant, for he carried within him the ne’imus, the zeeskeit, of Yahadus Lita, the pleasantness and warmth that only someone who’d spent decades immersed in the sweetest waters in the world could emit.
He showed us what they were like, the white-bearded Yidden with a Ketzos or a Rav Akiva Eiger under their arms and a song on their lips, as they walked into botei medrash that were freezing during the winter and oppressively hot during the summer.
There is a stereotype of the Litvishe Yid with a bleak countenance, sad and oppressed, cold and impervious, his shoulders stooped, his brow creased in perpetual worry and his eyes red from crying,.
Rav Chaim showed us otherwise. This scion of Litvishe nobility, a product of Skudvil, of the Kelmer Talmud Torah and Telz, exuded a contagious simcha, carried oz vechedvah with him, and lifted us with his smile and kindly, paternal words of comfort.
He showed us the tzidkus of Lita, the kedushah, the importance of temidus, how an unchanging schedule of Torah can lift a human to the loftiest heights, giving him the ability to bless others generously with boundless ahavas Yisroel.
And now he is gone, and with him the sweetness and romemus, and of course, the protective fortress of his Torah.
Because with him it was always about Torah. All the avodah, all the bitachon, all the tefillah – everything stemmed from his connection to Torah.
An ainikel relates that his zaide would become emotional when recalling his insatiable thirst for a sefer during his years on the run and his euphoria at seeing a Sefer Torah for the first time after the war. The world, black for so long, had exploded with color once again.
The incredible simcha that he experienced at his reunion with the Sefer Torah repeated itself, again and again, well into his old age. When he was already a venerable rosh yeshiva and Mosad Harav Kook released a new Rashba, he was eager to obtain one, and when it reached him, he was like a bar mitzvah bochur with new tefillin. When the Frankel Rambam became available, he immediately called to purchase one, desperate to hold it and see it. He was overjoyed when a new Gemara, with a clearer version of the Baal Hama’or, was released, since, he said, “ess iz mir asach leichter,“ it’s easier to read those letters in the back of the Gemara.
He was deep into his nineties and still hureving over the Baal Hama’or. Now it would be a bit easier.
He was so excited to see the new print. It was the same excitement that he had upon seeing a Sefer Torah after the war, because his emotion wasn’t about drama. It stemmed from his love and deep-rooted connection to the Torah itself.
He had a relationship with the Torah, one forged through blood and toil.
A grandson met him while learning Maseches Nazir. Rav Chaim asked him which daf he was studying at the time and he responded, “Daf Chof Daled.” Rav Chaim asked him, “Host du gezen di Keren Orah’s kasha oif Tosafos? Have you seen the Keren Orah’s question on Tosafos on that page?”
The grandson asked why he was so enamored with the question of the Keren Orah. Rav Chaim responded that when he was a young bochur in Telz, he learned Maseches Nazir with a chavrusah every morning before davening. During that period, a new edition of the Keren Orah was published and a copy reached the yeshiva. In those days, when a new sefer arrived in the yeshiva, the older bochurim would study it first and then pass it down to the younger ones.
Since Rav Chaim was then very young, it would have taken a long time until he would have been given the opportunity to examine the new sefer. Instead of waiting his turn, Rav Chaim stayed up late at night, when everyone else had gone to sleep, and relearned the mesechta with the sefer Keren Orah.
He recounted to his grandson that many of the kashos that he had while learning the Gemara were addressed in the new sefer. “Vi ken ich fargessen ah kasha fun der Keren Orah? How can I ever forget a kasha of the Keren Orah?”
A grandson asked him a question on the Gemara in Maseches Kesubos that he was learning. Rav Chaim recalled that forty years earlier, while traveling on behalf of the Telzer Yeshiva in Toledo, Ohio, he had the same question. He told his grandson that he remembered that he wrote down his thoughts on the sugya and promised that he would look through his papers and find the chiddush.
Shortly thereafter, the grandson received a copy of his grandfather’s writing in the mail, the paper emblazoned with the name of a Toledo hotel. On those sheets of paper, Rav Chaim quoted the words of the Gemara, the Rashi, the Rashba and Rav Akiva Eiger, and then offered an explanation.
As the grandson read the notes, he noticed a couple of errors in the quotes of Rashi. He wondered about that and asked Rav Chaim why Rashi wasn’t quoted correctly. Perhaps he had encountered a different print of the Gemara in Toledo. Rav Chaim responded that when he traveled in those days, before there were small-sized Gemaros, he would pack a small Rambam and make photocopies of the relevant blatt Gemara he wished to study in transit.
But in Toledo, Ohio, he didn’t have a Gemara Kesubos. So everything that he wrote on that page was from memory – the Gemara, the Rashi, the Rashba and the Rav Akiva Eiger.
It is no wonder that the Satmar Rebbe referred to him as a “walking Tosafos.”
A connection to Torah, to the words of Torah, deeper than life itself.
It would be simplistic to tell these stories of his remarkable mastery of Torah without probing deeper and analyzing how they relate to us and what they demand from us.
One of the cornerstones of Rav Chaim’s success was a kabbolah he made as a teenager that he often shared with talmidim and listeners, and which he mentions in his tzava’ah, not to let a day go by without learning at least an hour straight.
It was this kabbolah that became a chain of steel running through days of hunger and cold, through exhaustive journeys and days that seemed sure to be his last. Ultimately, it ran through the beginnings of a new life, the growing pains of a new Torah world, and again personal loss and pain. Even on the days when the pressures of rebuilding seemed to weigh him down, the pressure of the kabbolah was stronger.
It was not merely to learn an hour each day. It was to learn an hour beretzifus, uninterrupted. If someone or something would interrupt him, he would start the obligatory hour all over again. In his final years, when he was unable to complete the hour, he broke it down into two half-hours.
Back when Rav Meir Shapiro announced his innovation of Daf Yomi to the masses, the young boy from Skudvil, barely bar mitzvah, accepted the challenge. And even as he amassed hundreds of blatt Gemara, Rishonim and Acharonim and nosei keilim, he never faltered, marching along with his nation up until the most recent Siyum HaShas, when he led Klal Yisroel in the resounding cry of “Hadran alach.”
It wasn’t just an ode of gratitude for the strength granted to him to finish Shas yet again. It was an expression of joy at having persevered, keeping the daily commitment through it all.
The kedushah of temidus
His tefillah itself was extraordinary. Talmidim who sat close by could hear him repeating, “Atah chonein le’adam daas. Atah chonein… Atah chonein…“
He once told a grandson that he didn’t feel that davening with kavanah was a big challenge. He was able to focus on each and every word from the bracha of Yotzer Ohr through the end of Shemoneh Esrei. He was worried, however, that with old age, he would lose that ability.
He would walk the five minutes from his home to yeshiva, for Shacharis, repeating Modeh Ani again and again, savoring each word.
When his father-in-law was niftar, he began to wear Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin. Someone noticed that he recited the words of “Hineni mechavein” a second time before putting on the second pair and asked him why.
Rav Chaim looked at the person in surprise. “Eib ich ken betten noch amol tzum Ribbono Shel Olam ‘leshabeid machshevos libeinu eilecha,‘ zohl ich dos nit ton?” If he had an opportunity to make a request from Hashem, he didn’t want to miss it.
His Erev Yom Kippur brachos, when a stream of ainiklach and close talmidim passed through his private room, provided a glimpse of old-world tefillah. He would read the standard nusach from the machzor, interjecting his own personal bakashos in Yiddish: “Ribbono Shel Olam, shik ihr zivug bekarov, bekarov, bekarov.”
The simple awareness of the fartzeitishe Yid that Hashem is everywhere was tangible. It was obvious that he was addressing a real and vibrant Borei.
Even as he rose to prominence, he was never mevater on the small things, the simpler components of his avodas Hashem. He learned, and encouraged others to learn, a Mishnah each day. He could speak in learning with talmidei chachomim on any part of Shas and, at the same time, he saw the importance of learning a Mishnah.
He was, as is well-known, a lofty neshamah, versed in Toras Hanistar as well, yet he cherished the minhagim of ordinary Yidden and maintained them. He would place two dimes in the pushkah each day before davening to fulfill “betzedek echezeh panecha.“
He was fluent in Tanach, having completed its study at the age of six, and would often wonder why today’s generation doesn’t make its limud a priority. The Munkatcher Rebbe, a talmid, met Rav Chaim some thirty-five years ago at the Yeshiva of South Fallsburg during summer bein hazemanim, and he asked what the rosh yeshiva was learning.
“Ah mentch hut a chiyuv tzu lernen kol haTorah kulah. Ich hub shoin lang nisht gechazert der Rashis oif Tanach.”
He took the obligation to learn all of Torah seriously and was fulfilling it.
His approach to the words of Chazal was uncomplicated and pure. They meant what they said.
Someone saw Rav Chaim waiting around after Tisha B’Av, hoping that the clouds would part so that he would be able to recite Kiddush Levanah. The grandson suggested that it had been a long and difficult day for his aged zaida, and perhaps he would be better off going home to eat and then checking to see if the bracha could be recited.
Rav Chaim explained that it is written that one who recites Kiddush Levanah is assured that he will live through the month. “In meine yoren, voss shneller ich ken doss zuggen iz besser!”
Our leaders, Chazal say, were shepherds, because Hashem wanted to see their dedication to unimportant sheep before charging them with guiding His own children. The idea is a deep one. Often, people can overcome difficult nisyonos and display greatness in major situations, but then they return to their everyday lives and resume living as small people. Our leaders needed to prove their greatness even in the small situations, in the unglamorous, unobserved world of a shepherd.
Chazal are saying that sometimes the small things are harder than the big ones.
Rav Chaim was a gadol in the small things. He was great not because he saw Eliyahu Hanovi, as is often repeated, or because he prophetically led a chaburah of fellow bnei yeshiva through the fires of war to safety, but because he never stopped hureving in Torah, because he learned his hour and his Mishnah every day, because he never forgot his two dimes for the pushkah, and because he was agitated one morning, in his nineties, at having missed his daily seder in Sefer Chofetz Chaim before Shacharis.
That was his ladder to greatness.
At ninety-six years old, he guarded sidrei hayeshiva with the zealousness of a teenager, hurrying to arrive early and choosing to eat his breakfast and lunch in the yeshiva dining room, rather than returning home and breaking the temidus.
During his last years, a talmid slept in his home, tending to him. There was a time when Rav Chaim had cellulites and his body was wracked by pain and discomfort. Every time he got up from his bed, he suffered. He began to get ready for Shacharis a full hour before the scheduled time. The process was a slow and painful one.
The bochur suggested that he forgo the yeshiva davening in deference to his illness, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He was more pained by the fact that he arrived ten minutes late than by his condition.
That’s how he became what he became – our rebbi, our support; the one to whom we looked to intercede on our behalf in Shomayim.
His brachos didn’t make him great. His ability to dispense brachos was a sign that Hashem trusted him with His children.
One time, when I was visiting him, his son, my dear friend, Rav Shmuel Zalman, mentioned that I had a son who was looking for a shidduch. “Papa, ehr vill a brocha az zein zun zol veren ah chosson,” said Rav Shmuel Zalman.
“Ich geb eich nisht kein bracha. Ich gib eich ah havtachah,” he beamed at me, “that he will become a chosson very soon.”
Shocked, I told him that I had an eligible daughter as well.
“She, as well, very soon, with Hashem’s help,” he said.
Rav Shmuel Zalman looked at me. “You can take that to the bank,” he said.
He was right.
In Shomayim, Rav Chaim was cherished.
He never saw himself the way others saw him, preferring the relative obscurity of his seat in the bais medrash in Wickliffe to any other forum or venue. He was happiest with his schedule, seforim and chavrusos.
He strove for nine decades to be a talmid to his own rabbeim and to understand their Torah. A young bochur asked him a question on a sevarah of his own rebbi muvhak, Rav Chaim Telzer and Rav Chaim was bothered. He walked to yeshiva quietly, lost in thought. He walked back home, still perturbed.
Finally, his face lit up. “Maybe p’shat in what the rebbe said is as follows,” he said.
His encounters with gedolim were real and vibrant to him, and he drew on them for the rest of his life.
A grandson recounts that four years ago, when he was learning Maseches Nazir, he asked his grandfather a question on one of the sugyos. Rav Chaim recounted that in 1940, the border opened and he was able to travel to Vilna. He went with a few bochurim to speak in learning with the Brisker Rov and asked him that very question. Rav Chaim proceeded to recount the entire conversation that took place between them as if it had just transpired. He maintained the same intensity and knowledge of the topic fifty years later.
A successful businessman never forgets where he made his first dollar. Rav Chaim never forgot the sugya he discussed with the Brisker Rov.
While in Vilna, Rav Chaim had the opportunity to meet Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. When he introduced himself to the Rabbon Shel Yisroel as “Chaim Shteyn,” Rav Chaim Ozer looked at him and said, “You sent me two letters. The answer to the first one is as follows, and to the second, this is the answer.”
Rav Chaim would often retell how despite the fact that the gadol’s home was teeming like a marketplace, filled with crowds and noise and activity, he sat with the Telzer talmid for hours, fully focused on their conversation in the sugya. He would tell of that encounter to demonstrate the greatness of Rav Chaim Ozer, but essentially he was demonstrating his own gadlus. For if the rabbon shel kol bnei hagolah remembered his questions, they must have been good ones. And if he sat with him for hours, he must have felt that he wasn’t wasting his time speaking in learning with the young bochur.
From Vilna, Rav Chaim went to visit Kaidan, where he spent a Shabbos with Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, an experience from which he drew a lifelong connection to mussar and limud hamussar.
Rav Chatzkel learned one perek in Shaarei Teshuvah with him, a perek that spawned eighty more years of living Shaarei Teshuvahdik.
Rav Chaim saw himself as a talmid of his contemporaries. He was fluent in every Ketzos, Maharsha, Rav Akiva Eiger and Rav Chaim in the yeshivishe mesechtos, but he knew every Steipler as well, treasuring “new” Torah as old.
Just a few years ago, his chavrusah went to get a Ketzos from a bookshelf as they learned, and he returned holding a brand-new edition, with copious notes and observations on the bottom of the page from a contemporary mechaber.
Rav Chaim looked at the new sefer and became very emotional.
“I wanted to write such a sefer. I could have done this,” he explained, heartbroken that he hadn’t followed through.
Someone once asked him which mesechta he wanted his farher to begin with in the Bais Din Shel Maalah. He said that he wanted the iyun farher to commence with Maseches Chullin, “veil oif Chullin hub ich a shtickel oif yeder blatt vos ich halt iz emes lamito – because I have shticklach Torah on each and every page of that masechta which I believe are completely true.” He said that he would prefer if the bekius farher would begin with Maseches Zevachim, because he had reviewed it many times in his youth.
Dovid Hamelech says in Tehillim (92:13), “Tzaddik katomor yifroch ke’erez balevanon yisgeh,“ comparing tzaddikim to palm and cedar trees. Rav Tanchumah bar Abba, in Medrash Tanchumah (Lech Lecha) explains the comparison. Other trees are not visible from the distance, because they are not tall enough. Palm and cedar trees are taller than all the others and therefore stand out and are visible even from afar. Tzaddikim are like the tamar and erez, because they serve as beacons to follow and examples to emulate.
Rav Chaim stood as an erez balevanon representing the greatness, the brilliance, the charm, the dikduk b’mitzvos, the emotions, and the love of Torah and its people, of gedolei Lita.
He was a last remnant of that era which exemplified the beauty of the rich Lithuanian heritage molded by hundreds of years of Jews dedicating themselves to Torah and its precepts. They were simple in their earthly pursuits, having lived in a country known for its deprivation. Rav Chaim once told me that for him, herring is like steak. My mother a”h was born in Lita and remembered her Yom Tov treat: a slice of banana. They froze during the winter and boiled during the summer, but their hearts were always aflame with Torah and their minds concentrated on perfecting their observance of mitzvos and honesty in daily dealings.
The Shulchan Aruch was their GPS and the Mesilas Yeshorim was their guide.
That country gave birth to some of the greatest giants our people have known. And if you wanted to appreciate what they looked like, what they sounded like, the respectful manner in which they spoke to each other, the way they cried during davening and they way they smiled when singing zemiros, you looked at Rav Chaim. If you wanted to see how they were noseh be’ol im chaveiro, the way they loved a fellow Jew, Rav Chaim stood as a tamar for all to observe and learn from.
Had you wanted to know how those greats reacted to what life threw in their path in a bid to turn them astray from their mission, you could have watched him for that, too.
When Rav Chaim was alive, you didn’t have to search for a picture of a world gone by and study it to know what it was like in the old country. You didn’t have to repeat stories. All you had to do was look at Rav Chaim, monitor him, and watch him as he lived his life. You merely studied his face, how he carried himself, how he sat by the shtender, how he felt the pain of people who weren’t able to find their mates, and how he dealt with life’s tribulations, and you saw a tzaddik katamar ve’erez.
A few years ago, Rav Chaim wanted to visit the zoo to observe a lion. The Mechaber states in Shulchan Aruch that one should be “yisgabeir ka’ari,” strong as a lion, in fulfilling Hashem’s will. Rav Chaim wanted to study the lion as it ran and lunged and displayed its strength, so that he could improve his observance of that halacha.
Had we sought to improve our observance of that first halacha of Shulchan Aruch, we wouldn’t have had to extrapolate it from the zoo. We could have observed Rav Chaim. We could have watched him in the bais medrash and studied his ameilus baTorah, shemiras hasedorim, dikduk bemitzvos, yedios haTorah and bein adam lachaveiro. For right there, on the mizrach vant in the Telzer bais medrash, sat not only the letzter Telzer, but also the letzter leib.
People ask how you can cry over a person who passed away at such an old age. I say that it is all the more reason to cry. Look at what he accomplished with every one of those years. Look at what he accumulated in all the decades that he was with us on this earth.
As he himself once said, the Gemara‘s question of “Bameh he’erachta yomim? With what did you merit old age?” can be understood as a demand: What have you done with the gift of arichas yomim?
We cry because had he been blessed with additional years, he could have done even more. He could have blessed more people, been meigin and prevented more catastrophes from occurring, and forestalled more tzaros and tragedies.
He could have finished another machzor of Daf Yomi and made a siyum on Shas one more time. He could have learned another Ketzos. He could have learned through Maseches Nazir yet one more time. He could have answered more shailos from bochurim, from yungeleit, from rabbonim, and from poskim. He could have showed us how to live, how to daven, and how to treat others. He could have showed us the path to Moshiach. And now we have lost that. Is that not something to cry for?
The levaya was extraordinary. It was an outpouring of respect from throngs of bnei Torah, an army that Rav Chaim himself helped create, inspire and lead. He and others came here with a picture of the old world before them and determination in their hearts to rebuild it. Look at how they succeeded!
Look at the armies that filled Forest Avenue in Lakewood last week, the week before on Rechov Vilkomeer in Bnei Brak, and the week prior to that in Bais Yisroel in Yerushalayim.
Soon that army will gather as one, their footsteps beating out a song of joy as they rush to greet Moshiach Tzidkeinu.
Rav Chaim’s levaya was attended by tens of thousands, but there were more, many more, unseen souls there. The neshamos of the Yiddelach from the shtetlach he traveled to on behalf of the Telzer Yeshiva were there. The Jews from Toledo, Wichita, Allentown, Kansas, Detroit, Minneapolis, Akron and Canton were all there. The neshamos of the people who were mocked for sending their sons to Telz and the few other yeshivos that existed back then, when the stench of death was still fresh, and those he encouraged and ultimately vindicated, were there too. The people who worked digging ditches for the WPA so that they would have money to pay tuition to the institution called yeshiva were there. They came to witness the unity and focus of the masses, the rejuvenation of something everyone told them would soon become extinct.
And those neshamos were standing on line with the Telzer Rov to greet Rav Chaim when he arrived in Shomayim. Rav Akiva Eiger was there, as were the Ketzos, the Maharsha, the Keren Orah and so many others.
Rav Chaim once said, “Mein breeder zennen geven gresser baalei kishron, my brothers were smarter than me, uber ich hob aleh mol gevolt verren mer masmid, mer masmid, but I always desired to be more diligent and to work harder.”
Rav Chaim leaves us the tools to reach greatness, to aspire, to follow our dreams and to try to be “mer masmid.“
Rav Chaim left a tzava’ah, a beacon of light for us. He urges people to adopt the kabbolah so close to his heart, the daily hour, the inviolable kvius, the commitment to find time for sixty minutes, or at least a half hour, of learning each day.
And, says Rav Chaim, those who accept it will be remembered. He will intercede for them. He will continue to bless and comfort and encourage from there.
He leaves us with the ability to connect with what made him great.
Let’s seize his message, teachings and ideals, and let us develop as he did.
One hour, one half hour, at a time.