By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We live in very precarious times. There is so much good in our community. There is so much Torah being studied and such high standards being set in chinuch, kashrus, tznius and many other areas. More people than ever dedicate their lives to the study and dissemination of Torah. Chessed organizations abound. People seek self-improvement in so many areas.
Nothing is completely good in this world. It will never be all good until the coming of Moshiach. We concentrate on the good, seek to improve what is not so good, and prepare the world for Moshiach‘s arrival. We learn. We give tzedakah. We care about others. We seek to stem machlokes and prevent petty rivalries from afflicting us. We seek to create achdus, unity and love. We try to help those who have been abused and those who have drifted. We reach out to the unaffiliated. We daven better. We say Tehillim for the sick and visit them and care for them.
Hatzolah men can be fast asleep in the middle of the night, sitting with their families at the Shabbos table, at work, or enjoying a simcha, and when a call comes crackling over their walkie-talkies they dash out to help save a life, transport an accident victim and heal wounds, in remarkable examples of selfless dedication to others.
Angels of mercy work with the unemployed to find them jobs and restore their lives. They bring food and money, along with moral support to people who can’t make ends meet. They raise funds among friends and strangers to lift spirits and keep homes intact.
We look at all this and feel good about ourselves and our communities, and deservedly so. But we don’t see the whole picture until we are faced with a crisis.
We were confronted with a life-changing crisis and shocked out of our stupor when we heard news from Eretz Yisroel on Monday about the health of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. We have been hearing for several weeks now about his precarious situation, but each time, we davened and merited a strengthening of his situation. We began, perhaps, to take it for granted and slacken off in our tefillos for the posek and amud hador. We have it so good. We have had it so good for so long that we couldn’t imagine it being any other way.
We heard that Rav Elyashiv’s heart was operating at just 20% of capacity and thought that somehow it would return to 100%. We just believed that Hashem would have rachmanus on him and on us and that he would return home and pasken shailos for Klal Yisroel as he has been doing for the past eighty years. We thought he’d be back in the shul where so many of us have watched him daven and participated in his shiurim.
He was rushed to the hospital on Sunday, and by Monday his condition had worsened and we began to worry. His heart stopped and, together with it, hundreds of thousands of hearts across the Jewish world skipped a beat and slowed down. Wherever the news reached, people were awestruck. They said it couldn’t be true. They begged Hashem to have mercy on us. And He did.
Yeshivos interrupted their learning and, heeding the call of Rav Aron Leib Shteinman shlit”a, began storming the heavens to save the life of Yosef Shalom ben Chaya Musha. We were granted a reprieve and he was resuscitated. His condition was stabilized. He was reportedly placed in a medically-induced coma and connected to a respirator, as doctors sought to drain the fluid which had built up in his lungs as a result of his cardiac condition.
Ramkolim went out around Yerushalayim in the dark of night asking people to daven. People streamed to their local shuls and took out Tehillims. Others went to the Kosel, from where the Shechinah hasn’t left, to pour out their hearts and souls in tefillah. It feels like just yesterday that Rav Elyashiv went to the Kosel to give shevach vehoda’ah that he survived a medical emergency. That was yesterday. Today, hundreds are rushing there to beg that he be spared yet again.
His heartbeat, faint as it was, drove the entire Yiddishe velt, as we all felt our dependence on his Torah, and his zechuyos, not only for his life, but for our lives. We felt the actualization of the words of the Rambam, “levavo levav kol Yisroel.” To paraphrase Rav Yisroel Salanter, we all felt that kol zeman az der hartz klapt, iz duh hofenung far unz aleh, as long as that weak heart pumped, we were strong and well and connected to greatness. Hashem was kind and gave us time to do teshuvah, to learn, to daven and to give tzedakah so that the faint heart which resides in a century-old body living in a simple apartment on a tiny narrow street named Rechov Chanan can continue pumping out life-giving sustenance to an entire nation.
Rav Elyashiv’s whole existence is bederech neis in the zechus of Klal Yisroel and the Torah which he has studied. He was weak and sickly as a child and was home-schooled due to his constantly recurring illnesses. He was so weak that he was never able to help out at home or undertake any strenuous physical activity. All he was able to do was learn with his father at home. His health did not improve with age. His children often feared that he was about to die and that they were about to become orphans. His physician, Dr. Aranoff, taught one of his older daughters how to check his pulse. The pulse rate for a normal, healthy person is anywhere from 65 to 100. His daughter remembered that his was 40. Dr. Rachmilevitch, a famous cardiologist, said that his physical condition could never improve.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the fact that he lived a normal lifespan is a miracle.
Yet, as weak as he was, and as weak as he has been, he learned and learned and learned.
When he learned, he was as fresh and vigorous as a healthy, strong man. And just as he lived way past the age of 40, he can live many more years, for when the posuk says that the Torah is an eitz chaim, a tree of life it is no allegory. It is real.
We all know him from his pesokim on every shailah that occurs in our day. We know him from seeing his picture in the paper every week. We know him from reading his teshuvos and maamarim. We know him from the Torah that is repeated in his name and the stories which are often told depicting his greatness. But what many people don’t know or appreciate is that he became famous only after many decades of being removed from the public eye and adulation.
The phenomenal gaon, Rav Zelig Reuvein Bengis, saw a young bochur learning by himself in the Ohel Sarah shul in Meah Shearim, and he thought that he should convince him to go learn in a yeshiva. Seeing that he was learning Maseches Kiddushin, Rav Bengis asked the young Yosef Shalom if he could farher him. Rav Bengis was sure that he would be able to point out to the bochur that he was deficient in his comprehension of the Gemara and that he should go learn in a yeshiva. Rav Bengis was astounded by the young bochur’s understanding and thorough knowledge of the entire masechta and had tremendous respect for him for the rest of his life.
We recently wrote that his daughter, Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, told my son that her own mother, Rebbetzin Shainah Elyashiv, was personable, outgoing and very popular. At her chasunah, she had many friends with whom to rejoice and dance with. At her side of the mechitzah the mood was festive.
Meanwhile, on the men’s side, the chosson seemed so serious, as he sat surrounded by relatives, neighbors and only a few friends. He had never learned in a formal yeshiva, and the walls and seforim of Ohel Sarah – his “companions” since childhood – were “unable” to dance.
The kallah’s friends asked the bubbly kallah why she was so happy, while her new husband seemed so reticent. “Why am I happy?” answered the kallah. “Ich hob chasunah mit der Toirah alein!” (“I am marrying the Torah itself!”).
For that is who Rav Elyashiv is. Torah, Torah, un noch Torah.
Following his marriage, he went to learn at Kollel Ohel Torah. He would sit and read the words of the sugya being studied in the kollel quietly, to himself. While everyone else would tumul in learning, he sat there reading to himself, as if he was saying Tehillim. The rosh kollel pitied him and thought that, at most, he could learn Mishnayos, and that his chavrusah was tutoring him.
That lasted until the day the chief rabbi, Rav Yitzchak Issac Haleivi Herzog, came into the kollel to discuss with the yungeleit some serious agunah shailos he was having difficulty with in the wake of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. The brilliant yungeleit he had hoped would be able to help him out of his predicament were unable to assist him in arriving at a halachic solution he was comfortable with.
That was until the new Mishnayos zogger felt an obligation to assist the respected rov with his halachic dilemma. The entire kollel and Rav Herzog sat there in amazement as he provided a brilliant analysis of the issues and assisted the chief rabbi with the difficult agunah shailos that had been tormenting him. From that day on, Rav Herzog regularly visited Rav Elyashiv to talk in learning, establishing a serious relationship with him and promoting him to his post as a dayan on the country’s highest bais din.
For years, the humble Ohel Sarah shul where he learned alone as a bochur was the place he spent much of his days and nights. He literally locked himself in there and learned. As people learned of his greatness and began seeking him out, disturbing his learning, he would lock the door to the small bais medrash so that he wouldn’t be disturbed. People knew that they could only ask him serious shailos which nobody else would be able to answer.
It is from that single-minded dedication to Torah that Rav Elyashiv grew into the giant we have all become dependent on. He stands as a symbol of the greatness man can attain if he applies himself to Torah. There is no limit to what we can achieve. If a sickly, weak individual, with a heart that can barely pump, has been able to master kol haTorah kulah, we, who are healthy, can surely reach high levels and light up the world with our Torah if we dedicate ourselves to it. If Torah becomes as important to us as anything else, we can reach the levels he personifies.
It is a gift to our generation that a person who we have seen and spoken to and studied from can live among us, walk among us, in this day, in this generation, and epitomize a gadlus that the yeitzer hara says is impossible to reach anymore.
The chosson who had no friends, the bochur who had no chavrusah, the yungerman everyone in the kollel thought could only read Mishanyos, the weak father whose young children were afraid was living his last day, the gaon who shunned the limelight, the masmid who locked himself in a small shul, the gadol hador shekol bais Yisroel nishan olov, who has lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, seeking nothing for himself, caused Klal Yisroel’s hearts to skip a beat this week.
Let us learn the lesson of his blessed life so that it will be a zechus for him, and for us, so that he is granted many more years to teach, inspire and learn, ad ki yavo leTzion goel, bimeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.