By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel is a rosh yeshiva to thousands of people. He says brilliant shiurim and delivers many chaburos each week, but what has made him a rebbi to Klal Yisroel is something else. It’s the lesson he teaches each day just by being. It’s a lesson that’s relevant and applicable to every single Yid, regardless of his level of learning and background.
Rav Nosson Tzvi teaches us, with his every move, that a Yid has to face his personal limitations with simcha, optimism and courage.
Perhaps that’s why crowds of talmidim and admirers are drawn to the Mirrer rosh yeshiva wherever he goes.
The rosh yeshiva has been afflicted with Parkinson’s disease for years, yet he’s filled his many responsibilities undeterred.
As I write this, Rav Nosson Tzvi is in America to raise much-needed funds for Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim, one of the greatest bastions of Torah our people has ever known.
It would be superfluous to speak about Rav Nosson Tzvi’s mark on Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim and Torah in our day. Even if he were a healthy person, the phenomenal growth he has effected would be deemed magnificent and historic, but when you consider his condition and ponder the phenomenal physical and spiritual expansion of the yeshiva he leads, it is nothing short of awe-inspiring, especially in an age when superlatives are employed for accomplishments of much smaller magnitude.
I had the honor of meeting and speaking with Rav Nosson Tzvi this week following a breakfast on behalf of his Yeshiva at the home of my choshuveh neighbor, Reb Mordechai Lichtenstein. We, as a community, have been at a loss for words recently over tragedies and losses we have suffered. Meeting Rav Nosson Tzvi is also an experience that renders one speechless, not from pain but from admiration.
One is left without words after sitting down and speaking to a person who, rather than succumbing to self-pity, perseveres, adding to his yeshiva‘s budget, continuing to tend to his garden of Torah, and supporting an environment for Torah to blossom in our day.
As Rav Nosson Tzvi began speaking at the breakfast, a hush descended upon the assembled crowd. He spoke simple words, as most great people do. He spoke about why Torah cannot be found amongst people who are consumed with ga’avah and why most of the 48 tools which the Mishnah says are necessary for kinyan haTorah relate to matters of interpersonal relationships. Rav Nosson Tzvi explained that the reason is because Torah is not the domain of any single person. It belongs to all of Klal Yisroel, and the more you make yourself a part of the klal, the more you can have a relationship with the Torah.
One who is humble and shares his wisdom with others, and who is prepared to learn from others, can earn a share, and grow, in Torah. Thus, Torah is nikneis, or acquired, with hard work coupled with anavah and achdus, humility and unity.
Rav Nosson Tzvi’s words are borne out by the Medrash which states that the Jewish people only became worthy of receiving the Torah when they stood at Har Sinai “ke’ish echad beleiv echad.” Additionally the Gemarah in several places (Kiddushin 49b, Eiruvin 55a, and Taanis 7a) discusses anavah, humility, as a prerequisite ingredient for Torah study.
And that is the secret of Am Yisroel. Anavah and achdus are the ingredients that allow us to grow and become not only great, but also an integral part of the Am Hanivchar.
Earlier this month, our family merited seeing our youngest son become a bar mitzvah. We were taking pictures before the simcha, and the photographer was issuing instructions as photographers do. “Move to the right. Smile wider. Stand straight.” We have come to know and love this particular photographer. He came to this country from Russia, not knowing much about Yiddishkeit, and he has come a very long way. His heart is huge and golden.
The guests began to arrive at the bar mitzvah celebration, and just before the actual dinner began, the photographer excused himself. He asked me if he could step away for a couple of minutes. I asked where he was going, and he looked at me in astonishment. “It’s a bar mitzvah! I must change into a fresh shirt. I must show respect for the simcha!”
His simple response has been playing in my mind for a few weeks.
I keep thinking about where this man was raised. Where he grew up, the forces that were determined to subjugate mind and soul almost succeeded. They managed to squash any vestige of Yiddishkeit, depriving this once little boy of pure Jewish joy. A very fine person, he never merited learning Torah the way we take for granted, and he certainly never experienced the sublime satisfaction of mastering a sugya.
But one thing they couldn’t do was destroy the intrinsic Yiddishe sensitivity, the genuine Jewish emotion that says, “A young Jewish boy is becoming bar mitzvah. Let me show respect! It is a simcha. I must change my shirt. A boy is becoming part of the Jewish people. It is my celebration as well. I am part of the klal and this is a milestone for all of us.”
This photographer, who put on a different shirt in honor of a bar mitzvah in Klal Yisroel, never learned in the Mir, or in any yeshiva, but he knows the truth of Rav Nosson Tzvi’s words.
The message of our friend, the photographer, is relevant to all of us.
In recent years, we have seen experts and authors address the problem of disenfranchised youth, filling our bookshelves with volumes on how a Jew thinks and positing that the lack of answers and clear hashkafah is what drives teenagers away, lo aleinu.
Their work is valuable and their efforts certainly make a difference, but sometimes one wonders if there is another area in which we aren’t investing enough energy, and that is teaching our children not just to think Jewish, but to feel Jewish.
During the last century, as a new demographic, the American Jew, emerged, the words “I have a Jewish heart” became an excuse. It became a means of saying, “Even though I shed the tefillin and shemiras Shabbos of my European parents, I am still connected. Ich hub a Yiddishe hartz.“ There’s something nice about the concept of having a Jewish heart, but, of course, it’s not enough to simply feel Jewish. To live Jewish, you have to maintain a commitment to the framework of halacha.
So that night, our youngest son, Ari, was zocheh to join the ranks of Klal Yisroel’s adults, becoming mechuyav bemitzvos. Reflecting on the occasion, the thought struck me that beyond the tefillin and black hat; beyond the halachos and dinim of his newfound status, we also need to imbue every bar mitzvah bochur with another characteristic of gadlus: Yiddishe emotions.
What does it mean to become a gadol? The posuk tells us, “Vayigdal Moshe vayeitzei el echav vayar besivlosam.” Our youth must recognize that they are part of a great people. They cannot be a Jew by being on their own, locked in their own daled amos, without caring about others and learning from and with them.
The heart expands with the chiyuv bemitzvos. The senses must become more attuned to Jewish suffering and pain.
A sensitive soul, refined by Torah and avodah, who lives his life by following the Shulchan Aruch, can usually experience Yiddishe hergeishim and possess the ability to feel like a Jew. From the days when we aspire to become talmidei chochomim onward, as we perfect our middos of anavah, achvah and achdus, and we climb the ladder of the 48 kinyanim of Torah, we think as Yidden and people with a Yiddishe hartz.
At the bar mitzvah, I reminded Ari that he is named after his great-great-grandfather, Rav Avrohom Hoffenberg. At a bris, when the father discusses who the baby is named for, it’s historical and interesting. At a bar mitzvah, when that same child takes his first real steps into Jewish people-hood, we tell him of his sacred mandate, his legacy, and the expectations inherent in the name he carries.
We never met the zaide, but we connected with him through working on the kesavim that he left behind, the diaries of his soul. In the lines of his rabbonishe script, we saw the yeshiva of Volozhin where he learned, the shtetel of Vashki, where he served as rov, along with its ramshackle homes and narrow roads. We felt the penetrating Lithuanian cold weather and the grinding poverty, but we also sensed the joy that suffused the town on Shabbos and Yom Tov, as well as the reverence and awe that he felt towards Torah and his unwavering dedication to it throughout his life.
And in those letters, we saw something else as well. We saw him, after distinguishing himself as a rov for twenty-eight years, begging for money to buy food because he was starving to death.
Rav Hoffenberg wrote to a rov in America, asking him for help, and he tells how he, along with all the Yidden in Vashki, was forced out of the country. They were finally allowed to return, but had no means of support. He concludes his tale of woe by stating, “Mah shekarah li ve’avru alai shom ein mah lesapeir, ki lo yotzosi miKlal Yisroel – I was just one Jew amongst many, one suffering soul amongst a large group of similarly afflicted brothers and sisters. I was a Yid in golus. I am but another member of Klal Yisroel.”
The pain and torture that he endured were indescribable. This rov – a talmid chochom, morah hora’ah, and mechaber of seforim – writes how he was bloated from malnutrition and hunger, without a shirt or morsel of food. He begged this rov in America to help him stay alive.
And through it all, he kept learning, writing, teaching his people and caring for them, and seeing himself as a part of a glorious whole, a cheilek of Klal Yisroel.
So yes, he felt hunger and privation, but that was secondary. What he really felt was Yiddishkeit.
Anavah, achvah and achdus combined with limud haTorah to create a giant.
There is a comment that people sometimes make. When they encounter an Ashkenazi who enjoys a spirited and passionate Sefardic davening, they’ll say, “Oh, you daven here. You must have a Sefardishe heart.” When they meet a Litvishe person who enjoys chassidishe friends and is taken by their customs, they say, “Oh, you have a chassidishe heart.”
I find such comments bothersome. A Jewish heart has room in it to be touched by Jewish customs, practices and feelings wherever they originate from. It can be affected by niggunim from this group, Torah from that chassidus, and the davening of a different kehillah.
A Yiddishe heart is broad and deep. It has room to incorporate and appreciate all reflections and rhythms of authentic Torah life.
The Yiddishe heart is like a guitar with many strings. Touch any one and you’ll create music.
The loss of gedolei Torah in recent months has weakened our people and removed a fortress from around us. In the Selichos of Erev Rosh Hashanah, we bemoan the sad state of Klal Yisroel in golus by saying, “Ein lanu menahel, ve’ein machzik beyadeinu – We have no leader, and no one to strengthen our hands.”
We mourn the loss of gedolei Torah, the menahelim who lead, as well as the gadol who is the machzik beyadeinu, the friend. He’s a gadol in offering encouraging words and thoughts, at giving an optimistic smile and letting you know he believes in you. He’s the one who never seems to tire in his mission of giving strength to tired arms.
An example is someone like Rav Aba Dunner zt”l, who just recently passed way.
Rabbi Dunner was an individual completely dedicated to Yidden and to Yiddishe causes. Far from the cameras and the glory, he set out from his London home to traverse the back roads of European and Russian towns, helping rabbonim and mechanchim. Every mosad was his mosad, and he was ready to do anything in his power to go to bat for the dedicated kiruv figures trying to reach dormant Jewish souls across Eastern Europe.
Rabbi Dunner was soft and gentle, and demonstrated charm and diplomacy when called for, but he was strong as a lion when that was needed. He won over heads of state, sometimes using sweet persuasion, other times fierce tenacity.
He laughed a Jewish laugh and he cried Jewish tears.
He was a riveting speaker, as eloquent as he was humble, as inspiring as he was astute. He spoke from his heart, with seichel and intelligence. There was no mumbling and bumbling, nothing silly or nonsensical.
Rabbi Dunner was cut from the same cloth as Rabbi Moshe Sherer zt”l. He was a rare breed of sagacity, humility, eloquence, dignity, and true yiras Shomayim. He epitomized the characteristics of a Yiddishe hartz.
He faced much adversity and always rose again, ready to keep fighting the good fight for his people. In recent months, the dreaded illness claimed his body, but he forged on, doing his best to ignore it. Prior to being diagnosed with his terminal disease, he dragged his tired body to the Japanese prison and addressed gatherings on behalf of the young jailed bochurim with whom we have become familiar. He went to battle for shechitah in Brussels, for proper maintenance of Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe, for strong rabbinic standards, for legitimate botei din, and for countless other Jewish religious necessities. Wherever he went, he dispensed words of healing and warmth, with a smile and an insightful vertel, making him a giant in the area of “machzik beyadeinu.“
But that’s not why I am writing about him here. His son, Rav Zev, retold a fascinating anecdote of how his father reacted to the doctor’s diagnosis just a few short months back:
“After he got his diagnosis,” recounted Reb Zev, “he asked me what I thought he should do now that the end was near. I told him a story I had once heard about three rebbes who were standing together when a chossid approached and asked what they would do if they knew that they only had one hour to live. One rebbe said that he would jump in the mikvah and do teshuvah. The next one said that he would call his family and friends and beg for mechilah. The last one to respond was the greatest of the group. His response was, simply, ‘What do you mean? I will continue doing what I am doing now.'”
And that was what Rabbi Dunner did. He continued his klal work, supporting people and raising money from his deathbed to construct and maintain mikvaos. He lived such a perfect Yiddishe life of anavah, achvah and achdus. He wasn’t just a good Jew; he was a menahel machzik beyadeinu who lived such a good Yiddishe leben when he was well, that when he became ill, he continued living that exact way, supporting, building, repairing and maintaining, until the very end.
Ein lanu menahel ve’ein machzik beyadeinu.
We have to teach the next generation by example to feel Jewish, to plug into our national emotion, and to live Jewish lives no matter their physical condition and no matter what is going on around them.
We have now entered the time of year when we are commanded to experience genuine feelings appropriate for this period. The outward demands of halacha reflect an inner demand to mourn.
During these Three Weeks, we have to do more than just turn off the music and let our hair grow. We have to tap into what these halachos tell us. We must understand what it means to conduct ourselves as aveilim.
We have to get in touch with what other Yidden are feeling. We have to subjugate ourselves with anavah and achdus, as the Mirrer rosh yeshiva said. Not only when tragedy strikes, and not just during these weeks of collective mourning over the churban and all of the tragedies that have befallen our people. Rather, every day of our lives, it is incumbent upon us to follow the sterling example that Rav Nosson Tzvi sets for all of Am Yisroel.
We have to live for other people and remember that what makes us and our people great is the subjugation of our selfish impulses to benefit others. We have to ignore our own physical limitations and seek to help spread Torah and Yiddishkeit. We have to breed within ourselves the ability to rejoice, and cry, with others with a Yiddishe hartz that really encompasses all types of Jews.
If we properly utilize the current period, allowing the feelings of loss for the Botei Mikdosh and the extraordinary Hashgachah we merited there, crying over the subsequent golus and its relentless onslaught of suffering, Hashem will allow us to experience, together, the sublime joy of uva’u leTzion berinah.
May it transpire speedily in our day.