By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
It is frequently said that we live in a dor yasom. Our status as leaderless is so often repeated that we are in danger of believing it and accepting that we are not blessed with great people.
But it’s not true.
It is a lie, a canard, a plot by the Soton to lull people into thinking that they cannot aspire to greatness.
True greatness in Torah and yiras Shomayim is a relic of bygone times, the Soton claims, thus freeing us of the obligation to emulate Torah leaders. If they aren’t really great, why do I have to pay attention to what they say?
In truth, we are blessed with giants, though with each passing week, we seem to lose another one.
Chazal teach us that when Hakadosh Boruch Hu created the world, He took the tzaddikim and “shaslan bechol dor vador,“ He planted them in each generation. That means that He, in His infinite wisdom, looked at our generation and planted the tzaddikim we would need, much like a farmer plants seeds in the section of his field where they can yield the most.
Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz was just such a person. He was not simply a giant, a gadol. He personified gadlus, and he was given to us, our generation.
I remember the first time I saw him. It was fifteen years ago. Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin of Lev L’Achim brought me to his home. But before we went in, Rabbi Sorotzkin showed me a small window and suggested that I stand there and look in before entering. It was good advice. Peering through that side window into his room was like looking back in time seventy-five years into the room of a Litvishe rov in a small shtetel.
There was an aura about him, an air of complete tranquility that enveloped him. He sat there so calmly, with his tall Litvishe yarmulka perched on his head, learning a blatt Gemara as if there was nothing else going on anywhere. It was clear that this was his only reality. He was a person at peace.
The room was old, the furniture was old, he was old, but at the same time, he was so fresh and so alive. I just stood there by that small window transfixed by the image of simplicity and greatness fused together.
“Come,” Rabbi Sorotzkin said. “Let’s go in.”
It was like waking from a dream. I felt like I was benefitting from Rav Michel Yehudah by simply standing there and studying him in his most natural pose.
When the father is home, even if he is learning or working in his study, the entire family feels more secure and behaves better. He is there if they need him. They feel his presence and his strength.
Rav Michel Yehudah was the father of the bnei Torah. The methods of chinuch which are becoming popular today, in 2011 – love, acceptance, warmth, tolerance – he espoused sixty years ago. Until two years ago, he delivered his daily shiur, bringing his ga’onus and penetrating lomdus to his “tenth grade shteller,” giving young teenagers new dimensions in Torah. He made himself available to his people, sitting in his humble room, where bnei Torah of all ages came to speak to him. Some sought emotional support, while others needed advice.
I saw Rav Michel Yehudah just three weeks ago. I went with my son who is soon to be bar mitzvah and had the zechus of speaking to him one last time. When we came, he was delivering a blatt shiur to a minyan of people, as he did every day since he stopped saying his daily shiur in yeshiva.
As we waited, I stood by the small window, the same one I had looked through during my first visit, and watched a rebbi teaching talmidim. Then they opened the door and allowed us to join him in davening Minchah. It was sad to see how weak he was, how he couldn’t rise from his chair and didn’t even have the strength to turn the pages of his siddur.
After Minchah, his grandson told us to sit down by the table. “But he is so weak. Perhaps we should just leave,” we said.
Rav Michel Yehudah looked at us and motioned to sit down, so we did.
My son was introduced as a bar mitzvah bochur who wanted a bracha. But Rav Michel Yehudah didn’t just give brachos. He grasped my son’s hand and held on to it very tightly. He looked the boy in the eye and spoke to his heart. He told him of the importance of Torah, learning Torah, and being a mentch. His words were barely audible, but to us, they were blaring. This same man, who a few minutes ago needed his grandson to turn the pages of his siddur, was grasping the hand of a young American boy to impress upon him what it means to be a Yid.
He was there for anybody and everybody, at any time. As long as he had strength in his body, he used it to learn, to teach, to support, to be mechazeik, and to transmit the legacy he received, first in Volozhin, where he was born, then in Vilna from his rebbi Rav Shlomo Heiman, followed by the Chevron Yeshiva of old, and from the Chazon Ish. He lived for his talmidim. He lived for bnei Torah the world over. He lived for all of us.
When Mordechai Goldstein from Lakewood came to him before his bar mitzvah two years ago, Rav Michel Yehudah spoke to him. But he spoke in Yiddish and the boy didn’t understand Yiddish. As Rav Michel Yehudah was speaking, the boy burst out crying. The aged rosh yeshiva asked the boy’s father if the young man understood what he was telling him. The father said, “Maybe his head doesn’t understand, but his neshamah surely does.”
Rav Michel Yehudah spoke with the love of a father.
Reb Mendel Tress, who learned in Ponovezh, wrote down what his rebbi, Rav Michel Yehudah, told his own bar mitzvah boy:
“People consider a baal kishron to be a good bochur, an ideal chavrusah, but that’s not the case. A good chavrusah is someone who wants to understand what you have to say, who listens, so that together you can understand what the rebbi has to say. That’s how we learned by my rebbi, Reb Shloime.
“A few years ago, I passed a group of bochurim, and only one of them looked up at me and said, ‘Gut Shabbos.’ Then they all greeted me as well. That bochur was ‘notel sechar kulam.’ With good middos, you can shteig.
“When you daven, don’t show the Ribbono Shel Olam that you are in a rush to take off your tefillin. Keep them on just a bit longer, until after the last Kaddish, and then the Ribbono Shel Olam won’t be in a hurry to leave you.”
That’s what Rav Michel Yehudah told a bar mitzvah boy. If he invested so much energy and time into communicating with a twelve-year-old, imagine how he addressed his talmidim and how he spoke to the roshei yeshiva, kollel yungeleit and yeshiva bochurim who entered that simple room on Rechov Vilkomirer, in the shadow of the Ponovezher Yeshiva.
Marbitzei Torah from across Eretz Yisroel flocked to him with all their questions. They asked him which mesechta to learn in their yeshiva. They consulted with him about bochurim who weren’t functioning properly. They consulted with him before they sent a boy away from yeshiva. Kollel yungeleit traveled to him and put all their issues before him, and as he did with everyone who came to him, he patiently and cleverly dispensed advice gleaned from decades as a rosh yeshiva, moreh derech and gadol baTorah. And of course, they came to speak in learning.
We try to find time to learn Torah and to understand it. We tailor our lives to fit the Torah. For Rav Michel Yehudah, Torah was his life. There was no tailoring needed. Rav Michel Yehudah didn’t have to bend his natural inclinations to accommodate the mitzvos of the Torah. His life was formed by Torah and framed by limud haTorah and the teachings and precepts of the Torah were his natural inclinations. His heart beat with the rhythm of Torah.
Since Torah was his essence and his life, as long as he had life in him, as long as he had a drop of strength, he used it to teach Torah, to learn Torah, and to encourage others to learn. He never stopped until Hashem stopped him.
In 1932, Rav Michel Yehudah arrived in Eretz Yisroel with his mother and sister carrying a letter of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky to the Chevroner roshei yeshiva which urged them to accept the young bochur from Volozhin who was to one day illuminate the skies of Torah. His older brother, Aryeh Leib, who reached Eretz Yisroel earlier, had somehow procured for them the priceless immigration certificates grudgingly rationed out by the British Mandate government. Thus, they were spared from the Holocaust and Klal Yisroel was blessed.
Rav Chaim Ozer warned Rav Michel Yehudah to be aware that Zionist elements might be anxious to recruit his talents for their cause and may even be waiting for him upon his arrival at the Yaffo port.
“Don’t speak even one word with them,” he warned. “Go straight to Yeshivas Chevron!”
The Chevroner roshei yeshiva, Rav Yechezkel Sarna and Rav Aharon Cohen, and the mashgiach, Rav Leib Chasman, welcomed him with open arms and he continued his rise to gadlus. Rav Chaim Ozer instructed that he learn once a week with Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer in Yerushalayim, and he attended his shiurim on Seder Kodshim. On one occasion, when Rav Michel Yehudah said a particularly sharp insight, Rav Isser Zalman was so thrilled with the p’shat that he said to his wife, “Bring the shnapps! The Volozhiner has said a wonderful sevarah!”
He was a giant in learning, a treasured talmid of the greatest rabbeim of the last century, such as Rav Shlomo Heiman, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and the Chazon Ish. When the Chazon Ish was ill and weak, it was his beloved Rav Michel Yehudah who penned his correspondence and answered b’sheim the Chazon Ish.
Rav Michel Yehudah wrote many seforim and delivered shiurim six days a week. He was appointed as rosh yeshiva seventy years ago, at the behest of the Chazon Ish, and was renowned for both his mastery of Torah and his profundity in learning. This Torah giant was the man who felt the achrayus of a father. His Torah was the backdrop to the warm, welcoming smile.
Klal Yisroel is blessed with manhigim, leaders. There are those who are manhigim of the klal and there are those who are manhigim of the p’rat, the yochid. Rav Michel Yehudah was the manhig hador of the yechidim. He was a manhig of the rabim by being manhig of the yechidim. One yochid and another yochid. One shiur, one shmuess, one eitzah, and one bracha at a time.
In his addresses to mechanchim, he advocated treating talmidim as yechidim, showing the love a father displays for his son, literally.
He always knew how to choose the right words. On one occasion, a bochur came to him complaining that he had great difficulty learning. No matter how hard he tried, he simply could not understand. Rav Michel Yehudah asked him about his family, and it turned out that the bochur was the only frum person in his family.
“Do you know what responsibility you have?” Rav Michel Yehudah asked him. “You must carry your whole family!”
“But I simply can’t learn!” said the bochur.
Rav Michel Yehudah broke into tears and the bochur joined him.
“I have been rosh yeshiva for many decades,” he told him, “and my experience shows me that it is not the brilliant boys who succeed, but those who learn with hasmadah and don’t give up. Keep at it and the gates of understanding will suddenly open before you. Any time you feel discouraged, come back and we’ll talk some more.”
He loved Jews. All Jews. When you walked into his room, you felt that this old Yid from Bnei Brak really cared about you.
An accomplished American gentleman accompanied his own rebbi on a visit to Rav Michel Yehudah. When they finished their discussion, Rav Michel Yehudah turned to the man and said, “Obviously I’ll never be your rebbi, but please let me be your zaide!”
Just to put things in perspective: As recently as this past Pesach, Rav Michel Yehudah received a Yom Tov visit from no less a personage than Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who would come to fulfill the mitzvah of visiting his rebbi on Yom Tov. (Rav Chaim had been a talmid of Rav Michel Yehudah many decades ago in Yeshiva Tiferes Tzion.)
An American baal habayis, a bar mitzvah yingel, and every other yochid were all equally loved.
He was passionate and outspoken in his call for love-based chinuch. He would repeat from Rav Chaim Volozhiner that there is no chiyuv of tochacha, no obligation of rebuke, for someone who cannot speak with a soft voice. A warm tone and a pleasant demeanor, he taught, were prerequisites for giving instruction to others.
Someone once went to Rav Michel Yehudah for his son’s upsherin. The whole family came along. Rav Michel Yehudah welcomed them all into his room and spent time with them, telling them how to be mechanech children. He said that you have to concentrate on the geshmak, on the asei tov and not the sur mei’ra. Speak to your children about the positive, he said. Only speak about the good. “If you want to see nachas from your kinder, you have to sing zemiros with them on Shabbos and they have to understand what they are saying,” Rav Michel Yehudah advised the father.
Rav Michel Yehudah’s entire life was one of shirah and zimrah, stretching over 97 holy years, infusing thousands upon thousands of Yiddishe kinder of all ages with Torah and shirasah.
A teacher in an out-of-town community high school spearheaded a tznius campaign with her students, as they worked together to learn and safeguard the gidrei tznius. Hoping to hammer home the message of Chazal that brachos follow those who are careful with tznius, the teacher suggested that her girls write down their names and requests on a paper, which she would send to the gedolei hador for brachos.
She sent the paper to Rav Michel Yehudah.
He was too weak to write, so his attendant wrote as he dictated:
“Each small step in tznius will have an inestimable effect on your future doros, and I am thrilled to hear about the kabbalos you’ve made. May Hashem shower you with chein, chessed and rachamim.“
The teacher received the return letter, dated Sivan 5771, on Monday morning, the 25th of Sivan. As Rav Michel Yehudah’s holy soul was ascending heavenward, he was still speaking to his children, still there for the yochid, still being mechazeik the lone teacher in a small community and her charges.
A close talmid of Rav Elya Svei was in Eretz Yisroel just after his petirah and went to Rav Michel Yehudah for words of chizuk. The talmid asked how one perpetuates the legacy of his rebbi.
“Write a list for yourself of what made him great. Study that list and try to emulate him. Speak with your wife and children about your rebbi, and make sure that they understand. Look,” said Rav Michel Yehudah, pointing at a photo. “The picture that hangs here is of my rebbi, Reb Shloime, since I feel like I owe him everything.”
I look at the picture of Rav Michel Yehudah from our visit just three weeks ago. His frail hands were sapped of strength, yet he gripped the kvittel given to him with the name of a Jew desperate for a yeshua, and he held it, his face burning with concentration.
When I told my son the bitter news of his passing, I saw that he was mentally revisiting our meeting earlier this month with the tzaddik.
After a few moments of silence, he said, “He held my hand very tightly.”
Yes, Ari, he did. He held your hand and our hands, and the hands of Klal Yisroel, very tightly.
We had a father at home.
And now he’s gone.