The following article appears in the Pesach edition of Yated Ne’eman USA:
By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
I had driven there dozens of times, but last Thursday was different. For so many years, I had made the trip to Philadelphia full of anticipation. Questions and dilemmas preoccupied me. I needed direction. I needed support in what I was doing. I knew that once I left there, my questions would be put to rest, my mind would be clearer, my perspective would be sharper and my task would be clarified.
But first I had to prepare for the visit. I had to be ready to have my arguments torn apart, my premises invalidated. Yet, I always left with a deeper understanding of the issues, a renewed appreciation for the truth and the strength it would take to fight for what was right.
When I drove down the New Jersey Turnpike last Thursday, it was with a heavy heart. I had many questions I knew would remain unanswered. Clarity, support and direction would no longer be forthcoming. In place of the renewed energy and conviction I had once counted on, confusion and sadness would prevail. I feared that I would leave there even weaker than I would be when I arrived.
I was driving to the levaya of my rebbi, Rav Elya Svei zt”l, the rebbi and father of American bnei Torah. Though we haven’t merited his leadership over the past few years, whenever we have a decision to make, we hear his voice in the back of our minds, guiding us about what to do, where to go, where not go, what to say and what not to say.
It was not always easy to follow his dictates. To do so, we usually needed the strength and chizuk he provided us in order to fulfill what he wanted. Now we are left with enduring memories – his voice, his image and his teachings.
He demanded much from us, and when we didn’t live up to his expectations, he let us know that. But at the same time, he inspired us to rise to our full potential. He forced us to dig deep into ourselves and to find latent intelligence we never knew we possessed. He strengthened us, as steel gets hardened by going through fire.
In the early days of this newspaper, I was quite sensitive to criticism. I would repeat to him the negative comments people made and ask him how to respond. Finally, one day he said to me, “You have to develop thicker skin. You can’t go on publishing the newspaper if you remain this way. You have to become tougher.” I didn’t think I had it in me. He calmly guided me and helped me grow the thick skin which he felt my shlichus required.
Rav Elya took an early interest in the paper, and guided me from its inception for as long as he was able to. He pushed me and he admonished me, and he gave me the courage to persevere in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles.
There was one time I wrote a particularly caustic article against a specific person. I spent hours weighing each word and when I was just about done, I accidentally hit the delete button. It was gone for good, impossible to retrieve.
Since I had discussed the article with Rav Elya before setting out to write it, I called him and told him that I suspected Hashem was sending me a message – that perhaps we were better off not stoking the flames. Maybe I should just forget it and drop the topic, I told him. “No,” he said to me. “Absolutely not. You have it all wrong. The article was erased because it wasn’t strong enough. Get back to work.”
It was Sunday night at 10:15 and I had expended all my emotional energy, but the rosh yeshiva‘s command had to be heeded. I went back to my computer, painstakingly writing and rewriting that article. It took all night. When I faxed it to him in the morning, he was full of praise. The next day, the article was published, unleashing a torrent of criticism. But I remained silent for I knew that my rebbi backed and encouraged me.
There was a time when I did everything connected to the paper, unassisted, and he watched me almost destroy myself. He said, “You can’t go on like this. You have to hire people to write and edit. You can’t continue doing it all yourself. You’ll collapse.” I told him that I was concerned that others wouldn’t be sufficiently dedicated to the goals of the paper and it would result in more mistakes. What I really feared was his displeasure when encountering those errors, but I was afraid to say that.
As if reading my mind, he said to me, “I will be your biggest supporter, don’t worry. There comes a time when you have to train people to fill in for you. If there are mistakes, I will defend you.”
It was thanks to that prodding that the paper was able to grow and flourish.
By no means, though, did he then lighten up on me. He remained as tough as ever, pushing me to be better and do more. But I knew that he realized my nisyonos. He knew what I was going through.
There is a photo of Rav Elya that I have hanging in my study. Many times, when I am beat up from all sides and in need of some moral support, I look at him. I see him smiling at me and can hearing him saying, “Don’t pay attention to the naysayers. Just keep on doing your job. Just remember, your job is to shaf kevod Shomayim. As long as you do that, you will be okay.”
I remember going to meet people with him on behalf of the Philadelphia Yeshiva. At one home, we were treated so poorly that I walked out of there in tears and thought I couldn’t go on. He was my rebbi and I revered him. I couldn’t bear seeing him abused. The shame and embarrassment were just too much for me.
Rav Elya turned to me and said, “Es iz gornisht. You can’t let it bother you. This is the way Torah is built. This is the way the Ponovezher Rov did it. This is how the rosh yeshiva [Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l] did it. Let’s go on to the next name on the list. If you want to be involved in building Torah, you have to be able to handle this.”
He was prepared to be embarrassed and never worried about his own personal kavod. Yet, he refused to go to certain people I suggested who might offer donations. He felt that they didn’t have the proper appreciation for Torah and gedolei Torah.
He taught us talmidim by example. He never spoke about himself and the great lengths to which he went to fight for the truth and what was right and proper. We learned by watching him, by seeing how he exhausted himself in order to enhance the honor and prestige of Torah. He taught us by example in the way he took strong positions and refused to back down, even in the face of strong and bitter opposition. Taking our cue from him, we learned that the uppermost goal must always be to uphold the truth, not to score popularity points.
There was nothing that he wouldn’t do for a talmid. There was no wall thick enough to stop him when it came to helping a talmid. He sacrificed his own learning for his talmidim. He could spend hours learning with a young talmid to show him how to understand a sugya, even during his “free” time when he would have much preferred to be learning by himself. If a talmid insisted, he would stop what he was doing and learn with him.
We sometimes tend to defer taking action or involving ourselves with one task or another, with the excuse that we are not worthy or qualified. The rosh yeshiva would prod us not to be lazy. He would show that we were up to the task. While in private he was tough on us, in public he showered us with his full support, shielding us from the wrath of people who seized any opportunity to mock Torah.
Rav Elya had the patience to wait for his talmidim to respond to his tutelage, to gradually figure out on their own what they should be focused on and what they should be doing.
His hasmadah and yegiah were legendary. His gadlus in Torah was achieved not only by means of his superior intelligence, but also as a result of the massive amounts of effort and time expended in horeven in lernen, from his earliest years and onward. Any talmid can tell you how drenched in sweat the rosh yeshiva was when he finished delivering his daily shiur. But not every talmid knew that he would go to sleep very late and then wake up a few hours later to continue to learn.
Rav Elya’s shiur was a masterpiece of amkus and cheshbon which required much effort to follow and even greater effort to prepare and deliver. He showed a reverence for the words of the Rishonim and Achronim and demonstrated how much discipline and exertion was required to begin to understand their intention.
Talmidim would arrive in the yeshiva for ninth grade, barely older than bar mitzvah. It was Elul zeman. Most were like me and had no idea what Elul was. We had never heard of it, much less experienced it. But then selichos and Rosh Hashanah came and we were changed forever. Elul and the Yomim Noraim would never be the same for me, as I’m sure was the case for the many hundreds and thousands of talmidim of the yeshiva.
On the first night of selichos, we heard the voices of the roshei yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky davening for the amud and Rav Elya leading the chorus in response. We heard Rav Shmuel crying out, “Vaya’avor Hashem al ponov vayikrah” in that beautiful, haunting yeshivishe nusach, and then Rav Elya would shout back the spine-tingling words, “Hashem, Hashem, Keil Rachum Vechanun!“
Their tefillos were more moving and powerful than anything a professional chazzan can utter. Our hearts were opened, our neshomos were touched and our psyches were pierced as they had never been before. His shmuessen added to the davening experience and reached the core of our being, forcing us to have charatah al he’avar and make kabbalos al he’osid.
Rav Elya’s drashos were the crowning moment of any event he addressed. He had tremendous respect for the people who came to listen, and he would spend a great deal of time preparing. His public talks would leave audiences spellbound. He would begin slowly and softly as he laid the groundwork for what he was going to say. Carefully and methodically, he would build the structure of his drasha. By the time he reached the crescendo, he was full of fire and energy, driving home his point in a way that left audiences in awe.
As in the shiur room during his shiur, there was a palpable energy in the air as he spoke. He breathed oxygen and vitality into his listeners, providing them with the stamina they were so desperate for. People walked out enthused and strengthened, ready to take on the challenges of the day. Many of those drashos remain fresh in the minds of those who merited to hear them, providing guidance till this very day.
Rav Elya had no intermediaries who would stand between him and Klal Yisroel. His phone was never off the hook. He had one phone line and his number was listed in the phonebook, so anyone could call him and get through.
I can recall numerous times when I was sitting with him and the phone would ring. “Why can’t you just ignore it?” I would ask. “Why do you have to talk to everyone who calls? He would respond that he was there for everyone. Anyone with a question had a number they could call for an answer. He was emphatically opposed to having a gabbai who, by screening his calls and deciding who would get to meet him, would try to influence his thought process.
His ahavas Yisroel and love for Eretz Yisroel were legendary and infectious. He really cared. There was a period in which there were several dreadful bombings in Yerushalayim and scores of innocent Jews were killed or injured. The pictures were horrific. Many people called to complain about the photographs that the Yated published, which caused them great anguish. I asked Rav Elya what to do. He said to continue publishing the pictures. “Let the Amerikaner Yidden feel the tzaar of Eretz Yisroeldiker Yidden.” Anyone who heard him speak and recite Tehillim during times of tzaros knew that he felt that pain.
A woman who was experiencing a difficult period in her life would regularly call Rav Elya for support and advice on a wide range of pressing issues. He would spend hours conversing with her, giving her guidance.
She called the night that the yeshiva‘s main building was destroyed by fire. Rav Elya was very traumatized by that blaze, which forced the yeshiva to close for a short period of time. For a long time afterwards, he would think and speak about the fire, as he engaged in long periods of self examination to determine why Hashem had punished him so.
Yet, when the woman called in the midst of the tumult surrounding the fire, he calmly and patiently gave her the time she needed, not once betraying what was going on in his life, not even mentioning the fire to her. He put everything else on hold in order to help a person who depended on him.
This incident was typical of his way of subjugating his own needs and wants to those of the klal and the people who turned to him for help.
Unless he was preparing for shiur, you could always call him and speak to him, and he’d respond as if he had all the time in the world. Nothing took precedence to helping out a talmid, a friend, a family member, an askan, or a needy person. Every ben Torah and every mechanech had a protector in him. Every askan who was oseik b’emunah had someone he could call as many times as he wanted for guidance and succor.
Rav Elya had no tolerance for hypocrisy and could not countenance anyone who used their position to advance a personal agenda. When a person stepped out of line, the person knew that there was someone he would have to answer to. And when someone acted irresponsibly or abused his talmidim, Rav Elya did everything in his ability to end that person’s career. Singlehandedly, he fought the perpetrator and his enablers, long before it was fashionable to expose and denounce such offenders. Rav Elya paid no attention to how powerful the person in question might have been, what connections the person had, what the action would cost Rav Elya personally, or how it might hurt the yeshiva he gave his life for.
He didn’t only provide an ear and a shoulder to cry on, he offered penetrating insight into whatever issue was being discussed. He would dissect the point in question. He would set aside all the tangents and details that would confound others and cloud their ability to formulate a response. He would analyze the matter from all angles, probe the consequences of each course of action, and carefully plot a strategy.
Rav Elya would attend meetings, and after everyone had offered their opinions, he would quietly, in a sentence or two, deconstruct their suppositions. He would state his position so lucidly and brilliantly that everyone realized the veracity of his decision. The conversation would end right there.
His responses were not knee-jerk, but fastidiously thought out and unfailingly accurate. He saw things that no one else saw. He sensed danger where everyone else thought it was safe to tread. With the passage of time, we often saw his predictions about various developments in local and world events come to pass.
He warned me about people whom I thought were my friends, and I would suggest that perhaps he was being too negative. He always ended up being right and I always ended up being wrong. I would have saved myself much aggravation had I listened to him initially, but my youthful exuberance got in the way. Even though I didn’t follow his warnings, when those people turned on me, he was right there to guide me on how to deal with them, often interceding on my behalf.
Rav Elya didn’t bear grudges. He wasn’t small-minded and always remained focused on the big picture. He was unencumbered by pettiness. His primary motive in all he did was to be marbeh kevod Shomayim. His ego played no role.
He never sought anything for himself. He lived in a modest row-house in an integrated area across the street from a towering public high school, several blocks from the yeshiva. He cared only about being marbitz Torah, and raising the level of respect for Torah. He was dedicated to helping people realize the true path, even if that meant engaging in activities beneath his dignity. He took many hits for his strong stances and made many enemies, but it didn’t deter him. The bottom line for him was maintaining the Torah as a Toras Emes. He showed us by example the ends to which we must be prepared to go in order to fight for the truth and Toras Emes.
Rav Elya taught us the overriding importance of taking responsibility in action, deed, thought and learning. He taught us how to deal nobly with others, how to treat people with whom you disagree. He was able to work with all types of people without betraying his own personal opinions of them. He was able to publicly respect others with whom he vehemently disagreed, to the extent that they continued to count him as their friend.
I once asked Rav Elya about running advertisements for seforim of a rov whose hashkafos he (along with Rav Aharon and Rav Elazar Shach zt”l) had criticized. To my utter surprise, he saw nothing wrong with advertising the seforim. “His Torah is Torah,” he said. When I told him that people wouldn’t understand and would accuse me of not adhering to his guidelines, he wasn’t impressed.
It is already several years since we merited being able to speak to our great rebbi. We had hoped that in the merit of our tefillos and in recognition of how greatly his voice was needed, he would recover and once again lead us. Alas, we weren’t zoche.
The heart doesn’t want to believe. The heart doesn’t want to bear. Day by day, the news gets worse and worse. We think it can’t get any worse. And then it does.
The tears flow freely. The pen can’t write. We shudder. We weep. A million thoughts fly through our minds. Who will lead us to Moshiach? In whose zechus will we be able to withstand the worsening golus? The heart doesn’t want to believe. The heart doesn’t want to accept the pain of a deteriorating situation in which we need leadership and comfort as never before.
We didn’t merit the rosh yeshiva‘s leadership these past few years; the dor wasn’t zoche. But we had the zechus of his kiyum. We merited having Rav Elya with us and his tremendous zechusim advocating for us in a world of kitrug.
We were lacking his milchamtah shel Torah. His powerful messages exhorting us to preserve and protect the pach shemen tahor were keenly missed. Gone from the scene was his shining example of a Yid who was areingeton rosho verubo in Torah, but also felt a tremendous achrayus for the klal.
When he was in the bais medrash, the talmidim of the yeshiva had no inkling of the place he occupied on the public stage. To the talmidim, he was a devoted rebbi and rosh yeshiva who surrounded himself in the daled amos shel halacha. To members of Klal Yisroel who maintained a fidelity to the mesorah, he was the bearer of the torch of Torah, the arbiter of difficult questions, the trailblazer showing the path to follow in tumultuous times.
Whenever he spoke, he would unfailingly quote from the sefer Meshech Chochmah and from his great rebbi, Rav Aharon Kotler. Their images, and their Torah, were ever-present in his mind. He would weigh all his actions and decisions on the scale of their daas Torah, using his knowledge of how they would have reacted. He never lost sight of his upbringing in Slabodka, of his rabbeim, of their Torah and of their mesorah which he carried with so much pride. With his passing, we have lost them as well.
When a great person passes away, you stand at the funeral and contemplate the immense loss, the vacuum the individual leaves behind and whether anyone will fill that gap. We have all seen the changes that have taken place in the world during the rosh yeshiva‘s illness. With the termination of our hopes for his recovery, we fear for the future more than ever before.
I always wondered how the survivors of the last century felt when they arrived in America after the war. They were in a strange country and were faced with an alien culture, language and customs. No one understood them or where they were coming from. Their past was gone and the people around them really weren’t interested in their old-fashioned ideas. They had no one to whom they could pour out their hearts. There was no one around who could feel their pain and understand their lot.
Now I understand what they felt like.
As I was driving home after the levaya, I followed the same roads I had traveled dozens of times before. Though the way out of Philadelphia is complicated and requires traveling on several different highways until you finally arrive at the New Jersey Turnpike, I have done it so many times that I don’t even look at the signs. I thought I could do it in my sleep. For the first time in over thirty years, I made a wrong turn and got on the wrong road.
We are indeed lost.