Rav Avrohom Yaakov Hakohen Pam zt”l, On His Thirteenth Yahrtzeit, Today


rav-pamBy Rabbi Nosson Scherman

Some years ago, a highly regarded family was sitting shivah. One of those sitting was an elderly Reform rabbi, who had been estranged from his siblings. Rav Pam zt”l entered the room to be menachem aveil and the Reform rabbi, who had probably never seen the Rosh Yeshivah, shuddered. “That is a holy man!” he said almost inaudibly.

How did he know, this man to whom Torah and mitzvos were not a constant presence? How did he recognize the “holiness” of a total stranger? Surely it was not his physical appearance. Rav Pam was as unpretentious as a human being can be. He never donned the garb of a rosh yeshivah; indeed, those of us who were his talmidim more than half a century ago know that he never changed his simple style of dress. In the Bais Medrosh of Torah Vodaath, he continued to sit in the middle of the room, not at the mizrach where he belonged.

Until several months before his petirah, Rav Pam’s powerful spirit still overcame illness and frailty to come to Torah Vodaath every day to deliver his shiur, and participate in the administration of the yeshivah, and be available to the many outsiders who came to him for counsel or a berachah. He always refused offers of rides to the yeshivah – when would ever impose on someone? – and instead walked the few blocks leaning on a shopping cart for support. One day, when he was ready to go home, it was raining. A talmid wanted to drive him home, but he gently refused. As he walked down the street, a talmid walked behind him holding an umbrella to protect him from the rain. The rosh yeshivah didn’t notice his protector until they got to the corner, whereupon he said that a few drops of rain would not hurt him. The talmid responded, “But the Rebbe’s hat will be ruined!”

Rav Pam smiled and said, “The hat is old. The Jew is old. Better go back to the Bais Medrosh and learn.”

For many years, people who knew him said he was “the Chofetz Chaim of America.” There was universal agreement that the description was apt-universal except for one vehement dissenter. A dinner chairman once introduced him that way-and it was one of the very few times when he was visibly annoyed. Agitated, Rav Pam stood at the microphone and said, “I protest the affront to the honor of the Chofetz Chaim!”

The Chasam Sofer was once was riding in a carriage with his rebbe, Rabbi Nosson Adler, when the horses reared in fright. They were on the verge of being attacked by a wild bear, and the driver could not control them. Rabbi Adler looked out the window and the bear saw him and ran back into the woods. The Chasam Sofer asked for an explanation, and Rabbi Adler replied, “Hashem made man in His image and, as our Sages tell us, at the beginning of Creation even wild animals were afraid of man’s G-dly nature. It seems that I still have some of that tzelem Elokim, so the bear was afraid to harm us.”

Those who knew Rav Pam are not surprised that someone estranged from Torah could look at him and see holiness. By the standards of this century, his tzelem Elokim shone through. It shone through in every way. He was a tzaddik in his love of learning, in his performance of mitzvos, in his unending striving for self-improvement, in his tefillah, in the simplicity of his home and his abhorrence of luxury, in his enduring gratitude for the most trivial favor. For over thirty-five yrears, he and the Rebbetzin baked shemurah matzah with the group of which this writer is a member. We would have been overjoyed to bake his matzos without troubling him to come, but as long as he was able he would come to the baking and insist on helping along.

One his younger colleagues asked him why he attended so many weddings, when it had become a physical ordeal for him to do so. “You have come to thousands of weddings; it is enough!” Rav Pam answered, “To me there are thousands of weddings, but for the chassan it’s the only one.”

That sort of sensitivity and regard for a talmid or for anyone else was typical-it was more than typical, it was part of his essence. He said of his mother that she never spoke lashon hara, not because she studied Shemiras Halashon or participated in machsom l’feh groups. “She never saw anything bad in anyone else, so there was never a temptation to speak lashon hara.”

Was Rav Pam naive? Hardly. He could tell sham from sincerity and he was not timid about speaking out against wrong. But it was never a matter of personalities; only of issues. He was never involved in a machlokes as a disputant. That is why he had no enemies, ever. An institution was once riven by a dispute that threatened to tear it apart, concerning a disputed appointment to its administration. Other roshei yeshivah had their reasons not to become involved. It was agreed by the leaders of the institution that a delegation would visit Rav Pam and abide by his decision. They came. He listened. He said, “I cannot dictate to you how to run your yeshivah, but if a similar appointment had been suggested for Torah Vodaath, I would have opposed it.”

A distinguished mechanech once sent ArtScroll a collection of reminiscences about growing up in East New York. One of the essays told about talmidei chachamim who used to come to his father’s mom and pop grocery store to discuss Torah with his father. One of the regular visitors was “Reb Meir Pam, whose son is the Rosh Yeshivah of Torah Vodaath.” I thought Rav Pam would enjoy the story and sent him a copy. A few weeks later I met him. He said, “How could the writer suggest that my father’s yichus was that his son says a shiur in Torah Vodaath?” Rav Pam did not refer to himself as the “rosh yeshivah,” only as someone who says a shiur. Then he told a simple anecdote to illustrate his father’s love and knowledge of Shass.

He had a simple and keen sense of right and wrong. He would urge his talmidim and followers to avoid extravagant lifestyles and celebrations. Others stressed that such lavishness was wrong. Rav Pam put it in different terms. What other things can you do with the money?, he would ask. Anyone who saw the humble furnishings of his home knew that he lived the way he spoke. Those who knew him well marveled at how he and the rebbetzin deprived themselves of pleasures others take for granted because the money was needed for tzedakah causes.

Torah Vodaath was his life, without question. He spent over seventy years there, sixty-one as a maggid shiur. He was completely devoted to the Yeshivah, and his devotion was reciprocated by his adoring talmidim-and they remained talmidim for a lifetime. He became Rosh Yeshivah not by choice, and certainly not by ambition, but because the yeshivah felt that he was the only one for the position, and he felt he had no right to decline.

Not only his shiurim, but also his regular shmeussen on the parashah were formative. It has long been an article of faith in Torah Vodaath that those who attended his shmuessen had fewer shalom bayis problems than others. In his shmuessen he emphasized the need to consider the feelings of others, and, since his talmidim were in or near the “shidduch” stage of their lives, he spoke of what to look for in a mate and how important it is to honor a mate. That was always the topic of his famous annual shmuess on Chayei Sarah, at which he would often teach the Rabbeinu Bachya, which discusses the subject.

The last decade of his life was consumed by his truly superhuman efforts for Shuvu, the organization he founded to bring Torah education to Jewish children in Israel, who had immigrated from the Former Soviet Union. He said that we in the free world have a special obligation to the children of Communism. “We owe it to them, because they suffered a terrible galus for our sake.” But there was more. With uncommon prescience, he said many years ago that the future of Eretz Yisrael is in the hands of the new Russian olim. How right he was! Their votes have been the margin of victory in the last three Israeli elections.

But his motives transcended politics. In his passionate love of Torah he was dedicated to bring Torah to those who had been deprived of it. How could we, be our inaction, deprive Hashem’s children of the most precious gift He had ever given His people?

When he founded Shuvu at an Agudah Convention in 1990, most people thought it was an impossible dream. He never accepted that proposition. always he insisted, “It is beyadeinu! It is in our hands to change the face of Eretz Yisrael.” He was probably the only living human being who thought that in ten years Shuvu would enroll over 10,000 students, and that this would be only a beginning. It is truly beyadeinu!

The last two public appearances of his life, when he was in declining health, were for the benefit of Torah chinuch for children from the FSU. A few months ago he attended and addressed a parlor meeting for Nechomas Yisrael, the magnificent “impossible” organization that funds tuitions for several thousand such children in America.

His last appearance was for his beloved Shuvu. He came in a hospital bed, accompanied by his physician and a group of Hatzoloh volunteers. He came. He spoke. He conquered the physical in an awesome display of the power of Torah spirit over the limitations of the flesh.

Everyone who was present had to agree, “That is a holy man!”

That holy spirit still hovers over us, and will remain as long as we let it. Rav Pam’s legacy is incredibly rich, incredibly challenging, incredibly inspiring. Can we live up to it? It is beyadeinu.

{This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY.}

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