By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
It is difficult to encapsulate the life of an adam gadol in a few words. He was exceedingly weak for the last few months of his life, yet Klal Yisroel davened that he be given strength and the tefillos were answered. Every time he recuperated from illness, legions of people rejoiced. Born 104 years ago in the city of Brisk, a century of Torah and gadlus came to end on Erev Chanukah.
Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was a throwback to a bygone world. He derived no enjoyment from olam hazeh. His life was Torah. His being was Torah. He lived a simple life in a simple apartment. All he did all day was learn Torah, perform mitzvos and help people. What negius can a person like that have? It is no wonder that he had siyata diShmaya.
The gentle man who had lived his life far from the headlines was propelled into a leadership position after Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach felt that he was unable to continue carrying the burdens of Klal Yisroel.
Rav Aharon Leib sought no earthly pleasures for himself. He ate the most meager portions of food and sat on chairs without backs. He was a man who literally spent all his time learning Torah and providing guidance for his followers.
During his American trip, he undertook such strenuous travel for someone his age, and people were trying to figure out his agenda.
His agenda was to strengthen Torah. His agenda was to support people who are learning Torah. His agenda was to support people who lead a Torah lifestyle.
People were unused to such purity of intention. They looked at him like they were observing a malach.
Just by beholding him, they got chizuk. Just by hearing him speak, they were inspired. And those who had the privilege to speak to him for a few minutes walked away with even greater chizuk.
It was inspiring to be in the company a person and realizing that at his age, he left his home for a two-week trip to strange cities solely to be mechazeik fellow Jews. How uplifting it was to stand before a man who was an exalted eved Hashem.
When observed in the midst of the hubbub surrounding him, and considering the fact that he was oblivious to the spotlight, it was obvious that he was an exceedingly modest person. He taught us all that it really is possible to sit in your corner and learn Torah all day, and to live a life without luxuries and be content.
My grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin zt”l, was a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim zt”l. There is some dispute over what the Chofetz Chaim looked like and if he indeed bore any resemblance to the popular, widely distributed picture of him. I once asked my grandfather what his rebbi looked like – meaning, did he look like the picture? It was many years ago. I was very young, my language skills were poor, and my zaide didn’t understand that I was asking about that picture. It didn’t matter, because his answer taught a great lesson nonetheless.
I still remember his grandfatherly words as he gently held my hand, patted my cheek, and said, “Az men hut nit gevust hut ehr oisgezen vi ah poshuter Yid un men hut gornit gekent zen, uber az men hut gevust, hut men gekent zen alles. If you didn’t know who he was, he looked to you like a simple Jew, but if you knew who he was, then you were able to see that every action he did was special.”
Those words rang in my ears as I observed Rav Aharon Leib prior to the Shabbos he spent in Monsey. I was allowed into the small guest house where he was staying to ask him some shailos. I walked in behind him, and as he passed the small kitchen, I noticed that he stopped to look at the six small Israeli lachmaniyot (bread rolls) on the kitchen table. He turned to his attendant and asked what they were for. The answer was that they were for “lechem mishnah heint bei nacht.”
The aged rosh yeshiva, who had thousands buzzing about him wherever he turned in this country, turned to the attendant and asked, “Uber vos darft men azoi fil? Why do we need so many?” The attendant answered that they were there in case others would join them for the meal.
They moved into the next room, where another man approached the rosh yeshiva to ask about something that baffled him.
When Rav Aharon Leib was visiting the Skverer Rebbe, a bowl of fruit was set before him on the rebbe’s table, and as is customary, the rosh yeshiva was asked to make a brocha. He made a ha’eitz and, to the surprise of those observing him, ate only half of a grape. “What’s the reason for this?” they asked him.
Rav Aharon Leib answered that a grape is a beryah, and eating a whole grape presents a problem regarding a brocha acharona. So he only ate half of the grape.
The conversations were simple and straightforward, not meant to impress anyone. They were beautiful in their simplicity. He was really wondering why they needed so many lachmaniyot. He had a bowlful of mouth-watering fruit set in front of him and all he ate was half a grape.
“Az men hut nit gevust hut ehr oisgezen vi ah poshuter Yid un men hut gornit gekent zen, uber az men hut gevust, hut men gekent zen alles.”
And I thought to myself: Why did he come? And suddenly, I understood. He came to show us that it is possible to lead a life of pashtus, of prishus, of kedusha, and of shalom. He demonstrates the power of these values to command the respect and allegiance of tens of thousands of Jews.
The person for whom thousands had lined the streets to welcome him here was wondering why he needed six lachmaniyot. A person who had no desire to eat more than half a grape had so much to teach us without even saying a word.
He traveled to America and other countries for the same reason the Chofetz Chaim wrote that were he able to do so, he would fly any distance in order to save Jewish children. He came because people visited him in his humble apartment in a nondescript building in Bnei Brak with an important message. As they walked in, he was seated on a stool at his old table, poring over piles of seforim in a room that hadn’t been painted since he moved there decades prior. His visitors told him that he could be mechazeik the Jews of America.
He came here because he took the words of the Chofetz Chaim literally. He came because he believed the petitioners who felt that we can all benefit from being in the daled amos of an adam gadol who has as little benefit from this world as is humanly possible.
And he came because he cared about us. If the Ribono Shel Olam kept him alive for 91 years and gave him the required strength, he told someone, he felt that he had an obligation to reach out and strengthen the Ribono Shel Olam’s children. He came because just as he constantly prodded others to accomplish more, he pushed himself to do more.
The following incident shines a light on the nobility of the leader Klal Yisroel has lost.
The Rechovot branch of Lev L’Achim under the leadership of Rav Zvi Schwartz had grown to encompass a plethora of programs. The central location, where shiurim and learning take place at all hours of the day and night, was so crowded that people had to reserve seats in the bais medrash.
The Rechovot municipality, in recognition of Rav Schwartz’s devotion to the people of the city, granted him a plot of land for a community center for L’ev L’Achim. Construction of the building’s frame cost close to $500,000, at least half of which was donated by local baalei teshuvah in gratitude to Rav Schwartz.
However, the Shinui party, in a joint effort with the Reform movement, filed a suit in the Supreme Court challenging Rechovot’s right to allocate the land. The court, despite having no jurisdiction in municipal matters, overturned the decision and halted construction.
Furious at the Supreme Court’s interference, the lawyer for the Rechovot municipality came up with a plan to counteract it. The plan was for Rav Schwartz to sue the city for breaking its commitment to him and causing him a financial loss. The city would “lose” the case and then have to reimburse him. Lacking the funds to meet its obligations, the municipality would resort to a legalism whereby land is used to pay a debt when the municipality lacks the funds. Thus, the municipality would turn over to Rav Schwartz the land originally intended for the Lev L’Achim center and construction could go forward.
The brilliance of the plan pleased the city officials, who were intent on allowing Lev L’Achim to resume construction. But the plan had a hitch. Rav Schwartz doesn’t just blindly follow the law. He answers to a higher authority. Much to the consternation of the Rechovot City Board, Rav Aharon Leib ruled against their plan of action for fear that it would result in a chillul Hashem. He said that the Left would showcase the shpiel as an example of religious subterfuge.
“Even if it will delay construction, we had best pursue a different route,” Rav Aharon Leib told him.
Such was his dedication to the truth and his concern for the repercussions of any action. Rav Schwartz desperately needed a building, but it would have to wait until it could be built properly without any hint of scandal, sheker, or chillul Hashem.
A prominent rov was speaking to Rav Aharon Leib, when the coordinator of a large gemach entered the small room. The rov, wishing to encourage the askan, introduced him to Rav Aharon Leib. “The rosh yeshiva should know that this man is a tzaddik. He lends a lot of money to many talmidei chachomim.”
Rav Aharon Leib reacted immediately. “I hope you don’t have any money from him on loan,” he said, “because, in that case, the compliment you just gave him is a form of ribbis devorim.”
The rov marveled at Rav Aharon Leib’s response, repeating it again and again. “I am an active dayan,” he said, “experienced in financial dinei Torah, but I wasn’t sharp enough to sense that my comment could be a violation of halacha. Yet, the aged tzaddik, who is attuned to perfect din, felt it right away.”
When people followed the instructions of someone like Rav Aharon Leib, they were not merely agreeing with his ideas. They were expressing something much deeper. They were acknowledging that his instincts, thought processes, and reactions were rooted in Torah. They knew that his mind was attuned to the Torah’s will, and therefore his vision was refined enough to see beyond what the average person saw.
Being blessed with leaders of this stature is the reason our nation is still here after so many challenge-filled centuries of exile.
I once traveled to Eretz Yisroel for the Yom Tov of Shavuos and went to the Kosel Friday morning, Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the day after I arrived. Still jet-lagged but eager to daven at the Kosel, from where the Shechinah has never departed since the time of the Botei Mikdosh, I awoke early and headed there for Shacharis kevosikin.
Thousands of people were present at the Kosel that morning. Hundreds had come to daven, but many more had arrived to fulfill the wishes of Rav Aharon Leib and Rav Ovadiah Yosef.
An antagonistic, provocative group of women had just received a long-awaited favorable ruling from a district court. The court ruled that for women to form a minyan and pray with tallis and tefillin at the Kosel is a legitimate expression of their customs and is neither a provocation nor a departure from the “minhag hamakom.”
The women hold their prayer meetings at the Kosel every Rosh Chodesh. Until the ruling, the meetings were illegal and police arrested participants, leading them away amidst minimal fanfare. That Rosh Chodesh Sivan was the first time the provocations went on with the imprimatur of the state. That time, the women would be protected, while the offended traditionalists expressing their consternation over the defilement of Judaism’s holiest site would be the targets of police wrath.
Rav Aharon Leib and Rav Yosef urged high school and seminary girls to be at the Kosel by 6:30 a.m., when the Women of the Wall, as they call themselves, were scheduled to hold their mock-service. The high school and seminary girls were to peacefully demonstrate by their dignified presence that the overwhelming majority of people who frequent the Kosel and respect its minhagim are opposed to the attention-seeking feminists.
Present that morning at the Kosel were not only teenage girls, but women and men of all ages. As the appointed time arrived, boys at the Kosel began singing to drown out any superfluous sounds sure to be raised. Their gambit didn’t last long, as the media and police began arriving in droves, seemingly anxious to provoke a spectacle they could use to mock the traditionalists. By and large, they failed.
The sights and sounds that morning left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they demonstrated the growth and power of the frum community – the number of people who treasure kedushas haMikdosh enough to arise before dawn to daven at that location and the number of young people prepared to forgo sleep to follow the call of gedolim. It was a beautiful sight to see so many people davening at the Kosel. At the same time, the presence of those poor, misguided souls was a depiction of the kulturkampf in that country.
Such was the concern and foresight of Rav Aharon Leib to all matters confronting Klal Yisroel, and such was the reverence of Am Yisroel for him. His every word was followed.
Rav Aharon Leib would recount that Rav Chaim Soloveitchik asked children riddles to sharpen their minds. He would tell them of a blind man who would raise one finger to signal that he wanted to eat. When he wanted to drink, he would raise two fingers. The great Rav Chaim would then ask the children what the blind man did when he wanted to eat and drink. The children – and most adults – wouldn’t realize that he said the man was blind. He didn’t say that he was dumb and unable to speak, so when he wanted to eat and drink, he would simply say so.
That was the aura in which Rav Aharon Leib was raised. From childhood on, he was always seeking to grow and become more proficient in Torah through properly learning and concentrating.
Some yungeleit went to speak to Rav Aharon Leib. A member of their kollel was niftar, lo aleinu, and they wanted to be mekabel something in his memory. They had various ideas, but wanted the rosh yeshiva to suggest an appropriate kabbolah.
Rav Aharon Leib listened to their proposals. Then he spoke. “Those are all very nice ideas, but I think you should try something else. You live in a relatively new neighborhood, where people continuously move in and new buildings are constantly rising. I think that everyone in the kehillah should sign a letter being mekabel that no matter what, they will avoid neighborly disputes.
“Your upstairs neighbor might be doing construction and it will be very noisy for a few months. Your neighbor down the hall might close in his porch and obstruct your view. Instead of fighting, step back and contemplate the brocha that led to that construction. Think of a growing family that needs more room, or more space for an overworked mother, bringing menuchas hanefesh to another family. That kabbolah will be an eternal source of merit to your friend’s neshomah.”
Always thinking about other people, that was Rav Aharon Leib. His lessons should guide us for many years to come.
Rav Aharon Leib was once asked to give a mussar talk to a gathering of Bais Yaakov teachers.
“Me?” he reacted with surprise. “I should speak to them? I should give them mussar? These are women who are up late at night preparing their classes, then tending to their children early in the morning. When they finally dress and give their children breakfast and get them off to school, they hurry off to teach. Six hours later, after a long morning of teaching, answering, speaking and inspiring Yiddishe techter to Torah and yiras Shomayim, they rush home, where ‘di pitzkalech varten,’ the children eagerly wait for them. If they want to rest, the children don’t permit them to. Yes, they deserve chizuk, but I certainly can’t give them mussar.”
Such was his tremendous humility.
During the 2006 war, when a yeshiva in Haifa was unsure of whether to relocate as the city came under attack, they turned to Rav Aharon Leib for guidance. He responded by writing them a letter assuring them that anyone who stays in the yeshiva and learns will not be harmed, even as rockets continued falling in Haifa.
What an inspiring example of leadership in a time of crisis. He had the courage to give advice and the certainty that future events would confirm the wisdom of that guidance.
During the Gaza War, Lev L’Achim waged its own battle. Schools in the line of fire in the country’s southern region were closed, as the rocket-fire was fierce. Several intrepid Ashdod yungeleit traveled to Ashkelon and set up shop in a basement bomb shelter. They dispensed warmth, pizza and Torah. Local teenagers were so bored that they came and were intrigued. When the war ended and normal life resumed, the kids were still interested, so the yungeleit continued coming, creating a small afternoon bais medrash in Ashkelon.
Slowly, they had some real talmidim, and finally they finished a masechta with the secular teenagers. On Chanukah, the talmidim, accompanied by their Lev L’Achim rabbeim, went to celebrate the siyum at the home of Rav Aharon Leib. The aged gadol was very moved by the sight of the teenagers in his home, proclaiming, “Hadran aloch,” to the first masechta they had learned.
As the siyum ended, one of the boys asked Rav Aharon Leib for a brocha. He asked that the resistance of his parents to his Torah study weaken. “In fact,” he told the rosh yeshiva, “if they knew where I was now, they would be furious. I told them that I was going to play soccer.”
Rav Aharon Leib said to the boy, “You have answered a question of mine. Why, in Al Hanissim, do we thank Hashem for the milchamos? War is a necessary evil, as people get killed and hurt, and lives are destroyed. Why do we thank Hashem for the war, when, in fact, we should just be thanking Him for the nissim and niflaos?
“But now, I have a new understanding. It is for milchamos such as yours – the wars waged by those determined teenagers – that we thank Hashem!”
He cared for Klal Yisroel and loved Jews and Torah so much that he was joyous at such an occasion and learned a vital lesson from it.
Many of the nisyonos that we face in our daily lives challenge us in the way we treat fellow Jews. Do we look down at other people or do we put ourselves in their shoes and respond compassionately? People who have power over others should consider how truly great individuals would respond to the nisyonos that they are facing. To carry forth our example, what would Rav Aharon Leib say if he were running a school and a person with a slightly different background applied for admittance?
The answer to that question is not a mystery. Several menahelim posed the question to him during one of his visits to America. He responded that had Avrohom Avinu come to register in their schools, he would not have been accepted. Despite the promise he radiated, they would have rejected him based on his father’s ineligibility to be a parent in their school.
The director of a cheder in Beit Shemesh approached Rav Aharon Leib with a question. A current parent in the cheder remarried and wanted to enroll the children of his new wife in the school. The school rejected the new applicants because the hanhallah feared that they didn’t completely meet the mosad’s criteria. When the father refused to back down from his insistence that the children be accepted, Rav Aharon Leib was approached by the school’s principal for guidance in dealing with this stubborn individual, who refused to accept the school’s decision.
Rav Aharon Leib was incredulous. He responded that it is gaavah to insist that you are better than the other person. To reject a child from a cheder for specious reasons is not a sign of greatness, but a sign of gaavah.
What a powerful message and what an important lesson.
Speaking at a kinnus to mark the completion of shivah for Rav Elazar Abuchatzeira who was killed by an intruder, Rav Aharon Leib remarked that a Jew who is desensitized to bein adam lachaveiro is capable of even bloodshed, Rachama litzlan. The rosh yeshiva traveled to Be’er Sheva to share this message. The second five dibros are bound with the first five, he said. Bein adam lachaveiro is as fundamental as bein adam laMakom.
“We are in the last generations before Moshiach’s arrival,” said Rav Aharon Leib, “and we need to be extra careful with the honor of our friends. It’s forbidden to humiliate another person. We have to be careful to protect the kavod of each other…to pay attention to this issue of bein adam lachaveiro so that such incidents shouldn’t reoccur.”
May we be zoche to go in his ways, to try to emulate him, to abhor evil and machlokes, and to avoid kavod and ta’avos olam hazeh, as he did. May we merit to learn more, to be marbeh kevod Shomayim, and to do good without ulterior motives.
May the memory of Rav Aharon Leib remain with us. May his humble gaze inspire us. May his soft words punctuate our actions. And may his plea for greatness in Torah and emunah inspire us as we prepare the world for the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu, bimeheirah biyomeinu.