The Essence of a Gadol

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rav-yaakov-weinbergBy Rabbi Avi Shafran
The unaffiliated Jewish woman attended three of the rabbi’s shiurim in the 1950s, visibly intrigued by the ideas he put forth, about the historicity of Klal Yisroel’s mesorah. Then she abruptly stopped coming. Another woman who had also attended the lecture series tracked her down and asked why she was no longer showing up. The first woman answered straightforwardly: “He was convincing me. If I continue to listen to this man, I will have to change my life.” What a remarkably honest person. (I like to imagine that she came, in time, to pursue what she then fled.)And what a remarkable man was the rov who delivered the lectures. He was Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, whose tenth yahrtzeit will be marked on Shiva Asar BiTammuz. He later became the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. He was my rebbe.

As an 18-year-old studying in the Baltimore yeshiva in 1972, I watched him from afar. His shver, Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, zt”l, was the Rosh Yeshiva then; Rav Weinberg headed the Kollel and also delivered general shiurim. The depth of his knowledge, the power of his critical analyses of sugyos in Shas and worldly topics, his eloquence and his knowledge of history and the sciences all left a deep impression on me.

But what I came to realize was that his brilliance and erudition were mere tools with which he was gifted. His essence was his dedication to emes, to Torah and to his talmidim – indeed, to all Yidden – and his humility.

When I think back on the many times I telephoned Rav Weinberg from wherever I was living at the time to ask him a question about halacha or machshovo, or for his eitza, I am struck by something I never gave much thought to at those times: He was always available. And, I have discovered over the years, not only to me. As I came to recognize all the others – among them greatly accomplished talmidei chachomim, rabbonim, and askonim today – who had also enjoyed a talmid-rebbe relationship with Rav Weinberg, I marveled. In my youthful self-centeredness, I had imagined him as my rebbe alone. Who knew?

And his ongoing interactions with his talmidim somehow didn’t prevent him from travelling wherever his services were needed. A sought-after speaker and arbitrator for individuals and communities alike, he somehow found time and energy for it all.

More telling, he felt responsible to undertake it all. He (and, may she be well, his wife, Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg) gave so very much to others (as the Rebbetzin continues to do). That, I long ago concluded, is the defining characteristic of true Gedolim: selflessness.

How painfully ironic, I sometimes think, that small, spiteful minds try to portray Gedolim oppositely. Then again, as the recently read parshas Korach reminds us, no less a Godol than Moses – the “onov mikol odom” – was also spoken of cynically by some in his day. Plus ça change…

It wasn’t just in his public life, in his service to talmidim and kehillos that Rav Weinberg’s self-effacement was evident. It was in little things too.

In the early 1980s, he was asked to temporarily take the helm of a small yeshiva in Northern California that had fallen on hard times. Although not a young man, he agreed to leave his home and position in Baltimore and become interim Rosh Yeshiva.

My wife and I and our three daughters lived in the community; I taught in the yeshiva and served as principal of the local Jewish girls’ high school. And so I was fortunate to have ample opportunity to be meshamesh Rav Weinberg, and to witness much that I will always remember. One small episode, though, remains particularly poignant.

Rav Weinberg was housed in a bedroom of a rented house. In the house’s other bedroom lived the yeshiva’s cooks – a middle-aged couple, recently immigrated from the Soviet Union.

Though Northern California has a wonderful climate, its winters can be a bit chilly, and the house’s heating system was not working. The yeshiva administrator made sure that extra blankets were supplied to the house’s residents, and an electric heater was procured for Rav Weinberg (the cooks, it was figured, had been toughened by a truly cold clime).

After a week or two of cold, rainy weather, it was evident that the Rosh Yeshiva had caught a bad cold. Suspecting that perhaps the electric heater was not working, someone went to his room to check it. It wasn’t there.

Where it was, it turned out, was in the cooks’ room. Confronted with the discovery, Rav Weinberg sheepishly admitted to having relocated the heater. “I thought they would be cold” was all he said.

Another heater was bought. And a lesson, once again, learned, about the essence of a Godol.

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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1 COMMENT

  1. A beautiful tribute to an amazing rabbi.

    It’s so sad that Rabbi Shafran had to ruin his entire article by injecting Sinas Chinam.

    “How painfully ironic, I sometimes think, that small, spiteful minds try to portray Gedolim oppositely. Then again, as the recently read parshas Korach reminds us, no less a Godol than Moses – the “onov mikol odom” – was also spoken of cynically by some in his day. Plus ça change”

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