The Gentle Giant


rabbi-pinchos-lipschutzBy Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The sudden passing of Reb Shloimy Gross z”l this past Erev Shabbos shook up many thousands of people.

He was the most normal fellow, beloved by all, the toughest yet the softest, the one who lit up a room, always had a nice word for everyone; was so full of life and charm.

If you would have asked anyone in Flatbush, “Who is the go-to person for someone in need? Who is the person who will help anyone, anytime, without asking questions?” the answer would have been, “Shloimy Gross.”

The way he lived his life offers a demonstration on how a Jew should live and how much good every one can do and accomplish.

The mesholim of the Dubno Maggid, classic and timeless, are part of the inheritance of Klal Yisroel. Like Torah itself, they are understood on many levels and everyone can relate to them. To young people hearing them from their rabbeim and moros in school, they are entertaining, delightful and intriguing. In their minds, youngsters visualize the scenes he paints with his brilliant, yet simplistic, words. Older, more mature people view the mesholim as weighty and substantial.

Sophisticated ovdei Hashem recognize his parables as reflective of his own greatness in Torah and avodah. They perceive that the man selected by the Vilna Gaon to give him mussar was a giant in his own right, not merely a spinner of tall tales.

The Kotzker Rebbe lauded the insights of the Maggid and pointed to several mesholim which he considered to definitely be “Toras emes,” the correct interpretation of a posuk.

One of the explanations that he certified as capturing the true essence of the posuk is the Dubno Maggid’s peirush on one of the opening pesukim in this week’s haftorah.

The novi Yeshaya admonishes the Jewish people, Velo osi karasa Yaakov, ki yagata bi Yisroel – But you did not call to Me, Yaakov, for you grew weary of Me, Yisroel” (Yeshaya 43:22).

To explain the posuk, the Dubno Maggid tells a moshol of a person going to visit his out-of-town friend. He packs his suitcase, takes the train, gets off at the local station and makes his way to his friend’s home. When he arrives, he is greeted warmly and, after an exchange of pleasantries, the host insists that they sit down to a lavish meal. During the meal, they will catch up on what is going on in each other’s lives.

The table is set and the food is brought out. The two friends who haven’t seen each other for a while sit down and survey the table. All of a sudden, the visitor jumps up and exclaims loudly, “Oy vey. I forgot my suitcase at the train station. I must go run and fetch it before it gets lost.”

The host assures his guest that his son, who is young and strong and knows the way, will run down to the station and retrieve the suitcase while they continue their meal.

The visitor gives the young man the identifying details of his suitcase. The dutiful son dashes off to the station and returns, huffing and puffing, shlepping a large brown suitcase behind him.

The visitor looks at the anguished boy drenched in sweat, then looks at the suitcase, and shakes his head.

“I’m so sorry about all the bother and hard work, but that suitcase isn’t mine. It’s the wrong one,” says the visitor.

“How do you know it’s not yours?” asks the boy. “You can’t even see it from where you are sitting. This suitcase I just shlepped is a large brown bag with gold clasps, just how you described it. Maybe you should first open it and look inside to see if it is yours or not.”

“I know it’s the wrong one,” explains the visitor, “because you are exhausted from shlepping it here. My suitcase wasn’t heavy. If you are wiped out from carrying it here from the station, then it’s clearly not mine.”

In the aforementioned posuk, explained the Dubno Maggid, Hakadosh Boruch Hu tells His people, “Velo osi karasa. Whatever it is you are pulling and shlepping and are occupied with, it’s not Me. It isn’t My Torah and it isn’t My mitzvos, because they aren’t heavy. Ki yagata bi Yisroel. You have grown tired, Yisroel. If it’s exhausting you, it isn’t Mine.”

Avodas Hashem invigorates, enlivens and reenergizes. It doesn’t wear a person down. Everything else in the world breaks a person, while those who pursue His will remain “deshainim vera’ananim, fresh and new.”

It’s like that with true talmidei chachomim and ovdei Hashem. It is evident from their smiles, their warmth and their freshness.

It’s true for all good Jews. Their avodas Hashem energizes them, investing them with strength, stamina and resolve.

Like our dear friend, Reb Shloimy Gross. He epitomized that. He was so vibrant, full of energy, and ready to undertake any task. Whenever you met him, he was spirited and full of life. He may have been in shul with a long line of people waiting to ask him for a donation, yet he didn’t grow tired and he didn’t speak down to anyone. He never referred to the people who begged from him as shnorrers.

The burden was never heavy. It was always joyful. He shlepped the pekel with simcha. It was always light and it was always a pleasure. Always with a smile, a word of chizuk, and a check to back it up.

His final moments came much sooner than anyone expected. It was not only in the prime of his life, but also the prime of activity as well, as he was helping others at an unprecedented pace and level. He was inundated with phone calls and visits. Requests for help from beleaguered individuals and mosdos came at him from all directions.

He was never too tired, never too worn down to help.

He never saw communal responsibilities as the lot of others. He never viewed the struggles of the Olam HaTorah as someone else’s problem. He searched for opportunities to ease the burden of gedolei Torah, until he himself developed into a gadol in hachzokas haTorah.

He was devoted heart and soul to Torah and to Jews in general. He loved everyone and everyone loved him. He never turned anyone down. He helped so many thousands of people. Is that possible? Yes, it is. Is it possible to be a regular, normal fellow and yet do so much chessed and spend such phenomenal amounts of time and money on strangers? Yes, it is. Shloimy proved that it is.

Shloimy Gross represented a unique new type of ben Torah. He was not destined to be a rosh yeshiva or a rov, but he taught everyone what it means to give and what it means to get. He taught how to learn, when to learn,and how to respect those who learn. He showed by example what it means to grow in Torah and avodah.

At an early age, he was drawn into the real estate business. While he could have easily drifted off into a world of self-indulgence and mockery of talmidei chachomim, he went the other way.

He was devoted to his rosh yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l, and every ben Torah he came to know. The stories of those he secretly supported, the chasunos he paid for, and the medical treatments he arranged are only now starting to emerge. They all have a common thread: Shloimy deemed it a privilege to help people, all the while maintaining the dignity and respect of the recipient.

People who were once wealthy and had lost their money were able to maintain a facade of dignity thanks to the funds that Shloimy regularly placed in their pockets. Roshei yeshiva who required money for their personal needs knew that Shloimy was someone they could count on. Yesomim looked to him as their father. Thousands perceived him as a friend. Dozens thought he was their single best friend.

Reb Shloimy had that rare ability to see straight through the chaff, peel it away, and zero in on the essence.

He was once davening at the kever of Shimon Hatzaddik and saw a Yerushalayimer Yid crying bitterly. He realized that the man needed help, but he didn’t want to embarrass him, so he pulled out a few hundred dollars from his pocket, handed them to a man standing next to the Yid, and asked the person to pass it along.

There was nothing in it for him. It was all for the other guy. And that’s how he lived his life.

I was once davening Maariv on a Motzoei Shabbos in Zichron Moshe. Reb Shloimy was there, surrounded by a circle of all types of Yidden who frequent that hallowed bais medrash. They all knew him and he knew them. They all loved him and he loved them.

A Yerushalayimer gabbai tzedakah related that when there was a tzarah and an asifa was called to try to determine where money would come from to support a poor family, to marry off yesomim or to fund medical treatments, and there was nowhere to turn and no one to ask, Reb Shloimy would call in and say, “Don’t worry. Allai. It’s on me.”

Hashem blessed him and he was very successful in the financial world. He was involved in all sorts of projects, yet rather than assuming the haughtiness which usually accompanies financial success, he carried himself the way he always had.

He always conducted himself that way. He was strong. He was majestic. He always had something smart, nice and encouraging to say. At the same time, he was so gentle, so sweet and so full of charm.

He never lost his simplicity and his character. As big, strong and successful as he was, he remained humble. He was a humble giant.

The epitome of the middah of hachna’ah, Reb Shloimy was a regular guy who achieved greatness. Being ‘one of the boys’ didn’t stop him from seeking to grow in Torah, avodah and gemillus chassodim, achieving greatness in the three prime realms of Jewish life.

We mourn his sudden petirah as much for the inspiration he provided as for the vacuum he leaves. His mother, wife and family, as well as his kehillah and friends have lost an individual who exuded a brilliant, shining light. Ki vah hashemesh batzohorayim. The sun set early and the world is much darker without him.

He taught so much to everyone who knew him. He taught to give and how to give. He taught to learn and how to learn and when to learn. He taught what it means to respect the people we learn from, as well as gedolim, rabbonim, talmidei chachomim, and stam Yidden. And he taught that avodas Hashem is light and pleasant, not cumbersome and burdensome.

This week, the Olam HaTorah is preparing to rally around one of the greatest mekomos haTorah our nation has ever known. The many talmidim of Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim, newly bereft of their great rosh yeshiva, will gather and pay tribute to his memory and show support to his son, the new rosh yeshiva.

They will gather and echo Rav Nosson Tzvi’s refrain: I’m not tired. I can do it. I’ll find the kochos.

The Mirrer rosh yeshiva zt”l was another person who personified the moshol of the Dubno Maggid. He was a living example of the truth of the teaching that if it’s Torah, it doesn’t tire, it doesn’t wear down, and it doesn’t break a person.

While Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was mechayeiv all by demonstrating that despite physical limitations and a crushing budget it’s possible to learn Torah mitoch simcha, Reb Shloimy Gross obligated all machzikei Torah not to allow business pressures or the ohl of tzorchei tzibbur to limit their activities and generosity.

Just as we need to mirror Rav Nosson Tzvi’s mesirus nefesh in support of his yeshiva, we need to perpetuate Reb Shloimy’s steady, unwavering, jovial willingness to help out. We must strive to emulate his adherence to Torah deference to those who study it; and his sterling middos.

We can’t stop. We can’t get tired.

We’ve been facing an onslaught of tzaros and bad tidings, a string of maasei Soton designed to break us at a time of year ripe with potential and possibility.

I am reminded of something that a great man, Rav Aba Dunner zt”l, used to say. He faced a period of great personal nisyonos, losing his wife and beloved son, the exemplary baal tzedakah, Reb Bentzy, within the same year that he was diagnosed with a severe illness. It was enough to break anyone, even someone with the simcha and bitachon of the legendary British askan.

Reb Aba was asked how he succeeded in maintaining his optimistic, cheerful demeanor in the face of such daunting challenges. He responded that Rav Shlomo Freshwater, rov of the Sassover shtiebel in Golders Green, told him to study the Birchos Hashachar, the daily song of thanks for our ability to see, feel and walk, and to “adopt a bracha.”

Reb Aba selected the bracha of “Hanosein layo’eif koach,” praising Hashem for giving strength to the weary. He would recite it each day as many times as he felt necessary. If, in the late afternoon, he felt himself faltering, he would stand up and say, with great kavanah, “Boruch Hanosein layo’eif koach.” He would then feel a surge of energy and vitality.

It literally kept him going.

The depth of the idea is that being an oveid Hashem is itself an antidote to weariness and fatigue. Living with d’veikus injects man with “chayim kulchem hayom, life and vibrancy. It’s how Rav Nosson Tzvi rose above his personal battle with a broken guf and how people like Rav Dunner and Shloimy Gross kept moving forward until their very last breaths.

The Dubno Maggid’s lesson is that Yiddishkeit comes with a promise of “Vekovei Hashem yachalifu koach,” the ability to pursue His word and His will with renewed energy.

While thousands were melaveh the gentle giant from Flatbush to his final resting place, and as thousands of malochim created by his maasim tovim came to welcome him to Shomayim, we were left behind to learn from his example that we all have a role to play. We can all not only change and improve our own lives, but we each have the ability in our own distinct way of affecting the lives of thousands.

Dodi yorad legano,” Hashem went into his garden, “liros baganim velilkot shoshanim.” He picked a most beautiful flower to bring back to Him. The flower is now where it belongs, but we in the garden are bereft.

We are all soldiers on the front lines, preparing the world for Moshiach. Shloimy made the ultimate sacrifice of “Adam ki yakriv mikem korban,” as a korban for all of Klal Yisroel. His life and his death impacted people across the world.

We are hurting from loss, numb from grief, but still battling, intent on marching forward with koach. Inspired by great men, determined to work with fervor to honor their legacy as we enter the Chodesh Hageulah, may we indeed merit the long-awaited redemption, bemeheirah beyomeinu.

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  1. I want to clarify that the Dubner Magid did not that Yiddishkeit does not take hard work. He was saying that afterwards you might feel tired, but you will 1) be overjoyed, and 2) not fatigued or disheartened, from serving Hashem, *IF* you were properly worshiping Hashem, and not fooling yourself. Many Gedolim have been clear that everything in Yiddishkeit is hard work. I have heard it b’shaim the Imrei Emes of Gur, the previous Rebbe of Stolin, and Rabbi Shlomoh Friefeld z”l told it to me in those very words I cited above: “Everything in Yiddishkeit is hard work.” If I remember correctly.

  2. Beautiful article.
    Though I did not know Reb Shloimy Gross, I come away from this article inspired and energized. This got to inspire any serious and yearning yid to refocus oneself and utilize his or her G-d given talents and resources to their best.

  3. I just finished reading Shloimie! over Shabbos and cannot speak and cannot find the right words to capture my feelings about a man who I knew (from Camp Torah Vodaas), but did not know well. From reading the biography of him, I grieve that we were not better friends. I feel this loss…..

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