By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
In the recent parshiyos hashovuah, we read the sad tidings of the petirah of Aharon Hakohein and the impending petirah of Moshe Rabbeinu. Rashi (Bamidbar 20:29) famously points out that when Klal Yisroel lost their leader and guide, Moshe Rabbeinu, they mourned him bitterly, but when Aharon passed away, every single Jew, kol bais Yisroel, shared the sorrow and anguish, lefi shehayah Aharon rodeif shalom bein baalei meriva uvein ish le’ishto.
Rashi explains that since Aharon, the oheiv shalom verodeif shalom, brought families together, solving disputes and increasing peace in Jewish homes, his passing was a personal blow to every individual.
How can we understand this Rashi? Is it possible that one person, Aharon Hakohein, could have intervened and assisted with the relationships of every individual in the midbar? It was physically impossible for him to have had the time to deal with millions of people – kol bais Yisroel – even if he sat and counseled people all day, every day. Furthermore, it is unlikely that every Jewish home and person required the services of Aharon to help create peace.
We can explain that Aharon was not only a counselor, some form of super life coach who sat with people all day, providing advice to many individuals. Undoubtedly, he performed that function as well, but the Torah means something else when it tells us that Aharon brought shalom bayis to every family in the midbar. Aharon generated peace simply by being the person he was – a loving, compassionate figure, the epitome of ahavas shalom. Whoever saw Aharon went home a more peaceful person, having been influenced by being exposed to a figure of his caliber. Upon witnessing Aharon, a person became so uplifted that he rid himself of basic human foibles and failings. Thus, kol bais Yisroel benefited from him and learned from him.
The Alter of Kelm observed that had Charles Darwin seen his rebbi, Rav Yisroel Salanter, he could have never entertained the possibility that human beings evolved from apes.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner would retell the story of a visitor to pre-war Vilna who retained the services of a local wagon driver. Baalei aggalah, wagon drivers, were notorious for their illiteracy. As the passenger made himself comfortable in the wagon, he removed a Gemara from his satchel and began to learn. The wagon driver took notice and turned around to ask the learned passenger what masechta he was studying. The passenger politely answered, certain that this would be the end of the conversation.
The baal aggalah persisted, asking what daf he was studying. The passenger responded without looking up, amused that a wagon driver would care not only about what masechta he was learning, but also which page.
The driver asked one question, and then another, and, suddenly, a full-fledged pilpul ensued, with questions, arguments and proofs being shared. The passenger was amazed by the scholarship of his driver and asked him what the secret of Vilna is that even the wagon drivers are talmidei chachomim.
“It is because here, we had the Vilna Gaon,” said the driver simply.
“Oh,” replied the new visitor to town. “Was he the rov?”
“No, he wasn’t.”
“Well, then, was he the rosh yeshiva?”
“Also not,” replied the wagon driver.
“So was he the maggid here, inspiring people to learn?”
“No, he was none of the above.”
“Then how did he succeed in infusing the people with such ahavas haTorah?” wondered the guest.
“Veil ehr iz duh geven. Because he was here,” was the succinct answer.
The idea that with his very presence a person can affect how others behave and act is entirely believable, because we recently had such a figure in our midst. Just over one year ago, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv still lived. Eighteen months ago, he still pored over his Gemara from 2:30 in the morning until late at night. He was closeted in a tiny room, surrounded by the books that had been his best friends since youth, inspiring a generation to learn.
He delivered few speeches and his door was opened for minutes a day, yet when he passed away, “Vayivku oso kol bais Yisroel.”
In him, a nation saw what Torah can do to man and what man can do with the Torah. A nation saw that it was possible, in our day and age, to become one with the Ribbono Shel Olam’s words. A nation saw that Torah itself can be a source of life, more than food and sleep, and a man can be sustained for a century within its embrace.
The fact that Torah is life – not an outside ingredient, but the essence of our existence – was personified by Rav Elyashiv. Every visit to him, every image that hangs on walls and in sukkos, shows the same thing – the tall, regal figure hunched forward, eager for a bit more Torah, another line, another precious drop of Torah.
Chazal tell us that at the beginning of time, Hakadosh Boruch Hu took the souls of the great tzaddikim and dispersed them throughout the generations, planting them at various junctures and stages in history, “shesolan bechol dor vador.” We, who were privileged to walk the same ground as Rav Elyashiv, will be held accountable as we lived in the dor in which Hashem planted this extraordinary neshamah.
There was once a gathering of children in Bnei Brak celebrating a Siyum Mishnayos. The arranger held the event in a large hall adjoining the Ponovezher Yeshiva, hoping that Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach would make an appearance and address the young boys. When the organizer went to Rav Shach’s apartment to inform him that the boys were ready and waiting, the rosh yeshiva apologized. He was simply too weak to go speak.
After the organizer left, Rav Shach looked at his close talmid, Rav Avrohom Tzvi Toib, and asked, “Do you think that was wrong of me?”
Rav Toib said, “I am not worthy of deciding what’s right or wrong for the rosh yeshiva.”
“But,” Rav Shach persisted, “I sense that you think I should have gone.”
“I can only tell the rosh yeshiva a story. My own father-in-law survived the horrors of the Second World War, enduring beatings and unimaginable torture. I once asked him how he managed to emerge from such a dark, bitter tunnel with his faith intact, and he told me that when he was a small child, the Chofetz Chaim visited his village. My father-in-law was a small child, and his parents felt that he was too young to go greet the gadol and too fragile for the inevitable pushing and jostling, but his grandfather insisted that he go. The grandfather carried my father-in-law, and when they got close to the Chofetz Chaim, he lifted the child high in the air. My father-in-law saw the face of the Chofetz Chaim, rabbon shel Yisroel.‘
“He told me, ‘You ask how I stayed strong. It’s because I saw the Chofetz Chaim‘s face and that image remained imprinted in my mind in the darkest times, giving me chizuk and hope when things were so, so bleak.”
Rav Toib completed the story and Rav Shach, elderly and weak, rose to his feet and reached for his hat.
“Kum. Lommir gein redden mit di kinder. (Come. Let us go and address the children)”
It was already a few hours into the Hakafos on leil Simchas Torah and no one could be blamed for running out of steam after having danced the whole evening. A bochur drenched in sweat left the line and was headed out of the hot bais medrash. His chaver saw him on the way out and said to him, “What’s going on? Where are you going?”
The bochur responded that he needed a break.
“Now? In middle of this niggun? How can you leave in middle of this niggun? You have to wait at least until this niggun ends.”
The bochur, who was spent a minute ago, said, “You know what? You’re right. I’m going back in.”
What was the niggun? It wasn’t some new trendy melody. It was a golden oldie, sung all over the world on the day we celebrate the siyum of the Torah: “Olam Haba iz ah gutteh zach, lernen Torah iz ah besser zach, varf avek yeden yoch, lernen Torah noch un noch, Olam Haba iz ah gutteh zach.”
As many times as that niggun is sung, it’s never enough. The words keep churning in your head. Noch un noch. Lernen Torah noch un noch. Lernen Torah iz ah besser zach.
That niggun was Rav Elyashiv’s life.
In the stillness of the predawn hours, the song began, and it continued, unabated, as he sat hunched over his Gemara in his room in Meah Shearim. The simple table in front of him didn’t just hold seforim and slips of paper. Rather, it sustained the world.
In a world of mortals sat this angel. We gazed at him and saw the heights man can reach.
The Bais Hamikdosh was the epicenter of Hashem’s goodness. It was from there that all good came down to the world. The Urim Vetumim answered all questions. There was never a machlokes that could not be decided. Everything was clear. Am Yisroel totally relied on Hashem, Who guided them every step of the way. One who was in need of special assistance in the area of parnossah davened in the direction of the Shulchan. It was possible to pray in the direction of the Menorah to gain chochmah. The Mizbeiach was there for every Yid. A person who sinned and repented and wanted to say, “I’m sorry,” brought a korban. One who wanted to express his thanks to Hashem brought a korban. Every Yom Tov had korbanos of its own, as did every Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and in fact every single day.
At the time of the churban, the Bais Hamkidosh was destroyed, the Urim Vetumim was taken from us, and the Shulchan and Mizbeiach were gone, along with all of their benefits.
Up until last year, there was an individual who sat, closeted in a world of Torah, connected to the Tannaim, Amoraim, Rishonim and Acharonim, linking us in the process. We had someone who saw with clarity and precision, his vision encompassing much more than we can see. We knew that he was there, and that knowledge impacted us.
From the time he was a child, Rav Elyashiv immersed himself in learning, seemingly disconnected from the realities of daily life.
Through world wars and political upheaval, he kept on learning. A state was declared amidst exploding shells and gun-smoke, and he learned on. The tiny country sustained hunger and privation, and assault from ever-present enemies, and he continued his learning.
In time, every Torah Jew would know his name.
When Rav Elyashiv’s father, Rav Avrohom, known as the Homeler Rov, was niftar, his talmidim at the Tiferes Bachurim shul were distraught. Rav Avrohom had led their chaburah with warmth and devotion, and now he was gone. His son, still a young man, seemed so distant and so unapproachable.
Rav Yitzchok Halevi Herzog delivered a hesped. Standing on the steps of the Tiferes Bachurim shul, he faced the people and cried out, “Yes, you have lost a rov, but you have gained a gadol.”
And they were comforted.
As reticent as he was, they soon came to appreciate the rov’s son, their new leader, the tall, introverted man with a gentle voice. They appreciated his incredible clarity in learning and his meticulousness in his speech. They began to hold their heads a little higher. After all, this developing Torah giant was their rov.
He was a gadol and they were his people.
Despite the burdens of growing fame, Rav Elyashiv’s best friends remained the seforim and thick stone walls of the Ohel Sarah shul, where he spent his days and most of his nights closeted in the four amos of halochah. From within the cold shul with high ceilings, halochah began to go forth to Klal Yisroel, as astute Yidden sought him out.
Over the years, he became the address for Yidden in search of a brachah, chizuk, guidance, and clear, articulate p’sak halachah.
His mastery of Torah was unparalleled.
The gedolim of this generation were in awe of how much he knew. Rav Shmuel Auerbach wrote a landmark peirush on the complex masechta of Ohalos, investing thirteen years of toil in it. When the work was ready for print, he went to Rav Elyashiv to show it to him.
As Rav Shmuel himself said, “I left his home with real chalishus hada’as (dejection). I had spent thirteen years living and breathing the concepts of the masechta, and the rov was completely at home in it, more so than me. There was nothing, no conclusion or proof, that wasn’t poshut to him.”
The famed Litvisher mekubal, the Leshem, blessed his childless daughter that she would give birth to a son who would brighten the world with his Torah, adding, “Un viffel men vet em vellen shteren fun lernen, vet men nisht kennen.” It will be impossible to pull him away from the Gemara or nudge him an inch out of the four amos of halochah, the Leshem foretold of his grandson, Rav Yosef Shalom, prior to his birth.
Halochah defined his every word. Rav Elyashiv was only interested in the truth. His only concern with respect to every issue and every topic was what the Torah had to say about it and how to view it through the prism of Torah.
Torah was the one and only reality in his life. Those who view the world with Torahdike eyes marveled at his every nuance.
I personally had the zechus to benefit from the sensitivity and the rochav lev of this quintessential ish ho’eshkolos. In 1999, I merited to go to Eretz Yisroel with my family. I received a call from Rav Yosef Efrati, Rav Elyashiv’s trusted personal assistant, who said that he told “the rov,” as he referred to him, that I was in Yerushalayim, and he asked that I come with my wife and children. I told Rav Efrati that we would visit during Chol Hamoed, as it had already become customary for people to pass by the rov and receive his brochos. He responded that Rav Elyashiv specifically wanted us to come before Yom Tov and that we should bring along someone to take pictures.
Rav Efrati explained that the rov was of the opinion that photographing is an activity that shouldn’t be practiced on Chol Hamoed, and since he wanted us to be able to have pictures of the encounter, he asked that we come before Yom Tov.
Rav Efrati gave us a time to come and said that he would be there to bring us into the rov’s home. It was sort of strange, as we didn’t know the purpose of the visit, but we were happy to be granted a private audience with Rav Elyashiv.
When we arrived on Rechov Chanan, Rav Efrati was there to greet us and take us upstairs to the rov’s dining room. It was a special treat to be able to get in without having to wait on line, and we were honored to have the rov to ourselves. He shook our hands and beckoned me to be seated.
Rav Elyashiv then turned to my wife and said, “You are probably wondering why I asked for all of you to come. Let me explain. Your husband is involved in klal work and you therefore probably suffer agmas nefesh. I wanted to give you a little kavod and be mechazeik you. That’s why I asked for you to come here.”
It was a visit that my family will never forget. A picture of us at Rav Elyashiv’s table hangs in my office, reminding me of his kindness, warmth, compassion and understanding, and, on many occasions, it has provided the chizuk to continue and persevere.
Rav Elyashiv once related that Rav Zelig Reuven Bengis told him that he was upset when he received his first rabbinic position in a very small Lithuanian town. He complained to his rebbi, the Netziv, that all his vast Torah knowledge was going to be wasted in his role as the rov of a tiny conurbation.
The Netziv told him that baalei batim can discern the difference between a rov who knows the entire Shas and a rov who only knows half of Shas. A rov who knows Shas can influence and lead his people much better than one who doesn’t.
Rav Elyashiv was the greatest testimony to the truth of the Netziv‘s words. Because he knew the entire Shas and had spent decades learning, hureving and mastering Bavli and Yerushalmi along with Rishonim, Acharonim, daled chelkei Shulchan Aruch, and all the teshuvah seforim, Klal Yisroel recognized his greatness, and he stood as the personification of the paradigm Am Yisroel aims for.
Whenever there was a serious, intricate, vexing question anywhere in the Torah world, his was the definitive answer.
A man of few words, he would listen to the question, grasp all the issues involved, and provide a response. He didn’t engage in small talk. He measured each word that he spoke. With exactitude, he crystallized the sugya in a few sentences and returned to the Gemara open in front of him, one hand holding the place. As the questioner stood up to leave, Rav Elyashiv was already areingeton in the sugya he had been learning before being interrupted. Every minute was precious and not to be wasted.
Rav Elyashiv stood firm, leading with clarity and strength; a beacon for Jews everywhere. Though he possessed a faint heart, and was encumbered by a century-old body, the man who lived in a simple apartment on a tiny narrow street, pumped out life-giving sustenance to an entire nation; setting the example for ameilus and yegiah baTorah.
Rav Elyashiv’s existence was bederech neis in the zechus of Klal Yisroel and the Torah that he studied. He was weak and sickly as a child and was home-schooled due to his constantly recurring illnesses. He was so weak that he was never able to help out at home or undertake any strenuous physical activity. All he was able to do was learn with his father at home. His health did not improve with age. His children often feared that he was about to die and that they were going to become orphans. But Rav Elyashiv was Torah, Torah, un noch Torah. When he learned, he was as fresh and vigorous as a healthy, strong man. The Torah was his eitz chaim, sustaining him and giving him life.
In later years, his nightly shiur became something of a public event. A large group of regular attendees of his shiur were supplemented each night by people anxious to see and learn from the gadol hador. For many, especially thousands of visitors from all over the world, this was their only opportunity to be bimechitzaso, experiencing firsthand the greatness that was Rav Elyashiv. They took their seats and let the sweetness and clarity of his delivery draw them in. The sugya was opened wide, as his dual roles – maggid shiur for laymen and rebbi of Klal Yisroel – fused into one during that hour.
Even after his one-hundredth birthday, he delivered the shiur with youthful enthusiasm. With a minimum of flourish, he encapsulated many of the exegeses of Rishonim and Acharonim. It was like a shulchan aruch, a set table, laid out in front of you. The shiur appealed to learned talmidei chachomim who appreciated the nuances, as well as to laymen, who benefited from the clearest possible elucidation of the Gemara.
But it wasn’t a laid-back affair. The ris’cha de’Oraisah was palpable. Every few minutes, one of the attendees would jump up with a question. “Uber der rebbe hut gezukt… Ich vill fregen oif dem…,” the man would say, as he launched into a question on the sugya that Rav Elyashiv was discussing. A lively discussion ensued. The attendees prodded the gadol with probing questions, and he responded with equal gusto to people one-third his age.
The words on the aron kodesh in the bais medrash right next to his seat read, “Toras Hashem temimah meshivas nofesh.” Anyone who wanted to see a live demonstration of what those words mean would trek to the end of Meah Shearim and watch the shiur take place. It was an enlightening and invigorating experience guaranteed to strengthen the faith of anyone who witnessed it.
Rav Elyashiv stood as a symbol of the greatness man can attain if he applies himself to Torah. There is no limit to what we can achieve. If a sickly, weak individual, with a heart that could barely pump, was able to master kol haTorah kulah, we, who are healthy, can surely reach high levels and light up the world with our Torah if we dedicate ourselves to it. If Torah becomes more important to us than anything else, we can reach the levels he personified.
It was a gift to our generation that a person who we saw, spoke to and studied from lived among us and walked among us, in this day, in this generation, and epitomized a gadlus that the yeitzer hara says is impossible to reach anymore.
Though he is no longer with us delivering shiurim, p’sokim and hora’ah for hundreds of thousands, the posuk on the aron kodesh which stood beside him, “Toras Hashem temimah,” is as true as ever. His message and example are still fresh for everyone to learn from and emulate. As we commemorate his first yahrtzeit, we are reminded to do our part to connect with the totality of the Torah.
We lived in an era with Rav Elyashiv. Many of us merited to see him, some even to speak to him. But those who never saw him heard tales of his unquenchable thirst for Torah. Kol bais Yisroel was elevated by having him in our midst.
He was taken from us during the period when we mourn the churban. We don’t remember the Bais Hamikdosh, but we do remember Rav Elyashiv. As time passes, we grasp more of what it was that we lost with his petirah. We realize that he stood as a model of the prototype ben Torah we should all aspire to be. As we mark a year since his passing, we take hold of his memory, image and example, and we affirm our desire to live up to the achrayus we have as children of a generation that was so blessed.