Shouldering a Nation’s Burdens

Upon graduating high school, Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky zt”l received a full scholarship from New York State to attend college and was under tremendous pressure to take advantage of the opportunity. His higher education would have been fully paid for, but he wished to learn in yeshiva, so he sent a letter to the state requesting a one-year deferment. While such scholarships at the time were use-it-or-lose-it offers, Rav Belsky, recognized for his absolute brilliance, was granted the deferment. Twelve months later, wishing to learn for another year, he again requested a deferment. This time, he was turned down by New York State.

[It was due to Rav Belsky that the scholarship board ultimately changed its rules, and instituted that those who choose to focus on Talmudical studies in a post-high school program can be granted a deferment until they are ready for college. An employee of the Board of Education later discovered that Rav Belsky’s name is actually referenced in the recording of this rule change.]

As his son, Reb Tzvi, described at the levayah, in exchange for not pursuing higher education, Rav Belsky acquired kol haTorah kulah: Tanach, Shishah Sidrei Mishnah, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Tosefta, Medrash, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, Rishonim, Acharonim, and other sifrei kodesh. He became a master of Torah, one of the great Torah minds of his day.

At the same time, ironically enough, Reb Tzvi pointed out, Rav Belsky also acquired biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, astronomy, botany, poetry and other subjects in the realms of science, math, English, and history.

Legend had it that Rav Belsky earned a perfect score on his SAT exam. When my friend, Rabbi Elli Bohm, asked Rav Belsky if this was true, Rav Belsky just smiled and said humbly, “They had a different point system back then.”

Interestingly, as Reb Tzvi attested at the levayah, Rav Belsky’s children never saw their father studying these subjects. He was always observed learning Torah. All he was interested in was Torah. His extended knowledge was an outgrowth of his ahavas haTorah, ahavas Hashem and Torah brilliance. Everything he knew came from his wide-ranging knowledge of Torah, which he had mastered at an astoundingly young age.

Beyond acquiring his vast knowledge, when he passed on his scholarship for higher education, Rav Belsky took a path that led to him becoming a gadol b’Yisroel, a Torah giant of epic proportions, a leader of men, whose courage and ehrlichkeit complemented his unbelievable yedios haTorah.

Friends of mine who were close talmidim of his often told me that they always hear people commenting on Rav Belsky’s brilliance, breadth of knowledge, and grasp of every sugya imaginable, but they felt strongly that his tzidkus was no less remarkable. He was a tzaddik yesod olam, whose every move was governed by halachah and whose every decision was dictated by what would ultimately increase kavod Shomayim, come what may.

He was a gadol in Torah.

He was a gadol in tzidkus.

And when Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l was once asked about Rav Belsky, he described him to Rav Bezalel Rudinsky with two words: ish emes.

A man of truth, perhaps the greatest appellation of all.

I feel somewhat strange writing this tribute, because I was never a talmid of Rav Belsky. So many people learned by the rosh yeshiva and spoke to him on a regular basis. I was not fortunate to be among them. Yet, in so many ways, he was my rebbi, through his shiurim, his p’sakim, and his talmidim who I am close to who constantly share his wisdom with me. In so many ways, I felt like a talmid.

As did much of Klal Yisroel.

He was a yochid bedoro, a legend in his own time, a humble leader who guided and advised Klal Yisroel with clarity and wholesomeness.

Klal Yisroel’s problem was his problem.

Klal Yisroel’s adherence to halachah was his worry.

Klal Yisroel’s nitzrachim were his concern.

He was a father to one and all.

The stories related by his children are enlightening. They demonstrate that he taught by example, constantly learning even though he had already mastered kol haTorah kulah at a young age.

He practiced what he preached publically, yet to his children, he didn’t preach what he practiced. They saw it on their own. It was the most powerful form of chinuch, as he was a living embodiment of everything he espoused and believed.

Rav Belsky maintained a level of gevurah at all times, notwithstanding various challenges and opposition, because he was singularly focused on fulfilling Hashem’s will. There was never any other motive or agenda. His every act and every decision was carried out with such purity.

He was a gadol who was cloaked in the garb of one of us. He was a regular, approachable person, who spoke our language and understood how to relate to the hamon am. But he was so far removed from us. He was in a different stratosphere of greatness. This dichotomy was always astounding.

Many people know the story of Rav Belsky spotting a formation of stars in the sky that appeared out of place, an observation confirmed by NASA, whose experts said that it was the rarest of phenomena. Fewer people know stories like the one his son related at the levayah about a talmid of Rav Belsky who felt compelled to let go of one of his employees, who continually spoke disparagingly of Rav Belsky despite being asked not to. It was none other than Rav Belsky to whom the employee turned to help get him reinstated. Rav Belsky begged his talmid to rehire the fellow and not to worry about the fact that the man had spoken derogatorily about him.

Many people are aware of the fact that Rav Belsky dispensed a tremendous amount of tzedakah over the years, often making $20 his minimum donation to any person in need. Those less informed assumed that Rav Belsky had a fund of some kind and received money from others to give out as tzedakah. The fact of the matter was that Rav Belsky, for whom parnassah was so often a struggle, gave the tzedakah from his very own pocket. This was the case for decades.

His two most precious roles, among the many that he filled, were father and rebbi. He was a devoted father to his own mishpachah and a loving rebbi to his talmidim, constantly worrying about their welfare.

Those who went to meet with him at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas did so in his “office” – except that he had no office. His “office” was his shiur room. This, in many ways, was so apropos. It reflected how available he made himself to people and, also, the fact that he felt that his place was in his shiur room, where he taught and guided talmidim of all ages. That was his place of comfort, his place of fulfillment. For many, there was nothing more exhilarating or comforting than spending time in that classroom, as Rav Belsky, sitting behind his desk, perhaps stirring a coffee as he spoke, dispensed wisdom, halachic expertise and warmth in his calm, soft-spoken manner.

I recall meeting Rav Belsky over fifteen years ago, when I was a bochur learning at Yeshiva Torah Temimah. A friend and I made the short walk to Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, where we met Rav Belsky in his shiur room. He gave of his precious time to review a halachah article I had written. My legs were quivering as Rav Belsky sat in front of me, graciously reading my writings. And then he came upon something I wrote that he gently pointed out was incorrect. Woefully incorrect.

With immense patience, he proceeded to go through the sugya from the beginning, clarifying and edifying. Like he did throughout his life, this gadol baTorah sat and explained to a simple yeshiva bochur principles and basics of halachah that were so clear and obvious to him, with tolerance and serenity. He was calm and collected.

It was only afterward, when I sat down to relearn the sugya, that I realized how much I had missed the boat. The mistake I had made was so elementary, and yet the great rosh yeshiva, in his humility and with his love for bnei Torah, didn’t indicate how ignorant I had been. Instead, like a caring rebbi, he gave of time he didn’t have, to a ben Torah he didn’t know, to break down the Shulchan Aruch and the nosei keilim, point by point, by heart, ensuring that I understood everything correctly.

I fast forward about a decade. I had undertaken a project for the Yated and contacted Rav Belsky to ask that he write a letter. The ease with which I was able to contact the rosh yeshiva via telephone was always mind-boggling to me. Rav Belsky was as gracious as could be, while I again felt guilty taking up his time for what was a relatively trivial matter compared to the weighty issues with which most of his time was occupied. I visited his home several times until I was able to gain an audience with him, mainly because, in each instance, a matter of urgency that was klal-related kept him unavailable.

On one morning visit, I was told to return at night and the rosh yeshiva would make time for me. I arrived at his home at approximately 11 p.m. It was clear from the continuous discourse emerging from the Belsky dining room that the rosh yeshiva was presiding over a pressing matter, a din Torah of sorts, and so, recognizing my place, I waited outside. It was well past midnight when the rosh yeshiva warmly welcomed me into his home. Despite the tense and stressing nature of the meeting Rav Belsky had just participated in, he was as calm as a human being could be, making small talk and ensuring that I was comfortable. He then asked me about the nature of the letter that needed to be written and proceeded to write it, patiently and with concentration. I looked at my watch. It was 1 a.m. He wasn’t rushed and never gave me the feeling that I was wasting his time. He reminisced about his younger years at Torah Vodaas as he wrote. When his pen ran out, he made a lighthearted quip and asked if it was okay that the second portion of the letter would be in a different colored ink. He then completed the letter and warmly wished me hatzlachah.

What is extraordinary is not this solitary exchange, but the fact that this type of thing happened every day, day after day, for years and years, with all types of people, from all types of backgrounds, for all types of causes, and the rosh yeshiva never got flustered or overwhelmed. He was a picture of the peace and tranquility of one who lives for others and gives of his time, despite, or because of, the fact that he is a gadol baTorah.12-COLOR-Belsky_03

Rav Belsky was one of the greatest Torah minds of his generation, a preeminent posek and rosh yeshiva whose guidance was sought by tens of thousands of Jews across the globe. His genius was unparalleled and his breadth of knowledge unsurpassed in his time.

At the same time, in addition to his gadlus in Torah, Rav Belsky possessed a heart that was open to all Jews, and he gave of his time, wisdom and abilities to help people from across the spectrum of Yiddishkeit. Despite the great burdens he carried on his shoulders, guiding so many Jews in so many different facets of life, Rav Belsky continued to extend himself on behalf of others, opening his home to people who came to him for help. His home was a veritable reshus harabim.

While all he wished to do was sit and learn the Torah that was so beloved to him, he sacrificed his time to pasken shailos and answer halachah queries on a continuous basis. From early morning until well past midnight, Rav Belsky was working on behalf of Klal Yisroel, serving as a shliach Hashem and imparting advice and guidance from his wellspring of Torah knowledge.

Whether it was the writers of the ArtScroll Schottenstein Gemara or other talmidei chachomim seeking clarity in some of the most esoteric sugyos in Shas, Rav Belsky was the address. Those who spoke to him came away stunned by his brilliance and aptitude, and touched by the manner in which he articulated himself.

A friend of mind, Rav Menachem Savitz, was a member of a group of bochurim who participated in the Masmidim program at Camp Agudah in Ferndale, NY, during its first years. He recalled one particular incident from 30 years ago that reflects the manner in which Rav Belsky displayed his deep humility while demonstrating his love and sensitivity for every Yid.

The bochurim in the Masmidim program asked Rav Belsky if they could go on a trip. Rav Belsky suggested that they visit Niagara Falls. Before they departed on the lengthy drive, Rav Belsky indicated that they should take along a handicapped camper who was wheelchair-bound. Despite the great challenges involved, Rav Belsky gave his assurance that he would take care of this camper’s needs. The members of the group were perhaps less than excited to be encumbered by the presence of this camper, but they saw the love and care that the rosh yeshiva expressed and they understood that it was the right thing to do.

Upon arriving in Niagara, one of the outings the boys went on was the Cave of the Winds, a thrilling experience that begins with an elevator ride 175 feet down into the Niagara Gorge, where, in ponchos and specially-designed sandals, guests stand a few breathtaking feet from the torrents of Niagara Falls.

Seeing the young camper in his wheelchair, one of the Cave of the Winds staff members regretfully informed Rav Belsky that the boy wouldn’t be able to participate and someone would have to remain behind with him. Rav Belsky immediately encouraged the rest of the group to go ahead and said that he would remain with the camper. At that moment, however, Rav Belsky noticed a father lifting his young son on to his shoulders and head to the attraction. Turning to the guide, Rav Belsky asked if it would be okay for him to carry his disabled camper on his shoulders.

Looking at the bearded rabbi with surprise, the staff member asked, “But he’s dead weight. How in the world can you carry him?”

Rav Belsky told him not to worry. Once permission had been granted, Rav Belsky proceeded to lift his beloved camper on his shoulders and walk ahead, as he did his best to catch up to the Masmidim group. The giant of Torah made the beleaguered camper on his shoulders feel like a giant as well, enabling him to take part in the Cave of the Winds experience.

For Rav Belsky, nothing was unbecoming for his stature or beyond his reach if it could make a positive difference for a yochid or the rabim. That was precisely one aspect of his greatness. He allowed his various positions and roles, and his ability to bring himself down to the level of one and all, to sometimes divert our attention from the fact that he was one of the gedolei hador, a living Sefer Torah, who had every word of Hashem embedded in his mind and heart, the very heart that was open to Klal Yisroel.

And to a disabled camper.

A camper who sat on the shoulders that carried the burdens of Klal Yisroel.

Shoulders that were at times frail and weighed down by tremendous yissurim, but almost miraculously never ceased carrying the concerns, worries and responsibilities of a nation.

Who can replace him?