Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

A Rebbetzin for the Ages

It's that time of year when Jews struggle to hold on, to grasp what was, to incorporate the stirrings of our souls into something practical that can accompany us on a journey into the long, cold winter. You look at your place in shul and you recall that first night of Selichos. You remember the awe you felt as the chazzan intoned “Bemotzoei Menuchah.” It was an awe that only increased over the days that followed. You remember how you stood straight, your ear tilted towards the baal tokeia as the shofar's strains filled the room, and you wonder if you can recapture what you felt then. Somewhere in the shul, the echoes of Ne'ilah's “Hashem Hu Ha'Elokim” still reverberate and the esrog's sublime scent still lingers. Green dots line the floor, fallen leaves of the aravos and hadassim that circled the bimah seven days, while a child's flag proclaiming “Nagil Venasis Bezos HaTorah” droops off a table.

The impactof the awesome month is everywhere. The battle, as we disassemble sukkah boards and store our lulavim in order to burn them with the chometz, is to hold on. As Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz sang, “Men darfen zei tzu halten, mit eizeneh tzvangen.” We have to grasp the holy days with iron grips. In the Yehi Ratzon that we say as we leave thesukkah, we ask that the holy malochim created through the mitzvos remain at our side, and do not abandon us.


Rav Shlomo Wolbe delivered a shmuess at Yeshiva Beer Yaakov a few months after the Six Day War, and he related a story to prove his point. He said that during the war, an Israeli navy ship was bombed by an Egyptian frigate and was sinking. Even the kibbutzniks on board shouted out, “Shema Yisroel!” before they were miraculously saved.


One of the bochurim at the shmuess requested permission to ask a question. He took the air out of the room when he asked if those sailors who had discovered Hashem as they were staring death in the face put on tefillin the next morning.


Rav Wolbe was silent for a few moments and then said to the boy, “You recently experienced Yom Kippur. You were a changed person. You were serious and introspective. Then you shouted out, ‘Hashem Hu Ha’Elokim,’seven times. But what happened the next day? How did you act and daven on the eleventh of Tishrei? Were you the same as you were the day before? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that your Yom Kippur was not genuine. It simply means that, in life, you have to connect experiences and grow from them. That is the challenge. That is the test.”


How do you string together fifty-three days of spiritual elevation and package them for the months ahead?


The challenge is one underscored by the Rama in his well-known explanation of the bracha of Asher Yotzar, on the words “umafli la’asos.” The wonder of man, says the Rama, is the fusion of the neshamah, a slice of the spiritual, and the very mundane guf, and their ability to work in harmony. That’s a peleh, a miracle.


To fuse the hashpaah of the Yomim Noraim with the mundane days ahead is a task that we are charged with, wondrous and arduous as it may be. And it can be done.


In an exaggeratedly humble home on Rechov Rashbam in Bnei Brak, we saw how people can live like angels, yet still have room for the masses – the tired and the poor, the huddled individuals yearning for a listening ear, and those bringing concerns about mortgages, surgeries, shidduchim and far more prosaic things up the well-trodden narrow staircase.


In that tiny apartment, Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, granddaughter, daughter, daughter-in-law and,wife, of gedolei Yisroel, offered tea and encouragement, not just sympathizing, but empathizing with her visitors.


One Friday afternoon, as she was attempting to prepare for Shabbos, an obviously irreligious woman showed up in her kitchen complaining of kidney stones, asking if the Rebbetzin could help her. The Rebbetzin offered some remedies for the ailment and then, when she was done, she suggested in a most loving way that the woman accept upon herself to dress with more tznius and light Shabbos candles each week.


The Rebbetzin related to that woman just as she had to the dozens of American seminary girls who trooped to her door seeking guidance on a full range of topics, from emunah andbitachon to tznius, baking challah, and shidduchim.


Could she, a daughter of the sanctity and spiritual satisfaction of the Elyashiv home, really imagine the struggles of an American woman dealing with tznius issues? Could the Rebbetzin identify with the irreligious visitor from the southern Israeli development town, her hair kerchiefed unnaturally in honor of the occasion, as she spoke of her battle to bring a little more purity to her own home?


The answer was yes. Somehow, this woman, who had lived amongst angels, was able to relate to the very un-angelic trials and challenges of every other Jew.


She knew the secret, the holy fusion ofumafli laasos.


Like a ladder reaching the heavens but very firmly rooted in the ground, Rebbetzin Kanievsky lived in the realm of her great husband, waking in the middle of the night to prepare his cup of tea before his first seder of the day, davening Shacharis at vosikin and also Minchah and Maariv, yet filling the time in between embracing the “amcha,” the simple, sincere souls who sought her warmth and guidance.


She would enter the crowded room and their faces would turn to her, like flowers to the sun, expectant, desperate and hopeful, and she would open the floodgates ofahavas Yisroel, of warmth and acceptance.


Rebbetzin Kanievsky knew that the same Aibishter we cry to at Ne’ilah is there every single day, every single second, even when Yom Kippur is but a distant memory. Each moment, she knew and demonstrated, can be elevated to its own Ne’ilah.


My son Yishai was privileged to eat a Shabbos seudah at the Kanievsky home. The Rebbetzin told him a story about her grandmother, Rebbetzin Levin, wife of Rav Aryeh Levin. Back in the Yerushalayim of a century ago, homes were equipped with neither cribs nor running water. Water was drawn periodically from a well and kept in a large tub inside the house for use. Babies slept on beds, often sharing the space with several siblings.


One day, Rebbetzin Levin prepared to leave her home to do some errands, her baby sleeping soundly on the bed. She made her way down the street, when a man suddenly stopped her and asked for a drink, telling her that he was thirsty. The Rebbetzin assured him that her errands would take her a moment and that she would soon be home, where she would accommodate him.


The fellow insisted that he couldn’t wait, claiming that he needed a drink immediately or he would faint. The Rebbetzinturned around and hurried back to her house to get him a drink. When she came in to the apartment, she saw that the baby she had left sleeping soundly had fallen off the bed and landed in the large tub of drawn water! She grabbed her baby from the water and placed her on the bed. She quickly ran out to bring a cup of water to the thirsty man, but he was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared.


Later, Rebbetzin Levin told her sister, Rebbetzin Frank, what happened. Rebbetzin Frank related the incident to her husband, Rav Tzvi Pesach, who said that the thirsty man was Eliyahu Hanovi, who had come to save the baby because she would one day marry the gadol hador!


This is the story that Rebbetzin Kanievsky, daughter of the little baby in the episode, told my son. Her own mother, Rebbetzin Sheina Elyashiv, had been the subject of the type of tale that we imagine happened centuries ago, when Eliyahu Hanovi was a real part of life, when the extraordinary was ordinary.


She, Rebbetzin Kanievsky, lived a world where words like Eliyahu Hanovi and gadol hador were part of the vernacular, yet she could relate to the rest of us, understanding the dreams and ambitions of people living in a far different world.


I have a letter she wrote me, each line bursting with warmth and concern. I had tried to help a beleaguered mosad in Yerushalayim and she wished to express her hakoras hatov. It was as if the institution and its very inglorious mandate – caring for broken, suffering souls – were the most important things in the world to her. They were.


I went to visit her with my son Ari, before his bar mitzvah, and she presented him with a sefer. I immediately asked how much it costs, knowing that the very meager livelihood of the Kanievsky family comes from the sale of those seforim. She looked at me, astonished. “My husband and I want to give a bar mitzvah gift to a Jewish child,” she told me. “Why won’t you let us?” She and her husband were the king and queen of Klal Yisroel, yet she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowing them to “be normal” and give a bar mitzvah gift. The unpretentiousness of the gesture was itself a precious gift. A simcha of another Jew was her simcha. A boy from the other end of the world was celebrating his bar mitzvah and she wanted to be part of that simcha. So, as she must have done many times, she took out one of her husband’s seforim, carefully inscribed it, and, as she was doing so, she read what she was writing to the young boy. She then lovingly explained to him what she was writing and why, describing the sefer to him and recommending that he study it.


TheRebbetzin radiated simchas hachayim, joy and enthusiasm that belied her taxing schedule. Besides davening the three tefillos b’tzibbur, the Rebbetzin was dedicated to being a good wife, preparing her husband’s daily salad with great concentration and focus. All her remaining time, some 8-9 hours a day, was spent listening to people she didn’t know. The sheer number of tzaros she was exposed to each day would have broken others, but not her. She suffered along with the people who came to her and deeply felt their pain, yet she drew from a timeless, and endless, reservoir of chizuk, so that the smile never waned and the message never faltered.


My son was advised by a friend to go to the Kanievsky apartment before Shabbos in order to be there when the Rebbetzin lit Shabbos candles. He described her copious tears as she stood there in tefillah for a full hour, beseeching her Creator on behalf of the people who turned to her. Then the smile returned as she welcomed Shabbos with her characteristic joy.


From where did this supply of simcha come?


Perhaps the answer lies in another story that the Rebbetzin shared with my son. She related that her own mother, Rebbetzin Elyashiv, was personable, outgoing and very popular. At her chasunah, she had many friends with whom to rejoice and the mood was festive.


On the other side of the mechitzah, thechosson seemed so serious, surrounded by relatives, neighbors and only a few friends. He had never learned in a formal yeshiva, and the walls and seforim of the Ohel Sarah – his “companions” since childhood – were “unable” to dance.


The kallah’s friends asked the bubbly kallah why she was so happy, while her new husband seemed so reticent. “Why am I happy?” answered the kallah. “Ich hob chasunah mit der Toirah alein!” (“I am marrying the Torah itself!”)


Could Rebbetzin Kanievsky have been telling the same story about herself? Could that endless supply of joy have come from the awareness that she lived a privileged existence, slicing vegetables and preparing tea for “der Toirah alein”?


With her luminous spirit inspiring us, may we begin the journey through the winter of 5772 armed with her lesson that the heights of spiritual accomplishment aren’t that far from our world. Every bracha can be an experience, each person we meet is one whose life we can brighten, and each tefillah we utter is a chance to ascend to greater heights.


Ah gutten oon gezunten vinter.



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