Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Tribute to Rav Yitzchok Finkel zt”l

A King and the Son of a King, a Tzaddik and the Son of a Tzaddik The Torah says, “Yitzchok went out to pray in the field before evening.” Yitzchok Avinu instituted the Minchah prayer, the tefillah we recite before the sun sets. Now, the sun has set on the life of a different Yitzchok, Rav Yitzchok Finkel zt”l, son of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, the late rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim.


Rav Yitzchok was known for his powerful tefillos. “What has remained engraved in your memory about your father?” I asked his eldest son, Yerucham. Without thinking twice, he answers, “Abba’s tefillos.”

Anyone who saw Rav Yitzchok davening could feel it. They were the prayers of a man who was a tzaddik and the son of tzaddik.

Someone once asked Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel for a brachah regarding a certain difficulty he was experiencing. With a troubled heart, he had come to the rosh yeshiva’s home and waited until Rav Nosson Tzvi was strong enough to listen to him – and, more importantly, to speak. The rosh yeshiva showered his visitor with words of consolation, gave him a brachah, and asked for his name and his mother’s name. Then Rav Nosson Tzvi said in a confidential tone, “Listen to me: Go to my son Yitzchok and ask him to daven for you, as well.”


Rav Nosson Tzvi FInkel had six children, all of them great men in their own right. The eldest is Rav Eliezer Yehuda, who succeeded his father at the helm of Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim. The next is Rav Avrohom Shmuel, who serves as a rosh chaburah in Bais Menachem, one of the Mir’s batei medrash. Rav Yeshayahu (“Shaya”) is a rosh chaburah in the Friedman Bais Medrash of the yeshiva. Then came Rav Yitzchok zt”l, who was a rosh kollel first in Yeshiva Mir-Brachfeld and more recently in Spiegel. Rav Shmaryahu Yosef (“Shmerel”) is a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva Mir-Brachfeld. Finally, Rav Chaim is a rosh chaburah for Chassidishe talmidim in Bais Yeshaya in the mornings and a nosei venosein in Yeshivas Mir-Brachfeld in the afternoons.

Rav Nosson Tzvi also had six sons-in-law, all of whom are marbitzei Torah: Rav Noam Alon, a rosh yeshiva in Yeshivas Mir-Brachfeld; Rav Chaim Solomon, Rav Aharon Kessler, Rav Yoel Birnbaum, Rav Yosef Shirkin and Rav Shimshon Bloch.


Rav Yitzchok began his education in the Meah Shearim talmud Torah, moving on to Yismach Moshe, Ateres Yisroel, and finally Mir. With each new makom Torah, he continued to grow. His inner drive to inspire and influence others, along with his love for every chavrusah and talmid, was something that he inherited from his revered father. Even in his yeshiva ketanah years, he founded a vaad where he taught others, until the roshei yeshiva “complained” to his father that he was too young. Rav Nosson Tzvi kept the episode in mind.

After his marriage, Rav Yitzchok lived for a while in Bnei Brak, where he joined Kollel HaRashbi, headed by Rav Meir Tzvi Bergman, son-in-law of Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l. He worked hard there not to stand out, but everyone knew about the exceptional young avreich. Had his father not told him to take a position as a rosh kollel in Mir-Brachfeld, he would have remained comfortably ensconced in the kollel in Bnei Brak.

He rose to fame as a rosh kollel in Mir-Brachfeld.

His hesped for his father, which he was forced to deliver despite his humility and his reluctance to speak in front of a massive crowd, drew praise from everyone. The attendees at the levayah were all amazed.

One of Rav Yitzchok’s innovations at his kollel, which remained part of the program even after his departure, was the practice of the avreichim delivering their own chaburos on a rotating basis. I am told by one avreich from Brachfeld that it caught on only because it was Rav Yitzchok’s idea.


During the shivah for Rav Nosson Tzvi, Rav Yitzchok spoke about his father’s attribute of “malchus.”

“Who are the kings?” he declared, quoting Chazal. “The rabbonon. And the rov of the rabbonon must be the king of kings.”

His father, Rav Yitzchok declared, had made the students of Torah, those who cling to the Tree of Life, fortunate enough to be kings.

And Rav Yitzchok himself was the son of a king, and a king in his own right.

He noted that the Gemara states in Maseches Moed Kotton that the Amoraim desired wisdom and wealth, but they understood that the trait of humility was one that they could acquire only through hard work. He added that the only way to achieve Torah knowledge is, as Chazal state, through derech eretz. And that is why a person is asked in the World of Truth, “Did you make your friend your king?”

That is who Rav Yitzchok was. He was the king of humility, a man who knew how to make everyone else his “king.”


Rav Yitzchok became a rosh kollel at a relatively young age – approximately the same age as the avreichim in the yeshiva – and he immediately captured the hearts of the avreichim, who became very close to him. He delivered a chaburah every two weeks and a shmuess once every three weeks. His words were brilliant, enlightening, and sweeter than honey. He was the pillar of support for the kollel, and everything revolved around him.

This is the proof: The day before his petirah, as he lay in his sickbed in his father’s home, two avreichim from Brachfeld made a siyum. The siyum took place in the morning, before seder began; they learn Daf Yomi. Rav Yitzchok had been teaching in Yerushalayim for two years, and one might have expected the avreichim not to feel a connection to him, but the reverse was true. In their minds, there was only one place they could hold a siyum: with their rebbi. Forty avreichim showed up for the siyum, and Rav Yitzchok’s face shone. With tremendous effort, he made his way from his bed to the living room. “It took him a half hour to get from the second floor to the living room,” an eyewitness later related, “but he made the effort and came.”

Such was his love for his talmidim and the passion for Torah that burned within him.

With visible effort, Rav Yitzchok delivered a brief address in honor of the avreichim. He spoke about the joys of learning and the lofty spiritual stature of those who learn Torah. During the course of his speech, he commented, “This is my tzavaah.” The avreich who was recording his words skipped those three words, with their dreadful implication, but when Rav Yitzchok noticed the omission, he turned to him and said, “Yes, write it down – this is my tzavaah!”

Then, as always, Rav Yitzchok spoke about achdus. It was a topic that was very close to his heart.

He concluded his speech with the words, “May it be Hashem’s Will that we will see Moshiach soon in the light of our masters and teachers, Rav Aharon Leib and Rav Chaim.”

The avreichim left with their Gemaros tucked under their arms and with tears on their cheeks.


An avreich whose face was lined with grief shared with me the following incident: “Once, Rav Yitzchok needed to reprimand an avreich. For two full days, he contemplated exactly how he would do it. Finally, he decided not to say anything at all.”

Every one of his actions was carefully measured and weighed – especially anything concerning other people.

I ask another avreich if Rav Yitzchok gave him guidance or advice in learning and middos. “Guidance? Advice?” he exclaimed. “He was guidance. That was his entire being. His every move, all his tefillos, and his very character – that was the greatest possible guidance.”


I went to pay a shivah call. The shivah took place in a house I had often visited to meet with Rav Nosson Tzvi himself. From this home, endless Torah emerged. From this home, Klal Yisroel was led. It is a house that has witnessed countless siyumim and endless tears. It is a house with a great healing effect.

But now, the walls of the house are blackened with mourning. The brothers of the niftar are sitting shivah, their garments torn and their faces pale. Rav Yitzchok’s sons, too, are beside him.

There was nothing I could say.


An avreich relates: “He was a giant among men – in his tefillos, in his middos. He set records in every way. Even when he was angry, it was a noble anger. Even when he reprimanded someone, his words were laced with love. The avreichim were bound to him with cords of love. It wasn’t a simple connection. It was something that couldn’t be explained. The avreichim sought to remain close to him even years after they left the kollel.”

He loved each student as if he had no others.


This past Elul, I joined an expedition of rabbonim who traveled from Bnei Brak to Vilna on behalf of Kupat Ha’ir. Rav Yitzchok was one of the participants. He and his brother, Rav Shmaryahu Yosef ybl”c, sat in economy class. A few seats behind them was Rav Menachem Zaretzky, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Mir Letzeirim and Rav Nosson Tzvi’s right-hand man. When we arrived at the terminal at the airport in Vilna, we were surprised to find that only two of the immigration officials were on duty and a long line formed. We were all exhausted from the flight, and Rav Yitzchok, who was seated in a wheelchair, was several times more tired than anyone else. But he said nothing. He simply waited along with everyone else. Even after I convinced a bored-looking official to let him go ahead of the line, Rav Yitzchok refused. As everyone tells me today, he represented the height of modesty.

He had plenty to be proud of, but modesty and humility were among his defining characteristics.

“He was highly talented,” one of his talmidim tells me. “All the Finkels are gifted, but he stood out among them. And despite that, he always attended Rav Asher Arieli’s shiurim. It was almost unheard of. But that is what it means to be a modest, humble person who does not put on airs of any sort. Even though he had many talmidim, he was always a mekabel and mevakeish in his own right.”

Rav Yitzchok loved everyone and he was exceedingly generous with compliments and praise. When he delivered a shiur or a chaburah, he would mention his chavrusos and point out that a particular chiddush was “theirs” or that he had developed a chiddush with their help. He always spoke in the plural to everyone as a sign of respect – “atem” instead of “atah” – even to young bochurim.


This past Erev Rosh Hashanah, one of Rav Yitzchok’s talmidim called him to wish him a good year. During their conversation, the subject of Rav Yitzchok’s illness came up, and the talmid tried to encourage him. “Hashem’s salvation comes in the blink of an eye,” he noted. On Chol Hamoed Sukkos, Rav Yitzchok met that talmid and his face shone. “You brought me so much joy with that phone call,” he exclaimed. “You are encouraging me and giving me strength.”

On another occasion, after he had left Brachfeld to teach in Yerushalayim, he met an avreich from Brachfeld. Putting a hand on his shoulder, Rav Yitzchok said, “I am so glad to hear that you are learning well.”

“Me?” the avreich exclaimed in surprise. “How does the rov know?”

“What do you mean? I have a son in Brachfeld and he tells me about you,” Rav Yitzchok responded.


I followed Rav Yitzchok over the course of the half day we spent together. I had hardly known him previously, but he left a powerful impression on me. I observed the same characteristics that everyone is speaking about now: his nobility, his humility, his radiant smile. I spoke with him a little bit, and I tried to make conditions somewhat more tolerable for him.

Rav Yitzchok tried to give the impression that everything was all right, even though the signs of his suffering were etched on his face. Once you had helped him in some way – in any way – you could rest assured that he would make every effort to act as if you had done him the greatest favor possible.

On that journey, I discovered, not for the first time, the close ties that exist among the members of the Finkel family. Rav Yitzchok’s brother, as well as his eldest son and, of course, Rav Menachem Zaretzky, spared no effort to make his situation easier. Nothing was easy for them, but they considered nothing too difficult. They acted as if they were hired servants. That is the nature of this noble family. These are Rav Nosson Tzvi’s sons.


Once, a bochur commented in Rav Yitzchok’s vicinity that he disliked onions. It was a passing comment and barely audible.

Two years later, there was an event in the yeshiva. That bochur, who had since married, was present, and Rav Yitzchok was speaking. Before he began, he whispered to the avreich, “You can eat the soup. There are no onions in it.”


Whenever bochurim or avreichim would visit him, Rav Yitzchok insisted on paying for their travel expenses. If they came by taxi, he would pay the taxi fare. Even when people brought him mishloach manos, he paid the taxi fare.

He once heard about a bochur who was spending several hours every day baking matzos. Rav Yitzchok approached the bochur and asked why he found it necessary to engage in that work.

The bochur replied innocently that he needed money for his daily expenses.

“Let’s make a deal,” Rav Yitzchok said. “You stay in the bais medrash and I’ll give you whatever you would have earned baking matzos.”


Rav Yitzchok was closely attached to the gedolei Yisroel. Of course, he had a close relationship with his father, Rav Nosson Tzvi. He also had close ties with Rav Chaim Kamiel zt”l, whom Rav Nosson Tzvi considered his own rebbi. Rav Kamiel was the sandek at the bris of Rav Yitzchok’s eldest son. The bris took place on Simchas Torah. Rav Kamiel spent Sukkos in Yerushalayim, at Rav Nosson Tzvi’s home, and then he stayed for Simchas Torah to be the sandek at the bris. That was a great sacrifice for Rav Kamiel, but it was a sign of his appreciation and love for his talmid.

Rav Yitzchok was also very close to the mashgiach, Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l, who delivered regular shmuessen in the Mir until his petirah about ten years ago. He once related that Rav Wolbe had told him that he spent too much effort davening.


A bochur who learned with Rav Yitzchok for two years related: “The first thing he would always do was bring me something to drink. Then he would inquire about my welfare. This happened every day.”

They learned together in the study on the upper story of his father’s home. That was Rav Yitzchok’s favorite place to learn. When they didn’t meet there, they learned in a small room in a nearby building, a room that was packed with seforim.

“We learned second seder together, and I wasn’t always on time. But he never yelled at me, nor did he give me the feeling that I had caused him pain or distress by coming late. He would only say, ‘Nu, if you were only able to come now, so be it, but now we aren’t going to talk or battle. We are only going to learn.’

“We learned Nedorim. He prepared his chaburos with me, which he delivered to a group of bochurim in the ezras noshim in Spiegel. It was a chaburah of bochurim who also worked half a day.”

Rav Yitzchok had a “shittah.”

“His goal was for the sugya to be clear to them. He once told me that he wanted the sugya to be clear, but he also wanted it to be geshmak. He wanted the bochurim to come out of the hours they spent learning in the morning with something enjoyable that would last the whole day.”

Naturally, Rav Yitzchok attended his chavrusah’s wedding, which took place in Bnei Brak. “We knew he would come. After all, we are chavrusos.”

The newly-married young man adds, “I planned to give him a brachah during sheva brachos, but he disappeared. When I saw him a few days later, I told him that I had been looking for him to give him a kibbud. He answered, ‘That’s why I left.’”


Rav Yitzchok was always seen with a sefer, a kuntres, or a binder in his hands. After his father’s passing, he worked hard on publishing his writings and was considered one of the greatest experts on his Torah. This included both Rav Nosson Tzvi’s shiurim and his shmuessen. Throughout the years, in all the shiurim Rav Yitzchok delivered – to bochurim and avreichim, in Gemara and aggadah – he always consulted his father’s writings first. He tried to follow his father’s derech, and he repeated many of Rav Nosson Tzvi’s chiddushim.

When he delivered shmuessen, Rav Yitzchok based much of his material on the Torah of Rav Chaim Kamiel and Rav Shlomo Wolbe.


This past week, Rav Mattisyahu Pincus, son of Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus zt”l, informed me that his wife had given birth to a baby boy. I didn’t attend the shalom zachor, which was held at the home of his brother and my neighbor, Rav Eliyahu Yitzchok, because I am in aveilus, but I asked who would be the sandek. Rav Mattisyahu didn’t know.

“Listen to me,” I told him, “and think about what is good for the child. Look for a sandek who is a great tzaddik. They say that the sandek a great influence on the baby.”

When I came to the bris on Thursday morning, I wished mazel tov to the father and asked who he had chosen to be sandek. “Rav Yitzchok Finkel,” he replied. I was not surprised.


Like many other people, I was moved to tears by the sight of Rav Yitzchok’s labored movements when he arrived at the bris. He came with his rebbetzin, who was so incredibly devoted to him, and with his mother, Rav Nosson Tzvi’s rebbetzin. And, of course, with Rav Menachem Zaretzky.

Along with the rest of the crowd, I approached Rav Yitzchok. I whispered the name of an ill person to him as he sat on the kisei shel Eliyahu, and he gave his brachah while closing his eyes. Then he looked at me and his eyes shone. I sat down next to him and we spoke for a few minutes. I tried to offer him reassurance, but his expression was inscrutable.

That night, we attended his levayah, surrounded by snowflakes and bitter tears.

Mystically, the middah of Yitzchok Avinu was gevurah and din. In Rav Yitzchok, we saw the height of gevurah. And we also saw din, in all its painful reality.

Yehi zichro boruch.



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