That call had been placed to Rav Chaim Leib Epstein zt”l. Of course, Rav Chaim answered the phone himself. Talmidim and those who sought Rav Chaim’s advice take this for granted, but in the world we live in, calling and reaching a person of Rav Chaim’s stature on the first try is a rarity. With Rav Chaim, it was commonplace, because he gave of himself, very literally, for the Torah world, on individual and communal levels.
I had called Rav Chaim to follow up on a concern he had with an ad that had appeared in the Yated. I felt silly even discussing the issue with Rav Chaim. Why should a manhig and a gadol of his prominence spend time on such a trivial matter?
But I quickly realized as I spoke to Rav Chaim that in these types of instances, nothing was trivial. Deciding on what Yidden would be reading and seeing was of vital importance. It was worthy of his precious time and concentration.
I explained to the rosh yeshiva that following his concern with the advertisement in question, it had been revised for a future issue, but our publisher, Rav Pinchos Lipschutz, stated clearly that he would not consider printing it without Rav Chaim’s okay. Rav Chaim’s ruling would be final.
With great patience, Rav Chaim asked me to read him the revised advertisement word for word. Again, I felt uncomfortable bothering the rosh yeshiva with such an issue, but he prodded me to keep reading, commenting with remarkable sagacity and wisdom as we went along. He picked up on nuances that were simply astounding and carefully analyzed the matter.
This was Rav Chaim modus operandi. He gave every issue the attention it deserved, never rushing to a decision and never taking a matter lightly.
His actually decision – when he shared, quite candidly, that he was uncomfortable with the submission and did not feel it should be published in the Yated – left less of an impact than the manner in which he had reached it, step by step, comment by comment, thought by thought. It was methodical. It was carefully calculated. It was a firsthand experience of daas Torah.
Here was a gaon, whose greatness in Torah was undisputed, who possessed the rarest ability to understand people on a macro and micro level, and advise them with sheer brilliance and, at the same time, dichotomously, in the most unassuming manner.
He personified the sulam mutzav artza verosho magia hashomaymah.
Amazingly, even amidst great difficulty and discomfort, he never lost sight of what was called for at any given time. Shortly before his wife, Rebbetzin Esther Epstein a”h, passed away, she was brought to the emergency room for a procedure. For hours on end, Rav Chaim was on his feet, waiting and watching as his wife was being treated by the hospital personnel. After numerous hours, Rav Chaim expressed that it is too painful for him to observe his rebbetzin experiencing such yissurim. Accompanied by his son, Rav Aharon Dov, he went outside to take a taxi home from Manhattan to Boro Park. Seeing a taxi passing by, Rav Aharon Dov tried to flag it down. Rav Chaim, to his son’s surprise, told him, “Nein, nein! Get another taxi.” This was hard to understand. Rav Chaim was exhausted and spent. Why wouldn’t he take the first taxi available?
“Don’t you see?” Rav Chaim asked his son. “That taxi has a sign on top of it. Why do we need to bring that type of advertisement into Boro Park? Let’s find a taxi that doesn’t have such a sign on it.”
This was the type of sensitivity for kedushah that Rav Chaim displayed, never letting go of his strong-held principles, even in times of struggle and even when it came at personal sacrifice.
Thousands of chinuch-related questions crossed his threshold. Every question was weighed carefully. Mechanchim wouldn’t make a move with receiving Rav Chaim’s direction. Thousands have been left without their guide, their pilot, the one who directed them in every facet of their lives.
Rav Chaim fled from kavod and accolades like one runs from a forest fire. Recognition went against his very makeup.
One year, the organizers of an annual event to benefit an organization now known as Keren Birchas Shmuel, which assists yungeleit in Eretz Yisroel, asked Rav Chaim if he would participate in an asifa in Lakewood. Rav Chaim consented. Upon arriving at the hall, Rav Chaim observed that the only people seated at the dais were the four roshei yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah. His son, who was accompanying him, noticed that Rav Chaim was hesitating as he was being prompted to approach the dais. Rav Chaim kept deliberating, commenting on whether he could leave the hall at this point or if he had to remain. Finally, Rav Chaim went up to the dais.
The next morning, his son, Rav Shlomo Zalman, entered Rav Chaim’s office at Yeshiva Zichron Meilich to find his father concerned about something. “I was looking for you,” Rav Chaim told his son, “but I got someone to take me.”
“Take you where?” asked Rav Shlomo Zalman.
“To Rav Shmuel Berenbaum’s house,” was the reply.
“Rav Shmuel Berenbaum’s house? Why?”
Rav Chaim explained: “Last night, at the asifa, when I came in, the only people on the dais were the roshei yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah. Okay, I said to myself, they are the mara d’asra of the city, but what shaychus do I have sitting on the dais? I should sit high on the dais, while hundreds of choshuve Lakewood yungeleit sit beneath me? What business do I have sitting above the yungeleit? I’ll become a baal gaavah from such a thing.
“However,” continued Rav Chaim, “ever since I was much younger, I trained myself to be able to listen to someone and focus on them and become completely distracted from everything else going on.”
In his younger years, at Bais Medrash Govoah, Rav Chaim he had a chavrusahshaft each Thursday night with Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, now the Slabodka rosh yeshiva, with whom he would learn until the wee hours of the morning. After just a few hours of sleep, he would awaken and then proceed to daven and learn for an entire day. Friday night, after the seudah, Rav Chaim would attend a weekly chaburah delivered by the rosh yeshiva, Rav Aharon Kotler. It required superhuman strength for Rav Chaim, who had barely slept the night before, to concentrate on the rapid-fire delivery of Rav Aharon and the complex chaburah. It was at that time that Rav Chaim trained himself to be able to listen with utter concentration, despite however exhausted he was and despite whatever distractions there were around him, and focus solely on the person speaking.
Rav Chaim continued to recount what had happened the night before at the asifa in Lakewood. “So I decided to go up to the dais, but to tune out what was going on around me, and all the choshuve yungeleit sitting in front of me, and to focus only on what was being said by the speaker.”
When one of the speakers concluded his oratory, Rav Chaim opened his eyes to find that seated right next to him was the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l, founder of the organization for which the asifa was being held. Due to his concentration during the speech, Rav Chaim had absolutely no idea that Rav Shmuel had entered the room and sat at the dais in the interim.
One can imagine that in a room of a thousand people or so, when Rav Shmuel entered, all the attendees had stood up out of respect until Rav Shmuel arrived at the dais. Yet, due to his remarkable concentration and ability to tune out what was going on around him, Rav Chaim was completely oblivious to the entrance of the Mirrer rosh yeshiva.
“This was a bizayon haTorah,” Rav Chaim told his son. “Rav Shmuel came in and I didn’t stand up for him. I have to go ask him mechilah.”
Rav Chaim proceeded to travel to Rav Shmuel’s home to personally ask his forgiveness for what Rav Chaim perceived as a slight to his kavod the night before.
The stories abound of Rav Chaim’s sensitivity and compassion. His middos matched his gadlus in Torah. Those who merited speaking to him emerged from the encounter refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to take on their personal nisyonos and challenges.
The rosh yeshiva once received a call from parents of a special needs child. They sought guidance from Rav Chaim on how to handle the child. Rav Chaim heard them out, listening carefully to their predicament, but he told them that he did not have an eitzah that he felt comfortable providing. He took their name and number and wished them hatzlachah. Months later, the parents received a phone call. The caller identified himself as “Chaim Epstein.” It was the rosh yeshiva, who had held on to the parents’ contact information. Rav Chaim shared that he had seen an advertisement for a communal service that he thought might help them with their special needs child.
The parents were deeply moved, inspired to embrace their challenge and do what had to be done because they knew that someone truly cared.
Rav Chaim, as he immersed himself fully in the depths of Torah, simultaneously carried on his shoulders the worries and concerns of Klal Yisroel. He cared about every single Yid, whether they were his talmidim or not, with the love of a father. Rav Chaim didn’t just take down the name and number of worried parents because that was the nice or proper thing to do. He did it because he truly cared. He took it to heart. He was troubled and concerned when others were troubled and concerned. And when he had an idea that might provide some solace or relief to two devoted parents of a special neshamah, he picked up the phone and called them.
That was Rav Chaim.
That is what we have lost.
That is why people who weren’t zocheh to learn under Rav Chaim or even speak to him are in deep mourning. They know that we have lost a true leader, a Torah giant who possessed so many outstanding traits that combined to form an individual of such inspiring stature.
Rav Chaim was inundated with calls of all types for advice, chizuk and guidance. In his later years, despite his weakness and frailty, he answered every inquiry, mustering up strength he didn’t have to provide another eitzah and another warm word to a fellow Yid. When he would receive a call at his home, Rav Chaim would stand up, take hold of the two sticks he used to help him walk, and proceed to his study, where he would converse with the petitioner on the phone. Upon observing this, Rav Chaim’s son, Rav Shlomo Zalman, asked his father why he bothers to go to so much trouble. “Why do you have to shlep to your study each time?” he asked. “We’ll make sure that everyone leaves the kitchen, and this way you can talk to the person on the phone privately.”
Rav Chaim shook his head as he answered his son.
“You think I can give eitzos?” said Rav Chaim. “I don’t know how to give eitzos. If I have eppes a koach or siyata diShamaya to give an eitzah, it comes from the Torah I have learned, so I must go to the room where I learn. That is what gives me the koach to provide an eitzah. Before I give an eitzah, I learn for a few minutes – a few lines of Gemara or Teshuvos Rav Akiva Eiger – and then I can speak to the person and try to advise him.”
For Rav Chaim, it was all Torah. His entire life was permeated with the learning and living of Torah. And as he conveyed to his son, his ability to provide hadrachah emanated from his Torah.
With Rav Chaim, there was no zich. It was never about him. In fact, he often questioned why people sought him out to serve as a member of a vaad hachinuch and the like. “Why do you need me?” he would ask.
In one such instance, a person remarked that Rav Chaim was needed because “mir darf ah Yid vos hut nisht kein hanaah fun olam hazeh” (we need a person who has not benefited from this world).
Rav Chaim was silent.
Perhaps that much he had admitted with his unspoken response.
This was true to the nth degree. Rav Chaim was so removed from the petty pleasures of this world and the materialistic society in which we live, yet he was able to understand the trials and tribulations of those who were not on his lofty level.
Rav Chaim was not fond of people approaching him for brachos. He didn’t understand the hoopla or why they would approach him in that manner.
There are many stories of incidences in which Rav Chaim dispensed a heartfelt brachah and it came to fruition. In one such instance, a fellow approached Rav Chaim, explaining that he sorely needs a yeshuah. Rav Chaim advised the gentleman to perform chessed. By engaging in chessed in this world, he would merit divine mercy from Above. The man went ahead and purchased a raffle ticket in order to help a mosad. He ultimately experienced the yeshuah he was seeking. When he returned to Rav Chaim to report on what had transpired, Rav Chaim made him promise that he wouldn’t reveal to others what had occurred.
Over 50 years ago, Rav Chaim was faced with a large debt. Unsure of how to address his fiscal shortage, Rav Chaim, in his great modesty, decided to utilize his artistic talent for parnassah purposes. Rav Chaim was endowed with a special ability to draw beautifully. As astounding as it now sounds, he headed out to buy the tools and paraphernalia he needed in order to begin his work to bring in some income. His devoted rebbetzin immediately put the idea to bed, telling her illustrious husband that she wouldn’t allow him to engage in such mundane work. His occupation was limud and harbotzas haTorah.
Rav Chaim later expressed his eternal gratitude to his wife for stepping in as she did to protect his Torah learning. But just as outstanding was the humility Rav Chaim demonstrated that allowed him to even contemplate engaging in such a vocation because circumstances seemingly required it.
My brother, Rav Hershel Hisiger, was once in Rav Chaim’s presence when the rosh yeshiva was bemoaning the fact that people approached him for brachos. “My father,” Rav Chaim related, “would describe how people went to the Chofetz Chaim for brachos. I should give brachos?”
My brother quoted to the rosh yeshiva the Gemara in Maseches Bava Basra (116a), where Rav Pinchos bar Chama states, “Kol sheyeish lo choleh besoch beiso yeileich aitzel chochom vivakeish alav rachamim – One who has a sick person in his home should go to a chochom and have the chochom plead for mercy on his behalf.”
Rav Chaim immediately responded, “Chochom? I’m a chochom?”
He couldn’t fathom it. His humility and self-effacing nature didn’t allow him to understand why so many people flocked to him in such a fashion.
This from a person who, at his own auf ruf, was proclaimed to be a future gadol hador by Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l.
This from a person who, in a haskamah to his sefer, Iyunim B’Chiddushei HaRashba on Perek Chezkas Habatim in Maseches Bava Basra, published in 1973, was described by Rav Shneur Kotler zt”l as one who will fulfill the dictate of “chachmei haTorah b’Yisroel bechol dor uvechol tekufah,” that there be chachmei hador, wise men of the generation, in each generation and period.
In a haskamah to the same sefer by Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, the latter writes that it brought him great pleasure that even in the younger generation “nitzmechu gedolei Torah b’emes umaamikim bedivrei rabboseinu lehavinom la’ashuram veholchim bedarchei gedolei haTorah midoros she’avru umarbitzim Torah letalmidim…” Rav Chaim, who was barely 40 years old at the time, had been proclaimed by the gadol hador as a bonafide gadol baTorah.
Rav Chaim would regularly walk on Shabbos from Yeshiva Zichron Meilich to his home on 46th Street. As he was frail and walking was difficult, this journey could take him 45 minutes to an hour. One time, as he was accompanied by his son, Rav Aharon Dov, they noticed a Hatzolah ambulance stopped at a home they were about to pass. Not wanting to simply walk by the scene, Rav Chaim said that they should wait for Hatzolah to depart before proceeding down the block. Despite the difficulty he had standing, Rav Chaim waited. After a while, it was clear that Hatzolah would not be leaving anytime soon. But Rav Chaim was adamant. Out of sensitivity for the choleh being treated, he would not walk by. “We’re not moving,” he told his son. “Someone here is in a matzav of pikuach nefesh and we’re going to walk home and eat cholent? Where is the nesias ohl?” Rav Chaim continued to wait. Finally, Hatzolah paramedics emerged from the home carrying out a woman on a stretcher. Rav Chaim turned toward the ambulance and called out with great compassion, “Refuah sheleimah.” He was now ready to continue the arduous walk home.
At a parlor meeting a few days before he went to the hospital, his son related that they didn’t know how long Rav Chaim was going to be able to speak because of his weakness. In fact, the organizers arranged for another senior rosh yeshiva to address the gathering in light of the uncertainty of Rav Chaim’s ability and strength to speak at the event. He was so weak that he couldn’t put on his tallis and tefillin that very morning and needed assistance to do so. Yet, at the event, once he began speaking, five minutes past, and then ten, and then twenty. Rav Chaim proceeded to speak for well over a half hour, sharing divrei Torah and words of hadrachah. It was a remarkable display of gevurah and a reflection of the manner in which Torah literally gave him chiyus.
During the recent period when Rav Chaim was exceedingly weak, he expressed his frustration that his condition prevented him from learning. “Ich ken nisht leren. Ich ken nisht leren,” he lamented. “Ich hob nisht kein koach.” His son attempted to comfort him, telling him that perhaps he could say Tehillim instead. Rav Chaim was not pacified. “You’re taking away my she’ifos (aspirations)?” he asked, repeating, “You’re taking away my she’ifos?”
He was a leading gadol baTorah and manhig, yet he still had she’ifos. He still strove for greater heights in Torah and avodah. He was a living example of constant aliyah, even after having reached what seemed to be the pinnacle of gadlus baTorah.
Rav Chaim lived his entire life with simplicity and frugality that boggled the mind. Some years ago, when he began serving as rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva Zichron Meilich, he was barely making ends meet and took on a second job as a shoel umeishiv in a different yeshiva, where he would deliver a weekly chaburah. One week, he didn’t take a paycheck. When questioned about this, he explained that he didn’t feel that the chaburah he had delivered was up to the standards he desired, so he was not accepting his salary for that week. It was only later revealed to some that Rav Chaim’s privation was such that that week, his electricity was shut off. Despite this, he did not take a paycheck because his chaburah wasn’t, in his mind, azoi vi darf tzu zein.
The posuk in Parshas Terumah (25:16) states, “Venasata el ha’aron es ha’eidus asher etein aleicha.” Rashi explains that Hashem commanded Moshe Rabbeinu to place a Sefer Torah and the Luchos into the aron. Rav Zalman Sorotzkin zt”l asks what the purpose was of placing a Sefer Torah in the aron in the Kodesh Hakodoshim, where it would never be seen.
The Medrash (Devorim Rabbah 9:9) states that the fact that a truly authentic Sefer Torah lay in the Kodesh Hakodoshim would serve as a deterrent to anyone who would seek to adulterate or alter the Torah in any way. It would prevent people from misinterpreting or otherwise rebranding the commandments of Hashem, for the authentic Sefer Torah placed in the recesses of the Bais Hamikdosh could be brought out to refute those who challenged the Torah.
Rav Sorotzkin said that in his lifetime, the Brisker Rov, Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik zt”l, served as the proverbial “hidden Sefer Torah,” isolating himself from much of the world as he learned Torah day and night while guiding those few who sought his advice and hadrachah. While he rejected public positions and roles, he served as that authentic source of Torah hashkafah and mesorah unaffected by the goings-on of the world around him.
In our generation, Rav Chaim Epstein was that authentic Sefer Torah, largely hidden from most of the world, as he studied and taught from his humble vinkele on Dahill Road in Brooklyn. And while he eschewed all honor and positions of leadership, he continued to serve as one of the last remaining vestiges of pure Torah and hashkafah. No matter what anyone said or did, everyone knew that there was a holy and pure living Sefer Torah – a true “original” – who could be consulted and sought for the untainted, genuine Torah perspective.
About ten years before Rebbetzin Epstein’s petirah, she was in excruciating pain due to an attack of sciatica. Doctors tried to alleviate her pain with all kinds of medication, but nothing helped. She lay in bed in agony, unable to move, unable to find any relief from the pain. Her husband, Rav Chaim, took a sefer, sat down in a chair next to her bed, and began to learn, chanting the words aloud in the usual singsong Gemara tune, his voice getting stronger as he became more absorbed in the sugyah. Suddenly, her thrashing stopped, her limbs relaxed, her breathing became more even, and her facial features shed the mask of pain. She drifted into a semi-slumber, finally calm.
All the painkillers and treatments could not bring her the peace that she found by just listening to her husband learning Torah.
Rav Chaim’s Torah was life-giving. It was nurturing and nourishing to his rebbetzin, to his family, and to his extended mishpachah, the family of Klal Yisroel who he guided and about whom he worried.
We have lost a one-of-a-kind gadol and mashpiah, whose ahavas haTorah, ahavas Hashem and ahavas Yisroel blended to form the most uplifting personage, whose lessons and values continue to resonate.
Chaval al de’avdin.
We have lost an unparalleled giant.
– – – – –
The author thanks his brother, Rav Hershel Hisiger, rov of the Prospect Park kehillah in Lakewood and R”M at Mesivta of Lakewood, for providing many of the reminiscences and reflections in this tribute.