Don’t Be Great. Become Great. Lessons from the Life of Rav Dovid Lenchitz zt”l

I once had a rebbi who would say that everybody wants to be a gadol. The problem is that not everyone wants to become a gadol. We all aim for greatness. What we fail to take into account is that greatness rarely, if ever, just “happens.” It’s something we have to make happen.

Yesterday, Wednesday, the 22nd of Elul, I found myself sitting at the levaya of Rav Dovid Lenchitz zt”l, whose sudden passing shocked all who knew him. Rav Dovid was a fixture at Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, NJ, where he spent his entire adult life steeped in Torah learning. It felt surreal today, walking in the yeshiva and recalling that here was where Rav Lenchitz would learn, and here he would sit after seder collecting for needy people, but knowing that we wouldn’t be seeing him here tomorrow. How could that be? The yeshiva was his life and his life was the yeshiva. Who could imagine a day when the two would be separated?

Rav Dovid came to learn under Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l in Lakewood at the age of 18, fifty-seven years ago, for Elul zeman 5720 (1960), and never left. His diligence in learning was amazing. A son related at the levaya that a crisis of some sort was once affecting the family, and this son came during seder with something important to discuss with his father. Rav Lenchitz’s chavrusah at that time was Rav Yitzchok Dershowitz zt”l. (The two learned together for many, many years.)

After the son stood in front of his father for some time, waiting for his father to notice him, Rav Dershowitz told him, “If you need to speak to your father, you’re going to have to actively call his attention. You know he’s not going to notice you if you just stand there.”

The son recalls thinking, “My father is facing a serious situation here. How is he able to learn with such clarity and concentration and not be distracted?”

For Rav Lenchitz, though, seder was seder and Torah was the mekor hachaim, the source of life, which was exactly what he needed when facing any situation, big or small, exciting or serious.

When a certain child, who had not had an easy time finding a shidduch, was finally close to becoming engaged, the shadchan went to discuss some important details before an engagement could finally take place. He went to Rav Lenchitz towards the end of seder, explaining why he was there.

“If it’s okay with you,” Rav Dovid asked him politely, “would it be fine if we just wait until after seder to talk?”
In his eyes, pushing off a shadchan while he finished his learning seder could only help a situation. It could never bring about harm.

Rav Dovid had another reason for being able to remain always calm and unruffled no matter the situation. He had rock-solid emunah and bitachon that Hashem is running the world in the best possible way, and that anything that happens is surely being done for his good. We all say this, and we all know, in our minds, that it is true. Rav Lenchitz lived it in a way that was breathtaking in its simplicity, clarity and rock-solid immovability.

Many great people, foremost amongst them Rav Nosson Wachtfogel zt”l, mashgiach of Bais Medrash Govoah, noted Rav Lenchitz’s awesome emunah. Rav Nosson would say that if someone wanted to learn about real emunah, he need not look toward the great men who lived in pre-war Europe. Rather, he need look no further than Rav Dovid Lenchitz.

Born, bred and schooled in America, Rav Dovid came across as a true “amoligeh” Yid. He was untainted by the culture of materialism, of superficiality and of self that saturates the very air we breathe. He lived simply, happily and always for others. There was nothing – literally nothing – that could be done for someone else that Rav Dovid would not do.

His chesed was the stuff of legends. It could fill many books with inspiration, surrealism and hysterically funny stories. He saw a man sleeping in his car one cold winter night and invited him into his home, no questions asked. The man came – and stayed. One fellow needed a place to stay for a week, another for a month, and another for a few years. It made no difference. Though the Lenchitz home was small, Rav Lenchitz’s heart was too big to turn anyone away.

Some guests were indeed pleasant and appreciative. Others smelled, were ill-natured or were downright offensive. Yet none were turned away. The Lenchitz children grew up in a home with “guests,” never knowing any other reality. If a home could be provided to someone in need, their father would never turn him away, no matter how unpleasant.

• • • • •

Okay, so Rav Lenchitz did great things. He must have been a great man. We all know such people, sweet by nature, unassertive and always looking to please. We know of men or women who have an easy nature, whose equilibrium is rarely disturbed, and if it is disturbed, they are too meek to ever say so.

So they do great things and we look up to them.

We, however, or at least almost all of us, are not them.

The problem was that Rav Lenchitz was not them either.

Listening to the things said at his levaya and speaking to his children and acquaintances, it becomes abundantly clear that Rav Dovid was not naturally a pushover, an always-forgiving person or an easy-to-please individual.

He actually worked on these things. All of them. For years.
That is greatness. True greatness.

Rav Lenchitz was not just a gadol or a tzaddik. He made himself into a gadol and a tzaddik. This, then, is mechayev all of us. It demands of us that we, too, never suffice with wanting to be great. We must endeavor to become great.

The Lenchitz children practically never saw their father get angry. Okay, so some people just don’t get angry about things. They have an easygoing nature. Rav Lenchitz, though, had joined a chaburah, a group of like-minded young American-born yungeleit, who worked on their middos week in and week out. They would accept upon themselves to try and not get angry this week, and would work out knasos – a penalty upon themselves – if they came back the next week and admitted to failure. There were better weeks and worse weeks, but they were actively working on their anger, and slowly, incrementally, they learned how to remain unruffled even when their insides were shouting at them to let someone have it.

It was the same with many other middos. Rav Lenchitz – with others or by himself – worked to better himself, often against his fiery nature. Ultimately, he reached a point where his family recalls that the only time they ever saw him show anger was when he heard someone making fun or denigrating another Yid. That, and nothing else, no matter how personal or hurtful, could make him show even the slightest bit of anger.

We saw a man who was always giving. We saw a man who did not have an easy life, who was diabetic since childhood and suffered numerous other ailments, yet who was always counting his blessings – and meaning it – and appreciative of everything in his life. We saw a man steeped in learning and in davening. We saw a man who was a porush, who made do with so, so very little.

What we did not see – at least those of us who knew him over the last couple of decades – was the intensive effort he put into each and every one of these great achievements. Was he a porush by nature? Was he giving by nature? Was he appreciative by nature? Not necessarily. We can never know what it took of him to become all of these things. What we must know, however, is that if he could become all of those things, and he did so, so can we.

As I’ve mentioned, Rav Dovid’s bitachon was unshakeable. When results came back one day that he had a dreaded disease, his son-in-law was flabbergasted. “Abba,” he told him, “you just heard today a terrible besurah. You learned that you have a dreaded Machala. How can you go about as if nothing happened, as if today is the same as yesterday?”

The Lenchitz children and their spouses already well knew of Rav Lenchitz’s awesome bitachon. Still, wasn’t there a limit? Can a day when one hears such a terrible besurah indeed be the same as any other?

“It all depends on how you take such a besurah,” Rav Lenchitz replied. “Do you think that Hashem doesn’t know what He’s doing? I know that He has my best interests in mind.”

An awesome level of bitachon indeed.

So did Rav Dovid simply merit such a level? Was it his natural outlook on life? Or did his many years of Torah and mitzvos automatically bring him to such levels of bitachon?

Not exactly. Rav Lenchitz once told somebody that he used to review pesukim that speak about emunah and bitachon many times a day. He did this for years, until it finally started to become a second nature. He didn’t read pesukim as some sort of segulah. He studied them, b’iyun, in depth, and reviewed them over and over, day after day, week after week, year after year. Eventually, he became the Rav Lenchitz we knew and saw who was immovable in his bitachon.

It wasn’t something that just “happened.” It was something he worked to achieve.

There is a lot more to write about this great man, and perhaps we will be able to do so at greater length in the future. For now, however, as we enter the yemei hadin, the days of judgment, when we pray for a sweet new year filled with blessings and yeshuos, there is much we can learn from this great man who left us so abruptly.

During these great days, we try and accept upon ourselves to be better people than we were until now. Each person according to his or her own level, we promise Hashem that next year we really will try to improve and be a little better than during the year that just passed. This is as it should be. We should always seek to grow, to be better than we were until now, and hopefully in this merit we will be granted a year of blessing and bounty as well.

As we accept our kabbalos and affirm our noble intentions, let us remember that we must have some type of idea not only of the areas in which we want to be better, but also in the ways we will seek to become better. Nobody simply “merits” greatness, and yes, people like us can do great things. All we need is a plan. I am “here” and I hope to get “there,” and these are the steps I will take to slowly, slowly, reach my goal.

We lost someone who was indeed a throwback from times past, yet he was an American boy not unlike many other American kids. The difference is that he had a burning desire for greatness, and he worked over a lifetime to reach levels seemingly way above anything possible in today’s day and age. Yet, somehow, those goals were possible because he reached them.

With tenacity, ambition, and some real effort, we can become great people as well.

A kesivah vachasimah tovah to all, and a year of bracha and everything good.