Learning To See Like The Giants

Rav Dov Berish Weidenfeld, the Tchebiner Rov, was old and frail. He no longer felt capable of seeing visitors as often as he used to, but this was different. One of his talmidim had a child after many years and he was about to begin going to yeshiva. The father brought his beloved child to his rebbe for a special brocha. The Tchebiner got up with difficulty, went into the kitchen, and emerged to give the long-awaited blessing. He gave the child a kiss on the forehead and bentched him heartily to become a great talmid chochom. His parents left overjoyed, but the Rov’s family and gabbai were perplexed. “Why did the Rov go the kitchen?” they inquired.

When they approached the revered Rov, his answer astounded them all: “I have become an old man and aging people often do not have the best of breath. Why should a young boy remember forever that his father’s rebbi did not smell pleasant? I therefore went into the kitchen and carefully rinsed my mouth” (heard from Rav Yaakov Hopfer of Baltimore).

This beautiful story teaches us a number of traits we can learn from gedolei Yisroel. Shlomo Hamelech states that “a wise man has his eyes in his head” (Koheles 2:14). The Chofetz Chaim (quoted in Chochmas Koheles) relates this posuk to the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:1) which states, “Who is wise? One who sees what is about to be born.”

The Chofetz Chaim counseled that each of us should pay heed to the consequences of any action we perform. He taught and practiced the idea that even as something is happening right now, we should imagine and picture to ourselves what the repercussions would be in the future.

The Tchebiner Rov instantly realized what the outcome of his encounter with the child could be and set out to improve the situation for that moment, the future and even future generations.

Rav Yisroel Salanter was on his deathbed, attended to by a young bochur from his yeshiva. The great founder of the Mussar Movement spent his final moments reassuring his nervous caregiver that there was nothing to fear from a dead body. It was merely the temporary receptacle for the holy soul and had no power at all once the neshamah had returned to heaven. Rav Yisroel was amazingly able to look ahead to the moments after he would pass on and prepare the person who would have to deal with a frightening unknown.

But there is another aspect of these inspiring stories that sheds light upon our social behavior. These Torah teachers were able to subsume their personal needs and inclinations at difficult moments to the needs and sensitivities of others. Surely Rav Yisroel Salanter would have liked to spend his last moments on earth in personal teshuvah and tefillah. His level of lifetime avodah and constant self-improvement was undoubtedly heightened considerably in his transition to eternity. Yet, as honed by decades of intensive bein adam lachaveiro, he opted to reverse roles and become the ultimate caregiver himself. It was as if Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s famous words (quoted in the introduction of his son, Rav Yitzchok, to Nefesh Hachaim) became Rav Yisroel’s eternal epitaph: “Man was not created for himself, but for others.”

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, learned a bitter lesson the hard way from his own rebbi, Rav Avrohom Grodzensky, mashgiach of Slabodka. He used the image of a limping man in a metaphor, but was reprimanded by the mashgiach, who was himself a cripple and felt the sting of such a description. One must always think of others, regardless of the circumstances and their ramifications, not personal comfort levels or preferences (introduction to Sefer Toras Avrohom and Sefer Hazikaron Pachad Yitzchok).

On a different level, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz was walking with his talmidim and spotted newly-made baby shoes drying in the midday sun. He stopped to reflect upon the joy the father would experience when putting on the little shichelech. “What the mother will feel I cannot even imagine,” declared Rav Chaim (Sefer Moach Veleiv).

Rav Chaim combined the dual traits of looking ahead and recognizing the benefit his talmidim would gain from this reverie and overruled his usual hasmadah and absolute dedication to learning to teach a lesson for many generations.

Again, we derive from our sages the ability and even mandate to triumph over personal ego and, over time, create both a priority for the needs of others and a legacy for all eternity.

The Brisker Rov seems to have embodied these ideals even as a very young rov in his eponymous home city. His father, Rav Chaim, had passed away at a tragically early age, leaving behind the incredible legacy of the Brisker derech in learning and decades of astonishing chesed as well. His successor was an extremely young man, and despite his obvious brilliance and genius, some felt that he might not have been ready to assume his father’s mantle of leadership. Their concerns seemed to have been ratified by one of the youthful rov’s first challenges. Government representatives arrived in the large Brisker bais medrash to summon the rabbi to recite viduy – the final confession – with a Jewish prisoner who had been sentenced to death and was about to be executed. The Rov was standing a “long Shemoneh Esrei” and the gabbaim asked them to leave and return in an hour, which they reluctantly did. When the Rov finished his prayers, he was apprised of the dire situation, but he indicated that he refused to follow the officers of the court. There were murmurings in the shul that the Rov was endangering the entire congregation with his stubborn persistence.

When the officials finally returned, it was in the middle of the long Rosh Hashanah Mussaf and the Rov seemed to stand interminably in prayer. Finally, one of the shul elders, in exasperation, presented himself as the senior rabbi to the communists and went to administer our version of “last rites.” Later, after davening and tekios, a different set of officials arrived at the Rov’s home in great haste. The family and guests were petrified that the Rov was about to be arrested and perhaps worse, but they demanded to know if the Rov had indeed left to say the confession, since it had just been discovered that someone else had admitted to the crime and this defendant was innocent. Tragically, it transpired that the “self-declared substitute rov” had actually been the cause of an innocent man’s death. The wisdom of the young Rov became instantly known, but the Rov explained that he was neither a prophet nor exhibiting ruach hakodesh. He said that he was merely following the halacha that one may not cause the death of a fellow Jew unless it had been absolutely established that he deserved the penalty.

Our lesson from the Brisker Rov, however, remains the twofold rule that “a wise man” must use the eyes high up in his head (Ibin Ezra) to see as far as possible in the decision-making process and dare not take any personal factors into consideration, only to do what is right for others.

In these post-Purim days, it is important to remember that Chazal tell us that both Mordechai and Esther suffered personally in their quest to save Klal Yisroel. Mordechai was no longer popular with the entire Sanhedrin and their marriage may have had to end (subject to controversy in poskim) because of their dedication to our people. Yet, they took the total long view, looking to eternity and the needs of Klal Yisroel above their own, and earned their own place in the Torah and in our hearts. May we, too, learn to set our sights high above our own needs and help Klal Yisroel achieve yeshuos and geulos bemeheirah beyomeinu.