Sunday, Aug 1, 2021

The Legacy of Rav Aryeh Finkel zt”l

“Hashem brought Tisha B’Av for you on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz,” I said to Rav Binyomin Hatzaddik Finkel, and his perpetual smile disappeared instantly. His wife, Rebbetzin Mina, passed away on the morning of Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. On that bitter day, devastation descended upon his world. At the shivah, he was enveloped in indescribable sorrow. But even then, he did not stop smiling at the thousands of visitors who came to offer their condolences.

This week, I asked Rav Binyomin to speak about his father, Rav Aryeh Finkel zt”l, whose first yahrtzeit will be marked on the sixth of Av. I was very close with Rav Aryeh. Three of my sons were among his close talmidim. All of them learned at Yeshivas Mir in the neighborhood of Brachfeld, where he served as the rosh yeshiva. But Rav Aryeh was more than just a rosh yeshiva. He taught, shaped, and built his talmidim. I myself spoke with him on many occasions. Now, as his yahrtzeit approached, I visited Rav Aryeh’s son, who is commonly known as Rav Binyomin Hatzaddik, in order to learn about his father – especially his own perspective on his father. Rav Binyomin himself is strikingly reminiscent of his father.

Rav Binyomin’s son, who is currently living with him, informed me that accommodating my request would be “a little bit complicated.” He reviewed his father’s daily routine with me, demonstrating the difficulty in finding any free time in his packed schedule. “I need to speak with him by Wednesday,” I said, “since I have to send in the article a week in advance.” We looked over his schedule for that Wednesday. In the morning, he would be learning and teaching. In the evening, he was due to deliver a shmuess to a group of wives of yungeleit at the Tamir reception hall. (This shmuess was actually the scene of a tragedy, when one of the attendees, the righteous Rebbetzin Leah Mayernik a”h, fell and passed away.) That was to be followed by a vaad in his home for yungeleit on the subject of chinuch. When the vaad ended, at 11:30 at night, a number of people had appointments to consult with him. “Come to the vaad,” Rav Binyomin’s son suggested. “We will see how things develop afterward. Perhaps he will finish a few minutes early, or perhaps the people who are supposed to come at 11:30 will arrive late.”

Rav Binyomin Hatzaddik is an incredible person. There is an old saying: If you want something to get done, ask a very busy person to do it. Rav Binyomin is an extraordinarily busy person, yet he constantly manages to accomplish new things. I don’t dare to write about his hasmodah, his noble character, or his brilliance in Torah and mussar. I know that I could not do justice to those qualities. I will take the liberty, though, of trying to give you a glimpse into his greatness in bein adam lachaveiro. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people, myself included, feel that Rav Binyomin infuses them with vitality. He radiates compassion and empathy for others, and he somehow always knows the right words to say. He has a large, diverse following, whose members include bochurim and married men, Israelis and “chutzniks,” people of great spiritual standing and ordinary men. And to everyone who relies on him, Rav Binyomin is prepared to give his heart and soul.

He lives in my own neighborhood of Givat Shaul; we have known each other for many years. His brother-in-law, Rav Saar Maizel, lives across the street. Rav Aryeh used to stay at the home of his daughter, Leah Maizel, on Yomim Tovim, and my sons and I often joined the minyanim held for him in her home. Naturally, Rav Binyomin came as well. I always enjoyed seeing him conversing with his father; I even documented a number of their conversations.

Rav Binyomin misses his father deeply, and his sentiments are very telling. He makes no effort to hide his longing, but it isn’t his father’s radiant smile or warm handshake that he misses the most. Rav Binyomin asserts that he pines for his father most keenly when he is learning and comes across a difficult or complex issue.

• • • • •

When I arrived at Rav Binyomin’s home, a group of yungeleit were seated in his modest living room. The walls of the room were lined with seforim. I noticed a pair of reading glasses on one of the shelves, presumably belonging to Rav Binyomin’s late rebbetzin. On one wall, the Shabbos candlesticks sat on a shelf. “Doda Sima,” Rebbetzin Mina Finkel’s mother, was busy in the kitchen. I joined the group of yungeleit seated at the table, all of whom were listening intently as he spoke. The table was set with plastic cups, beverages, and rugelach. Rav Binyomin urged all of his guests to help themselves to the refreshments. The rov himself, though, refrained from eating; he is still an aveil, and he was concerned that it might be considered a seudas merei’im.

The topic of his shiur was how to deal with a child or teenager who lies or steals. Rav Binyomin addressed the issue by carefully outlining different forms of these behaviors. Sometimes, he explained, a child will lie of his own accord; at other times, a child will be asked how he obtained a certain item, and then he will lie. In the latter case, he was forced to answer a question and only then did he tell a lie. That is entirely different from the first scenario.

Rav Binyomin then presented the possible responses. On the one hand, a parent can ignore the child’s actions altogether, but that may not be advisable. On the other hand, the child can be punished severely, but that may not be desirable either. In fact, the child may even be broken by such a response. In any event, Rav Binyomin adjured his listeners, a child should never be told that he is a liar or a thief. That type of comment will simply cause him to develop a negative self-image. Attaching labels to a child will cause him to feel that he has lost the trust of his parents or teachers. Rav Binyomin quoted the posuk, “Al tochah letz pen yisnaecha – Do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he despise you,” and explained it to mean that if a person is told that he is a “scoffer,” he will certainly despise the person who has criticized him, and he will never accept the rebuke.

The rule, he explained, is that any censure should relate to the action, not to the person. Furthermore, a child should not feel that he has become associated with wrongdoing; he should not be given the impression that he has already been “damaged.” This approach was modeled by the famed mashgiach, Rav Meir Chodosh zt”l. Even when Rav Meir knew that a bochur had done something wrong, he always continued speaking with the bochur as if nothing had happened. He often advised parents or rabbeim to “give the bochur a fig leaf so that he can hide behind it.” To that, Rav Binyomin added, “Of course, one must make sure that the bochur will not invite a number of friends to hide behind the same fig leaf with him…”

If a child takes an object at home without permission, it seems only logical that he should be punished. But Rav Binyomin spoke about the need to exercise caution and to understand the exact nature of the offense. First of all, what did the child take? Was it a candy from the kitchen cabinet or did he actually take money from a parent’s wallet? The two actions are not comparable. And if he took money, was the wallet readily accessible, in a place where it invited theft, or did he take it from a more secure place? Furthermore, why did the child steal? Was it because he harbored a drive for theft, or was it simply because a friend had something that he envied? “You must always enter the heart of the child and try to understand exactly what motivated him,” Rav Binyomin asserted, adding that a parent should never embarrass a child for committing such an offense. Moreover, he stressed, if it isn’t absolutely clear that the child is guilty, accusing him can lead to tragedy.

I am merely summarizing the contents of the vaad, which actually took the form of a give-and-take between Rav Binyomin and the participants. Rav Binyomin noted that although he was discussing how to deal with children, the same scenario could occur with bochurim, or even with adults.

Rav Binyomin had a wealth of advice to offer, including a number of surprising suggestions. “Sometimes, it is a good idea to broach the subject during the discussion of the parsha at the Shabbos table,” he said, “without making a direct connection to the child who committed the act. Often, the child will listen and internalize the message, and he will have been spared the pain of embarrassment.”

He added that a powerful method of chinuch is to demonstrate that one is aghast at a particular form of misbehavior. When a child sees that his father is pained and shocked by something he has done wrong, or when a talmid makes the same observation about his rebbi, the impact can be enormous.

In addition, when a child takes something that does not belong to him, he must learn that he is obligated to return it. This does not mean that his father should give him the money to return. It must come from the child himself. Rav Binyomin shared a story that occurred 26 years ago, in which he was personally involved.

“I was approached by a young yeshiva bochur, who later went on to become a fine ben Torah with children of his own in yeshivos. At that time, he confessed to me that he had committed dozens of thefts from stores in Meah Shearim and Geulah, and he wanted to make restitution. He asked if I would take his place, since he felt too ashamed to repay the storeowners himself. He didn’t ask me for help raising the money. He told me that he had saved gift money that he had received from his grandmother and he had also earned some money tutoring younger bochurim, and he finally had enough to pay for the things he had taken. I spent a long time going from store to store and repaying the owners on his behalf. This involved some halachic shailos, because it was possible that some of the stores had come under different ownership since the bochur had committed his thefts. I had to carefully use subterfuge to find out how long the stores had been owned by their current proprietors in order to avoid running into trouble with the authorities. I will never forget Reb Shmuel Shilitz, of the Shilitz bakery in Meah Shearim, who handed the money back to me and asked me to use it so that the bochur could pay a different debt. Another storeowner took the money I gave him – fifty shekels– and said, ‘This money is worth a million shekels to me if it means that there are bochurim in the world like this young man.’”

Rav Binyomin concluded his vaad with a scintillating vort: “The posuk says (Mishlei 22:6), ‘Educate a youth based on his path, and even when he grows older, he will not depart from it.’ The simple explanation of this posuk is that if a child is educated based on his own individual nature, he will never ‘depart’ from the things that he was taught. In Kelm and in Kotzk, though, they used to explain the posuk differently: Even when the child grows older, he will continue being receptive to chinuch. A child should be trained to remain open throughout his life to being taught. At the Talmud Torah of Kelm, men in their sixties or seventies would sometimes come for chinuch. A person should never give up on improving himself; there is always the possibility to learn and grow.”

At that point, I spoke up for the first time that evening. “I know this isn’t a literal explanation, but I once suggested that the words ‘even when he grows older’ may refer to the mechanech himself. Even after teaching for decades, a mechanech should never forget to teach every child according to his own individual needs. He should never allow himself to engage in chinuch by rote.”

Rav Binyomin enjoyed my comment. “Still,” he hastened to remind us, “it is important to remember that that is not the simple meaning of the posuk.”

• • • • •

Finally, it was my turn to speak with Rav Binyomin. I began by addressing his personal situation.

Tisha B’Av came in Tammuz for you this year. I am certain that behind your smile, you are grieving.

“It is very difficult, but Hashem gives us strength. But I acknowledge that it isn’t easy. As you know, the Gemara says that Rabi Yochanan, who lost all ten of his children, used to bring a bone from his last child when he went to visit aveilim. How did this help? Did they find it comforting to know that he had also experienced suffering? Rav Aharon Chodosh told me that Rabi Yochanan’s message was that a person must always keep moving forward. He had lost all of his children, yet he did not give up; a person must continue serving Hashem in every situation. This is difficult for me, but Hashem never leaves us.

“We know that when Yosef was brought down to Mitzrayim, the wagons were carrying herbs with pleasant fragrances,” Rav Binyomin continued. “Everyone asks: What difference did it make to him that he was surrounded by pleasant smells? He was on his way to Mitzrayim. He had been sold into slavery. How could this minor detail make any difference at the time?

“In Kelm, they used to say that what matters is what a person deserves. Everything that happens to a person is precisely measured, and he will suffer only to the exact extent that has been decreed upon him. Rashi says that the reason for this was so that Yosef would not come to harm. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz used to say that a person sometimes reaches a point where he feels broken; he feels complete despair, and it seems to him that Hashem has abandoned him and that he is no longer worthy of anything. And then, in the midst of that suffering, he suddenly receives a ‘smile’ from Shomayim. Those herbs were the way that Hashem ‘smiled’ to Yosef. The message was that he hadn’t been forsaken. Perhaps Rav Chaim actually called it a ‘caress,’ or even a ‘kiss’ from Hashem. Before my mother passed away, she had an operation that took six or seven hours,” Rav Binyomin recalled. “When she emerged from surgery, she told us that she had her own ‘fragrant herbs’ during her ordeal – the pleasant way that the nurses related to her. In our home, this vort was an integral part of our lives.

“I am thankful to Hashem,” Rav Binyomin continued. “I have good children who are devoted to me. I can go to yeshiva and I have good friends. I am thankful to Hashem. True, it is painful and she suffered, but Hashem doesn’t give a person more than he can handle.”

Your vaad was on the subject of chinuch. Did your father have a specific approach to chinuch?

“His own personality radiated from him. It was what influenced us the most.”

I felt that he was the calmest, most serene person I had ever encountered. Did he have the capacity to be angry?

“By nature, he probably did. There were times when we saw that various things pained him deeply. He wasn’t born an angel, but he knew how to overcome his emotions.”

He seemed entirely unflappable. I never saw him running and I never saw him shouting.

“He had challenges in life, but he overcame them. He was a person who worked on himself.”

One of my sons used to learn with him every Thursday. Rav Aryeh often spoke to his talmidim about challenges that he had to work hard to overcome in order to exercise restraint. That was a type of discussion that would characterize a mashgiach, rather than a rosh yeshiva. In your eyes, what do you feel was his primary legacy? Was it the example he set as a rosh yeshiva or a mashgiach?

“He was a talmid muvhak of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz.”

The same question could be asked about Rav Chaim as well.

“Exactly. I will define Rav Chaim for you: He was one of the greatest roshei yeshivos. He was an incredibly gifted orator as well, but his essence was that of a great rosh yeshiva. Years ago, if someone had suggested that Rav Chaim would deliver mussar shmuessen, it wouldn’t have seemed logical. His function was to deliver a shiur klali; his shiurim were his greatest strength. Despite that, though, Rav Chaim’s greatest legacy to the world was Sichos Mussar. He used to learn every masechta in Shas; he never skipped anything. My father told me that Rav Chaim learned every aggadah and every part of Chazal. He once remarked that a person can never know what he will need to know for a particular task, and that it is necessary to know everything, even Taharos. He learned everything well and he knew everything well. He learned lomdus and aggadah, and all of it filtered through his great, pure heart.”

Rav Binyomin had good reason for quoting his father’s description of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, for the two maintained a very close bond. Many, if not all, of Rav Chaim’s published shmuessen were drawn from Rav Aryeh’s notes. “My father was the eldest grandson of Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel,” Rav Binyomin related, “and he was his grandfather’s devoted right-hand man. My father was his chavrusah; they learned entire masechtos together. His grandfather made him a maggid shiur immediately after his marriage. He prodded him to grow and to accomplish. My father was also the eldest son of his own father, Rav Chaim Zev.”

Yet, despite his own distinguished status, Rav Aryeh showed tremendous deference and respect to the roshei yeshiva of Mir: Rav Beinush Finkel, Rav Nosson Tzvi, and the current rosh yeshiva, Rav Eliezer Yehuda. That was simply the way Rav Aryeh was. His humility was virtually superhuman. “He didn’t defer to them in a way that seemed forced,” Rav Binyomin added. “It was true and sincere. It was incredible.”

Today, you follow in your father’s footsteps.

“I? I am grateful to the yeshiva for allowing me to deliver shmuessen…”

• • • • •

Did your father have a specific method for delivering a shmuess? Were his shmuessen constructed in a specific way?

“He learned, he toiled over his learning, and he absorbed emotion and passion from it. In his shmuessen, he tried to speak with fervor, to appeal to the hearts of his listeners. He was capable of delivering a shiur klali on aggadah, but that wasn’t his goal; he wasn’t trying to give a lomdishe discourse. He wanted his words to penetrate his audience’s hearts. It wasn’t about developing analyses of topics in mussar.”

At Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim, Rav Aryeh delivered chaburos on mussar. During the last 15 years of his life, in Brachfeld, his shmuessen took a different form. As his son described them, they were meant to arouse his listeners’ emotions and to instill emunah, not to present complex intellectual analyses.

I remember how he used to speak in the shul in our neighborhood every year on leil Hoshana Rabbah. He would quote a Medrash, and he would barely say any chiddushim, yet the Medrash suddenly seemed to take on tremendous power and light.

“That was because he actually lived the Medrash. His life was suffused with emunah in Hashem. He fulfilled the dictum of ‘shivisi Hashem lenegdi tamid.’ He always sensed that Hashem was present with him. The Shulchan Aruch says that this is a ‘great principle of the Torah and the qualities of tzaddikim who walk before G-d.’ My father often mentioned this, and he pointed out that the Vilna Gaon makes a tiny emendation to the text. With a single word, he changes it to read ‘and the entire quality of tzaddikim who walk before G-d.’ In other words, it isn’t merely one of their virtues; it is the entire virtue of the righteous. A tzaddik’s status emanates solely from the fact that he places Hashem before him. My father always found great meaning in this comment of the Gaon.”

In the introduction to his sefer Yavo Shilo, Rav Aryeh quotes the Ramchal, who compares a Medrash to a coal: It seems relatively dormant at first, but with effort, one can transform it into a blaze. That was precisely what he accomplished in those annual shmuessen on Hoshana Rabbah.

Your father guided my son when he was in shidduchim; he told him when to finalize his shidduch, even though he still wasn’t certain. ‘Trust me,’ your father told him. I remember that I once met him at a simcha and asked how he felt comfortable telling bochurim when to make these decisions, while he himself was so detached from this world and had no conception of the problems and struggles of the average bochur. He said, ‘Do you really think that I am detached? I understand everything.’ Was he really capable of understanding the heart and mind of a young bochur?

“He had an incredible degree of understanding. Do you think he was naïve? He was extremely perceptive.”

He understood the problems of every nineteen-year-old bochur who sought his advice?

“A bochur once confessed to him that he was having improper thoughts, and he asked for advice. My father said to him, ‘You aren’t the only one who suffers from this. It happens to me as well.’ And they worked together to overcome it.”

What is your father’s legacy?

“Ameilus in Torah. Good middos. Giving in to others. Sharing the suffering of others. Giving chizuk to Klal Yisroel. I myself always derived chizuk from my father. I haven’t yet achieved even one thousandth of his greatness in learning or middos. I am saying that truthfully, not out of humility. He gave me a tremendous amount of chizuk.”

Was he the type to be nervous about observing the mitzvos properly, or was he calm?

“He wasn’t the nervous type at all. He always observed the mitzvos with happiness.”

Do you remember what he was like when you were a child?

“When we were young, our chinuch was very strong. My father was very demanding. When we were older, he became much less strict. But even when he was stern with us, it was always with tremendous love. We learned a tremendous amount from him.”

It must be easier to grow when your father sets a personal example of greatness.

“In some ways, it is easy. In other ways, it isn’t. Sometimes there is a lot of pressure when a father expects his children to reach his level.”

The Torah isn’t automatically passed from father to son. There are people who are the children of illustrious gedolim, yet were not helped by their fathers’ examples.

“That is why it is a good thing when a father communicates expectations to his children. A father must teach his children exactly what you said: If they do not shteig on their own, they will not automatically inherit his Torah.”

I saw that when you stood before your father, it was with extraordinary deference and awe, like a servant standing before his master.

“That is correct.”

But he was your father…

“I was still in awe of him.”

Do you miss him?

“Very much. His absence is a tremendous void in our lives.”

I am sure you will miss spending Chol Hamoed with him.

“I didn’t take advantage of his presence enough. When I learn Gemara and I come across something I don’t understand, I wish that I could ask him my questions.”

Between the two of us, I am in a better position, because I still have you. You may not think of yourself this way, but I consider you a giant.

Rav Binyomin laughed. “Perhaps one day I will be. One can never lose hope. Even I have not lost hope for myself. I hope that I will yet begin learning as I should

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