I sat at the edge of my bed and cried.
Yesomim hayinu ve’ein av…
I was not alone. Most of those who I spoke to shared similar reactions. Our rebbi, the great rosh yeshiva, has left us.
Oy! Mi yitein lanu temuraso! Truer words were never said.
I was in the yeshiva 20 years ago when Rav Beinish Finkel was niftar. And although we all knew that Rav Nosson Tzvi was a very choshuveh yungerman, there were doubts. How will the yeshiva manage? We all knew that Rav Nosson Tzvi was not well. How would he cope?
Remarkably, though, the yeshiva flourished and witnessed unimaginable growth. With over 7,000 talmidim, the yeshiva reached unprecedented heights, becoming the largest makom Torah since the churban habayis.
From where did the rosh yeshiva’s greatness come?
In truth, Rav Nosson Tzvi came from humble origins, and that was part of his greatness. He would often retell the story:
“At the time, my name was Nate. I was a tall and lanky kid wearing a Chicago Cubs baseball cap, and I was exhausted from the trip. It was well over 24 hours since I had left Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. In the early 1960s, it could take nearly a day and a half for one to travel from America to Israel. I was anxious to get settled and get a good night’s sleep.
“I was related to the rosh yeshiva, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel, and was relieved to see him coming down the corridor. I greeted him with a smile and a warm ‘Shalom aleichem!’
“But his response surprised me. ‘So, tell me a chiddush on what you’ve been learning.’ I could not believe it. Couldn’t the entrance exam wait until the morning? As it was, I was coming from Arie Crown Day School in Chicago. The level of learning in the Mirrer Yeshiva was certainly quite a jump from my high school, and I felt a bit anxious about coming to the Mir without the intensive background that most boys had.
“‘I don’t really have a chiddush,’ I said. The rosh yeshiva looked at me, and instead of inviting me into his apartment, directed me to the bais medrash. ‘Don’t come down until you have a chiddush.’
“I felt like crying. I could not believe this was happening. Slowly, I walked up the steps, sat down on one of the benches, and stared blankly at the pages of the Gemara. A half hour passed and once again I went down to Rav Leizer Yudel. ‘Well, do you have a chiddush?’ I admitted that I did not, and again I was sent back to the bais medrash. Now I began to worry. Maybe I had made a terrible mistake by coming to the Mir. Maybe I would never fit in. But all the while, regardless of my nervousness and negative thoughts, I knew somehow – by the love and caring that emanated from the rosh yeshiva – that this was a test that I must, and would, pass. So I went back to the bais medrash to develop an original Torah thought.
“A half hour later, I emerged with ‘efsher ah diyuk in ah Rashi, perhaps a thought on a Rashi.’ Hesitantly, I approached my cousin once more and shared my ‘chiddush.’ Rav Leizer Yudel’s face broke out into a wide grin. He smiled at me, opened his arms and placed a kiss on my forehead. ‘Shalom aleichem! Welcome to the Mirrer Yeshiva!’”
The rosh yeshiva continued with his story:
“After eating and talking for a while with the rosh yeshiva and his rebbetzin, I was shown to my room. I thanked my cousins for their warmth and hospitality and gladly lay down to sleep. A short while later, the door opened. Rav Leizer Yudel was checking to make sure that I was sleeping, and although I gave no indication that I was still up, I peeked out from under my covers to witness something incredible.
“Located directly above my bed was a set of Shas. Rav Leizer Yudel spread out his hands until they were able to touch both ends of the collection of Gemaros. And then, with deep emotion, he hugged and kissed them. ‘Torah, ich hub dir azoi leeb! Torah, I love you so much!”
That memorable first day and night remained etched in the rosh yeshiva’s memory forever. Nate quickly became Nosson, and he learned and learned and learned. And he never stopped. His modest beginnings gave him unusual insight into the hearts and souls of even novices in learning. When they were afraid to dream on their own, he would dream for them. He believed in his talmidim and thus helped them reach inconceivable heights.
– – – – –
When Rebbi Akiva returned, after twenty four years, with twenty four thousand talmidim, his wife, Rochel, struggled to work her way through the crowd to greet him. She was pushed aside, until Rebbi Akiva cried out, “Sheli veshelachem shelah hee – What is mine and what is yours, belongs to her!”
Our rebbi was today’s Rebbi Akiva. From his tens of thousands of talmidim will emerge hundreds of thousands of bnei Torah. The numbers are staggering. It is noteworthy that the rosh yeshiva was niftar on the day of Rochel Imeinu’s yahrtzeit. Chazal tell us that Rebbi Akiva and Rochel, his wife, were a gilgul, reincarnation, of Yaakov Avinu and Rochel Imeinu.
How appropriate, then, that the Rebbi Akiva of this generation ascends to the Yeshivah Shel Maalah on 11 Cheshvan, the yahrtzeit of Rochel Imeinu. But this time, the roles are reversed. Every corner of the globe cries out in pain. We are all yesomim! Sheli veshelachem shelo hu. The Torah that you and I have merited is all from him. And Mama Rochel soothes us: “Mini koleich mibechi – Withhold your voice from crying…”
Every makom Torah in the universe is graced with those who have learned or derived benefit from the rosh yeshiva and the citadel of Torah he built. His self-effacing manner endeared him to all. Klal Yisroel are all his talmidim. We are all his children.
– – – – –
The news spread quickly. Although it is not unusual for a young man from the Mirrer Yeshiva to be missing for a few hours – after all, at the time, there were nearly 5,000 young men learning there – Avromi Goldbaum (name changed), a sweet, popular talmid, was not the type to be missing. He certainly was not the type to go out for long without at least calling someone to let them know that he would be late. The last thing heard about him was that he had gone on a tiyul up north and had somehow become separated from his friends.
His friends contacted the authorities in the yeshiva to notify them of the missing young man. With each passing hour, the growing concern that something was really wrong became more and more of a possibility. Before long, the situation became a major crisis. The boy’s parents were informed and a full-fledged search ensued. Each passing hour became a greater cause for worry and a sense of impending disaster started to permeate the close-knit yeshiva. Search teams of professionals as well as dedicated bochurim from the yeshiva headed up north. The options, though many, all pointed in the same bleak direction. Whether he had been kidnapped by terrorists or had somehow disappeared in some other manner, things did not look good.
As the talmidim in the yeshiva waited with bated breath for news, they recommitted themselves to their learning and davening. Tehillim vigils were launched, with hundreds of boys reciting Tehillim for their lost friend, hoping and praying that some miracle would save him. Alas, it was not meant to be.
The next morning word spread that Avormi had slipped while climbing along a precarious path. Perhaps there was some solace in the fact that he had not been abducted. Nevertheless, the grief was unimaginable. Yesterday, he had been learning alongside his friends in yeshiva. Today, he was gone, forever.
The levaya was arranged and thousands flocked to the Mir. Not only boys who knew Avromi, but even those in the yeshiva who had never heard of the young man gathered together, perhaps aware of the dictum that when one member of a group dies, “yidagu kol hachaburah, everyone in the group must worry and do some soul-searching.”
The following day, the rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi, walked into the room where he gave his regular Chumash shiur. No one knew whether he was going to give the shiur that day. With so much going on and all the turmoil and tragedy, perhaps this week they would not have shiur. But, in typical fashion, the rosh yeshiva wished to be close to the bochurim during times of tragedy. And so word spread that, indeed, the shiur would be delivered at its normal time.
Avi Feder, an American boy who had never heard of Avromi Goldbaum, had, along with the rest of the yeshiva, spent time learning and davening for the missing young man. And now he had come to hear what the rosh yeshiva would say. The boys gathered in the room and waited as Rav Nosson Tzvi was helped to his seat. His mesirus nefesh to overcome all his physical impediments endeared him to his talmidim in an extraordinary manner. They knew that he loved them more than anything else in the world. And now one of them had been taken from him. It was as if a father had lost his son. How would he react? What could he possibly say?
He sat down and looked around the room at the vulnerable, impressionable talmidim. A minute passed and the room was so quiet that they heard their rosh yeshiva’s belabored breathing. And then he started to cry. At first it was a soft whimper. And then it came a torrent of tears. The rosh yeshiva sobbed. The young men watched as they, too, cried. Some had perhaps known Avromi and some others certainly didn’t, but they were united as one. They were brothers who belonged to a loving and caring father, a rosh yeshiva who united them as a cohesive, unified band of brothers.
And then, after a few moments, the rosh yeshiva regained his composure and spoke. And all he said was one thought. “Ve’ein shiyur rak haTorah hazos – All that remains for us is our heilige Torah.”
He did not have the strength nor did he have the ability to deliver his regular shiur. Instead, he told the boys that they should all go up to the bais medrash and learn. For when tragedy strikes in the horrific manner in which it had, only one thing remains.
Our heilige Torah…
– – – – –
In early 1991, Saddam Hussein posed a serious, deadly threat to Israel. He had threatened over and over again to fire scud missiles into Israel should the United States threaten Iraq. On January 15, 1991, the first scud missile attack was unleashed against the people of Israel. Thousands, upon hearing the sirens, rushed into their sealed rooms and put on gas masks.
The students in the yeshiva also ran into their sealed rooms and began the final taping of the windows as they had been instructed. Although they tried to maintain their composure, the fear of the unknown gave rise to a palpable tension. A few of the young men took charge and helped others. A quick check of the hallways ensured that all the students were now in sealed rooms. The doors were closed and the final taping was done. The radio announcer was giving instructions as to what should happen next. It had been three minutes since the alarm had gone off and the fear of the impending possible chemical or biological attack was taking its toll on several of the young men. Some were saying Tehillim, while others were too overwhelmed to do anything. Tears could be seen on some boys’ faces. Anxiety and uneasiness mixed with fear of the unknown.
Awaiting the crashing sounds of bombs and explosions, the boys were alarmed by the harsh knocking on the door. Menachem, the young man in charge, shouted through his mask, clearly agitated and nervous, “Who is it?!” and thought to himself, “Why couldn’t this guy have made it into the room in time? Now we’ll have to undo all the tape to open the door!”
“It’s Nosson Finkel.” The reply was soft, almost apologetic. Menachem wondered if it was some sort of a cruel poor joke – someone impersonating the rosh yeshiva! This was not a time for practical jokes. “What did you say your name was?” Menachem was hoping to detect from the response who it really was, but just in case, he began peeling away the tape from the door.
Menachem opened the door and standing before him was none other than the rosh yeshiva himself. He was exhausted and breathing heavily. He held his gas mask in his hands. Menachem was mortified. He quickly assisted the rosh yeshiva into a seat and helped place his gas mask over his face. “Rebbi, why did you come? How did you get here?”
“I had arranged beforehand with a taxi driver to come pick me up in my home the moment that the first alarm went off,” said the rosh yeshiva. “I just wanted to be with my boys.”
The room was now silent. The students all gazed at their rebbi in amazement and awe. For a healthy man to do what he did would have been courageous and brave, but for someone in the rosh yeshiva’s condition to come at this time was both mind-boggling and incredibly inspiring.
– – – – –
A few years ago, I had the privilege of speaking at a parlor meeting in Lakewood for the benefit of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. I was quite excited, because I knew that the Rosh Yeshivah would be in attendance. I had always been awed by his emotion and his mesirus nefesh for his talmidim and for the yeshiva. When he spoke, one was able to hear a pin drop. It was that quiet in the room as the hundreds of people who had gathered hung onto his every word.
Instead of simply asking for donations, the rosh yeshiva quoted a vort about Moshe Rabbeinu that was related by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz. We are told that Moshe did not hit the ground to initiate the makkos, but rather Aharon did. Why? Because the ground had saved Moshe’s life when he had killed the Mitzri and covered him with earth before anyone was able to discover what had happened.
When a small child falls, sometimes a parent will playfully hit the ground to “punish” it for hurting the child. The child will perhaps be satisfied that the ground received a punishment for causing his knee to bleed. But we are grownups who know all too well that the ground does not have feelings or emotions. What, then, is the reason that Moshe would not hit the ground? Did the ground feel his appreciation?
The answer is that hakoras hatov is not about payback. Rather, it is about instilling in the individual the feeling of gratitude and thanks. True, the ground won’t notice that he did not hit it. But he will notice and he will then train himself to thank others whenever they deserve to be thanked.
Rav Nosson Tzvi asked those in attendance not to give money immediately. Rather, he encouraged them to close their eyes and to stop and think for three minutes about what the Mirrer Yeshiva had done for them. “Hakoras hatov iz mechayev di hakarah. Hakoras hatov requires one to be makir, to recognize, that which has been done for him.” You might never be able to pay it back. But at least you must recognize what has been done for you.
Oy, tayereh rebbi, if we were to close our eyes and think about what you have done for us, our tears would never cease. How can we ever repay Toras chayim, life itself?
– – – – –
Eliezer Feuer opened the envelope and quickly filled out the enclosed application. He had spent the past two years of his life learning at “Rechov Bais Yisroel Shalosh,” in the Mirrer Yeshiva, and now the time had come for him to return to America. He had applied to the famed Bais Medrash Govoah of Lakewood and knew that he had to return his application soon, as the openings for the coming zeman were quickly being filled. It was Thursday evening and he hoped to send the letter out immediately after Shabbos with an American “mailbag” that was hanging in the hallway.
Eliezer, or Ezzy, as his friends called him, loved learning in the Mir. The atmosphere in the bais medrash was alive and vibrant, and the energy generated by the learning was contagious. With hundreds of young men completely engrossed in their learning, it was almost as if Ezzy had no choice but to be swept up in the tidal wave of Torah that engulfed everyone in its path.
But perhaps more than anything else, there was one overriding factor that made Ezzy love the yeshiva – the rosh yeshiva himself, Rav Nosson Tzvi. Just watching the rosh yeshiva go through the daily chores of living was enough to bring one to tears. Suffering from chronic debilitating physical ailments, Rav Nosson Tzvi displayed Herculean strength and fortitude in his attempt never to compromise his commitment to the yeshiva and its talmidim, the thousands of young men whom he treated and loved as if they were his very own children.
One of the highlights of the week for the young men in the yeshiva was the weekly Chumash shiur delivered by the rosh yeshiva. This Friday morning shiur, coming at the end of a week during which the talmidim pursued rigorous Gemara study, was a welcome spark of inspiration and insight. But it was more than that. It was an opportunity for the rosh yeshiva to relate to the boys on a different level. This shiur took place in the warm, comfortable atmosphere of a small room, as opposed to the other shiurim, which were delivered in front of the entire bais medrash.
During the second week of February, 1995, Ezzy and the rest of the regulars looked forward to that week’s shiur more than usual, as the rosh yeshiva had only recently returned from a fundraising trip to America. He had been out of the country for a few weeks, and now the talmidim waited anxiously to hear what he had to say.
The young men gathered in one of the shiur rooms and waited for the rosh yeshiva to arrive. Generally, thirty or so talmidim came to hear the shiur. This week, there seemed to be just a few more. They had missed the rosh yeshiva and were happy to have him back home. Rav Nosson Tzvi walked through the door and was helped into his chair. Ezzy leaned forward and waited with anticipation.
The rosh yeshiva surveyed the room and smiled. But then his smile disappeared and his expression suddenly changed. What was wrong? What had happened? Without having so much as uttered a word, the rosh yeshiva began to cry. At first it was soft crying, but then it escalated, and before long he was sobbing. “Rechov Bais Yisroel… Rechov Bais Yisroel… Rechov Bais Yisroel Shalosh… I missed you… I missed you all so much!”
The young men watched in stunned silence. They, too, were moved to tears as they watched their rosh yeshiva who had missed the boys – his boys – so much that upon seeing them after an absence of a few weeks, he simply broke down and cried.
Ezzy wiped the tears from his eyes. No one spoke and no one moved. It was a moment that he would remember and cherish forever. Instinctively, he reached inside his jacket pocket. He felt a folded piece of paper in an envelope. It was his application to Lakewood Yeshiva. He smiled. He was going to stay in the Mir for one more zeman. He couldn’t leave. Not now. He was never going to forget what he had just seen – the love he had just witnessed – for the yeshiva, for Torah, and for the talmidim. He would always remember this moment. He knew he would never forget the rosh yeshiva’s devotion and love. And he was certain that the rosh yeshiva would never forget him.
– – – – –
On the morning of the levaya, a woman called the school and asked me to please call back immediately. I called her and she seemed quite emotional. She told me how terribly tragic the passing of the rosh yeshiva was. Soon I would discover why she felt that way.
Her son, Moshe, had struggled mightily in high school and soon fell in with a terrible crowd. Before long, he headed into a downward spiral and there seemed to be no bottom. After a terribly difficult period of time, he started to pull out of it. Showing signs of growth, he tried to break free from his friends and their influences, but it became harder and harder. Finally, he decided that he must get out of the country. On a pipe dream, he headed to the Mir.
He was up front and honest with the rosh yeshiva. He could barely read a Rashi. But the rosh yeshiva believed in him. He sensed the sincerity and desire in his heart and his neshamah and he accepted the young man into the Mir.
Thrilled that he had a second chance, Moshe flourished and capitalized on the opportunity. Before long, he developed into a full fledged ben Torah. But after the year was up, he began to worry. How was he going to deal with his old friends when he returned back home? They would certainly mock him and try to lure him back to his troublesome ways.
Terrified, he decided that the only protection would be a bracha from the rosh yeshiva. Imbued with the rosh yeshiva’s vote of confidence, he would be able to conquer any challenge that came his way. His flight was leaving Motzoei Yom Kippur. Immediately after Maariv, Moshe tried to approach the rosh yeshiva, but the bochurim were dancing in front of him and his gabbaim were trying to whisk him back to his home to break the taanis. Moshe rushed to the rosh yeshiva’s home and waited inside his dining room.
However, when the gabbaim walked through the door, their glaring eyes pierced right through Moshe, as if to say, “How dare you invade the rosh yeshiva’s home after Yom Kippur?!” The rosh yeshiva’s weak constitution and frail health called for immediate rest and food. But Moshe begged. He ran up to the rosh yeshiva and begged for one minute of his time. “Please, rebbi, I’m terrified to go back home. You know my story. Please give me a bracha.”
Reb Nosson Tzvi could barely speak. He managed an audible whisper: “You’ll be back.”
Moshe was elated. He apologized that he had overstepped his bounds, but desperately needed the bracha. And now he had it. He ran back to his dirah to catch the taxi that would bring him to the airport. Suddenly, he heard someone calling his name. He turned around and saw one of the gabbaim calling him back to the rosh yeshiva’s home. He ran back to the house anxious to hear what the rosh yeshiva wanted.
By this time, the rosh yeshiva was laying in his bed, unable to move. Moshe leaned in close to hear what Rav Nosson Tzvi had to say.
It would change his life forever.
With great effort and belabored breathing, he whispered, “I will be waiting for you.”
The woman on the phone sobbed.
“Today my son is a sho’eil umeishiv in the Mir.”
– – – – –
Kol atzmosai tomarnah Hashem mi chamocha.
One year, a newcomer to the Mir wanted to witness the rosh yeshiva light his Chanukah lecht. There were a number of people who had come to watch. He would never forget the inspiring sight. He watched in amazement as Rav Nosson Tzvi’s hands shook violently. He wanted to lean forward and help his rebbi, but no one else moved, so he stayed the course and held his position. The rosh yeshiva tried numerous times to light the candles, but he was unable to steady his hand. Suddenly, the rosh yeshiva used his left hand and grabbed the hand with which he was lighting. He managed to steady his hand ever so slightly and lit the candle.
This scene would repeat itself over and over, every night of Chanukah.
The young man had never seen anything like that before. And would never again.
– – – – –
As I tried to gather tidbits of hisorerus watching the levaya, I was struck by one beautiful image. I watched the mitah as it was carried.
The rosh yeshiva’s body, his heiligeh guf, pure and perfect, did not move. It remained perfectly still.
After a life of unfathomable yissurim, the shell of our dear rosh yeshiva’s precious neshamah was peacefully at rest.
Dor holech veedor ba.
A new generation of greatness in Torah is upon us.
And the Mir will be greater than ever before.
Our Rebbi Akiva was cared for by the selflessness of a modern day Rochel bas Kalba Savuah. The amazing rebbetzin cared for our rebbi as the treasure he was.
May Rav Leizer Yudel, the new rosh yeshiva, continue to promulgate his father’s dream. May the Torah and gedulah of the Mir reach never-before-imagined heights.
And may Moshiach bring our dear rebbi back to us once more.
“Rebbi, we will be waiting for you… We promise…”