Saturday, May 25, 2024

Rav Chaim Leib Epstein zt”l

This week's parsha is replete with references to mesorah, the value and import of remaining connected. The posuk states that as the Jewish people left Mitzrayim, they were armed: “vachamushim alu Bnei Yisroel.” The following posuk states that prior to leaving, Moshe Rabbeinu took pains to bring along the remains of Yosef Hatzaddik.

Perhaps we can explain the connection of the pesukim as signifying for us that the Bnei Yisroel were armed when they left Mitzrayim because they carried the remains of Yosef. They were strengthened by the knowledge that in the zechus of his remains accompanying them on their journey, they would merit to reach Eretz Yisroel. They were armed with the zechus of the atzamos of Yosef in their midst and constantly reminded of the example he set for them as to how to live properly.

Until last week, we merited having a tzaddik living among us, courageously bearing the mesorah he had received from his rebbi, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l. As we continued along the path of our golus in this country, he was a shining beacon for those who cared enough to follow the hallowed traditions of the past generations. He was a talmid chochom who dedicated his life to learning and teaching Torah. He was famed in the olam haTorah, where he was widely revered as one of the gedolim of our time, while remaining little known to the general world.

In his precious olam haTorah, Rav Chaim Leib Epstein zt”l was strong as a lion, vigilant and forceful.

At times, I would discuss with Rav Chaim about maintaining the mission of this newspaper. He would talk about nuances that he felt were improper for a newspaper serving a clientele of Bnei Torah. In enlightening conversations, the rosh yeshiva would share his perspectives on matters of hashkofah. I did not speak to him all that often, but when I did, I was grateful for his guidance, taken by his genuine unpretentiousness and amazed by his clarity.

Most of all, what I experienced was a sense of awe of being exposed to authenticity, to absolute sincerity, and to the precision of a real mesorah.

Because along with the lomdus, the mussar and the harbotzas Torah came the fact that Rav Chaim was among the last few who still existed in that rarefied realm of Rav Aharon Kotler’s Lakewood. Until last week, in Rav Chaim’s presence, one could still sense the fire, the clarity of vision, the yashrus and the pashtus.

With his passing, the devastation to the yeshiva world is double. We have suffered the loss of an odom gadol, a gaon and a marbitz Torah, and also a loss of that connection.

A nascent nation sings a timeless ode of praise and thanks to their King, one that we repeat each morning. Zeh Keili ve’anveihu, Elokei avi va’aromemenhu. The Baal Shem Tov explains that as the Jew connects with his Master, he has two paths before him, each one necessary. First is zeh Keili, a personal, vibrant relationship, a meeting point between the Ribbono Shel Olam and him. But there is also the fact that Elokei avi, a Jew draws on the fact that this is the very same Ribbono Shel Olam for whom our fathers and grandfathers were prepared to sacrifice their lives.

Rav Chaim Epstein lived a life of dveykus in zeh Keili, but also in Elokei avi, the Ribbono Shel Olam of Rav Aharon Kotler, as well as the kedushah of the Mir, as embodied by his father, Rav Yosef Dovid Epstein, and by his shver, Rav Dovid Bender.

We bemoan the dual loss: what he was and what he carried with him.

Chazal teach, “Gedolah misas tzaddikim k’sereifas bais Elokeinu” (Rosh Hashanah 18b). Perhaps we can understand this comparison by studying the account of Eliyohu Hanovi’s ascent to Heaven (Melochim Bais, 2). The posuk describes how a large group of neviim came to warn Elisha that his master, Eliyohu, would soon be departing (posuk 5).

As Eliyohu leaves for heaven, his devoted talmid requests a double measure of prophecy. Eliyohu replies that it is a difficult wish to fulfill, but if Elisha would see him as he ascended to shomayim, he would receive the bounty (posuk 10).

Elisha saw his master leave and famously cried out, “Avi, avi, rechev Yisroel uforoshov.”

When Elisha returned, the neviim approached him, wondering where Eliyohu had disappeared to. Thinking that perhaps he had gone to another village, they set out on a futile search to find him (posuk 16).

Rashi, quoting a Tosefta in Maseches Sotah (12:5), wonders why, on the previous day, these same bnei hanevi’im had warned Elisha that Eliyohu was about to leave this world, yet once Eliyohu indeed left, they went looking for him.

Rashi explains that “miyom shenignaz Eliyohu, halcha venistalka ruach hakodesh min hanevi’im.” Eliyohu Hanovi was a conduit for nevuah, and in his absence, the other prophets were deprived of the flow of prophecy.

Perhaps we can understand the term used by Elisha as his master took leave, “rechev Yisroel,” in this vein as well: Eliyohu Hanovi wasn’t just an individual, but a chariot, a vehicle carrying the hashpa’ah of nevuah to Klal Yisroel. Thus, Elisha bemoaned his loss and the loss of the connection to nevuah that flowed through him.

This, as well, may be why we compare the loss of a tzaddik to the loss of the Bais Hamikdosh, for the Bais Hamikdosh, too, was the place that carried the hashpa’ah of Torah, kedushah and gilui Shechinah.

The Vilna Gaon explains the tefillah that we say at the conclusion of Shemoneh Esrei, “Yehi ratzon….sheyiboneh Bais Hamikdosh…vesein chelkeinu beSorasecha,” means that our measure in Torah is restricted without a Bais Hamikdosh. Our hasagos in Torah are limited in its absence. Thus, we pray that the Bais Hamikdosh, and our proper understanding of Torah, be restored.

Rav Chaim Epstein’s girsa deyankusa was that of Shanghai and later of the Mirrer minyan, where the Torah of Rav Yeruchom Levovitz and Rav Chatzkel Levenstein was still vibrant. He grew into a prime talmid of Rav Aharon Kotler, one of those earmarked by the architect of the Torah rebirth as a future marbitz Torah. Rav Aharon loved him, trusted him, and looked to him to transmit that which he saw.

He was a conduit. And his passing reflects sereifas bais Elokeinu.

The Mishnah in Avos (6:4) describes the ideal lifestyle of one wishing to attain Torah. Pas bamelach tocheil, one should survive by eating dry bread with salt, drinking plain water, and sleeping on the floor. Im atah oseh kein, if you will do so, the Mishnah continues, ashrecha vetov loch, you will be satisfied and will feel fulfilled.

The meforshim wonder about the phrase “im atah oseh kein.” All advice helps only if you accept and act upon it. Why would this be different?

The story is told about an extremely dejected man walking down the street, looking for an emotional lift to extricate him from his gloom. He sees a young boy delightedly sucking a lollypop, his face a picture of bliss. The man decides that if the sweet confection can bring the child such joy, it will do the same for him. He heads to a candy store and buys a huge sack of lollypops.

He sits down on a bench and unwraps a lolly. He sucks it, but nothing happens. The weight of his problems doesn’t go away. He remains just as depressed as he was before and wonders why the child appeared so happy while he feels nothing.

He posed his question to a wise man, who explained to him that candy can make people happy only if they are “living” the experience. A child’s world becomes preoccupied with sucking a lollypop. There is nothing else going on. He has no other concerns. Thus, the sweet taste brings him much joy. For an adult, who sees a world way beyond the lollypop, enjoying the simple confection brings little solace.

Im atah oseh kein conveys that it is not enough to go through the motions of being a ben Torah, eating dry bread and sleeping on the floor. You have to be oseh kein. You have to really live it. You have to be in the experience completely. Only then will the assurance of the Mishnah, ashrecha vetov loch, ring true.

Rav Chaim did it. He truly lived it.

“Kudsha Brich Hu veYisroel ve’Oraisah chad hu – Hashem and the Torah and Am Yisroel are one.” The tzaddik who dedicates his life to Torah and to serving Hashem becomes one with Kudsha Brich Hu and the Torah. Rav Chaim was such an individual. Speaking to him was like speaking to the Torah. He was a living Sefer Torah, and everyone who came in contact with him could feel that.

He was a living embodiment of the Rashi at the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai which states, “Shetihiyu ameilim baTorah.” His whole being was about Torah, about hureving in learning. Rav Chaim was a lomeid Torah lishmah, about whom Rav Meir said in Pirkei Avos, “zocheh ledvorim harbeh.” And indeed he was. “Velo od ela shekol ha’olam kulo kedai hu lo.” The whole world was worth being created just for him. And indeed it was. “Nikra reia, ahuv.” He loved everyone and was beloved by all. “Nehenin mimenu eitzah vetushia.” All who sought out proper hadrochah and advice benefited from him.

Rav Chaim’s commitment was to follow the teachings of his rebbi. He answered to a higher authority, always wondering what the rosh yeshiva would have said, before he would speak and act. He didn’t act on impulse or allow himself to be swayed by contemporary temptations. He represented for us a tangible, living link to his illustrious rebbi and his greatness. People who wanted to know how gedolim from a previous time would react to or deal with a situation knew that Rav Chaim Leib was the one to speak to.

Just a few pesukim after one of the most glorious moments since creation, when we sang Oz Yoshir, we were confronted by our eternal enemy, Amaleik.

Amaleik changes their language and dress in every generation, but their goal remains the same. They present issues that were never previously imagined and we wonder how to respond.

Amaleik counsels compromise and advises us to be softer about our beliefs. The modern-day adaptation of Amaleik’s credo of “asher korcha baderech” is ever-present. We need gedolim to stand in that derech and help us clear away that which has been placed in our way by Amaleik.

At the conclusion of the parsha (17:11), as the Torah recounts the battle with Amaleik, it tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu raised his hands. When his hands were raised, the Bnei Yisroel were victorious, but when they were lowered, the Bnei Yisroel began to lose.

The only way to effectively battle Amaleik is by the Moshe of the generation raising his hands so that all can follow him. It is by following the Moshe that we are able to withstand the temptations, guile, demagoguery and sweet words with which Amaleik entices us.

Rav Chaim was a manhig during a period when the impurity spawned by Amaleik was everywhere, all around us. Tzaddikim standing with their hands held high, waving the degel haTorah, show us how to navigate the golus.

He exhorted us to be truthful, ehrlich, modest and humble, and not to succumb to the pressures of our time. In an era when the financial motivation reigns supreme, Rav Chaim was untouched by the temptation to follow the money. Kavod and glory meant nothing to him. Kavod haTorah and the will of the Ribono Shel Olam were what dictated his every deed.

Rav Chaim taught us the mesorah and the path of Torah. He was unafraid and undaunted to be a singular voice sometimes drowned out, but never silenced, on major issues of the day, providing a source of chizuk for what is right and good.

And now we have lost that beacon.

Rav Aharon of Belz emerged from the inferno of Eastern Europe after a long and arduous escape, physically broken, bereft of his family and the bulk of his chassidus. He eventually arrived in Eretz Yisroel, and on his first Shabbos there, a crowd joined him, eager to hear Torah once again, as they had in better times.

The rebbe quoted Rashi’s words on the first posuk of Oz Yoshir: “Mikan lesechiyas hameisim min haTorah, this posuk is a source in the Torah for the ultimate techiyas hameisim.” Literally, Rashi is basing this on the Torah’s use of the future tense in portraying the shirah, “Oz yoshir,” which translates as, “Then he will sing.”

The rebbe, who had just survived unimaginable suffering, looked at the small group around him and asked, “How could Moshe Rabbeinu and the Yidden have sung shirah at a time when only one-fifth of the nation survived, as we are taught that ‘vachamushim alu’? Four-fifths of the nation did not merit redemption and died in Mitzrayim. It would seem that every survivor of the exodus was in aveilus for a loved one. How were they able to set aside their own personal mourning and rejoice with shirah?

The rebbe answered, “It must be that their emunah in techiyas hameisim was so strong that they were able to rejoice in what would yet be, to derive hope from the eventual rebirth of our people. Thus, he allegorically explained the words of Rashi: “Oz yoshir, the Jews sang shirah. How did they do that? Through emunah in techiyas hameisim.”

And so we also take heart from this parsha. The Belzer Rebbe merited to see his chassidus rise again. The Torah world saw techiyas hameisim. We’ve seen so much Hashgochah and siyata diShmaya.

“Misas tzaddikim mechaperes.” The passing of a tzaddik is equated to the offering of a korban by our people and forgives our chato’im. We have lost a solid link in our holy, golden chain stretching back to Har Sinai, going through Lakewood, Kletzk and Slabodka. We mourn the loss. At the same time, we take note of how much the world of Torah has grown since the days when Rav Chaim sat at Rav Aharon’s feet and we take a measure of solace as we await the great day of techiyas hameisim and the geulah sheleimah.



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