Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

Rav Meir Zlotowitz zt”l- An Appreciation

Often times there are certain people who come into your life seemingly by accident, and then they stay there and make a profound impact on you. Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz and I made contact by phone back when I was starting out, and eventually we clicked, becoming very close. Rabbi Zlotowitz played a special role in my life. His loss is personal.

We read in this week’s parsha, “Vayiru kol ha’am ki gova Aharon” (Bamidbar 20:29). Moshe, Aharon and Elazar climbed Hor Hohor together. Aharon’s soul departed, and Moshe and Elazar returned to the encampment.

Rashi explains that when the people saw Moshe and Elazar descend from the mountain without Aharon, they asked where he was. When told that he had passed away, they refused to accept the news. “It cannot be,” they cried. How could it be that Aharon had died?

Moshe pleaded for Divine mercy and the malochim showed the people the image of the “mittah,” Aharon’s coffin, and only then did the people see and believe.

Ra’u vhe’eminu.

Rav Shmuel Berenbaum wondered how both terms can be used. Re’iyah means to see, to be able to perceive. Emunah means to believe even when you cannot see at all.

How can both be true?

The Mirrer rosh yeshiva explained that the people couldn’t conceive of the possibility that Aharon Hakohein, who had faced down the Malach Hamoves and stopped a plague, could have been defeated by the angel.

When they saw the image of the mittah, however, they finally believed that the inconceivable was reality. Aharon had left them.

It took the re’iyah for them to believe.

Motzoei Shabbos, as the news of Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz’s passing spread, many of us experienced a similar feeling. How can it be? The man of such energy, chiyus and action embodied life itself.

He was always in a perpetual state of motion, thinking, doing, talking, writing, communicating, producing, and flying back and forth to Eretz Yisroel. How could it be that he was suddenly niftar?

And then the news sunk in.

He was gone. A legend had passed.

He tread where no one had gone. The need was there, but nobody picked up on it. He published one book, a sefer in English on Megillas Esther, and with that he created and filled the need. He spent the rest of his life sensing needs and filling them.

The first book was printed as hakoras hatov to a dear departed friend. Perhaps as a reward for the great mitzvah of expressing hakoras hatov, he was rewarded with being the shliach to spawn a Torah revolution.

Many years ago, I helped him with something. He never forgot. He would often remind me of the favor and express his appreciation long after the statute of limitations had expired. It was embarrassing how thankful he was about it, but that’s how he was. He was fiercely loyal, a great friend whom you could always depend on for good advice, insightful banter, and, most importantly, old-fashioned friendship.

I would have loved to publish a few books over the years, but I never asked him, because that friendship was more important to me than anything, and I didn’t want him to think that it was a means to an end.

He insisted that I call him Uncle Meir, and I happily complied. It didn’t feel corny or trite. It felt right. To me, he was like a favorite uncle, who encourages and advises and is always there to share a laugh. He was a dear friend, a cherished mentor, and a loyal, passionate advocate. I shall miss him.

He enriched the lives of English-speaking Jews everywhere. He spawned entire genres that had never previously existed.

When he finished a major project, there was the thought, “Okay, he’s done with that. Now what is he going to do?” And just when you thought that there were no new vistas to conquer, he proved you wrong.

Just this past Shabbos, I was learning the parsha in the Chumash Mikraos Gedolos he had published. You could be forgiven for thinking, “Why would he publish yet another Mikraos Gedolos? There are so many out there.” But just as his siddur changed the way people daven and many wouldn’t think of davening from anything else, as the ArtScroll siddur is the siddur in most every shul around the world, and just as his Chumash is the Chumash of choice wherever you go, that Mikraos Gedolos opens new vistas, and learning from it is a unique pleasure.

What he did for the siddur and Chumash, he did for Mishnayos, Gemara, Medrash and so many seforim. He used his crystal sharp mind to produce clean, neat, beautiful seforim, with just the right fonts and a perfect layout so that the words can jump off the page and into your heart.

There is an ArtScroll Chumash for students and for scholars, and a groundbreaking peirush on Mishnayos in English and Hebrew. There are siddurim with translations and without, and if you like the translation under the words, there’s such a siddur for you too, as well as one for beginners and those who have been davening for decades. There is a Tehillim for study, and for reciting, and there is even one in large type which makes it easier to reach out to Hashem. The Gemara was a revolution of its own. Now a standard wherever you go, the blue Schottenstein edition is as at home in Rav Elyashiv’s house as in a Satmar Bais Medrash.

He published biographies of great people as nobody else previously had. He produced novels and stories for kids, books of chizuk and inspiration, halacha seforim everyone could relate to, and peirushim on Chumash. He popularized the study and knowledge of Jewish history and thought, allowing generations to learn about and appreciate Yiddishkeit. For a good book, you didn’t have to go to the library anymore and the biographies you read weren’t limited to those of presidents and secular leaders. Look at your bookshelves and see how many ArtScroll books are there. Look at the variety and thank Rabbi Zlotowitz for making all that possible. And it’s not only ArtScroll books you have to thank him for. Because of him, the world of frum publishing is wide open, and there are many other publishing houses following the path he paved.

Before the light bulb lit up in his head, our world was poorer and darker. Books came out sporadically, and even then, they appealed to a limited audience.

He will be remembered as many things, gauged by his incredible impact. Who can even estimate how much Torah, halacha, and holy information and inspiration he unleashed?

But to me, it was much simpler than that.

Two years ago, we were both in Yerushalayim for Shavuos. I went to visit him at the Plaza Hotel, where he always stayed. We were sitting outside and it was boiling hot. The temperature was up in the nineties. I removed my jacket.

Uncle Meir looked at me pointedly. “You should wear a jacket no matter how hot it is, even if no one is around. My children have never seen me without a jacket and tie.”

I appreciated the comment, even the inherent mussar, because it was about so much more than it seemed. It wasn’t fashion advice. It was life advice.

Know what you represent, know what you are, and know what you can do.

As much as he was Klal Yisroel’s rebbi in Torah, he was a teacher in what it means to live a life fulfilling a shlichus, a sense of mission. He portrayed the gift of being able to understand and follow the messages sent from Heaven. He was all about hearing the call to action and coming forward.

He was larger than life, yet when you sat with him, he was the classic regular guy, enjoyable, pleasant, funny and normal.

The mission and ordinary life were one to him. He wasn’t heavy, grim and so focused that he was unable to see anything past his goal. Quite the opposite. He had a tremendous ayin tova for people doing something for the klal and for anyone who felt charged with a shlichus.

The jacket was a sign of the esteem he felt towards that shlichus. He had the vision and heart of a marbitz Torah within the cloak of prestige and professionalism of a corporate giant. He ran ArtScroll with precision and efficiency, but its core product was the Torah itself. His eyes lit up when he spoke about the exceptional talmidei chachomim on his staff, the writers and the editors, his kollel, as he liked to call it.

He hated the word “visionary,” preferring the storyline that he had simply taken the opportunity when it arose and never looked back. It wasn’t a plan. He was a young yeshivaman, a talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein who had a printing business. He made wedding invitations and brought joy to ba’alei simcha.

If ever the famous story with the Netziv is applicable, it is to Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. The Netziv festively celebrated the printing of his sefer and recalled how close he had come to being a shoemaker. He described what his life might have looked like being an honest, decent shoemaker providing quality footwear to grateful customers, feeling like a success. And then, he imagined going up to Shomayim after 120 years and the Heavenly Court challenging him, “Where is the Meromei Sodeh? Where is the Ha’amek Shaila? Where are the classic seforim that you could have produced?” And he would have had no clue what they were talking about.

Reb Meir was that upstanding, respected invitation printer who was, by all accounts, a good Jew. And then, one day, he found out that he was destined for so much more. And he never forgot that. He spent the rest of his life on his Meromei Sodeh.

His jacket was always on, ready and waiting for marching orders, a shliach ready to act.

I remember a story he once told me.

It was the day of the horrific, shocking sentence of Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. We had been expecting a much lighter sentence, or a complete reprieve, and then the awful news of the cruel verdict came down.

We were numb. We had a rally planned for that night in Boro Park and didn’t know how to handle it. Amazingly, an estimated ten thousand people attended, joining to share the tza’ar and to daven. I was asked to speak, but I was literally at a loss as to what to say.

Reb Meir called me when he heard about the verdict. We discussed it a bit. I told him about the rally and that I would have to speak. “Let me tell you a fascinating story. Say it at the rally.” He told me a tale he’d heard from Rav Yaakov Eliezer Schwartzman about a bochur learning in Kletzk who went to ask his rosh yeshiva, Rav Aharon Kotler, for a brocha that he be found unfit for Russian military service.

He was panicking, and he told the rosh yeshiva that he was traveling to another town, an hour away, where he thought he might find documents that could help him avoid the forced conscription.

Rav Aharon gave him the brocha.

The next day, the bochur went to take the train to the other town. He had no clue what was awaiting him there. All he had was hope. As the train started steaming up and moving a bit, he looked out the window and saw Rav Aharon running frantically from car to car and banging on the windows. He was calling out, “Bochur’l, bochur’l, vu bist du? Where are you?”

The bochur opened his window and yelled out, “Rebbe, rebbe, vos iz? What is it?”

Rav Aharon shouted to him over the sounds of the train, the station and the people, “I just received a telegram that papers are waiting for you in the shtetel to which you are headed. Bochur’l, ihr zolt nit zorgen. Don’t be worried! Your papers are waiting for you.”

The train station was an hour away from the yeshiva. Rav Aharon had run for an hour to reach the station and then an hour back to the yeshiva to spare the bochur the uncertainty about what awaited him.

The papers were there, but Rav Aharon wanted the young man to know right away, so as to remove the pain and anxiety a bit sooner. He ran for an hour each way so that he could tell the bochur, “Bochur’l, ihr zolt nit zorgen.”

“Sholom Mordechai,” I told the crowd that night, “ihr zolt nit zorgen. The yeshuah will come.” (May we indeed see it b’chush real soon.) That was the punch line, a hopeful message and word of chizuk provided by Rabbi Zlotowitz to Sholom Mordechai and the distraught people who had gathered.

A person who is meshameish talmidei chachomim has that sense of how to react as he knows what is suitable and proper. Reb Meir was a quintessential meshameish chachomim. His relationship with his rabbeim defined him. He spoke with Rav Dovid Feinstein shlit”a every day, sometimes more than once, and he traveled with the rosh yeshiva on summer vacation.

People speak of his charisma and the force of his personality. What drew others to him and what made time spent with him so pleasant was his genuineness. He saw himself as a regular person with a big shlichus, it never went to his head. He worked hard at keeping relationships real. Invariably, he was among the first, along with his wonderful wife, to show up to our simchos, a regular guy with all the time in the world to share in someone else’s joy. He was a friend to my children as well, always with a kind word, a nice thought, and a reason to smile and be optimistic. They felt close to him and appreciated his company.

For a time, his son and mine were in the same class at Mesivta of Long Beach. He would call regularly to let me know that his son had told him that my son was doing well. For years, he would ask about that son. “How’s he doing? How’s your son who was in Chaim Chaikel’s class? I have a special interest in him,” he would say. He had a rare sense of refinement and friendship.

He loved a good joke and made those less accomplished than him feel like equals.

He figured out the crucial distinction between taking yourself seriously and taking what you represent seriously.

Once, several years ago, he called me.

“Pinny, you ruined my third shirt this year. It’s enough,” he said.

He explained, “I don’t like the ink you’re using for the Yated. It’s cheap and it comes off on my fingers and shirt. Change it.”

Then he said, “If it happens again, you’re paying for my dry cleaning,” and he burst out laughing.

That was Reb Meir – the demand for excellence and perfection in presenting Torah, the respect for those vehicles that reflected its ideology and truth, and the very human joke that followed.

We learn in this week’s parsha that when Aharon Hakohein died, “Vayivku oso kol bais Yisroel – All of Yisroel, men, women and children, mourned his passing” (Bamidbar 20:29).

Reb Meir, you made us better people. You brought us together because you lived bigger. You elevated us by making Torah accessible and beautiful, and connected us to its pages. You were a national treasure uniting us in the shared joy of Torah.

Yes, you were Uncle Meir, a dear friend with whom we laughed and cried. You were a student of the human condition and so greatly contributed to our world. You were a giant.

And so we weep, all of us, scholars and students, the erudite and the unlearned, adults and teenagers, baalei teshuva and FFBs. You gave us life itself.

Your name, Meir, means to illuminate. Meir, you showed us how a regular guy can light up the world with the light of Torah, clarity in halacha and hashkofah, the light of your smile and personality and kindness. Meir, you were brilliant in so many ways and used that brilliance to light up tens of thousands of lives.

A light has been extinguished.

Yehi zichro boruch.

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