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Rav Meir Zlotowitz Zt”l- Upon His Shloshim

It’s hard to believe that thirty days have passed already. But then again, it’s just as hard to believe that Rav Meir Yaakov ben Rav Aharon Zlotowitz zt”l, who redefined the Jewish publishing industry over the past forty years, is no longer leading the revolution that he began. On Tuesday evening, 2 Av/July 25, family, friends, colleagues and admirers of Rabbi Zlotowitz gathered to pay respect to this innovator of Torah dissemination.

After the family commemorated the occasion with a Siyum Hashas, which was completed by some 240 participants, the tzibbur had the rare honor to hear the venerated rosh yeshiva of Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim, Rav Dovid Feinstein, deliver divrei hesped for an individual with whom he spoke almost daily. Rabbi Zlotowitz, being a talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, merited a special relationship with Rav Dovid. As his son, Rabbi Gedalia Zlotowitz, mentioned, although his father was a very independent thinker and often had his own view of matters, he was completely mevatel himself to the opinion of his rosh yeshiva, Rav Dovid.

Rav Dovid almost never speaks at public venues, yet he made an exception to speak in honor of the one he deemed “the rebbi of Klal Yisroel,” explaining that Reb Meir was responsible in large part for the incredible increase in the amount of Torah learned in the four decades since he began ArtScroll.

In addition, Rav Dovid noted that although the levaya fell on Rosh Chodesh, which precluded the delivery of hespeidim, there are lessons to be learned from the dates of the petirah and the shloshim.

“The petirah fell when the krias haTorah was Parshas Korach. We know that Korach denied the truthfulness of the Torah of Moshe. Reb Meir’s mission was to validate the Toras emes of Moshe Rabbeinu. Today, we are in the week of Parshas Devorim, when we read ‘bei’eir es haTorah hazos – Moshe explained this Torah.’ Rashi notes that it means that he explained it in the seventy languages. This, of course, is most fitting for Reb Meir, whose life work involved translating the Torah into many languages to make it accessible to the public. In addition, Moshe Rabbeinu taught Torah for forty years, and Reb Meir, too, spent about that amount of time spreading Torah.”

Rav Dovid then related a beautiful explanation of what Chazal say in Maseches Shabbos (153a) that from the hesped of a person we can see if the person is a ben Olam Haba. The reason for this is because when it comes time for the person to be judged, the Ribono Shel Olam says that malochim cannot sit in judgment of man. The Torah was not given to malachei hashareis who dwell in Shomayim. The Torah is for man, who lives in olam hazeh. Therefore, the malachei hashareis, who are not subject to the nisyonos of olam hazeh, cannot sit in judgment. Rather, the people of the generation decide, and then Hakadosh Boruch Hu validates their decision.

Rav Dovid mentioned that although Reb Meir’s main function was the upkeep of the financial aspects of ArtScroll, nevertheless, he can be called a melameid Torah, because without his wherewithal, the numerous projects of the writers and the staff could not continue. Therefore, we can say that sifsosav dovevos, his lips, too, will keep moving. He, too, can shep nachas from the 24 hours a day of non-stop limud haTorah that his work facilitates.

As has been widely reported, Rabbi Zlotowitz began ArtScroll as a chesed shel emes, when he decided to write a peirush on Megillas Esther in memory of a friend who passed away at a young age. “The Gemara in Maseches Sotah (14a) tells us that the Torah begins with gemillus chassodim and ends with gemillus chassodim,” said the rosh yeshiva. “It begins with Hashem creating clothing for Adam and Chava and ends with Hashem burying Moshe. For this reason, we can understand why the Torah of Reb Meir remains. Through chesed, one is zoche to Toras chesed.”

In his concluding remarks, Rav Dovid asked if the ongoing ArtScroll project will be “called on Reb Meir’s name.” In Sotah (13b), the Gemara tells us that if someone begins a project and does not finish it, and someone else comes and completes it, then “it is called on the name of the second person.”

“Since Rav Meir did not complete the entire project, and it will be completed by Reb Gedalia, does that mean that it is not called Reb Meir’s project?”

To answer this, Rav Dovid introduced what Chazal say on the posuk in Melochim I (11:21), which states, “And Haddad heard in Mitzrayim that Dovid rested with his ancestors and that Yoav died…” The Gemara in Maseches Bava Basra (116a) questions why regarding Dovid the posuk uses another expression, which just indicates that he died, while by Yoav it specifically mentions his death. The Gemara answers that regarding Dovid, who left behind a child, it merely mentions that he rested. His body was no longer able to continue, so it ceased to function. But he did not experience death, since he lived on through his son, Shlomo. By Yoav, who did not leave a son, his demise was described as death.

“Although Reb Meir did not see the completion of the entire ArtScroll project, he left a capable son, Gedalia, who has his father’s genes. We wish that Meir will see nachas through Gedalia, and as him name suggests, Meir will become gadol, bigger, through him. And this goes for the entire ArtScroll family, not just the producers, but the users, too.”

After Rav Dovid completed his words, Reb Zvi Ryzman, a friend of Reb Meir and a dedicator of several ArtScroll volumes, was presented to make a public bracha of Shehecheyanu upon the release of his sefer on hilchos aveilus titled Rotz KaTzvi.

Rav Yissocher Frand, the next maspid, reminisced about the time he first received ArtScroll’s first publication, Reb Meir’s peirush on Megillas Esther. “I remember thinking, ‘This is great! A peirush based on Chazal, concise, and in English.’ I was not aware at the time that this would change the face of the Jewish world. And this is not hyperbole.”

Rav Frand went on to say that the first two publications, that of Megillas Esther and Megillas Rus, leave an especially pertinent takeaway message. When Mordechai spoke to Esther concerning the need for her to approach Achashveirosh to save the Yidden, he declared, “For if you will be silent at this time, relief and salvation will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s household will be lost.” The words of Mordechai were that it is not a mere coincidence that you were put in the position you are in. You have a mission in life, your moment in history, and it is not a secret. If you fail to take the lead, Hashem has other ways to save his nation. But you will fade into obscurity. There will be no Megillas Esther. Perhaps it will be a Megillas Rochel. There will not be thousands of girls named for you. You will have failed in your mission.

“Rabbi Zlotowitz had an idea, but he could have easily dismissed it. ‘I print invitations; I’m not a mechaber of seforim.’ The Ribono Shel Olam knew that there was a need for ArtScroll, and he called, ‘Meir, Meir,’ to which he answered, ‘Hineini!’ He rose to the challenge and created the revolution of the ArtScroll Shas, and he left his mark.

“We find a similar idea in Megillas Rus. Boaz approached his uncle, Tov, and asked him to redeem the fields of Elimelech and marry Rus. The posuk, however, refers to him as Ploni Almoni, the quintessential Mr. X or John Doe. Why didn’t the posuk use his name? The answer,” said Rav Frand, “is that he did not seize the moment. He had a chance to be the progenitor of Moshiach, but he let it slip away. Thus, he is forever doomed to obscurity and remains Ploni Almoni.”

At the end of Megillas Koheles (12:9), the posuk states, “Veyoser shehayah Koheles chochom od limeid daas es ha’am ve’izein vechiker tikein mesholim harbei.” The Gemara in Yevamos (21a) explains the word ve’izein to mean that until Shlomo came, the Torah was like a pot without handles, until Shlomo fashioned handles for it. The Medrash gives a moshol of a well that had delicious refreshing water, but there was no bucket with which to draw the water, until a wise man fastened ropes to each other and was able to draw the water and quench everyone’s thirst. This was ArtScroll in the very words of Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. “It is fulfilling a role of quenching the thirst of people for traditional, accurate and un-editorialized Torah literature.” There were those who were thirsty, but couldn’t drink. He made Bavli accessible to the rabim. As Rav Sheftel Nueberger stated, “Ravina and Rav Ashi greeted him in the Yeshiva Shel Ma’alah.”

“I know a ninety-year old man who is quite sickly. He sits in the bais medrash with a blanket to keep warm. And he has his ArtScroll Yoma Gemara. And there are thousands like him.”

Rav Frand ended his powerful remarks with a p’shat from Rav Yitzchok Volozhiner. The Gemara in Bava Basra (75a) states that the elders of the generation said, “The face of Moshe is like the sun, and the face of Yehoshua is like the moon. Woe is to us such an embarrassment! Woe is to us such a disgrace!” This seems a bit odd. Why would they disparage Yehoshua at the time that he took charge of Klal Yisroel? Imagine if a rosh yeshiva or rebbe or manhig passed away and the next generation announced, “His successor is not a manhig!”

Rav Itzele explains that the elders were not referring to Yehoshua. They realized that Moshe was a unique human being and no one could be like him. When he was born, the entire house filled with light. Thus, they understood that they could not be like him. But Yehoshua was one of them. They, too, could have been like Yehoshua, and they expressed their consternation for their own failure.

No one asks why we do not end up like Rav Moshe Shapiro zt”l. We do not have his moach or his neshamah. But we all could have been Reb Meir. He was a regular guy, who enjoyed a good joke. But he had a mission, and the perseverance, patience and tenacity, and he changed Klal Yisroel in the twentieth century. We must learn from him to be focused like a laser on our mission. Don’t take your eye off the ball. Make your mark.

Rav Dovid Cohen, mara d’asra of the host, Congregation Gvul Yaavetz, began his remarks by reminding all that the Gemara in Yoma (83b) discusses that the Tanna Rav Meir held that a name has significance. Thus, our Rav Meir was a true “me’ir.” He enlightened the world with his translation. Yet, in Maseches Kusim, we learn that when the Yevonim had the Torah translated, there were three days of darkness. This is the choshech of Yavan. So, it seems that translating Torah is considered a negative thing.

The answer is that the reason Chazal disapproved of the translation of the Yevonim is because it caused a disconnect between Torah Shebiksav and Torah Shebaal Peh. When people would read the Torah in Greek, they cut away this connection. As a way of example, we all know the Vilna Gaon has a remez to the words of Chazal that ayin tachas ayin means to pay mammon, money. The Gaon says that we can explain that in place of an eye, we must take tachas ayin, the letters under, or preceding, those of the word ayin, which spell out kesef, or money. This type of drasha is only possible in the original Lashon Hakodesh and not in Greek.

Translation is choshech if it disconnects Torah Shebiksav from Torah Shebaal Peh. Reb Meir’s translation, on the other hand, was “me’ir,” it gave light, since it reinforced the connection between them.

Rav Cohen then explained the remarkable aspect of the pirsum, or fame, that Rabbi Zlotowitz achieved. He explained a posuk (Shmuel II 7:9) in a most unique way, bringing out the point that when one creates hashro’as haShechinah, Hashem repays the person with publicity. The posuk states that as payback for setting in motion the building of the Bais Hamikdosh, Hashem told Dovid that He will make him “a big name like the big people in the world.” The Gemara in Maseches Pesachim (117b) says that this refers to the chasimah of the bracha of the haftorah, which ends off “Magein Dovid.” The Maharsha in Sanhedrin (107) explains that when Dovid asked why we do not say Elokei Dovid in Shemoneh Esrei, his intent was that he was promised that his name will be known, just like the names of the avos.

Rav Cohen explained that the Ramban in Shemos tells us that the purpose of the Mishkan was to re-create the hashroas haShechinah in the Mishkan just like it existed in the home of the avos. Thus, just like the hashroas haShechinah of the avos gave them a big name, so too, the hashroas haShechinah created by Dovid when he prepared the Bais Hamikdosh will accomplish the same.

“Nowadays,” said Rav Cohen, the Shechinah resides in the Torah because “ein l’Hakadosh Boruch Hu ba’olamo ela daled amos shel halacha bilvad.” Thus, those who spread Torah and create hashroas haShechinah merit having great pirsum.

Rav Cohen ended by recalling that Rabbi Zlotowitz presented him with a hand-bound copy of the first ArtScroll Megillas Esther. At the time, Rabbi Cohen offered him encouragement, telling him how great it was. “For many years, Rabbi Zlotowitz always thanked me, since he said that if I would have had any slight mannerism of derision, he would have dropped out. This middah of hakoras hatov remained with him many years later.”

Rav Hillel David, mara d’asra of Khal Shaarei Torah off Flatbush, spoke of the zerizus that Rabbi Zlotowitz displayed. He quoted the posuk in Mishlei (22:29) which states, “Chazisa ish mahir bimlachto lifnei melochim yisyatzav – Do you see a man diligent in his work? He shall stand before kings.” The Malbim explains the difference between the verb omad (ayin, mem, daled) and yatzev (yud, tzadi, vais) as follows: When someone is in a standing position, but not for any particular purpose, the verb omad is used. For standing with purpose, the verb yatzev is used.

“There was no one more mahir bimlachto than Reb Meir. When he thought of a project, he immediately saw that it got done and found the right people to do it. He wanted a Chumash with his favorite peirush, Rabbeinu Bachya, on the page, so he saw that it became a fact.”

“He had a zechus that others did not. Rav Yisroel Salanter wanted to translate the Talmud, but according to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, he couldn’t find the right person to do it. There were many naysayers for the Hebrew translation, but he was able to get it done.

“This was his mahir bimlachto. And he was able to stand with purpose before melochim, man malki rabbonon. He was a nichnas veyotzei by Rav Moshe Feinstein. When he presented Rav Elyashiv with a new volume, Rav Elyashiv would comment on how many more were needed. There is a picture of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman learning from the Schottenstein Yerushalmi. He was learning with a chavrusah when he had a kushya. The chavrusah saw the kushya in the notes and showed it to Rav Aharon Leib. This is how he stood with purpose before the kings of Torah.”

Rav Chaim Yisroel Weinfeld, mara d’asra of Khal Lev Avrohom, where Rabbi Zlotowitz davened each Shabbos, quoted Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler as saying that although people say that “time heals all wounds,” this is untrue. For this reason, when we comfort a mourner, we say, “HaMakom yenacheim eschem. Hashem should console you.” Only Hashem, not time, can accomplish this. This is why Yaakov did not accept consolation for Yosef, despite the long span of time that he was missing. Hashem only provides comfort for the dead, and no amount of time can accomplish this without Hashem doing it.

Rav Weinfeld added that this is the reason we say, “Besoch aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim.” Just like our mourning over the Bais Hammikdosh will only end in a magical way, so too, we wish the mourners the strength and courage to continue with life until Hashem grants them their nechamah.

The final speaker of the evening was Rabbi Nosson Scherman, co-editor of ArtScroll, who Rabbi Zlotowitz drafted to write the overviews for the publications. Rabbi Scherman recalled how he would begin each day by bringing Reb Meir a cup of coffee, and they would speak for a few minutes over coffee before beginning their day. Turning to Rabbi Zlotowitz’s son, Gedalia, Rabbi Scherman tearfully said, “Tomorrow morning, Gedalia, I will bring you a coffee, and don’t say it is not bakavodik.”

Rabbi Scherman told a story that he heard from Rav Avrohom Trop, son of Rav Naftoli Trop, rosh yeshiva of Radin, who contracted typhus as a young man in his twenties. The local medical practitioner gave him hours to live, and Rav Avrohom’s mother asked his friends who were tending to him to visit the Chofetz Chaim to intercede in the Heavens on her son’s behalf.

When they arrived, they informed the Chofetz Chaim of Rav Avrohom’s grave condition and he began talking to the Almighty. “His grandfather would close his business to go collecting for yeshivos in need. How can You take away his grandchild when the zaide did so much for You?” They returned to their friend, and as they entered, his fever had broken.

“Ribono Shel Olam, I ask You: How can you take Reb Meir away so young? I’m not referring to years, but in spirit, in mind, in accomplishment, in imagination, in his drive to do more!”

At the end of Melochim II (23:20), the posuk speaks about Binayahu ben Yehoyada, describing him as “rav peolim mekavtzel, hu hikah shnei ariel Moav.” The Gemara in Brachos (18b) explains that rav peolim mekavtzel refers to the fact that he increased and gathered workers for Torah. Hu hikah shnei ariel Moav refers to the fact that he had no equal, not in the first Bais Hamikdosh and not in the second, a period of 830 years. He was ben ish chai. Although his body was physically dead, he was alive. He had no equal.

“There was no one like Reb Meir. He authored fifteen seforim, including the peirush on Bereishis, which is a masterpiece. Then he no longer had time. But more than two thousand titles were published. At thirty-two years old, he increased and gathered for Torah.”

The posuk in Amos (8:9) states, “Veheiveisi hashemesh batzaharayim – I have brought the sun (to set) in the afternoon.” The Gemara in Moed Koton (25b) states that Rav Yitzchok ben Elazar quoted this posuk when Rav Yochanan died. Many ask that this posuk seems to indicate a tragedy when someone is taken before his time. Rav Yochanan, however, lived a long life. According to some, he was ninety when he died, and others say he was one hundred years old. The Rambam indicates that he was even older. So how can it be described as “the sun setting in the afternoon”? The answer, suggested Rabbi Scherman, is that although Rav Yochanan was old in years, he was still fresh until the last day. Talmud Yerushalmi and Talmud Bavli are filled with quotes from Rav Yochanan, Reish Lokish and Rav Elazar.

“Reb Meir spent two months in the hospital, yet he remained active until his last day. On Erev Shabbos, the day before his petirah, he called the office. He had ideas. He was fresh, vibrant, imaginative and innovative. He recruited staff to support the work. He was visionary, and it would never have happened without him. He pushed us to go beyond ourselves, and he drove himself even harder.”

Rabbi Scherman told a story of a rov who went on a visit to Prince Edward Island, the smallest province in Canada, which has a total of fifty Jews living there. The rov found a Jewish farmer, and as they were speaking, another Jewish person, who lived at the other end of the island, came by. He was the only islander who kept kosher, and he heard that a rabbi was visiting, so he came by with some kosher snacks. Then he told the farmer, “I brought you the book.” It was an ArtScroll Gemara, which they learned together on the phone from opposites ends of the island twice a week.

Rabbi Scherman pointed out that Reb Meir’s levaya was held on Sunday of Parshas Chukas. On the words “zos chukas haTorah,” the Targum says, “Duh gezeiras Oraisah. This is the decree against the Torah.” The Magein Avrohom (580:8) states that there is a minhag to fast on Friday of Parshas Chukas. The reason for the fast is that twenty-four wagonloads of Gemaros were burned in Paris, for which the Maharam M’Rotenburg wrote a Kinnah. Yet, the taanis was not established on the day of the month, but rather on the day of the week. The reason, says the Magein Avrohom, is because they asked a she’ailas chalom as to why it happened, and the answer they received was, “Zos chukas haTorah – Duh gezeiras Oraisah.” This indicated that the tragedy was connected to the kriah of the week, and it was a gezeirah against the Torah.

“Yet, in this parsha,” said Rabbi Scherman, “we also read about the death of Aharon, where Moshe dresses Elazar, his son, who would succeed him as kohein gadol. He left a memalei makom, a son who filled his place. And Reb Meir, too, left someone to carry on his work.”

Rabbi Scherman concluded that we must learn from Reb Meir that “ein dovor omeid bifnei haratzon.” One can have the ambition to accomplish great things.

Yehi zichro boruch.