My son called from Cleveland with dreadful news: Rav Yankel was niftar. Oy, Rav Yankel. It was news I fervently hoped I would not have to hear. We had been davening for him for about two years, and it seemed that our tefillos were helping. He had been diagnosed with the dreaded machlah in a most severe form. Just a few weeks ago, I had been zoche to visit him, to speak with him in learning, and to bask in his holy light just like in the olden days. He looked relatively well and I came home very much encouraged that we would see a yeshuah. But Hashem had other plans.
With whom could I share this news? Who could understand this immense loss? Most people on the East Coast never heard of Rav Yankel Cohen and they can’t be blamed for it. How could they hear of him? For the last seventy years, he was a nechba el hakeilim, hidden in the Midwest in the tents of Yaakov amidst the baggage of Torah. Only recently did lomdim in the East hear of him through his shiurim on Kol Halashon. But for us, the talmidim of the Telzer Yeshiva, he was the paragon of hasmadah, of total immersion in Torah. It has been over thirty years since I have left the yeshiva, but I still use him as an example to my talmidim as to what a masmid is. He was a living Sefer Torah, the luchos themselves engraved with the vast amount of Torah he was mechadeish through sweat and toil.
No less a personage than the gadol hador, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, upon meeting Rav Yankel, expressed amazement that America could produce such an adam gadol. In his approbation to his sefer, Shaashuei Yaakov, Rav Chaim addressed him as “hagaon hagadol zokein veyosheiv beyeshiva beshkidah gedolah Rabbeinu Rav Yaakov Cohen” and expressed his brocha for a refuah sheleimah and that he merit to publish all of his writings. But alas, we were not zoche.
The hand trembles as we put pen to paper writing about him. No words can truly paint a complete picture of this adam gadol and what he meant to the yeshiva.
My memories take me back to the days when I was a young bochur in the yeshiva and Rav Yankel was a kollel yungerman. At the time, the kollel and the yeshiva had many lions who would eventually go on to become roshei yeshiva, maggidei shiur, and rabbonim. On a daily basis, you were able to hear his voice roaring, relating one of his chiddushim, bringing a proof or arguing a point.
Now I see him standing in front of the bais medrash before the rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Stein, fighting in learning with Rav Gavriel Ginsberg, Rav Dovid Barkin, and ybl”c Rav Shalom Shapiro. What a sight to behold and what an impact it made on talmidim who witnessed it.
I see a shiur klali delivered by the roshei yeshiva, either Rav Boruch Sorotzkin or Rav Mordechai Gifter. The bais medrash was packed to capacity, a majestic display of kavod haTorah. The roshei yeshiva would deliver the shiur in their fiery demeanor. Very few would interject with a kasha. But every now and then, a voice would emanate from the crowd, one of the lomdim bold enough to challenge the roshei yeshiva and perhaps engage in a heated argument. One of these voices would be the roar of the lion, Rav Yankel Cohen.
Another heartwarming sight this writer remembers is that of an elderly man sitting on the back bench of the bais medrash next to Rav Yankel, watching him and listening as he was engrossed in learning. This was Reb Eliezer (Louis) Cohen, a simple ehrliche Yid from Chicago shepping nachas from his son. He was surely entitled to this pleasure, for he was responsible for bringing him to learn in Telz. Once, while traveling through Cleveland, he stopped to daven in the yeshiva and was enchanted by what he saw, tefillah with a tremendous ruach and a seder halimud that followed with great hasmadah. He had a son who was just entering high school and he was convinced that this was the place for him.
When he came home and suggested it, the boy would hear nothing of it. He was a phenomenal athlete and was looking forward to the high school sports competition for the coming year. Reb Eliezer asked Yaakov to just try out the yeshiva for a couple of weeks, as Elul zeman in Telz started well before the beginning of the school year. The boy agreed just to please his father, but as the school year was about to start, he insisted on coming home. Reb Eliezer pleaded with him to stay, and in the process he broke down crying. Seeing how much it meant to his father, Yaakov agreed to stay…but only until Sukkos. The rest is history. He didn’t leave the yeshiva for the rest of his life.
Someone asked Rav Yankel’s younger brother, Rav Dovid Leib, a renowned gabbai tzedakah in Eretz Yisroel, in what merit his father was zoche to such a son. He answered, “My father was pure and knew only the emes. While traveling, he stopped to buy a candy bar from a vending machine. He inserted the money, and when he pulled the lever, two extra candy bars came out. He immediately took down the address of the vending company and traveled for miles on a hot summer day to return them.
When he arrived there, he told the person in charge his problem. At first, the man couldn’t understand why he was returning them. Mr. Cohen explained that the two candy bars came out without him paying for them. The man looked at him incredulously and asked, “Do you mean to tell me that you traveled all the way here just to return two candy bars?”
“How could I keep them?” said Reb Eliezer. “They are not mine and they felt like fire burning in my hand.”
The man asked, “Do you have a family?”
When he answered in the affirmative, the man went to the back of his office and brought him a whole box of candy bars to keep. This was the middas ha’emes with which Rav Yankel was raised. He spent his entire life seeking the emes (heard from Rabbi Nosson Joseph).
It was said that as a bochur, he learned 20 hours a day. He would kler chakiros sometimes with three, four, or even five tzedodim, and he would bring proofs to each side. Then he would record in writing his extensive chiddushim, the fruits of his labor. He had chiddushim in every facet of Torah. As Rav Getzel Fried wrote in a letter printed in Shaashuei Yaakov, one can learn from Rav Yankel how every detail of Torah – even the smallest he’arah – is of vast importance. To him, it made no difference if it was a p’shat in one of the difficult sugyos in Shas or a diyuk in the siddur or a Rashi or Onkelos in Chumash. They were all paramount, all given to us by Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
His very presence in the bais medrash in and of itself was an inspiration to all who were around him. This writer was zoche to learn with him bechavrusah, but of course this word – bechavrusah – is inaccurate. It was more like a talmid learning side-by-side with his rebbi. He would squeeze the meaning out of every word in the Gemara and his face lit up every time he said a geshmake p’shat. I was also zoche to be reprimanded by him a couple of times, but because it was done with humility and emes, I appreciated it. Sitting next to him on the dais of the yeshiva dinner was also an experience. Full disclosure: I don’t mind relaxing a bit at these affairs at the end of a long day with some light talk, but with Rav Yankel, it was always a kasha on the masechta being learned or a vort on the parsha.
When he was a yungerman, Rav Yankel and his rebbetzin visited his parents in Chicago for Yom Tov. On Erev Yom Tov, most people are busy with preparations, running around to take care of last-minute shopping and other errands. Understandably, the bais medrash of Telz Chicago was empty on Erev Yom Tov, except for one seat occupied by Rav Yankel, who was engrossed in learning. The pay phone in the hallway rang and a young boy picked up the phone. It was the rebbetzin asking to speak to her husband.
“It’s getting close to Yom Tov and it’s time to come home,” the boy heard her saying. Rav Yankel answered in all earnestness, “But the bais medrash is empty. Somebody has to hold up the place with everyone gone. I’ll wait till someone else arrives and then I’ll come home right away” (heard from Rabbi Yehuda Goldberg).
One gets the feeling that he was one of the pillars of Torah that held up the world.
There is another attribute of Rav Yankel for which I am most grateful. He was the mashgiach and nosei venosein in the yeshiva, constantly speaking to bochurim in learning. Serving in this capacity, he was an incredible listener. Undoubtedly, he had much to say about any topic one came to discuss with him, but when you came to him with your own p’shat or chiddush, he was intently focused on what you had to say. If your explanation needed a little bit more clarity, he would guide you to finding it. And if one was totally off the mark, he would point it out in a bakavodike way so that you didn’t feel foolish or intimidated by him.
Even with age, his kochos and stamina in learning were not weakened in the slightest. As the Torah says about Moshe Rabbeinu, “his eye had not dimmed and his vigor had not diminished” (Devorim 34:7). Unfortunately, it had been decreed from Above that he be taken from us.
When he was diagnosed, the family was told that he had three months to live. But like Moshe Rabbeinu, the Malach Hamovess could not overpower him, for he remained engrossed in learning and maintained his simchas haTorah throughout the entire ordeal.
In the introduction to his sefer, Rav Yankel writes:
“Truthfully, I never aspired to publish chiddushei Torah that Hashem graced me with, as the world is full of seforim of all flavors. Although many encouraged me in this endeavor, I desisted from doing so. But now that, lo Aleichem, it has been decreed that I fight for my life, I said that perhaps now is an opportune time for this. Perhaps Hashem will have mercy upon me in the merit of publishing my chiddushei Torah and send me a refuah sheleimah.
“And during these days, when I am constantly in and out of the hospital, I see more than ever how fortunate I am to delight in the words of Torah. I wouldn’t fully realize how great Hashem’s chesed is upon me had I not seen the situation of the other patients there. The light can only be recognized from amidst the darkness. One of the doctors in the hospital noticed the spirit of happiness that I was in. The next day, she told us that she was astonished at my happiness that went against the laws of nature. All of this is only because of the great power of Torah, about which Dovid Hamelech says, “Had not Your Torah been my preoccupation, I would have perished in my affliction” (Tehillim 119:92).
The Gemara says that when the neshomah of a tzaddik ascends to heaven, Hakadosh Boruch Hu rejoices with it like one rejoices with his new kallah (Moed Koton 25b). One can only imagine the immense simcha in Shomayim when Rav Yankel entered into the upper world. The roshei yeshiva, Rav Elya Meir Bloch, Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz, Rav Mordechai Gifter, Rav Boruch Sorotzkin, and Rav Chaim Stein, and all of his rabbeim and deceased chaveirim in yeshiva came out to greet him. I can see him delivering one of his brilliant chaburos up there. And I wonder if he is sitting near the great Amorah Rav Yirmiyah, known for his many intriguing shailos, sharing one of his chakiros with him.
Once, while saying Aishes Chayil on Friday night, the Chofetz Chaim stopped to explain the posuk, “Noda bashe’arim baalah beshivto im ziknei aretz – It will become known in public her husband when he sits with the elders of the land.” Who is the aishes chayil? The Torah. And her husband is the one who spends his life toiling over her.
In this world, there are great people who are not famous. They are so immersed in the world that they haven’t the time to come out and be celebrated. But when they will sit with the elders of the land up in Shomayim, the gedolim of yesteryear, there they will quickly become famous.
These words are so applicable to our rebbi, Rav Yankel.
May Rav Yankel be a meilitz yosher for his rebbetzin, who took such pride in his shteiging and was so dedicated in supporting him; for his wonderful children and grandchildren, who so loved and cherished him; and for the Telzer Yeshiva and his many talmidim, who gained so much from him.