For the close friends and broader family who are trying desperately to make sense of the tragedy, it will also take considerable time to organize their thoughts and come to grips with this life-changing event.
A very well-respected and beloved askan who heads an international organization commented to me during the shivah that in his fifty-five years of life he has never experienced such pain and he has never had such a hard time coping with something so life-altering as Shlomie’s petirah.
A world-renowned Torah philanthropist commented to me just yesterday that when he heard the heartfelt tefillos of Shlomie’s son Reb Aharon at the amud, it simply could not register with him that Shlomie was no longer among the living.
“He was so full of life,” he commnetd, “that it is hard to imagine a world without Shlomie.”
What is it about Shlomie’s petirah that has rattled so many people? Why is it that people find themselves intermittently walking in a daze or simply breaking out in tears at random times during the day just simply thinking about this towering figure? How could one person have such a sustained emotional effect on so many of us, and ultimately what lessons can we learn from this “larger than life” neshomah?
I am reminded of the pesukim that talk about how the brothers sold Yosef Hatzaddik into slavery and then tried to convince their father Yaakov that he had been ripped apart by a wild animal. Chazal tell us that Yaakov Avinu would not be consoled, for as Rashi points out from the Medrash, “One cannot accept consolation on a person that is still alive, because only on a person who has died is it decreed that it will slowly be forgotten from the heart, but not if someone is yet alive.”
The Ramban goes a step further by stating that Yaakov Avinu could not be comforted, for he considered Yosef’s “death” to be a severe punishment intended for him.
I would like to suggest that these same two dynamics are taking place here as well. Allow me to explain.
On that fateful Friday afternoon when the news spread like wildfire that Shlomie was niftar, a small part of each of us that loved him so dearly and was connected to him in some way passed away as well. Yet, over these past few weeks, we have all come to realize that the reverse has also taken place and that a small part of Shlomie is still alive within each and every one of us.
Therein lies the difficulty and the challenge.
As was the case by Yaakov Avinu, we cannot seem to be comforted, because a part of Shlomie still lives on within each of our lives through the lessons, guidance and interaction that we had with him. How we react to these feelings and memories will be the litmus test of whether or not we will ultimately be somewhat comforted.
The same holds true if we take heed to what the Ramban is telling us. If we view the untimely petirah of our beloved friend and mentor as “derech ha’olam,” that this is the way of the world, then we have squandered a valuable opportunity to better ourselves and at the same time bring zechuyos to his holy neshomah. It is a message that is tailor-made for each and every one of us with our own specific and unique tafkid and takanos to undertake.
The conflicting paths in life that we are presented with on a daily basis and our choice to sometimes take the path of least resistance are labeled as “cognitive dissonance.” Yet, when something so earth-shattering takes place such as the petirah of such a vibrant man in the prime of his life, with a growing mishpacha and at the apex of his chessed activities, it behooves us to contemplate what personal message we are being sent.
In the next few paragraphs, I would like to relate some stories and vignettes that were shared with the family and discussed amongst friends over the past few weeks. From them, I believe we can glean some of the special attributes that the niftar was endowed with, as well as contemplate how we can introduce some additional component of these middos into our own lives.
NOSEI BE’OL IM CHAVEIRO
How many of us sat down to the Seder this year and before saying Kiddush contemplated the fate of another family who was less fortunate than ours? This was precisely what Shlomie did when beginning his Seder a few years back. As his son, Reb Aharon, mentioned in his divrei hesped, Shlomie was simply overcome by emotion by the fact that a certain talmid chochom had recently been niftar and his almonah and yesomim were now sitting with no one at the head of the table who was going to be able to answer the four kashos of the kinderlach.
But it didn’t stop there. Shlomie took it upon himself to set up a keren for the mishpacha, to which he surely contributed handsomely himself. More importantly, he was mezakeh many others to join him in this mitzvah. He was tenacious in his quest to make sure that this family would, at the very least, not be overwhelmed by the additional crushing burden of sustaining themselves now that the head of the household was not there for them. Incidentally, there was no seemingly obvious connection that Shlomie had with this family prior to the talmid chochom’s petirah. It just tugged at his heart and he reacted to it rather than letting that feeling pass.
BECHOL LEVOVECHA, BECHOL NAFSHECHA UVECHOL ME’ODECHA
A few days before Pesach this year, Shlomie’s son, Reb Aharon, went to bake matzos in Williamsburg and davened kevosikin beforehand at the Zlutchiver Bais Medrash. After davening, a chassidishe Yid went over to him and said that he had noticed his tallis zekel and the name Gross. When he heard him saying Kaddish, he realized that he must be the son of Reb Shlomie Gross. He felt that he had to share a story with him and this is what he said: “While you do not know me and your father likely did not know me either, I did get to meet him via a chance encounter in Meah Shearim.”
He continued: “You see, my friend has an organization similar to Tomchei Shabbos with an over $2 million budget. It is based near the Zichron Moshe shtieblach and I went to visit him one day a few years ago on a visit to Eretz Yisroel.
“When I arrived, I noticed that he had just received a large shipment from the produce market. Something strange caught my eye, though. I noticed that the person unloading the box truck seemed to be a middle-aged Americanishe Yid, shvitzing profusely as he was unloading the 50-pound sacks of potatoes. I asked my friend why he had chosen to hire such an interesting choice of employee. He responded by heartily laughing and proceeded to tell me that this was actually one of the most well-respected baalei tzedakah in America today, Reb Shlomie Gross. I then turned to your father and asked him what possessed him to get all ‘worn-out’ unloading produce from this truck. His response startled me. He said that he simply loved being able to do such a mitzvah and furthermore couldn’t understand why I would even be asking such a question.”
The Yid said that the story until this point would be enough of a lesson for a lifetime, but there was an added dimension to the story that he needed to share. It seems that the mini-box truck had seen “better days” and was seemingly running on nissim alone. “Before your father left Eretz Yisroel a few days later, he dropped off a $50,000 check so that the organization could purchase a new truck and not have to worry that they would be left without their means of transportation.”
KEVIUS ITIM LATORAH AND CHINUCH HABONIM
If there was one person who defined someone who lacked “zitz fleish,” it would have been Shlomie. He was always in perpetual motion. That is how and why he was able to accomplish so much. He never tried to shirk his responsibilities to the klal and was always readily available as a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. His family attests to the fact that even during his Sunday morning“dremmel,” he would place his cell phone on his chest so that if someone needed to reach him, he would be available for them. He was the life of a simcha – his own simchos and those of his friends and family.
He brought joy to the faces of young and old alike. His annual summer fireworks display was done simply for the sheer delight he could paint on the children’s faces in his bungalow colony. His humorous side seemed spontaneous, but numerous stories that have been shared by his friends and family bear witness to the fact that he was very calculated and knew precisely which “buttons to press” and which words to say, so as to make a person feel like a “million dollars” or to simply cheer up a person who was feeling down.
Being such a well-liked individual and having such a multi-faceted personality, combined with all of the thousands of acts of chessed that Shlomie was involved in, one would think that his personal family life and his own aliyah in ruchniyus suffered. Yet, it was quite to the contrary. Rav Avrohom Schorr spoke about the sheer gevurah that Shlomie had in being able to spend 1-1/2 hours learning every morning with the same chavrusah for over 25 years despite his gregarious personality. How many of us have such a track record? This was further enhanced by the fact that no matter how late he went to bed, he was there like clock-work the next day at 6 a.m.
When Rav Eisenberg came to be menachem the family one evening during the shivah, he asked the following question of the aveilim. What chiddush did you hear about the niftar during shivah that you had not known about him until now? The response given by one of the family members was astounding: A full 80% of what they were hearing they had never heard about beforehand. That’s 80%! Simply translated, they had a loving father figure who showered them with as much time as they felt they needed, wanted and deserved, yet he still found time to do gargantuan amounts of chessed while still maintaining a thriving business and preserving his wonderful personal demeanor.
SEIVER PONIM YOFOS
Shlomie’s generosity when it came to tzedakah was legendary. He not only gave to those who asked of him, but many times searched out different individuals without them ever having asked him for help. It was not only what he gave, but the way he gave it. He did not look kindly on people who used the term “shnorrer” when describing people who collected tzedakah, be it for themselves or for mosdos haTorah. He preferred to call these fellow Yidden by the term “gabbo’ei tzedakah,” which was incidentally the same title that he gave himself. He often said that he was simply giving out money that Hashem had given to him for this precise purpose. He shunned honor and rarely accepted any honorariums.
One of the few exceptions to this was when he and his wife accepted to be guests of honor at the Telshe Riverdale Yeshiva dinner a number of years ago. Yet, even that did not sit well with him. When called upon to accept his plaque and share some remarks, he simply stated, “Thank you very much and have a good evening,” and sat down (to a standing ovation).
His trademark smile and his occasional gentle slap on the back or bear hug projected sincere caring and warmth for another Yid. He always carried around a stack of bills“just in case” someone needed money on the spot, whether it was to subtly slip a few thousand dollars into the hands of a formerly well-healed businessman who Shlomie felt had to maintain dignity at all costs, or a yungerman cancer patient who had never even heard of Shlomie Gross before and was hand-delivered a thousand dollar check one afternoon, or an individual who asked him for a two-hundred dollar donation out of the clear blue on the street and then found that a five hundred dollar check had been given to him.
It was not only the size of the donation that made the recipient feel good. It was the way in which it was presented.
Shlomie’s last Purim was spent being a “gabbai tzedakah” together with a prestigious rosh kollel from Eretz Yisroel. He dutifully went door-to-door as he had done so many times before with so many other talmidei chachomim, asking his chaveirim to be mishtateif in upholding wonderful mosdos haTorah. This is how Shlomie spent his last Purim. When he finally settled down to his seudah in Lakewood, I received a call from him. We spoke for a few moments about the kedushas hayom and the power of tefillah that are inherent in such a powerful day. I asked him how “business” went that day with the rosh kollel. He answered me that it was all kedai because of what one person gave them. I jokingly responded that I didn’t ask him about what he had given, but about what those he had gone to visit had given him. He didn’t respond to my comment but characteristically inserted his charming chuckle.
I wonder how many of those chaveirim who received that cherished visit from Shlomie with his smiling countenance this past Purim wish that he would ring their doorbell just one more time…
Chaval al de’avdin velo mishtakchin.