By Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Every Friday night, as Shabbos Kodesh was ushered in, Rebbetzin Miriam Dessler’s sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren would gather in her house to sing Aishes Chayil to her. She sat there regally and listened to her sons intone the classic plaudits of the Jewish woman, as she mouthed the words along with them.
On Shabbos, Parshas Chayei Sarah, the serenade was stilled. Shortly before Shabbos, Rebbetzin Dessler’s neshomah returned to its holy Source. An accomplished mechaneches, she taught for decades in Yavne High School for Girls, guided and directed the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland’s (now Bais Chinuch HaRav Dessler) pre-school, and together with her husband, the legendary mechanech, Rabbi Nochum Zev Dessler, established, shepherded and nurtured the Hebrew Academy from its inception to become the largest Torah day school in the Midwest.
Rebbetzin Dessler inspired by example, portraying through her majestic bearing the requisite image of a bas melech. Her sixty-five-year relationship with her husband bespoke the true definition of eizer k’negdo. All of this was carried out while raising a family of three sons and three daughters, each of whom became an exemplar of achievement, following in their illustrious family’s legacy of Torah dissemination in its multi-faceted forms.
In order to present a more encompassing picture of Rebbetzin Dessler as the consummate aishes chayil, I will take the reader back seventy-seven years to the shidduch of Rabbi Nochum Zev Dessler and Miss Miriam Finger. While Rabbi Dessler was devoted to building a makom Torah that would one day serve as a bastion of Torah for thousands, his dear friend and chavrusah, Rav Boruch Sorotzkin (who later became Telshe rosh yeshiva) was concerned for Rabbi Dessler’s personal home – his bayis ne’eman b’Yisroel. To this end, he proposed a shidduch, a young woman, Miriam Finger, who was a recent émigré from Germany. She was then a teacher in the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland. Together with their parents, Reb Chanina and Malka Finger, Miriam and two siblings managed to leave Germany just in time, by traveling through Eretz Yisroel. The Fingers were erliche Yidden, Polish Jews who had moved to Germany following World War I. Miriam had exhibited a talent and devotion for teaching and was promptly hired by the nascent Hebrew Academy.
MeiHashem yotza hadovor – every shidduch is bashert, decreed by Hashem. Some matrimonial matches, however, exhibit a greater and more overt manifestation of Hashem’s guiding hand. A marriage that lasted over sixty-five blissful years; one that could aptly be typified as one long courtship; one that produced, and continues to produce, generations of bnei Torah who model their parents in commitment and devotion to Torah chinuch; one in which the palpable love, admiration and harmony that reigned among the parents was translated into unparalleled love and reverence for their parents by their children – is truly of a unique, G-dly nature. Such was the quality of the marriage of Rabbi Nochum Zev and Miriam Dessler. They were each other’s life bagleiter, accompanying and supporting one another through life’s ups and downs. Through it all, they stood together as one.
When Rav Sorotzkin approached Rabbi Dessler, the immediate response was, “I must speak to my parents.” Although Rabbi Dessler had basically been on his own for years, the thought of making a life-altering decision without prior consultation with his parents never entered his mind. He was in constant touch with his father by letter. Indeed, Rabbi Dessler’s letters from his father guided him ethically and spiritually. His father was now one of Europe’s preeminent Torah giants, a man whom thousands viewed as their rebbi. The fact that Miriam Finger was prepared to enter into a shidduch with the only son of the venerable Michtav M’Eliyahu tells us something about her character and equanimity. Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler’s immediate response was that he would have to seek information to confirm the middos tovos, positive character traits, of the young lady in question. This was the number-one priority in selecting a mate.
Rav Eliyahu Eliezer had a cousin to whom he turned for the critical information. Rebbetzin Nechamah Frank was the niece of the Alter of Kelm, daughter of his brother, Reb Leib. She had married Reb Tzvi Pesach Frank, cousin of the chief rabbi of Yerushalayim, whose name he shared. Her husband was the son of the venerable Reb Shraga Feivel Frank, father-in-law of four of the previous generation’s most distinguished roshei yeshiva. They lived on Manhattan’s West Side while he raised funds for Yeshivas Slabodka. Under normal circumstances, Rebbetzin Nechamah, although a resourceful woman, would have had no opportunity to have met Miriam Finger. But this was not a “normal” circumstance. This was “MeiHashem yotza hadovor.”
The Finger family had left Germany by ship for Eretz Yisroel. After a few years in Eretz Yisroel, they once again boarded a ship, this time for America. It was not an easy trip, and the accommodations were less than adequate. However, they did have a berth on the upper deck, which alleviated some of the hardship. That was until it came to Mrs. Finger’s attention that there was a very sick Jewish woman who was in a berth on the lowest deck. She was sharing a room with an Arab woman. Mrs. Finger immediately dispatched her two daughters to switch berths with the woman. She remained at the sick woman’s side, caring for her an entire month, until they docked in New York. That woman was Rebbetzin Nechamah Frank, who never forgot the chesed demonstrated to her by the Finger family. Thus, when her cousin inquired about Miriam Finger, she felt eminently qualified to sing her accolades.
So began a marital union that spanned over sixty-five years and served as a prototype for children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of what abiding love and respect can achieve. Shlomo Hamelech wrote: “Aishes chayil ateres baalah – A woman of valor is a crown for her husband” (Mishlei 12:4). He selected the word atarah, as opposed to nezer, which is also a crown. Nezer is a term connoting demarcation or separation, which indicates one’s significance, resting above the head. An atarah is a type of crown that completely surrounds the circumference of one’s head and rises above the head’s height. Both the nezer and atarah sit above the head, from where they are noticed, thus proclaiming the position of its wearer. The nezer, however, rests on top of the head, while the atarah envelops the head – then rises above.
An aishes chayil protects her husband, never leaves his side. She encourages, counsels, supports, embraces and defends her husband. She is his crown, but obviously a crown that complements, not detracts. Rebbetzin Dessler never left her husband’s side. There was no activity or project in which he was involved that she was not his partner. The mutual respect and admiration they had for one another were palpable and inspiring to behold. The care they extended and exhibited towards one another bespoke a oneness in which each one felt the other’s pain. When Rabbi Dessler was hospitalized, his wife never left his side, except at night, when she went home to sleep. (During the night, one of their sons remained with him.) Rabbi Dessler refused to go to sleep until his wife was safely at home and called to say, “Good night.”
His health was a primary concern for her. Thus, she went to great lengths to spare him any disconcerting emotion that might negatively affect him. I was with them in the hospital when the heart-wrenching news that their daughter, Rebbetzin Peshe Brudny, passed away. Rabbi Dessler gave a loud krechtz, “Oy.” Rebbetzin Dessler put a tissue to her eyes to conceal her tears. She knew that if she would let herself go, it might harm her husband’s frail condition. Her self-control and forbearance were her anchor through life’s vicissitudes.
Tznius, modesty, not calling attention to oneself, is the hallmark of the Jewish woman. Utter devotion to a person, project, institution, to the point that one’s identity is correlated with said endeavor – to the point of hisbatlus, negating oneself – is a form of tznius. Chazal (Moed Kotton 28a) teach that like her two illustrious brothers, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hakohein, Miriam Haneviah also died b’misas neshikah. Due to its delicate nature, it is not mentioned. Notably, Moshe and Aharon are mentioned throughout the Torah, while references to Miriam are sparse. Moshe’s and Aharon’s avodah, function, was in the public sphere. Miriam’s role was executed in the private realm. Like Sarah Imeinu, she remained ba’ohel, in the tent, not calling attention to herself, but no less worthy of accolade than her brothers. Rebbetzin Dessler did not just act in a tznius manner; she lived it. She was like the great women before her, secure in herself, neither seeking nor requiring public acclaim.
Marriage is a relationship of reciprocity in which it is all about giving – not taking. The recipe for a harmonious relationship is for each spouse to view his/her success as the result of the other’s facilitation and nurturance. The Kiyor from which the Kohanim washed their hands prior to performing the avodah in the Mishkon was fashioned exclusively from the brightly polished sheets of copper that the women used as mirrors. Moshe was reluctant to utilize their mirrors in the Sanctuary, because they had originally been used by the women to attract their husbands. The Sanctuary is a sacred institution and anything that hints at intimate relations did not belong there. Hashem disagreed, saying that it was these mirrors that were instrumental in the nation’s survival. Rashi relates that the women would begin with the ploy, “Ani na’eh mimcha, I am more attractive than you,” which elicited her husband’s attention. Rav Yisroel Meir Dushinsky offers a novel interpretation of these three words: “Ani na’eh, I am attractive; mimcha, it is because of you.” What I am is because of you. Her husband would rejoin, “No, I am what I am because of you.” When a wife attributes her physical and spiritual beauty to her husband’s support, he will reciprocate in turn. This positive form of reciprocity is the main ingredient in an enduring marriage.
It was this mutual admiration that was constantly evinced by Rabbi and Rebbetzin Dessler. Veritably, she was an aishes chover, but she was also a “chover” in her own right. This is what her husband saw in her, and this is the message which they conveyed to their children.
I remember that about fifteen years ago, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Dessler were leaving the Academy building for the day. They would always walk together, slowly, regally, with each one’s step in harmony with the other’s. Two little pre-school boys were standing there and staring. One boy said to the other, “There go the King and Queen of the Academy.” How true and insightful! We lost our mentor a little over a decade ago, and now the Queen has joined him b’ginzei Meromim.
Yehi zichrah boruch.