The Coronavirus as a Metaphor for the Giants We Have Lost

Our publisher, Rabbi Lipschutz, wrote eloquently last week about the tremendous losses we have all experienced these past few weeks.

When the Chazon Ish passed away, the Brisker Rov commented that “it is now a different world. Yesterday it was a world with the Chazon Ish. Today, it is a world without the Chazon Ish.”

I am sure that we have all felt that whenever we finally do return to “normal,” we will have already entered a new world. Even when we do arrive at some semblance of usualness in shul, school, work, camp, shopping and interpersonal relationships, some things will unfortunately not change. Until we meet them at techiyas hameisim, we will be lacking many incredible individuals – personally and communally – in our lives.

The posuk (Shemos 1:6) tells us, “Yosef died, and all his brothers and that entire generation.” The Seforno comments, “When all the seventy original souls who went down to Mitzrayim passed away, the next generation began to deteriorate.” I remember hearing from Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l (also corroborated in Ohel Moshe, Shemos, page 54) that even after Yaakov Avinu passed away, the zekeinim – the elders – kept his legacy alive. However, after they passed away as well, there was no one to halt Klal Yisroel’s decline into the 49 levels of defilement.

I have heard from many people who feel that we have not just lost individuals. We have lost a generation. If we properly appreciate the words of the Seforno as understood by Rav Gifter, we must be very careful going forward. Many of the “eyes of the congregation” are gone, and just reading some of the biographical material about the Novominsker Rebbe zt”l, we should indeed be terrified to be bereft of his wisdom and guidance. Of course, we should look forward to minyanim, botei medrash and the sweet sounds of multitudes learning Torah, but we should also move cautiously without so many of our zekeinim. To be sure, we know that every generation produces its own leaders, as needed by that era (Rosh Hashanah 25b), but rarely, besides the various churbanos of Klal Yisroel’s history, have so many passed away in so short a time.

I would therefore like to venture an approach to dealing with our losses that connects directly, middah keneged middah, to how we have been attempting to battle this particular mageifah.

As we know, we have been warned by all the medical authorities to practice social distancing and avoid surface or even air contacts with whoever might be infected. This means that a virus or other dangers can linger for a long time.

It is interesting that Chazal have a description for the effect of a tzaddik on his surroundings. When Yaakov Avinu left Be’er Sheva, the Torah records where he came from and where he went. Rashi (Bereishis 28:1) famously asks why the Torah had to mention Be’er Sheva; surely all we needed to know was that he went to Choron. Rashi answers that “when a tzaddik departs from a place, he leaves an impression. At the time that a tzaddik is in a city, he is its magnificence, he is its splendor, he is its grandeur. Once he has departed from there, its magnificence has gone away, its splendor has gone away, and its grandeur has gone away.” Even children know this Rashi, but we are now living it every day.

Let us think for a moment. The harchakos the medical experts have taught us illustrate that when something evil and destructive has been in the air and on surfaces, it does not leave so easily. We have been wearing masks and gloves to avoid this danger. But Chazal teach us that middah tovah merubah, the concomitant good is always better than the evil (Sotah 11a).Therefore, this is the time to study the lessons of those we have lost, for their kedusha and guidance, their example and their middos, are available for absorption by spiritual osmosis, as long as we are willing to make the effort. Indeed, the Kosover Rebbe (Mayanah Shel Torah, Vayeitzei) stresses that the propitious time to seize the roshem – the impression – the tzaddik has made is just after his departure. He likens this to the fact that a flame flares up just before it is extinguished.

I am just going to attempt to derive the tiniest amount of greatness from some of the recent niftorim whom I knew. Some were more well-known than others, but all left behind a profound roshem upon all who came into contact with them. In a time when we cannot make any physical contact at all, it may actually be easier to connect spiritually and to someone’s essence.

I will begin with Dr. Marvin Schick. Please forgive me for referring to him as Marvin, for that is what he wanted to be called and how I referred to him for over 40 years. I worked for and with him in R.J.J., the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School of Staten Island, where I was the menahel and he was the president. In truth, in the early transitional years from the famed yeshiva on Henry Street on the Lower East Side, I got to see Marvin in his glory, shaping chinuch and Torah in America. Although he later impacted Klal Yisroel in many ways, through his founding of COLPA and leadership of the Avi Chai Foundation, his first and lifelong love was R.J.J. Always following the guidance that he had received long ago from Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, he made sure that everything was done al taharas hakodesh. He always made sure that each rebbi and the pre-school moros had all the proper hashkafos and loved what they were doing. His dedication to R.J.J. and chinuch in general was such that absolutely no one could criticize him for demanding more than he demanded of himself. I actually looked forward to his annual fundraising letter for R.J.J. even after I had moved on to rabbonus. He personalized every note with special regards to my rebbetzin, who used to work for him as a pre-school morah. He was always unfailingly kind, generous in praise, and blunt when he felt criticism was in order.

The roshem Marvin left was of a man totally devoted to the klal. To my knowledge, he never drove a car or owned a home, although he could have made millions for himself. His personal tzedakah was high above the maasar line and he supported many mosdos that were competitive with his own. Eventually, Marvin founded four distinct yeshivos in Staten Island, each according to the needs of that particular community and level of religiosity.

One lesson I learned and believe we can all learn from Dr. Marvin Schick is to always expand one’s horizons. The point is to accomplish, not to receive credit. The goal is to change the world for the better and not worry about pettiness or trivialities. He was a truly a giant and I suspect we will all discover even more of his accomplishments for Torah and Klal Yisroel.

I did not know Noach Dear as well, but I admired and respected him greatly. One of his colleague frum judges told me just after his petirah that “Noach lived to do chesed.” Indeed, I personally benefitted from his adherence to the posuk of “olam chesed yibaneh” in a unique way. I was scheduled to spend a week in Eretz Yisroel lecturing at Ohr Somayach, when I realized that my passport had expired. To make matters much worse, I was born in Germany and so had no valid birth certificate or any acceptable paperwork. It was the day I was scheduled to leave and the passport office had just closed. I was ready to give up.

Noach Dear to the rescue.

Apparently, Vice President Al Gore was in town. Noach called him and the office opened once again. “Why, I didn’t know y’all know the vice president,” the impressed young man greeted me. I received my passport, with a wonderful 6 minutes to spare. I later heard from friends that this was just a typical day for the judge.

There are indeed people who do chesed and there are those who live it. Noach’s roshem upon us was that one doesn’t have to bifurcate his life into the religious and the professional part. Hashem gives us abilities, opportunities and tests to see if we really mean to live what my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, called “a broad life.” Noach Dear lived such a life, indeed.

Rav Label Katz zt”l was a posek and a tzaddik, but I learned a lesson from him that I would like to share at this sad but special time. I took chosson classes with him, which I have in turn passed along to many others. However, at the end of every series of chassanim, he taught us how to put on a tallis. Surely, it wasn’t part of the curriculum or required for a busy posek, rov and rosh yeshiva. But Rav Katz taught us by example that above all, you must be clear and practical. Who else is going to teach a young man getting married how to put on a tallis? Perhaps some fathers will, but just in case, Rav Label made sure that we were all ready for that first Shacharis. He left an indelible roshem for which I will be forever grateful.

Rabbi Chaim Dahan zt”l combined talents that don’t always coexist. He was a beloved pre1-A rebbi, but also a popular maggid shiur for Torah Anytime. A Telzer talmid to the core, he could also sing his traditional Sephardi liturgy so that even a nearly tone-deaf Litvak like myself could follow and be uplifted. Rav Chaim made a roshem on me and my family about how much a person can accomplish in so many ways. It didn’t matter to him what the age of listeners were. What mattered was the depth of their perception and how much they could grow from shiurim and davening.

Finally, I will my miss my dear friend and colleague, Rav Shlomo Elozor Wulliger. We spent approximately the past 20 years sharing the podium at the Meisner Pesach Program. Honestly, “I went to teach and I came away learning.” Rav Wulliger was a rov, social worker, therapist and much more. He was a chossid of not one rebbe, but of many, and became close to them all. When a family of developmentally disabled boys lost their father, he made sure to provide them with fatherly guidance and attention. A rov in many shuls throughout the United States, he was also at home in shtieblech and yeshivos all over. He made a roshem on all who heard him that one can combine chassidus with professionalism, wit and reason, and down-to-earth advice, and adapt our ancient Torah to the modern world. He made a roshem that said, “Don’t be metzamtzeim yourself. Don’t accept limitations.”

May all the lofty neshamos who have recently left this world have an aliyah through our learning from them and perpetuating the roshem they left behind.