Dei'ah Vedibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Iyar, 5784 - May 23, 2024 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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A Reiner Mentsch, A Reiner Torah, — The Gaon HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik zt'l

By Moshe Musman


For Part II of this series click here.

For Part IV of this series click here.

Part III:`I Dwell Among My People'

This multi-part essay was originally published in honor of the first yahrtzeit. He was niftar 19 Iyar, 5755. This was first published in 5756 (1996).

Introduction: Rav Wolff Rosengarten

"He bore the burden of communal affairs single-handedly. He was involved in every single public matter. For every controversy, he was the mediator. Concerning every problem, his was the last word.

"When there was a question about whether or not to found a yeshiva or open a talmud Torah, he was the one whose decision was crucial. Not a step was taken in any communal matter across the entire European continent before his advice had been sought. He was the leader. Nobody did a thing without consulting him. He advised everybody.

"Throughout, he never reckoned with his own position in the larger scheme of things. Personal favors and his own personal honor choliloh, had no place in the makeup of his character. Why, the Chazon Ish zt'l, described him as "a man with a clean, untainted soul." What more need be said?"

Reb Wolff went on to add that Reb Moishe's influence was felt not only on the communal level but on the individual level as well.

"Domestic harmony would be restored after his intervention. Medical problems, involving fateful decisions, were decided one way or the other according to what he said. He would receive visitors from as far away as America.

"He was always personally involved, he personally accompanied people, he worried and he sympathized with them. If someone fell ill R'l, Reb Moishe would fast for their recovery. When calamity befell Klal Yisroel, R'l, Reb Moishe fasted over the degradation of his people.

"He prayed for both communal and private woes. He was once heard enumerating around sixty names of people in need of salvation, in the course of one tefillah. Both his days and his nights were devoted to others."

While these remarks are valuable, for a description of Reb Moishe, they barely scratch the surface. Reb Wolff, who could surely reveal more of Reb Moishe's dedication to Klal Yisroel than most who knew him, is highly terse and succinct in his description of the manifold activities of his mentor and colleague, citing in the course of the entire conversation just two of the better known stories (quoted further on) as examples of Reb Moishe's concern for his fellow men.

In fact, each one of Reb Wolff's sentences in the preceding paragraphs could serve as the heading of an entire chapter that would fill many pages in chronicling Reb Moishe's deeds.

When one gains some appreciation of the range of his communal involvement as well as an idea of the lengths to which he went in caring for individuals while remembering at the same time that he remained immersed in Torah during every moment that the first two realms of service made no claims upon him — one is left wondering how one person could possibly have achieved it all. (And only Reb Moishe himself, who remained throughout a private individual yet accessible to all, coming and going as he pleased, unaided and unhampered by organizational trappings, really knew what that `all' encompassed!)

Perhaps the key lies in the word `reinkeit.' A soul untainted by negative traits, unsullied by pride, ambition and personal desires, can grow and blossom to realize its full potential. Indeed, the extent of a human's true capabilities goes far beyond the confines of our normal, everyday vision though this potential is possessed by all of us. The following paragraphs attempt to expand upon the outlines sketched by Reb Wolff.

A letter to Rav Moishe from his father

The Heart of a Community; the Heart of a Continent

Maran HaRav Shach once told a questioner that Reb Moishe Soloveitchik was the repository of da'as Torah in Europe. The communal situation prevailing in Europe (and most of chutz la'aretz) differs from that in Eretz Yisroel in that the bitterly anti-religious prejudice inherent in the attitude of the non-religious Jewish establishment of Israel is absent. Reb Moishe was highly esteemed and frequently consulted by non-religious communal leaders, with whom he maintained firm but uncompromising ties.

His appeal was universal. He could relate to all types of Jews. Because he had no personal agenda, he was able to transmit the pure truth of Torah through whichever facet of his mind's prism his listener needed to hear it.

He was capable of addressing non-religious audiences and on many an occasion he did so. He had a tremendous understanding of human nature and many were his original insights into Chazal's teachings in this area, the teachings of Chazal being the only source on which he drew.

For example, he would say that the Hebrew word for love, `ahava,' is made up of the two words `ani — I' and `hav — to give,' indicating that the power to love is the power to give. An eminent Swiss psychiatrist once remarked that he could put Reb Moishe in front of a learned audience and he was sure that Reb Moishe would give a better lecture than anybody else.

In Zurich, a spirit of unity prevailed among the different kehillos which make up the city's Jewish community. Although Reb Moishe held no official position, his mere presence in the city had a tremendous influence. The recognition of his greatness and the voluntary submission to his guidance which was common to all of the community's leaders, bonded the community in a way that was possibly unique for a large, urban center of Jewish population where the different streams of Jewish communal life flow alongside each other.

For his part, Reb Moishe felt the same closeness to the members of the community that they felt towards him. He would attend every simcha in Zurich — not just for a fly-in visit either — and at the seuda following a bris, he would go around wishing each of the participants lechayim.

Indeed, writing in Kol haTorah, Rabbi Shmuel Tzvi Schwartz notes that one of the cornerstones of Reb Moishe's attitude to communal affairs was that every different camp of Torah Jewry possesses inherent validity and makes its own unique contribution to the complete edifice of the Torah world.

On one occasion, certain circumstances prompted Reb Moishe to submit an article to the journal which warned of the grave dangers for chareidi Jewry that were posed by leaders of one group criticizing the systems of other groups. Reb Moishe pointed out that it had always been generally accepted — and especially so since the dreadful calamity that befell European Jewry in our own times — that the leaders of the different groups would guide and chastise their own followers and not concern themselves with what went on among other groups. If this were to change and a new practice were to gain acceptability, warned Reb Moishe, it could destroy the unity of the chareidi world.

Outside Switzerland, Reb Moishe was consulted and heavily relied upon by the leaders of religious Jewry in France, for whom he was a principal source of inspiration.

Another area of his involvement that concerned all of Europe was guiding the response to the perennial campaign against shechita. He coordinated the efforts to combat the European Community's efforts to legislate against it.

While he always took an active interest in the welfare of Russian Jewry, he became deeply involved with the community during the last few years of his life when he was responsible for opening Yeshivas Toras Chaim in Moscow, of which he was very much the guiding spirit.

A view of Zurich

While Reb Moishe never sought involvement in communal affairs — which rather always found their way to him — he did reach out to any and every individual in need, whatever the nature of the need. He related to people with empathy, humor and unlimited patience, sharing their burdens and doing whatever he possibly could to help them. Often, this was more than they themselves would have dreamed of.

For example, an avreich who was very close to him related that when he once asked Reb Moishe for a brochoh on behalf of an uncle who had a court case in a gentile court, Reb Moishe said, "If you like, you can bring me the papers and I'll look through them to see what kind of defense can be made."

While he sat with those experiencing pain or distress, listening carefully to what they said, all his attention was theirs. If, as often happened, the conversation was interrupted by the telephone, he would excuse himself, transfer all his attention to the caller for the duration of the call, after which he would replace the receiver and return to the very same point that the first conversation had reached before the interruption.

He was able to sit and laugh over something funny together with those who came to him. At times, something in the conversation would deeply move him and he would take out his large handkerchief to dab away a few tears.

Much of his chesed was dispensed over the telephone, across cities, countries and continents. He once remarked to someone that about a third of his monthly income went to pay for phone calls he made on behalf of Klal Yisroel.

One of the stories told by Reb Wolff began when Reb Moishe's telephone began to ring insistently at four o'clock one morning. On the line was a young father, devastated by grief, whose son had just passed away R'l. In a choked voice, he asked Reb Moishe to direct him as to how he should proceed.

As though it was the middle of the day, Reb Moishe answered slowly and patiently. After he had delivered the requested guidance, he replaced the receiver. But Reb Moishe still felt that all was not well. A Jew was struggling alone with his grief. Who could he look to for support at such a time?

"I forgot to ask him where he was calling from," said Reb Moishe. Just a few minutes after the father's call, Reb Moishe and his wife left their house in the heavy predawn darkness, to embark on a search of Zurich's medical facilities, seeking to offer the distraught caller a shoulder to cry on.

Chassodim Tovim

Reb Moishe's greatness was evident in every facet of the help he extended. Everything he did and said, down to the tiniest detail, showed discretion and consideration. For example, when arranging a time for someone to visit, he would tell them to come over at, for example, "about ten o'clock" — if they were then a little late, it didn't matter.

If more than one party arrived at his house to consult him about their problems, they did not wait together. They would be shown into different rooms and would not see each other.

Once, upon receiving a sudden call from America in the middle of the night from an individual who may have thought that the sun was also shining as brightly in Zurich as it was on his side of the Atlantic, all Reb Moishe said was, "A zah masmid halst du mir? — Do you take me for such a conscientious scholar?"

On another occasion, the telephone rang just as Reb Moishe was about to lock up his house and join the members of his family who were already waiting outside to travel to the wedding of one of his sons. Not only was Reb Moishe unable to turn a fellow Jew away, even at such a time, he would not even offer a hint that it was an inconvenient time to call. For twelve minutes, while his family waited, he spoke with the caller calmly and unhurriedly. At a suitable juncture he remarked, "Look, this part of the question is already not so urgent. We can continue tomorrow. It's just that I must go to a wedding right now..."

His help and advice were offered with warmth and genuine concern but they were also the result of careful thought and foresight, with an awareness of the possible consequences. To show that no action or deed was too insignificant to require careful forethought, Reb Moishe would cite the comment of Rashi on the gemora in Sotah (45.): When a dead body is found in the countryside and the murderer's identity is unknown, the Torah commands the mitzva of egloh arufo to be performed in order to atone for the blood that has been shed. Part of the mitzva requires the elders of the city nearest to the place where the body was found to declare, "We have not shed this blood."

The mishna and gemora state that while the elders are certainly not suspected of having committed an actual act of murder, their declaration refers to their not having sent the man out of the city without provisions. Rashi explains that such a seemingly slight omission is equated by the Torah with nothing less than having murdered the man, for if he was forced by the pangs of hunger to raid other passersby for food, and was killed by them as a result, the responsibility rests with those who let him go away unequipped. Thus, Reb Moishe would say, we see that an individual bears responsibility for everything that results from his slightest action, or omission.

Reb Moishe would painstakingly consider every question that was put to him, examining it from every possible angle and in all its ramifications. If, as often happened, a householder would offer an opinion on the same topic, Reb Moishe would react as though the man's thought had never before occurred to him and he would listen eagerly to the man's words.

To one householder who argued that he was unable to consult a rav for advice because the rav's thoughts and attitudes were not like his own, Reb Moishe responded, "You are mistaken. A great man will give a questioner an individual answer, according to the questioner's own level and understanding. His decision takes every aspect of your question into consideration."

Rofeh Cholim

His medical knowledge was legendary. A talmid from Lucerne recalled the time when another bochur was in a serious condition, having suffered from a nosebleed for a whole day. The local doctor had tried to stop the bleeding several times but without success.

At one o'clock in the morning, the talmid knocked on the door of Reb Moishe's apartment, which was in the same building as the yeshiva, and reported that things were no better. Reb Moishe gave him instructions to perform a certain segulah. After another forty-five minutes had passed without change, Reb Moishe himself came down and stopped the bleeding in a few minutes — nobody knew how.

Reb Wolff also recalled the well known occasion when the first aid which Reb Moishe promptly administered to an elderly gentile woman who had collapsed in one of the streets of Lucerne and which saved her life, was noted throughout the city. A gentile preacher admonished his flock to honor the Jews on account of the rabbiner's prompt action. The episode was publicized in the local press and it created a great kiddush Hashem.

People brought Reb Moishe their medical problems and asked for his advice. Besides simply telling them how they should proceed, he was capable of giving them detailed explanations of conditions and their treatments and under suitable circumstances, he did so.

On many occasions, Reb Moishe would set aside the opinions of doctors. Where he derived his profound medical knowledge from is not known but he certainly had a clear and thorough understanding of modern medicine. A religious doctor who lives in Zurich remarked that he could show Reb Moishe literature about the latest developments in medicine and after a single reading of the material, which was often full of highly technical medical terminology, Reb Moishe would have mastered the subject.

His general knowledge was no less impressive. He was familiar with whatever topic people brought up and he always had original insights to offer. Here is one example of his originality.

On one of his trips to Eretz Yisroel, mention was made of a certain leniency in the limitations on washing oneself during the nine days, which leading poskim had permitted in view of the hot climate. One of his sons raised the objection that the poskim of earlier generations had themselves lived in Eretz Yisroel yet they made no mention of such a heter.

Reb Moishe reacted to this with utter amazement. "What do the earlier generations have to do with this?" he asked. "The more a person sins and soils himself with aveiros, the more despicable his sweat becomes. Present day generations cannot be compared with the earlier ones, who were less tainted by sin."

Upon meeting an old or new acquaintance in the street, he would be the first to offer a greeting and inquire after the other person's welfare. He would fully enter into the feelings and situations of everyone, whether they were experiencing painful times or happy ones. He would comfort and befriend all manner of unfortunates, sharing their feelings in his warm, yet unassuming way.

One elderly lonely Jewish man with whom many Zurich Jews used to converse once remarked, "Everybody talks to me because they pity me. There is only one person who really enjoys talking to me and that is Reb Moishe."

It happened more than once that when someone arrived in the Beis Haknesses Agudath Achim where Reb Moishe prayed, in order to collect money, Reb Moishe himself would instruct the man to wait and say some Tehillim while Reb Moishe himself went around inside and collect for him.

(At levayos, R'l Reb Moishe would also take a tzedaka box and go around calling `tzedaka tatzil mimoves.' A friend explained that he did so in order to demonstrate that collecting tzedaka is an honorable task.)

On joyous occasions too, his wishes reflected his personal happiness and his concern for the future welfare of the celebrants.

Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to a chosson and kallah.

"May Hashem grant... that your path be constantly accompanied by beautiful joyous occasions and rejoicing and that your portion in life be one of only good and satisfaction. I hope that you have used your time and spent it pleasantly, finding one another and in doing so, finding goodness and the way to draw Hashem's goodwill, for this is the sum total of man's task and whoever has found this out needs nothing more... may He whose name is Sholom make peace and His presence dwell in your home, so that you merit to build it with peace of mind and satisfaction, riches and happiness and everything good, according to Chazal's statement that peace is a vessel which can support all other blessings for all of Klal Yisroel..."

End of Part 3


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