P erhaps it was the unmatched oratory skill, his innate aptitude for captivating you from the outset with his command of the vernacular and his brilliant words — each one handpicked and weighed carefully, woven to form enlightening tapestries and yes, delightful sermons, always sprinkled with his classic trenchant wit. Oh, what a master darshan he was…

I can never forget the lectures laced with gentle mussar and tochachah, nestled in a backdrop of humor and coupled with just the perfect story. And always the best quotes one can find. (Where did he get them all from?) But maybe it was just the sheer power of his persona — a charismatic yet gentle personality, and always the attentive listener with choice and succinct words of sage counsel and advice. Or perhaps it was his unique ability to lead, to guide, to steer an entire community on the right path, one paved with Torah and derech eretz and perfection of one’s middos — a point he stressed repeatedly and emphatically.

What, indeed, made the renowned Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz a”h the quintessential rabbi, the one known for decades throughout North America and beyond as “the rabbi of rabbis”?

This has got to be it his truly defining trait: his tireless efforts to ignite our thirst for learning and growth, and propel us all to strive incessantly in our avodas Hashem; to learn Toras Emes and to lead a life filled with emes. In his waning moments, with but a few sporadic words escaping his sacred lips, one word was emitted far more frequently than all others: “emes.” And it wasn’t to anyone’s surprise, for it was incessantly at the forefront of his mind. Rabbi Pelcovitz valued and cherished the truth above all else. The middah of emes, loving and living Toras Emes, sat atop the glorious pedestal of his myriad noble traits.

Shortly before crossing the delicate threshold to the next world, I had the difficult task of reciting Vidui with him — an experience that I will never forget. There I stood, bent over his bedside, clutching the hand of this giant of a man, albeit of short and humble stature. Gadlus couched in pashtus. Looking at my dear and beloved rabbi, the rav of my family for several decades, the pulpit rabbi whom I admired from my fledgling years, in whose shul I grew up, and whose shoes I’m attempting to fill, I simply could not hold back the tears. “Ashamnu, bagadnu…”

And while those tears flowed, I had a flashback: Married and learning in Ner Israel’s Kollel Avodas Levi in Baltimore, I joined the National Council of Young Israel’s inaugural program to earn a degree in rabbinic administration and synagogue management in conjunction with Touro College. Yungeleit from Ner Israel joined with others from Lakewood, Chaim Berlin, and several other yeshivos, to spend many nights over the course of a year hearing and learning from the experts in the field. The all-stars of the rabbinic world presented on a vast array of topics, and, of course, homiletics earned its rightful place on the curriculum.

Then I spotted his name. Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz would be giving the class on homiletics. My Rabbi Pelcovitz — yes, my very own rav, the paradigmatic orator who crafted the most stellar of speeches.

The illustrious pulpit rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel, better known as the White Shul, walked in that evening, and I was overcome with pride. I recall listening carefully and wondering how difficult it must be for Rabbi Pelcovitz to get up and speak regularly in the White Shul, at sundry simchahs and somber levayos, and always present with utmost poise and perfection, precisely catered to the audience at hand. He was constantly creative, and clearly also enjoyed sharing an abundance of insights culled from the gamut of litvish and chassidic sources.

As I scrutinized the master in action that night, I still couldn’t help but think what it must be like for him to deal with the pressure of perpetually meeting such high expectations, along with the day-to-day dealing with diverse balabatim with a wide array of issues. Why in the world would anyone ever want to take such a difficult job, serving at the helm of the large and diverse White Shul? was a question that kept popping into my mind. Little did I know… HaKadosh Baruch Hu never ceases to surprise us all.

Truth be told, Rabbi Pelcovitz himself quipped at a simchah a few years ago, “People ask me why a rabbi would remain at one shul for so many decades. And I answer them, ‘Either he’s insane or he really does love his job.’ ” Well, it was evident that he truly loved the job, and never did I see him rattled; the image of a rabbi possessing perennial poise, always calm and collected, was one of Rabbi Pelcovitz any time of the day, every day of the year.

Back to the room that evening. The rabbi of rabbis concluded his presentation, and I joined the rush to the front as he fielded a flurry of questions from the many yungeleit thirsting for yet another helpful tip on the art of homiletics. As the crowd of aspiring rabbanim yearned for more, it struck me: Look at these talmidei chachamim from various yeshivos all over the East Coast, all soaking up Torah tidbits from a clean-shaven rabbi with his smaller-than-most black hat. Donned in his typical attire of a regular blue suit (yes, sometimes even in sport jacket and slacks), there he stood teaching, educating, and inspiring the next generation of rabbanim.

In a powerful hesped delivered for Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky ztz”l (printed in a special edition of the Torah journal Yeshurun), Shaar HaTorah rosh yeshivah Rav Zelig Epstein ztz”l shared with his audience how it was not possible to describe and fully capture the essence of the gadol that Rav Yaakov was. To best convey his message, Rav Zelig pensively noted that, while he could recall everything from his time spent learning in the Mirrer Yeshivah back in Europe — indeed even every conversation he merited to have with famed mashgiach Rav Yeruchem Levovitz — he could not express in words the “neshamah” of the “maamad kadosh” that was the holy Mir, and that was the Mashgiach himself. The words and actions, the practical details and nuances, were forever at the tip of his fingers and etched in his mind. But the core essence of what it was like to bask in the proximity of the dynamic persona of Rav Yeruchem could never be articulated in mere words.

And so it is regarding the gargantuan neshamah of Rav Yaakov as well: What was lost in the aftermath of his demise, the true adam gadol that he was, can never really be encapsulated in words.

In a somewhat similar vein, I wondered that night what it was that made Rabbi Pelcovitz so special — to me, to his beloved kehillah, to multitudes the world over. No, he did not look or dress like the European rav of old, nor did he project a majestic, august rabbinic appearance like some of his contemporaries. And yet, there was this rabbinic aura that enveloped you and captured your attention from the moment you met him and engaged in any conversation. The broad-based knowledge, the keen perception, his “pikchus” in Torah and worldly matters, all merged to inform you from the start that you were with someone special, a unique rav who bespoke emes in both word and action.

“Gazalnu, dibarnu dofi….” I was back with the Rav — my shul rabbi of four-plus decades — in his room, by his bedside, surrounded by his incredible rebbetzin and extended family. In his final moments, frail and infirm, that mystical rabbinic aura was still there. Even as he neared the century milestone, you still saw in his eyes that proud Torah Vodaath Rav Shlomo Heiman talmid; that devoted disciple of Reb Shraga Feivel (who instructed him upon entering the American rabbinate in the middle of last century not to grow a beard); that loving and caring husband, father, and zeide to five generations of descendants — who shared that boundless love, care, and concern for Klal Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael with his congregants.

A biographer of Winston Churchill was once asked how he would summarize the Churchill he had come to know fairly well over the course of many years. His reply? “He was all about the three I’s: 50 percent independence, 50 percent intelligence, and 50 percent intensity.”

“But that makes 150 percent!” queried the interviewer.

To which the biographer responded: “Well, you see, Churchill was bigger than just one person….”

Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, likewise, was “bigger than just one person” — a concatenation of myriad accomplishments that marked his career, a talmid chacham, scholar, author, and lecturer who lived modestly while selflessly devoting his life to serving his kehillah and Klal Yisrael. He was, indeed, larger than just one person, larger than just one rabbi.

Even in his final moments, he stood tall as the quintessential rav, as the rabbi of rabbis. And certainly as the rabbi of this rabbi.

“Shema Yisrael…” My hands let go. My special memories never will. Yehi zichro baruch.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 705)