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Leader of Scholars and Statesmen

Mishpacha Staff

Few could match Rav Eliezer Menachem Shach’s grasp of contemporary events and political intrigue, or his three-dimensional vision — his ability to dissect and negotiate the most complex communal issues, and at the same time worry about the feelings of a small child. And so they followed him, the bnei Torah and politicians, the Americans and Europeans, the Sephardim and Ashkenazim, all sending their thorniest and most complex issues to the little apartment across from the Ponovezher Yeshivah.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

As usual, Rav Shach ztz”l said it best himself.

In his eulogy of the Satmar Rebbe ztz”l in 5739 (1979), Rav Shach noted that the prophet Yeshayahu (3:5) could imagine no worse curse on Israel than that “a youth will be arrogant toward an elder.” This judgment was made after food and water were removed from the exhausted people and after Klal Yisrael had lost its “warriors, judges, and prophets.” Chazal interpret each of the losses as spiritual disasters. The nation lost its experts in Scripture, Mishnah, Halachah and Aggadah. Why was disdain toward the zkeinim — the elders — the worse curse of all? Rav Shach answered that when the nation’s reverence for its sages breaks down, its connection to the past is ruptured. That scourge, taught the great Rosh Yeshivah, is the greatest calamity of all.

Rav Shach was the zakein par excellence. He filled the role of Klal Yisrael’s Elder for decades, using the arichas yamim he was granted to be our link to greatness. He embodied our direct line to Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Itzel of Ponovezh, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, and countless other luminaries. The Rosh Yeshivah would often preface his words of admonition to someone with the words, “Please remember that an old man stands before you, informing you that this not the Torah way. I do not know if I will be alive tomorrow or if I will be standing here next year. All I know is that I am obligated to tell you the truth as it is. Please remember my words.”

One of the great lessons he taught us is the great joy of learning Torah. He was spotted dancing in the unusually snowy streets of Jerusalem after hearing a beautiful interpretation by the Brisker Rav. Thinking that in the impassable streets no one would see him, he allowed himself the luxury of expressing his rapture in an ecstatic dance of Torah joy. His fortunate students were privileged to witness this buoyant bliss on his radiant face on a daily basis. The image of the zakein hador literally shining with an ethereal Torah light was part of his gift to our generation.

One of the Rosh Yeshivah’s amazing traits was his ability to combine pashtus — what seemed to be simplicity — with the most profound amkus — analysis of recondite subjects, issues and queries. A personal vignette:

My rebbetzin and I were ushered into the unadorned room from which eternal wisdom issued to Klal Yisrael. Rav Shach answered all our questions and when we were about to leave, the nonagenarian Rosh Yeshivah climbed a few steps up an ancient ladder, unlocked his stash of candies and offered a few to my wife for our children. A quick glance at my rebbetzin’s fleeting disappointment was enough for the tzaddik. “Not enough?” he inquired congenially, and back up the ladder the gadol hador ascended, with a knowing smile.

This attention to the minute details of something seemingly insignificant had just been coupled with a brilliant analysis and solution to a problem which had eluded rabbanim and other roshei yeshivah of note. I had come bearing a query about a communal issue of complex importance to countless lives. The Rosh Yeshivah had listened intently, reacted emotionally to the human tragedy depicted, ruled definitively on the halachic issues, and offered incisive and practical solutions to the ensuing dilemmas.

Then he doled out candies as needed to children he would never see but loved because they were Yiddishe kinderlach.

That was Rav Shach.

Another aspect of this ability to function on many levels simultaneously actually happened during a tragic time in his own life. His rebbetzin a”h had been suffering terribly during her final days and the Rosh Yeshivah was completely involved in doing whatever he could to alleviate her pain. During this period, a young kollel man arrived to inquire whether he should accept a position he had been offered in France. The Rosh Yeshivah told him that he would look into the matter and let him know. When the Rebbetzin passed away after several agonizing days, the Rosh Yeshivah was inconsolable. The young man joined the throngs being menachem avel the Rosh Yeshivah and was shocked to hear his name called.

“I checked it out for you,” the Rosh Yeshivah informed the surprised yungerman. “They need people just like you. Go and be matzliach.

“But when did the Rosh Yeshivah have time to do this research?” the kollel fellow asked incredulously.

“I saw one of the Roshei Yeshivos at the levayah” the Rosh Yeshivah responded matter-of-factly, “and I was reassured that the position is for you.”

The zakein hador also served as the Avihen shel Yisrael. Far from a contradiction, Rav Shach was continuing his life’s mission of imitating the Ribono shel Olam. Hashem appeared at Sinai as an “Elder full of compassion” and Rav Shach’s concern extended to every Jewish soul to the very end of his long productive life.

Few could match Rav Eliezer Menachem Shach’s grasp of contemporary events and political intrigue, or his three-dimensional vision — his ability to dissect and negotiate the most complex communal issues, and at the same time worry about the feelings of a small child. And so they followed him, the bnei Torah and politicians, the Americans and Europeans, the Sephardim and Ashkenazim, all sending their thorniest and most complex issues to the little apartment across from the Ponovezher Yeshivah.

 

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