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An Ocean of Love: Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l, Rosh Yeshivas Mir

Yisroel Besser

Until just a week ago, there lived a man whose being testified to the words of the Mishnah — The Torah gives him kingship. He proved that the Torah cloaks those who learn it with majesty, grace, and dignity. That a figure rendered helpless by physical limitations could exude strength and focus, power and limitless ability. The face of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, Rosh Yeshivas Mir, was testimony that the Shechinah rests among Yisrael.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

One of the highlights of the week during my own time at Yeshivas Mir was Rav Nosson Tzvi’s Friday shmuess, delivered in his dining room. Since he spoke in English, the crowd was somewhat different from the standard audience. Rav Nosson Tzvi seemed different too: he was more relaxed, and he spoke with a certain freedom and candor.

There would be a sefer open on the table when we filed in — more often than not, Chofetz Chaim al haTorah — and he would share an insight or thought, using it as a springboard to other topics, often anecdotes and incidents from the preceding week.

But always, he would return to the same theme. The same word, really.

Torah.

No composer, no poet, has ever invested a word with more feeling than he infused into that word. “Tey-reh,” he would say, his voice lyrical, an ode of yearning and love.

His heart was a like a guitar, each string sensitive and awake to hisorerus, and on those Fridays, he’d share the inspiration with us.

During the week marking the yahrtzeit of his revered fatherin- law Rav Beinish Finkel, he described how Reb Beinish succeeded in keeping all his holy fire inside of him, showing nothing to the world. Rav Nosson Tzvi used the words of a zemer that his father-in-law would sing on Leil Shabbos, “Libi uvsari yeranenu l’Keil chai,” to express the avodah of Reb Beinish, whose innards sang.

Then the Rosh Yeshivah stopped, mid-shmuess, and began to sing the words “Libi uvsari, libi, libi uvsari,” to a niggun composed by Rav Meir Shapiro. Instantly, everyone began to sing along, and for several minutes, we tasted — if only temporarily — what it means: Libi uvsari yeranenu ...

During those weeks that he’d met with gedolim, come Friday he would allow us a glimpse of his impressions. This week I met Rav Shmuel Wosner, he told us, and he spent the shmuess describing the incredible yishuv hadaas he’d seen, the way the Shevet HaLevi measures each and every word before he speaks, the tranquility that envelops him.

He told us of observing Rav Elyashiv before an appointment, and illustrated the simple, almost childlike way the gadol hador learned the Gemara, chanting, “Amar Abaye ... what does Rava answer? You hear Abaye? What do you say to that? And you, Rava, how will you respond to Abaye’s claim?”

One week, he described how as a yungerman, he was walking along with Reb Chaim Shmulevitz, engrossed in learning. They walked up the road across from Yeshivas Mir, passing by a strip of stores, and Reb Chaim suddenly stopped in front of one of them. It was a shoe store, and in the doorway was a large basket filled with little children’s footwear, a mountain of tiny shoes. Reb Chaim was silent for one minute, two minutes, and then a tear fell from his eye.

Rav Nosson Tzvi was bewildered. Reb Chaim explained. “I saw the pile of little shoes, shoes that will be purchased by mothers for their own toddlers, most likely the first pair. I started to think about the feelings of a mother buying that first pair of shoes for her child and the joy that will fill her tender heart as she prepares to equip him for the path ahead. Contemplating her joy, I feel it too, and therefore I cry.”

That was the shmuess. That day, we cried along.

And sometimes, he would tell us about his youth, about the teenager who came from Chicago to visit his great-uncle, the Mirrer rosh yeshivah, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel.

He would often describe how he slept in Reb Leizer Yudel’s own home, in a curtained-off section of the living room. Reb Leizer Yudel would arise early, four o’clock in the morning, and learn eight blatt before Shacharis, knowing that he’d be consumed with yeshivah duties all day. The nephew from Chicago would often feign sleep and watch his uncle’s entry to the room.

“He would tiptoe in so as not to wake me, still in his shirtsleeves,” Rav Nosson Tzvi recreated the scene years later. “He wore a wide smile, and as he approached the seforim shelf, he spread his arms apart. He leaned over and embraced the seforim, kissing lone volumes, saying the names to himself, like a mother saying ‘good morning’ to her children.”

Then Rav Nosson Tzvi stopped, his own face pained with nostalgia, and listed off the names, saying each one slowly. “Teshuvos HaRosh, Ri Migash, Rav Akiva Eiger, Afikei Yam ...” We, his listeners, wanted nothing more than to run and master those seforim, so melodious was his voice.

Rav Nosson Tzvi would tell about his first winter zman in yeshivah, after Rav Leizer Yudel had convinced his parents to allow him to remain in Jerusalem for a few months.

“The rosh yeshivah arranged six chavrusas for me, three groups of two, with each two teaching me a different twenty blatt in Masechta Bava Kamma. They chazzered it with me three times each, so that I reviewed it six times with chavrusas. Then, I reviewed those same sixty blatt seven more times on my own, for a total of thirteen times. After that, I felt like I’d entered Bava Kamma.”

The Rosh Yeshivah would smile. “You know what? Bava Kamma is still so special to me...”

There was something he didn’t tell us. Rav Leizer Yudel had approached the most prestigious yungerman in the yeshivah, Rav Chaim Kamil, and said, “I am trusting you with developing a diamond. Don’t let me down.”

Ultimately, Rav Chaim Kamil would become rosh yeshivah in Ofakim, in the Negev, but he remained the rebbi muvhak of Rav Nosson Tzvi until his own passing, just a few years ago.

And one last story from the Friday shmuess: The Rosh Yeshivah had married off a son that week, in Bnei Brak. Of course, we’d all gone to the wedding — not out of a sense of duty, but with the excitement reserved for family and close friends. The chasunah was something special, an outpouring of love and reverence for a rosh yeshivah of thousands, from thousands.

“I want to share something with you, gentlemen,” the Rosh Yeshivah began the Friday shmuess that week. “After the chasunah this week, my new mechutan said to me, ‘I never saw a relationship like the one you have with the Mirrer bochurim; zeh k’mo okyanus shel ahavah, it’s an ocean of love.’ ”

Rav Nosson Tzvi looked around the room, his eyes shining as he focused on each and every person. Then he continued, “I just wanted to say thank you.”

One of the highlights of the week during my own time at Yeshivas Mir was Rav Nosson Tzvi’s Friday shmuess, delivered in his dining room. Since he spoke in English, the crowd was somewhat different from the standard audience. Rav Nosson Tzvi seemed different too: he was more relaxed, and he spoke with a certain freedom and candor.

There would be a sefer open on the table when we filed in — more often than not, Chofetz Chaim al haTorah — and he would share an insight or thought, using it as a springboard to other topics, often anecdotes and incidents from the preceding week.

But always, he would return to the same theme. The same word, really.

Torah.

No composer, no poet, has ever invested a word with more feeling than he infused into that word. “Tey-reh,” he would say, his voice lyrical, an ode of yearning and love.

His heart was a like a guitar, each string sensitive and awake to hisorerus, and on those Fridays, he’d share the inspiration with us.

During the week marking the yahrtzeit of his revered fatherin- law Rav Beinish Finkel, he described how Reb Beinish succeeded in keeping all his holy fire inside of him, showing nothing to the world. Rav Nosson Tzvi used the words of a zemer that his father-in-law would sing on Leil Shabbos, “Libi uvsari yeranenu l’Keil chai,” to express the avodah of Reb Beinish, whose innards sang.

Then the Rosh Yeshivah stopped, mid-shmuess, and began to sing the words “Libi uvsari, libi, libi uvsari,” to a niggun composed by Rav Meir Shapiro. Instantly, everyone began to sing along, and for several minutes, we tasted — if only temporarily — what it means: Libi uvsari yeranenu ...

During those weeks that he’d met with gedolim, come Friday he would allow us a glimpse of his impressions. This week I met Rav Shmuel Wosner, he told us, and he spent the shmuess describing the incredible yishuv hadaas he’d seen, the way the Shevet HaLevi measures each and every word before he speaks, the tranquility that envelops him.

He told us of observing Rav Elyashiv before an appointment, and illustrated the simple, almost childlike way the gadol hador learned the Gemara, chanting, “Amar Abaye ... what does Rava answer? You hear Abaye? What do you say to that? And you, Rava, how will you respond to Abaye’s claim?”

One week, he described how as a yungerman, he was walking along with Reb Chaim Shmulevitz, engrossed in learning. They walked up the road across from Yeshivas Mir, passing by a strip of stores, and Reb Chaim suddenly stopped in front of one of them. It was a shoe store, and in the doorway was a large basket filled with little children’s footwear, a mountain of tiny shoes. Reb Chaim was silent for one minute, two minutes, and then a tear fell from his eye.

Rav Nosson Tzvi was bewildered. Reb Chaim explained. “I saw the pile of little shoes, shoes that will be purchased by mothers for their own toddlers, most likely the first pair. I started to think about the feelings of a mother buying that first pair of shoes for her child and the joy that will fill her tender heart as she prepares to equip him for the path ahead. Contemplating her joy, I feel it too, and therefore I cry.”

That was the shmuess. That day, we cried along.

And sometimes, he would tell us about his youth, about the teenager who came from Chicago to visit his great-uncle, the Mirrer rosh yeshivah, Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel.

He would often describe how he slept in Reb Leizer Yudel’s own home, in a curtained-off section of the living room. Reb Leizer Yudel would arise early, four o’clock in the morning, and learn eight blatt before Shacharis, knowing that he’d be consumed with yeshivah duties all day. The nephew from Chicago would often feign sleep and watch his uncle’s entry to the room.

“He would tiptoe in so as not to wake me, still in his shirtsleeves,” Rav Nosson Tzvi recreated the scene years later. “He wore a wide smile, and as he approached the seforim shelf, he spread his arms apart. He leaned over and embraced the seforim, kissing lone volumes, saying the names to himself, like a mother saying ‘good morning’ to her children.”

Then Rav Nosson Tzvi stopped, his own face pained with nostalgia, and listed off the names, saying each one slowly. “Teshuvos HaRosh, Ri Migash, Rav Akiva Eiger, Afikei Yam ...” We, his listeners, wanted nothing more than to run and master those seforim, so melodious was his voice.

Rav Nosson Tzvi would tell about his first winter zman in yeshivah, after Rav Leizer Yudel had convinced his parents to allow him to remain in Jerusalem for a few months.

“The rosh yeshivah arranged six chavrusas for me, three groups of two, with each two teaching me a different twenty blatt in Masechta Bava Kamma. They chazzered it with me three times each, so that I reviewed it six times with chavrusas. Then, I reviewed those same sixty blatt seven more times on my own, for a total of thirteen times. After that, I felt like I’d entered Bava Kamma.”

The Rosh Yeshivah would smile. “You know what? Bava Kamma is still so special to me...”

There was something he didn’t tell us. Rav Leizer Yudel had approached the most prestigious yungerman in the yeshivah, Rav Chaim Kamil, and said, “I am trusting you with developing a diamond. Don’t let me down.”

Ultimately, Rav Chaim Kamil would become rosh yeshivah in Ofakim, in the Negev, but he remained the rebbi muvhak of Rav Nosson Tzvi until his own passing, just a few years ago.

And one last story from the Friday shmuess: The Rosh Yeshivah had married off a son that week, in Bnei Brak. Of course, we’d all gone to the wedding — not out of a sense of duty, but with the excitement reserved for family and close friends. The chasunah was something special, an outpouring of love and reverence for a rosh yeshivah of thousands, from thousands.

“I want to share something with you, gentlemen,” the Rosh Yeshivah began the Friday shmuess that week. “After the chasunah this week, my new mechutan said to me, ‘I never saw a relationship like the one you have with the Mirrer bochurim; zeh k’mo okyanus shel ahavah, it’s an ocean of love.’ ”

Rav Nosson Tzvi looked around the room, his eyes shining as he focused on each and every person. Then he continued, “I just wanted to say thank you.”

 

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