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His Door Was Never Locked

Aharon Granevich-Granot

With the passing of Rav Menachem Mendel Mendelsohn ztz”l lst week, the community of Komemius is like a lost ship without a captain. The entire moshav was like his own family – he was the father of hundreds of children. And although he was a renowned Torah giant, he chose instead to tie his life together with the simple farmers and kibbutzniks who looked up to him as their spiritual leader.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

He would wake up every morning at 5 a.m., wash his hands, and open the door of his house. The open door was the symbol of his life, his relationship with the members of his kehillah and the farmers and simple folk in the surrounding moshavim. If someone knocked, it was surely a stranger from far away; everyone knew they could just walk in. But last week, moshav Komemius – the bastion of uncompromising strictures established in the 1950s by the Chazon Ish in Eretz Yisrael’s agricultural heartland – was in turmoil, a despondent flock who had lost its leader.

The door would no longer be open. Rav Menachem Mendel Mendelsohn, 73, had suddenly passed away.

Rav Mendelsohn, a disciple of the Beis Yisrael of Ger, a giant in Torah who sat together with the leaders of the chassidic courts and venerated roshei yeshivah and rabbanim, chose instead to tie his life together with the farmers and kibbutzniks who looked up to him as their spiritual leader. His father, Rav Binyamin Mendelsohn ztz”l, was the first rav of Komemius, known for his staunch advocacy of shmittah without compromise in a time when most agricultural settlements laughed off the sabbatical year as a relic of the past and a modern impossibility. Rav Menachem perpetuated the Komemius legacy when he took over the leadership of the moshav after his father’s passing in 1979.

He guided the community as his father had, not deviating from the strictures on one hand, and creating a unique experiment of unity on the other. Komemius, made up primarily of Gerrer, Vizhnitz and Belzer chassidim, has only one shul, one cheder, one kollel, and one rav.

 Now that the shiva is over, the question hangs in the air among the seventy families that make up the moshav. Who will take over? Rav Yisrael Yitzchak Mendelsohn, Rav Menachem’s younger brother, is a reluctant temporary choice. “It’s hard for me to accept this rabbanus. Who am I? I’m just a brother. I have nephews who are huge talmidei chachamim, his sons who should succeed him. They are the ones who deserve to take his place,” Rav Yisrael Mendelsohn told Mishpacha during the shiva. Rav Yisrael is a gifted orator and director of Torah V’Yahadut La’Am, which organizes shiurim in moshavim and kibbutzim around the country. He was referring to Rav Menachem’s son Rav Moshe Mendelsohn, a fiery talmid chacham who is so far equally reluctant to take over for his father.

They aren’t easy shoes to fill. It means not only a continuation of Rav Menachem Mendelsohn’s legacy, but that of his father Rav Binyamin, who was uncompromising but compassionate.

“My father issued a letter to all the farmers dismissing the general view that keeping shmittah is impossible,” Rav Menachem said in an interview with Hamodia prior to the last shmittah year. “It was up to the farmer to decide, but we would help him through it. The Chazon Ish studied the modern agricultural techniques in depth, and he was very meikil in the halachos so that all farmers could keep shmittah. I too look for leniencies – sometimes I rely on just one Rishon.”

The history of Komemius is tied up to its shmittah legacy. The second year of the moshav’s existence, when people were still living in tents in the middle of a barren wilderness, was a sabbatical year. As the year drew to a close and the farmers were preparing for planting in the eighth year, they needed to access wheat seeds from the sixth year, as seeds from the seventh year was forbidden. The farmers searched among the left-wing secular kibbutzim in the area, finally finding some old wormy seeds in a storage shed in Kibbutz Gat. “Take it,” said Rav Binyamin Mendelsohn. “The One who tells wheat to sprout from good seed can also order it to grow from wormy leftover seed.” The kibbutzniks chuckled as the religious farmers piled the infested, rotting seeds into their tractor.

That year, the rains were late in coming, finally irrigating the ground the day after the religious farmers planted those wormy seeds. And the miracle of Komemius spread throughout the region. While the other farms had poor crops due to the drought, the Komemius fields were covered with abundant, healthy wheat. When the people of Kibbutz Gat saw what their rotten seeds produced, they actually demanded payment for the haul, threatening to take Rav Mendelsohn to a din Torah. Rav Mendelsohn, for his part, was happy to pay, much to the shock of his own kehillah. He explained that the reason they gave the seeds for free was because they thought they were worthless, when in fact Hashem determined that they were really excellent for the purpose.

“You have to understand the unique nature of Komemius,” Rav Yisrael Yitzchak continues. “Komemius has become a symbol for hakpadah on mitzvos. I remember a few years ago when the schach mats first came on the market, that many poskim felt that there was no problem with them. The shul in Komemius also wanted to purchase that kind of schach, but my brother the rav was against it. ‘It’s true that many poskim rule leniently,’ he explained, ‘but Komemius symbolizes hiddur mitzvah. We cannot allow ourselves to be meikil.’ ” 

But it wasn’t only Komemius. “My father and my brother both felt a sense of responsibility for the ruchnius of other moshavim in the area. My brother was the one who carried on his legacy,” Rav Yisrael Yitzchak asserts. “The head of the local council once asked my father about the territorial boundary of his rabbinic authority, essentially telling him not to interfere in the spiritual concerns of other moshavim that were not under his sovereignty. But my father replied, ‘I operate without any territorial limitations, until I run into another rav who has yiras shamayim. Only then will I set a limit.’ 

“And my brother Rav Menachem Mendel carried this to an extreme. I’ll never forget the time when my brother found out about a newborn who was supposed to have a bris on Shabbos. But the parents decided to postpone the ceremony until Sunday — so that they could have guests at the celebration of the bris. When the rav learned about the situation, he set out with a beis din and the local mohel to that moshav on Shabbos, heading in the direction of the parents’ home. When they got there, they made no pretenses: the rav declared that they were forcing the parents to perform the bris at the appropriate time. When the parents saw the rav’s determination and self-sacrifice, they assembled a minyan right away. 

“My brother was once asked about his insistence on the public observance of halachah and his uncompromising stance on every detail, while the rabbanim in other communities were not so particular. My brother responded with a quote from Rabi Akiva, that the mitzvos are like Hashem’s loving, purifying mikveh.  A single impure hair is sufficient to invalidate an entire mikvah — and a single detail ruin everything.” 

 

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