It’s a week later as I write these lines, yet the powerful impression of the huge levayah of the gaon hador, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ztz”l, still hovers over us. This holy man who was brought to his eternal rest lived a life that taught us the mighty power of Torah. Those who dedicate their lives to Torah come to personify it, and they have the merit of sanctifying Hashem’s Name in death as in life.
Before the eyes of the entire nation – most of whom are far from recognizing the worth of Torah, this massive nighttime funeral, the like of which has never been seen in Yerushalayim, demonstrated our sense of bereavement, of orphanhood. At a time when the whole concept of Torah study in under relentless and unrestrained attack in the public and political arenas, this iconic scene of mourning showed the world that the honor of a gadol has nothing to do with budgets and benefits; rather, all eyes saw what becomes of a person who fulfills the Torah’s command, “And you shall ponder in it day and night,” a person who fulfills the the meaning of those words in the absolute sense.
Maran HaGaon Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ztz”l presented us with a living, pulsing image of the results of fulfilling that command in utter simplicity. That immersion in Torah, day and night, every breathing minute, produced a man who existed on an elevated plane, a giant among giants, of whom much more will yet be heard. And his greatness, which is simply a reflection of the greatness of Torah, will yet impact the entire world. In Rav Elyashiv’s life and in his death, even the average Israeli began to grasp that Torah study is not just one more issue of the day, to be discussed and tabled like any other topic.
I would prefer, however, to focus on one point in Rav Elyashiv’s life that has been concealed until now from all but the inner circle that was closest to him. This story, which was revealed publicly during the shivah, reveals that when we declare that the the Torah protects Am Yisrael, we are not simply invoking platitudes.
The man involved came to the shivah house to tell his story, bound by a promise to keep it secret during Rav Elyashiv’s lifetime.
A year and half ago, this man was at the wheel of the family car, driving his wife and children, when a truck smashed into them in a head-on collision. Everyone in the car was hurt, some more seriously than others, but none of them were critically injured except for the nin-year-old eldest son. He was rushed unconscious from the scene of the accident, admitted to the hospital hovering between life and death. Complex emergency surgery was performed on his head, after which the doctors’ prognosis was quite pessimistic. He was not expected to survive, and even if he did, he would be disabled for the rest of his life by irreversible brain damage.
The community was requested to daven for the boy’s recovery. The entire Sefer Tehillim was recited repeatedly, and mishnayos were learned for him. And naturally, gedolei Yisrael were asked for their prayers and brachos. But meanwhile the boy lay comatose in intensive care, his head wrapped in bandages and his body motionless.
A friend of the father’s who was close to Rav Elyashiv managed to get in to see him and to plead before the gadol hador to pray on the child’s behalf.
Rav Elyashiv gave him a surprising piece of advice to pass along to the boy’s father: he should quickly arrange tefillin shel rosh for the boy, although his bar mitzvah was still three and a half years away.
The many visitors who had crowded into the room listened intently as the father continued this unusual story to the aveilim: “My friend came to me, electrified, holding a bag containing tefillin labeled ‘for the refuah of …..’ He said this was a segulah from Rav Elyashiv for my son’s recovery. Those were wrenching days for us, on the one hand hearing pessimistic statements from expert doctors who had no hope to hold out to us, and on the other hand clinging to our emunah that even if a sharp sword is placed at a person’s neck, he should not despair of Heavenly mercy.”
The father’s emotion mounted as he continued his story: “We placed the tefillin at the head of the boy’s bed, and we felt very encouraged by the turn of events. The head of neurourgery argued with me that I mustn’t indulge in false hopes. There was hardly a chance, he said, that my son would ever wake up. But I was permeated with emunah, and I argued back just as forcefully that it wouldn’t be long before a miracle occurred.
A week later, my son was standing on his feet with no sign of brain damage, and the doctor admitted that this must, indeed, be a miracle — there was no other explanation for it. A few days after my son woke up and the strong coma-inducing drugs they gave him wore off, he was already talking in learning with me, and there was no indication that he’d ever suffered a head injury.”
The speaker paused briefly. Silence filled the room as everyone strained to hear the rest of the story.
“It was clear to us in what merit this miraculous occurrence had come about. But we couldn’t tell everyone about it. Maran had asked us not to spread the story, and until now it was known only to a select few.”
One of those select few was Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita, Rav Elyashiv’s son-in-law. When Rav Chaim heard the story of the head injury, he immediately quoted the Midrash that states, “I created the head for the sake of tefillin alone.” Rav Chaim went on to explain, “If there are tefillin, then there’s a reason to have a head.”
Later, it became known that this family was one of the few with whom Rav Elyashiv had shared this remarkable segulah. “There were three other children with head injuries,” the father related, “who were also saved through this segulah. We were the fourth, and sadly, the last to benefit from it in Maran’s lifetime.”
The father, holding the tefillin in his hand, finished his narrative. They peppered the father with questions, asking to hear the details again and again. The father, a shy person by nature who detested any fanfare, made one request of the public when this story became known: that in the merit of the spiritual awakening stirred by this story, people should please continue to daven for his daughter, Noa bas Bruriah Brena, who is still suffering from the injuries she sustained in the accident and is in need of Heavenly mercy.
This story forms another stone in a sparkling mosaic that shows us the power that the Torah and its keepers, even in times when it seems to be disparaged, wields in our everyday lives. It goes hand in hand with what was printed here recently – that Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l expressed his firm belief that the merit of his Torah learning could protect the Jews -- at least those that lived on his street -- from harm. I could add to this the many stories I heard after the passing of the Chazon Ish while collecting material for his biography. These stories, contributed by hundreds people from the full spectrum of Israeli society — chareidi, religious, traditional, and secular — all testify to the greatness of Torah and its influence as a powerful shield against harm in everyday life. These stories should be publicized, repeated, and carefully considered -- especially these days when so many forces talk about doing away with the full-time learning of our bnei yeshivah.