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“You Can’t Build Up If You’re Looking Down”

Shimmy Blum

Rav Yisroel Belsky — rosh yeshivah, posek, mechanech, shochet, sofer, mohel — has influenced decades of talmidim and brought yeshivah education to new levels since the early days of Torah Vodaath, when many of his classmates stopped keeping Shabbos after leaving for high school. Rav Belsky’s motto throughout the turbulence of the last half-century: “The worst thing to do is to look down at the world; every generation has its own challenges.”

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

rav belskyIt was a cold Motzaei Shabbos 14 months ago when Rav Yisroel Belsky shlita, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and preeminent posek, was fighting for his life atMaimonidesMedicalCenter. Surrounded by close family members and a team of surgeons, Rav Belsky was about to undergo emergency surgery to seal a rupture of his esophagus, when he was urged by relatives to transfer to a prestigiousManhattan hospital for the complex procedure.

Barely able to speak, Rav Belsky adamantly refused, saying that to run off to another hospital would not show proper kavod toward the Maimonides surgeons who had begun treating him. And then, just five minutes after he was wheeled into the operating room, his heart abruptly stopped beating. Because he was already on the operating table and a stent was “mysteriously” near the surgeons at the time, the Rosh Yeshivah’s life was saved. Following extensive treatment and rehabilitation — with countless tefillos uttered on his behalf — the Rosh Yeshivah returned to both the beis medrash and his communal duties four months after the ordeal, and has been fully active since.

Rav Belsky’s daughter, Mrs. Tamar Rechnitz — wife of noted philanthropist Reb Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz — reflects on this incident and the open miracle that followed. “This is my father’s essence,” she says. “In any state he’s in, he’s busy thinking about everyone else.”

Several weeks ago, I had the merit of visiting Rav Belsky in his Kensington home, a day after he underwent a relatively minor surgical procedure. Although he was still recovering, the Rosh Yeshivah was warm, patient, and eager to share his insights on a variety of issues that Klal Yisrael is grappling with — the late hour and pleas that he rest notwithstanding. Despite being in his 70s and his recent health challenges, Rav Belsky remains a towering figure both literally and figuratively. His tone is soft, yet his ironclad vision and determination to help Jews everywhere are discernible in every word.

Over the past half century, Rav Chaim Yisroel HaLevi Belsky has earned renown throughout the Jewish world for many things. He is an iluy with an encyclopedic knowledge of Tanach, Shas, and poskim, in addition to medicine, science, and technology. He has authored several seforim in both Hebrew and English on Chumash and halachah, and continues to deliver a slew of shiurim to talmidim and balabatim each week. He is one of the Torah world’s leading poskim, ruling on some of the most pertinent and complex halachic questions of the day, and serves as the lead posek for the Orthodox Union (OU) kashrus division. He is also a shochet, mohel, and sofer.

His prestigious résumé notwithstanding, relatives, talmidim, and everyone else who crosses paths with Rav Belsky are most enamored by his genuineness and the force of his character. A father of 13 and a rebbi in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath since age 21, Rav Belsky has the distinctive power of connecting to and inspiring anyone — regardless of age or background.

Throughout our hours-long conversation — regarding chinuch, shalom bayis, technology, kids-at-risk, and other pressing concerns — Rav Belsky constantly deflects the common insinuation of a “crisis.” He pulls the Tanach on his dining room table toward himself, and points to a pasuk in Sefer Koheles (7:10), in which the wisest of men says, “Do not talk of why the previous days were better than the present, for you did not ask this question with wisdom.” The Rosh Yeshivah exclaims, “The worst thing to do is to look down at the world. Every generation has its own challenges, virtues, and faults. You cannot accomplish with people you look down on.”

Whereas many people today have a “sky is falling” attitude when confronted with so many contemporary challenges, Rav Belsky — whose counsel on communal and personal issues is widely sought — has a keen grasp of these challenges and their remedies, but his worldview is molded by a background and set of life experiences that gives him confidence in a bright future for American Jewry.


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