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Mesorah of Miracles

Yisroel Besser

It’s been five years since the passing of Rosh Yeshivah Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l, yet striving for growth and determination against the odds has become his enduring legacy

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

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ENDURING LEGACY Rav Nosson Tzvi was CEO of the yeshivah’s neshamah as much asof its guf. Five years later, Rav Leizer Yudel has kept the legacy going, leading the yeshivah into a shining new era

O n Monday evening, 11 Cheshvan 2011, the Rosh Yeshivah was on a conference call, discussing plans for an upcoming fundraising trip to the United States.

After he hung up, he welcomed some talmidim into his dining room. This was also the living room and study and unofficial office, the place where he met new bochurim, delivered chaburos and shmuessen, led administrative meetings. Most of all, it was where he learned, and on that evening, bochurim came to speak in learning as well.

He wasn’t feeling great, but it had been many years since he’d felt well. He pushed off exhaustion and made another phone call, reaching then-Shas leader Eli Yishai. The Rosh Yeshivah thanked him for accommodating the request of various roshei kollel to arrange a discount on the municipal property tax for avreichim. “It’s a tremendous load off my heart,” Rav Nosson Tzvi told him. The Rosh Yeshivah went to sleep.

On his schedule for early the next morning was another conference call with the yeshivah’s American administrative staff. But it was delayed.

Word filtered down that something was amiss, that the Rosh Yeshivah wasn’t well.

Hatzolah members filled the house on Rechov Ha’Amelim. There was nothing they could do.

Across the American night, sleep was shattered with the news appropriate for those darkest hours before dawn. Would the sun rise on a world without Rav Nosson Tzvi?

THE YESHIVAH had faced challenge before. For two centuries of our People’s sojourn through galus, the sound of Torah in the Mirrer beis medrash has been heard, the soundtrack to so much of our history. Founded in Mir, Poland in 1817, its talmidim learned through war and hunger; when the Nazi beast forced them to flee Poland, the gemaras went too. The Mir would rise, on eagles’ wings, its heart and soul transported to the ends of the world — they would find respite in distant Shanghai, where the yeshivah flourished during the early part of the 1940s.

Eventually, the Mir landed in Eretz Yisrael, where Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, a son-in-law of the previous rosh yeshivah and rav of Mir — Rav Eliyahu Boruch Kammai — restored it to its former glory. His son, Rav Beinish, assumed the position of rosh yeshivah and with it, the daunting task of fundraising for the burgeoning institution. Then he took ill, and all kinds of questions arose. Who were his secret sources for funding the yeshivah? And what would happen when he was gone?

Days before his passing, Reb Beinish looked at the concerned faces of family members gathered around his bed. “I know that you all expect to hear something from me,” he said, “but the truth is, ich veis alein nit, I also don’t know the answer.”

The succession was carried out in characteristically understated fashion. The yeshivah’s secretary made his way to the hospital and asked Rav Beinish whose name should go on the amutah, the official nonprofit entity, in place of Rav Beinish. “My son-in-law, Rav Nosson,” was the reply, the very informal coronation of a new king.

THERE WERE DOUBTERS, at first. He was young, in his 40s, with little leadership experience. He was American, a product of Chicago, raised with baseball and hot dogs, a world away from the narrow alleyways of Beis Yisrael.

He was already ill, having been diagnosed with the Parkinson’s that would make every moment a battle. But he had the spirit.

Raised in Chicago with baseball and hot dogs, who would have imagined that little Nosson Tzvi would become a gadol of the generation?

A few months later, Rav Refoel Shmuelevitz ( son of Rav Chaim, who’d been a son-in-law of Rav Leizer Yudel) was dancing at a yeshivah event along with the other roshei yeshivah. He contemplated the new rosh yeshivah, the young man radiating vitality and warmth, and commented in wonder, “Do you see? He’s younger than all of us, but look at him...”

Over time, Rav Nosson Tzvi’s illness would get worse; but his determination, it seemed, progressed at the same pace.

He presided over exponential growth, hundreds of talmidim becoming a thousand, then several thousand. An American businessman visited the Mir during those years and saw the single building jammed to capacity, talmidim learning under the stairwell and in the hallway and on the platform in front of the aron kodesh.

Rav Nosson Tzvi confided to the visitor that, much as he enjoyed the unique atmosphere, the cloud of Torah that seemed to hover over the building, he wished he had more space so that he could accept additional talmidim.

The businessman asked for a piece of paper and drew 20 boxes, writing his own name in the very first box. “Rosh Yeshivah, here’s what you should do. Each of these boxes will cost $100,000. One is already taken. Now, you’ll go fill the other 19 and you’ll buy another building.”

Over the years, the Rosh Yeshivah would often thank his American friend — not just for the money, but for the concept. “You taught me that the best way to make things happen is to have bitachon and jump in.”

The man who would emerge as the biggest builder of Torah in modern history learned quickly. The great philanthropists were drawn in by his warmth, his sincerity, his exceptional chein: his tangible love of Torah affected them too. One building, then another, then a third.

But the Rosh Yeshivah reserved his greatest innovation and creativity for the beis medrash: he was CEO of the yeshivah’s neshamah as much as its guf.

He developed a program for talmidim to write chiddushei Torah, and motivated them to finish the yeshivah’s masechta. He challenged the notion that Erev Shabbos was a day off. He pushed talmidim to deliver their own chaburos and would personally listen as they were delivered. He demanded and prodded and always won: After all, who could say no to a man who happily defied the rules of his own body?

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