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“Beloved and Pleasant in Their Lifetime, and in Their Death Were Not Parted”

Rabbi Yaakov Feitman

It is only twenty-five years, but it feels like a different era. It now seems astonishing that we were zocheh to live in their midst, as they radiated holiness and wisdom, humility and humanity upon an entire generation. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, the acknowledged chakima d’Yehudai, “wisest of the Jews” (Shabbos 129a), and Rav Moshe Feinstein, the posek hador, decisor of the generation. For nearly a joint century, all Klal Yisrael rested on their physically frail, but spiritually indomitable, shoulders.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A set of personal vignettes may help to fit two luminous pictures into one unpretentious frame. A few other menahalim and I made the trip to Monsey to formally invite Reb Yaakov to speak at the Torah Umesorah convention. The Rosh Yeshivah inquired about current issues, regaled us with stories of the pedagogic teachings of the Alter and Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer. At one point, he made a shehakol on a glass of water. On the way back to Brooklyn, we tried to recreate that memorable brachah.

We could not.

The sweetness and kavanah, the sheer joy and evident gratitude for Hashem’s kindness, the meticulous pronunciation of every word were unforgettable, but inimitable. Some of us veteran mechanchim already had more than a hint of gray, but we learned a lesson in reciting brachos as though we were back in preschool.

As the menahel of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yaakov Yoseph in Staten Island, geography afforded me the privilege of presenting a weekly shiur on inyanei chinuch and rabbanus to a group of bochurim in Reb Moshe’s yeshivah, now under the able leadership of his son Reb Reuven, shlita. The apprehension I felt speaking after the Rosh Yeshivah was indescribable, but the aura of kedushah he exuded was so palpable it overrode any other emotion. His very presence nullified all pettiness and matters of inconsequence. To stand near him was to touch eternity. I always returned to my talmidim in RJJ reinvigorated by the fragrance of Gan Eden I had savored.

Reb Yaakov and Reb Moshe taught us that Torah greatness is no mere intellectual feat. It is the mystical confluence of gavra and cheftza, Man and his achievements. Even as we analyze the nature of their singular bequests to Knesses Yisrael, we must remember that their primary contribution was … themselves.

 

Attitude Toward Life

When one thinks of Reb Yaakov and Reb Moshe, a fundamental common characteristic one remembers is their positive attitude toward life, Judaism, and being a Torah Jew. Reb Moshe very famously lamented that those who often complained that es is shver to zein a Yid — it’s hard to be a Jew — may have remained religious themselves, but ruined the next generation. Reb Moshe was not only friendly to everyone, but radiated a sunny disposition that was infectious and brought a smile to all.

Reb Yaakov, who was respected even by gentiles wherever he went, taught that one must establish a positive relationship with people before attempting religious guidance or criticism. He cited Yaakov Avinu’s words to the shepherds before chastising their business practices. “My brothers, where are you from?” (Bereishis 29:4). Yaakov Avinu was instituting rapport, caring, and concern to create a context for the reproof to follow (Emes L’Yaakov, Bereishis). Reb Yaakov, too, was conveying to all of us that censure is meaningless, and even counterproductive, without the framework of affection and concern. Rabbi Yonoson Rosenblum describes a beautiful scene where Reb Yaakov finds himself in a doctor’s office with a nonreligious boy. Realizing that he would not be able to speak to the boy, Reb Yaakov played catch with him instead. ‘It was the only way I could leave him with a pleasant memory of what a frum Jew is’” (Reb Yaakov, ArtScroll/Mesorah, page 247).

 

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