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He Took Nothing for Granted

Rabbi Eytan Kobre

It was the Steipler Gaon who crowned Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky as the “chakima d’Yehudai,” the wise man of the Jewish People. And, indeed, the individuals, institutions and communities that benefited from Reb Yaakov’s sage counsel for nearly half a century were legion. But it wasn’t only his insight and foresight that made Reb Yaakov the address for Klal Yisrael, but equally his ability to advise others on the most difficult issues without an iota of self-interest coloring his advice.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

“You’re mamish a novi! How did you know I learned daf yomi with Reb Yankev every summer for ten years?!” exclaimed Rav Leibel Wulliger, rosh kollel of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, with his trademark exuberance.

In fact, I hadn’t known Reb Leibel was Reb Yaakov’s chavrusa; I was in Torah Vodaath that morning for another reason altogether, but when I saw the Rosh Kollel, whom I knew to be a longtime maggid shiur in Camp Ohr Shraga — where Rav Yaakov summered for many years, I decided to ask if he had memories to share, which he heartily agreed to do. The camp, located in Greenfield Park, New York, was founded by Rav Zelik Epstein and Rav Nesanel Quinn, and named in memory of the unforgettable Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the builder of Torah institutions in America.

Reb Yaakov had famously begun learning daf yomi after being honored with beginning the new cycle of Shas before the tens of thousands present at the previous Siyum HaShas. Much later, he told Reb Leibel with his characteristic humility that there are days he’s kept so busy receiving visitors and dispensing advice and guidance, that if not for his nonnegotiable daf yomi seder, “ver veist oyb ich volt gelernt [who knows if I would have learned at all]?”

I ask Reb Leibel if the Rosh Yeshivah was ever late to their seder. “Never, ever. And almost never did he interrupt it for any reason. We learned from 9:45 to 12:30 every day. And sometimes he’d end a bit early, saying, “Yetzt gei ich upschreiben [Now I’m going to write up the chiddushim from (that day’s) seder].”

Then, with a twinkle in his eye, Reb Leibel recalls one occasion when Reb Yaakov did, indeed, conclude the learning session quite early: “Reb Yankev had been asked to deliver a eulogy at the at the levayah of a gadol from another stream in Klal Yisrael, and he said to me, ‘I have to prepare well for this hesped, because they’re going to be medayeik in every word of mine.’ He wanted to give the kavod acharon to this great tzaddik, but, wisely, also wanted to ensure his words wouldn’t be misconstrued and become a source of tension between Yidden.”

Reb Yaakov’s punctuality wasn’t limited to his learning, says Reb Leibel: “He came to davening early every day, and usually learned his daily seder in Nach then, on the beis medrash porch. And, there was yet another thing he was always first to arrive for — mealtimes.” Reb Leibel sees my slightly surprised expression. “Yes, he made sure to be first in the camp dining room so no one could stand up for him. I still remember him rushing down to the dining room with the youthful vigor of a cheder yingel, all to avoid the kavod.”

The conversation veers back to the centerpiece of their relationship: Torah study. So many treasured memories of the hundreds of exalted hours they spent together come tumbling forth from Reb Leibel: “First, you have to know that he learned with the enthusiasm of a bochur in yeshivah, and with a clarity and orderliness that were amazing. When Reb Yankev had a question on what we were learning, he would assess which of the Acharonim he thought might have had the same problem, saying, ‘Der pahst fahr der Rashash, der pahst fahr der Pnei Yehoshua [this one is appropriate for the Rashash to have asked, this one for the Pnei Yehoshua],’ and usually he was right on target.

“He took nothing for granted. When we’d come to a gemara in which a teaching is attributed to a generational chain of chachamim, each having received it from his predecessor, Reb Yankev would call upon his in-depth knowledge of history and go slowly through each link of the chain of mesorah being presented, saying ‘yeh, z’shtimt, yeh z’shtimt [it fits, it fits].’ ”

Reb Leibel makes an observation about the unusual breadth of Rav Yaakov’s interests in Torah, one that I can see holds personal meaning for him: “If I would show a litvishe yeshivah bochur today a chiddush in the Minchas Eluzor [from the previous Munkaczer Rebbe], he’d most probably have little or no interest. But when I’d show Reb Yankev a piece in that sefer, he’d sit down and learned it inside, line-byline, the same way he’d learn a shtikel in the Brisker Rov’s sefer.”


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