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Visions of Greatness

Margie Pensak

Dr. Michael Elman has cared for a number of Torah giants during his 30 years as an ophthalmologist. He’s received, he says, far more than he’s given

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

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“Through my profession I have gained unparalleled access to gedolim in a manner that I otherwise would never have experienced. This privilege has had a profound impact not only on my life but on the lives of my entire family; you can’t put a price on that” (Photos: Eli Greengart, personal archives)

When Dr. Michael Elman looked up into Rav Elyashiv’s eyes, he saw Torah leaders of the past, the travails of Klal Yisrael, and page after page of learning.

He had been summoned to the gadol’s house on a Motzaei Shabbos to conduct an eye exam. An ophthalmologist with a specialty in the treatment of the retina and vitreous (the liquid part of the eye), this was the first time Dr. Elman had examined the elder Rav Elyashiv, who was then in his 90s. On the spot, he took a medical history.

“There was no medication list, no prior history or exam notes; basically, nothing to review,” says Dr. Elman, who is the founder of the Elman Retina Group, a private retina practice in Baltimore, and an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Rav Elyashiv was very patient and kind.”

Because the Rav’s neck was bent from so many years of Torah learning, Dr. Elman had to get down on the floor and look up into the gadol’s eyes to conduct the examination. “As I looked into his eyes, I realized that these were eyes that had seen the gedolim of the last one-hundred-plus years and witnessed the most tumultuous century in our history since the Churban.”

Dr. Elman says that, amazingly, Rav Elyashiv’s retina showed virtually no age-related degeneration.

It has been the unique privilege of Dr. Elman, 62, to care for not only Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ztz”l, but also Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman ztz”l, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, and other Torah giants over 30 years as a retina specialist. In addition to an active life in community affairs — Dr. Elman is senior vice-president for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, youth commissioner for NCSY Atlantic Seaboard Region, and a founding executive board member of Agudath Israel of Maryland — he is the author of more than 250 scholarly works and one of only 280 ophthalmologists worldwide elected to the elite American Ophthalmological Society.

Dr. Elman says he feels blessed to have been chosen to serve great people.

“The gedolim take seriously the mitzvah of venishmartem,” says Dr. Elman, who has been privileged to look them in the eye

“Through my profession I have gained unparalleled access to gedolim in a manner that I otherwise would never have experienced,” Dr. Elman says. “This privilege has had a profound impact not only on my life but on the lives of my entire family; you can’t put a price on that. 

Clarity in a Murky World

Dr. Elman is a native of Detroit who learned in the mechinah and beis medrash of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. He later completed his retinal training at Washington University in St. Louis and The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Married and the father of four, Dr. Elman splits his time between Baltimore and the Old City of Jerusalem, where he also maintains a residence. On this day, we meet in his cozy, seforim-lined Baltimore study, where roshei yeshivah and rebbetzins have been received for decades. Settling in one of the two regal upholstered English Hepplewhite chairs, Dr. Elman elaborates on the special qualities of gedolim.

“If you look carefully, you will understand that the light they are radiating is the Shechinah,” Dr. Elman explains. “You feel the kedushah. To me it is clear our gedolim have special ‘ruchniyus antennae.’ Furthermore, in many cases I’ve seen, it doesn’t make sense that they are living with the medical problems that they have, let alone functioning at a high level. I know that in the case of Rav Steinman, he ate very little for decades. His energy came from Shamayim — not from the food.”

One common thread that Dr. Elman observed in the gedolim (and their family members) across the spectrum is their tremendous middos, their very kind, soft-spoken, measured words, and their high esteem for the medical profession.

“They are very down to earth and exceptional human beings,” Dr. Elman says. “They are characterized by their emes and clarity in a murky world filled with subtleties and apparent contradictions. Universally, they exhibit immense empathy and boundless ahavas Yisrael.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 710)

 

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