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A Century In His Glow

Mishpacha Contributors

Rav Aharon Yehudah Leib Steinman ztz"l carried the weight of the Jewish People. Today we are all orphans

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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H ow does a person become a gadol hador?

It’s certainly not about votes, or even popularity. It’s about being a beacon of Torah for the generation — and also about understanding its heart. Rav Aharon Yehudah Leib Steinman bore on his thin but stalwart shoulders the weight of the Jewish People, serving as a personal Torah guide to thousands while at the same time displaying an unparalleled love for every Jew — his wisdom second only to his humility.

Rav Steinman, the 104-year-old sage renowned for his exacting and unforgiving personal standards, was also known as voice of compassion and understanding for troubled families and struggling youth. Somehow, the gadol from Brisk who never indulged in material luxury, who slept on the same thin mattress he received as an immigrant over 60 years ago and who refused to have the peeling walls of his home painted, was able to navigate the hearts of a new generation.

Although he lived in dire poverty, he raised millions of dollars for needy families and for the hundreds of kollel yungeleit under his auspices; although he spent every free moment until his last breath immersed in Torah study, no person’s problem was too trivial. And he was close to 100 when his sense of responsibility to Klal Yisrael propelled him to travel across the globe to wherever Jews were thirsty for inspiration. 

He was a leader of the generation. 

And today we are all orphans. 

 

As is known, Rav Aharon Leib requested that the media refrain from publishing hespedim about him. In consultation with gedolei haposkim, Mishpacha was instructed to prepare this tribute as an expression of kvod haTorah.

 

THE EARLY YEARS

Rav Steinman lived his entire life eschewing material comforts, but it was nothing new. From the time he was a child in Brisk, poverty and hunger were his constant companions — staved off only by the sweetness of Torah learning

Early on Erev Chanukah morning, under a pale blue sky streaked with feathery white clouds, the masses started coming. First trickles, then streams, then hundreds and hundreds of Jews. They all walked purposefully, with bowed shoulders and serious faces, trying to digest the news they’d heard just hours before.

It shouldn’t be hard to digest that a man over the age of 100 has passed away. Somewhere in their minds, they’d all known that this day would come. But at the same time, somewhere in their hearts, they’d refused to believe it.

For over a century, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman had kept the Angel of Death at bay. He’d escaped starvation, war, extermination, and illness. He’d carved out a spot as a premier sage and leader by the simple force of his Torah mastery, uncanny knowledge of human nature, and unbending insistence on his values. Time and time again, he’d proven the doctors wrong and fought off yet another round of disease.

This morning, the Angel of Death had won. The quiet leader from Bnei Brak, the man who had fused uncompromising principles for himself with compassionate understanding of a new generation, had been taken to the higher realms.

While Rav Steinman was at first reticent about his wartime experiences, in his later years he shared many memories with his children and grandchildren, who have graciously shared those recollections with Mishpacha. The challenges and trials traversed many countries, but the steel principles never changed. 

 

Childhood in Brisk

Rav Aharon Leib Steinman was born some 104 years ago in Brisk, Lithuania, one of the world capitals of Torah. But the city’s prestige was confined to the higher realms; materially, it offered only humble beginnings.

His family name was originally Steiman; it was changed later, after he fled Lithuania for the West. As he later explained to his grandchildren, “In Switzerland they said to me, ‘What kind of name is that?’ So they added the N.”

He had a grandfather named Reb Shlomo Chaim who was a hidden scholar. “In Warsaw,” Rav Steinman related, “there were two cemeteries, one for important people and one for commoners. My zeide passed away at 50, and wasn’t known for his greatness, so he was buried in the regular cemetery. But later people added a special matzeivah.”

 

The Rosh Yeshivah said he was named for a different grandfather, though, a simple man who paved roads for a living. “I haven’t found anything conclusive about him,” he said, in answer to the question of naming a baby after an illustrious ancestor. He would also speak of his grandmother Elka — a pious, wise, and learned woman from Brisk whom he often mentioned as having contributed to the molding of his personality. Another major influence was his uncle, Rav Simchah Zelig Reiger, the dayan of Brisk, who took young Aharon Leib under his wing.

Rav Steinman’s childhood years were marked by poverty so severe that his brother died from hunger at a year and a half. “When I was four, we were guests somewhere and they served this white liquid,” the Rosh Yeshivah recounted. “I asked, ‘What is this?’ I didn’t know what milk was. When they brought in a potato, I wanted to grab it with both hands, that’s how hungry I was. Ach, how much I was lacking in the middah of bitachon…” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

NO COMPROMISES

Visitors to Rav Aharon Leib’s apartment were struck by the incongruence between the bare-bones abode and its resident’s rich spiritual influence, by the chasm between their own concepts of pain and plenty and those evident at 5 Chazon Ish. But Rav Steinman saw it differently: All his life, he was preparing for a final accounting, and he allowed himself no compromises

It was a daunting assignment for the secular journalist: Visit an elderly sage in Bnei Brak and decipher his unusual power to shape the policy of virtually all Israel’s chareidim. The journalist followed his instructions. But on his visit to Rav Aharon Leib Steinman’s home, the puzzle grew only more difficult.

“The words ‘modest’ or ‘humble’ don’t do justice to the utter asceticism of the rabbi’s digs,” he wrote. “Entering the apartment is like a time warp to an Israel of 60 years ago, which is the length of time the rabbi had been living there…. There is no sign in the apartment entryway, on the mailbox or on the front door, announcing that you’ve arrived at the home of one of Israel’s most powerful men.”

He wouldn’t be the only person to note the incongruence between Rav Steinman’s bare-bones residence and rich spiritual influence. But his son Rav Moshe explained that Rav Steinman had a different view.

“Our father would tell us,” Rav Moshe says, “it says that a person has to be happy when he has yissurim, because then he fulfills his obligation for exile. ‘What do you care? Why don’t you fargin me to have exile in my own house? For galus I have to travel around the world?’

“There are people who talk about the way he survives on so little food — he’s been eating the same thing every day for the past 20 years,” Rav Moshe told Mishpacha’s Aryeh Ehrlich. “In fact, our father once said that he could never forget to say Retzei in the Shabbos bentshing, because the only time he washes and bentshes is on Shabbos. During the week he adds a little apple compote to his meager soup in order to boost his daily brachah count to the required 100 brachos.

“But he doesn’t see himself as deprived, not at all! Our father once told us, ‘In Russia there was a very wealthy Jew named Wissotzky. He had a big tea factory. He was a millionaire, and every day he ate expensive cuts of meat. Normal people could not allow themselves that luxury — they saved the meat for Shabbos. But Wissotzky ate meat every day, so how could he make his Shabbos fare special? He would eat compote. Imagine, Wissotzky the millionaire, allowing himself to eat compote only on Shabbos, while I eat compote every day. So am I deprived?’ ” 

 

My Palace

Others might consider his home — with faded paint and trademark iron bedframe — spartan at best. But Rav Steinman was perfectly happy with the apartment on Rechov Chazon Ish, perhaps because he always had his eye on his eternal residence. Once, when discussing the Gemara that states that a talmid chacham needs to have a dirah na’eh, Rav Steinman exclaimed, “Like my dirah. I live in a palace!”

Once, just a few moments between those simple walls saved a couple’s shalom bayis. This couple came to Rav Steinman to discuss getting a divorce. The Rosh Yeshivah was busy with someone else, and after 20 minutes of waiting, the couple picked themselves up and walked out, telling the Rebbetzin, “It’s fine, we don’t need him anymore.”

What had happened? For many weeks prior, the couple had been making plans to renovate their home. The constant disagreements on how to go about it led to disputes, which spawned more strife and more dissent. Eventually they decided to divorce. “Being in this home and seeing how simply you live,” they told Rebbetzin Steinman, “we realized that our reason for divorcing is silly.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

WORDS OF WISDOM AND CAUTION

By Binyamin Rose

Wisdom, humility, patience and pragmatism were just some of the virtues attributed to Rav Aharon Leib Steinman by the politicians and askanim who sought his counsel. He also made sure that no one left his abode without taking into account the spiritual element underlying the mundane events of this world.

Most politicians employ a coterie of advisors and strategists for policymaking and maneuvering through political minefields. For the Degel HaTorah faction of United Torah Judaism, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman was the only address they ever needed.

With an approach that was the diametric opposite to politics as usual, where the more caustic and cutthroat the better, Rav Steinman was the epitome of dignity and darchei noam, even when called on to deal with wily politicians whose constituencies opposed the interests of the chareidi world.

“The mainstream secular media tended to view Rav Steinman as a compromiser open to the winds of change,” said Rabbi Moshe Gafni, a 30-year Knesset veteran and the UTJ member who most often consulted with Rav Steinman. “I would qualify that and say Rav Steinman had a gift for giving the secular community a positive feeling, and ensuring that the Torah world could grow in quality and quantity without arousing antagonism.”

A good part of that growth, in the face of stiff political winds, could be attributed to Rav Steinman’s continual emphasis and insistence on avoiding unnecessary confrontation and working quietly and patiently behind the scenes.

Four years ago, when Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party was in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition, the government cut funding to yeshivos and passed a draconian draft law to fine and even imprison chareidim who declined to enlist in the IDF.

In that Knesset, UTJ was consigned to the opposition. When Rabbi Gafni and fellow UTJ MK Rabbi Yaakov Asher saw that their strategy of taking the fight to Lapid was ineffective, they asked Rav Steinman about the advisability of taking the fight to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

“Don’t attack Netanyahu,” Rav Steinman told them. “He’s just being the prime minister. He has no other choice. This is the only government he could have formed. Don’t attack him. We will need him yet.”

A few weeks later, the coalition collapsed, new elections were held in March 2015 in which Netanyahu won again, Lapid’s party lost almost half of its seats, and UTJ was back in Netanyahu’s good graces, and his coalition.

“There is no doubt in my mind that had we continued the fight with Netanyahu personally, he might not have dismantled his government so fast. And who knows where we would be today,” Rabbi Asher says. “That’s a small example, but one that reflects how Rav Steinman examines each issue with wisdom, without fanfare, and with tremendous concern for the Torah world.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

WAY BEYOND BNEI BRAK

Rav Steinman was over 90 when he reinvented himself. The cries of Klal Yisrael reached his ears, and, following the admonition of Chazal to gedolim of previous generations who were not ready to take travel-staff in hand, he took it upon himself to travel wherever Jews were thirsty for inspiration

For decades, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman’s schedule could be described in two words: He learned.

Through wars and political unrest, on the run in Europe and once finally settled in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Steinman devoted his every waking moment to Torah. He had little to do with the general public, and few people outside the yeshivah world had had a personal encounter with him.

And then everything changed. “Approximately 20 years ago,” relates Rabbi Moshe Yehudah Schneider, who was at Rav Steinman’s side for years and was his chief transcriber, “the Rosh Yeshivah changed his entire approach to Klal Yisrael. Until then, he was always rushing to learn more, to get more done. But then he sensed that the public needed him, and his entire demeanor changed.”

Visitors to Rav Steinman in recent years were instantly touched by his gentle smile, the tangible warmth, the love for Klal Yisrael he exuded. And although that love was ever-present, the famously affable mien was not necessarily his “natural” state. “I rarely remember seeing him smile before then,” says Rabbi Schneider, “only when he got excited about a vort in the middle of the shiur did a smile cross his lips.”

But once Rav Steinman opened his doors to every Jew, the smile was there for them all. 



So Much Pain

The Rosh Yeshivah began to set aside hours for the public. Initially, people would just come whenever they wanted to speak to him. His family wanted to put up a sign to limit the visits to official hours, but Rav Steinman wouldn’t hear of it. “If I put up a sign, it sounds like I want people to come to me. I’m happy to make time for them, but I’m not asking people to come!”

But as months passed, and Rav Steinman sensed an increasing demand for his time, he changed his entire daily schedule, setting aside an official time for visits. He’d stand by the door to answer questions so he could see as many people as possible. When standing became too difficult, he began to invite people into his room. When the Rebbetzin was alive, she’d bring women in to him.

Soon, the time allotted in the mornings wasn’t enough for all those who sought his counsel, so he added a slot in the afternoons as well — and the crowds kept coming.

Hearing about the pain of Klal Yisrael affected Rav Steinman deeply. “There were times when he’d finish kabbalat kahal, and we could tell as we gathered for the shiur that he was having a hard time collecting his thoughts,” says Rabbi Schneider. “ ‘There are so many tzaros by Yidden,’ he once confided, ‘it’s hard to pull myself back down to the Gemara.’ ”

One day Rabbi Schneider was in Rav Steinman’s home when there was a knock at the door. “I asked who it is, and a woman answered that she wanted to meet with the Rosh Yeshivah. Since the Rebbetzin wasn’t home, I didn’t think he’d allow her in, but he said, ‘I’ll go to the door.’

“He opened the door with his head down, and she told him that she had traveled especially from Be’er Sheva to see him. She had only one child, who was already 15 years old, and she wanted a brachah for more children.

“When the Rosh Yeshivah came back into the room where I was waiting, he emitted such a krechtz, the walls shook. Here’s a woman he never met, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t religious, yet he cared so deeply about her pain.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

TO NAVIGATE THE HEART

The same Rav Steinman renowned for his exacting and unforgiving personal standards was also known as voice of compassion and understanding for struggling youth. Somehow, some way, the sage from Brisk who never indulged in material luxury was able to navigate the hearts of a new generation drawn to a web of foreign opportunities and temptations

In an era when parenting has become more complex than ever, when success is far from assured despite parents making every effort, Rav Steinman emerged as a partner of frustrated parents and champion of their children — an intuitive and merciful leader who focused on the inherent goodness of every struggling soul.

Rav Steinman was a staunch advocate for parents who had trouble finding a school for their children due to petty considerations of status and community allegiance. When a father told him his child had been rejected to every cheder because he wore a blue shirt, Rav Steinman famously remarked that Avraham Avinu the son of Terach certainly would not have been accepted to cheder either. Back in Brisk, he said, Rav Dovid Soloveitchik studied alongside children from the least prestigious families. The educational institutions understood that their role was not to outdo one another with elite students, but to educate children who needed it.

At the same time, he did not allow unfounded claims of privilege or persecution to sway him. Once a father arrived at Rav Steinman’s home, filled with righteous indignation. He placed two yarmulkes before Rav Steinman — one edged with a ribbon (known as a “seret” in Hebrew and locally considered more conservative headgear) and one without (locally considered more modern).

“My son was just sent home from school,” he said angrily. “Because he wore a yarmulke without a seret. Does the Rav see any difference between these two yarmulkes? This one’s black, the other one’s also black. This one is velvet, the other one’s velvet. Nu, so this one has a ribbon, the other doesn’t. What’s the difference?”

Rav Steinman looked at the yarmulkes, then looked at the man. “Nu, so if there’s no difference, then why do you care? The school has a rule, that’s it.”


No Guarantees

Rav Moshe Steinman remembers when the parents of a bochur came to his father to ask about a shidduch that had been proposed for their son. They were hesitant to proceed because the girl’s brothers were weak in ruchniyus.

Rav Steinman bristled at the question and responded: “Once, when Jews lived in insular villages, there were far fewer temptations or exposure to negative influences. Back then, if a child left the fold, it likely indicated something about the parents, who didn’t invest to give him the right chinuch. But today, even if a child gets the best chinuch in the world, a friend in his yeshivah dorm can show him one device and forever damage his soul. Are you sure,” he said, turning to the father, “that you would withstand such a test?

“Today when a child goes off,” he continued, “you can only blame the parents if they allowed access to these things. That’s something else. But if they gave a good chinuch and the child was ensnared by outside temptations, that’s not an indication of the level of chinuch and ruchniyus in the home. Therefore, you can go forward with the shidduch.”

“I once asked my father if he ever expelled a bochur from yeshivah,” says Rav Moshe Steinman. “He thought for a few moments and replied, ‘There was one case in all my years, when a bochur did something terrible; he was harassing a maggid shiur and actually summoned an ambulance to his house in the middle of the night. I had no choice. I threw him out — but not before I made sure he had a different yeshivah.’ (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

END OF THE JOURNEY

As Rav Steinman’s body became weaker and weaker, his bottom-line priorities became stronger and stronger. Those around him saw how, toward the end of his life, the Rosh Yeshivah who bore responsibility for the Torah world on his shoulders became singularly focused on his own Yom Hadin

At 104, after a year of hospitalizations that confounded his physicians as he returned time and again to the land of the living, Rav Steinman had one final project to take care of: preparing himself to stand in front of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The gadol who lived through two world wars was now facing his own last battle — the fight for every additional day, hour, and minute.

Rav Steinman had always been thin, but in the last months he was truly emaciated, his eyes heavy with age, his skin yellowed like an old piece of klaf. None of his physical comforts mattered anymore though — every waking minute, whatever energy he had was used for Torah, insisting those around him learn together with him or at least read out loud so the sounds would penetrate his weakened frame.

“You think the yetzer hara leaves a person at my age?” the Rosh Yeshivah said after being released from a recent hospitalization. “Well, it doesn’t — it’s just grown old together with me.” And so, Rav Steinman fought off any kind of palliative care that would distract him from his goal: to prepare himself for his last day in This World.

“Every time we ask him if he wants something,” a grandson who was on a hospital shift said before the petirah, “he looks at us like we’re offering him something useless and silly. He just says, ‘We have to do teshuvah.’ That became his mantra. Nothing else matters anymore. You know, for decades he was the general who bore the Torah world on his shoulders, but Saba of the last few months turned inward. He doesn’t want anyone distracting him from his preparations for his personal Yom Hadin.”

Although the chareidi world had looked to him as their guide when it came to political decisions, in the last few months he limited his involvement with politics. “What does this have to do with me?” he would cut off the askanim who sought his clarity and wisdom. Before the Yamim Tovim, he even refused to be photographed for the Kupat Ha’ir national tzedakah campaign. “It reduces my merits,” he told the organizers. When they pressed on, explaining how it would be beneficial to the cause, he nodded his head, sighing in resignation.

Rav Steinman did acquiesce, however, when his grandchildren would bring a question a petitioner felt only he could answer. After one such sh’eilah, he raised his eyes to the clock on the wall and whispered to his grandson, “I just spent a precious half hour on this?! How many more hours do I even have? Nu, so maybe I had to do this chesed….”

But in some respects, the Rosh Yeshivah said several weeks before his petirah, life had become a bit easier. “Because I’m so weak, people aren’t coming with all their complicated questions, so I can’t make too many mistakes. I manage to daven three tefillos a day with a minyan, my grandchildren learn with me, and in my state there aren’t too many ways I can sin. People aren’t even telling me lashon hara anymore — some people still try, but I’m not sharp enough to make it worthwhile.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

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