| Magazine Feature |

A Century of Serenity    

 A year after the passing of Rav Gershon Edelstein ztz”l, his son-in-law Rav Dovid Levy opens a page into this giant of spirit

Photos: Mattis Goldberg, Shuki Lehrer, Mishpacha archives

Throughout the ten decades of his life, Rav Gershon Edelstein ztz”l was thrust into many roles and responsibilities, ultimately taking on the burden of leadership for the entire yeshivah world. But even as he dealt with Klal Yisrael’s toughest scenarios, he never abandoned his primary post as a rebbi for shiur alef teenage bochurim.

It’s been a year since last Shavuos night, when Rav Gershon — who had turned 100 the month before — was taken to Mayanei Hayeshua Hospital after suffering a heart attack. In Ponevezh, the learning was paused to say Tehillim for the Rosh Yeshivah’s recovery, while in the hospital, the doctors were able to stabilize his condition. When Yom Tov was over, the news spread through the Torah world, but while the eyes of the public were all worriedly focused on the Rosh Yeshivah’s frail health, he continued his regular daily schedule: The next day, from his sickbed, he even delivered his regular chaburah to the meishivim who explain the shiur to the younger talmidim. He spoke for nearly seventeen minutes, and despite wearing an oxygen mask, the Rosh Yeshivah was as clear and lucid as ever.

Three days later, he was taken from This World, and the sense then was — and still is — that an era had ended.

His was the story of quiet force, of influence without fanfare. It’s the story of a gadol hador who spent close to eight decades saying shiur to 17-year-olds — and whose words were so compelling, whose relationships so enduring, that alumni in their forties or fifties would crowd into the room to keep learning. It’s the story of a rebbi who demanded proficiency in Shas, yet showed his charges how to achieve it with serenity; a centenarian who had total mastery of Torah, yet who could connect to the heart of a young bochur.

A year later, we’re at the home of Rav Dovid Levy, Rav Gershon’s son-in-law and successor as rosh yeshivah in Ponevezh, and for many years, his right-hand man. We catch Rav Dovid at home in between delivering chaburos in his modest dining room, but when it comes to sharing stories about one of the giants of spirit whom we had living among us, time seems to stand still.

“One of the things that characterized my father-in-law most — his nature, his thoughts and his conduct — was his yishuv hadaas,” Rav Levy tells Mishpacha. “It didn’t matter if it was about plowing through a sugya in Shas, or making the trek up a long hill to reach his destination. ‘You always go slowly and calmly’ — was his mantra, the secret of his life. That’s how he always conducted himself. Menuchas hanefesh, inner tranquility, was his guiding light, and he tried to imbue it in his countless talmidim. For him, menuchas hanefesh was actually a condition for growth and elevation.”

Many wonder how the rosh yeshivah of the vaunted Torah citadel of Bnei Brak, the final word of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, and the elder gadol of a generation, found the tools to relate to the 17-year-olds of the 21st century. But those who attended his daily shiur describe a scene both exalted and down-to-earth, a rebbi who had within close to a century of Torah learning, yet who was always excited to hear a curious teenager’s question or suggestion. Despite the titles and the heavy burden of authority he held, during that daily shiur Rav Gershon was simply their teacher. 

While the media may have covered his policy decisions when it came to chareidi interactions with the government, within the Torah world Rav Gershon’s battle cry had nothing to do with politics. It was, instead, to know all of Shas.

In that sense, he was decidedly against the tide. In a world where many yeshivos focus on painstakingly peeling back the layers in one sugya, achieving depth at the expense of breadth, he made ambitious demands of his students: He fully expected them to learn all of Shas.

“A bochur must know Shas,” Rav Gershon would say often, encouraging his talmidim to utilize weekends and other “off-time” to meet that goal. He learned quickly and thoroughly, and didn’t believe in getting delayed or distracted from the overall flow and pace — and that was the path he set for his students as well. He made it very clear that he expected them to finish the yeshivah masechta, be it after seder, over Friday and Shabbos, during their free time — the important thing was to finish.

Bochurim would ask, “If that means I’ll only learn Gemara and Rashi, without Tosafos, should I still do it?” And he would characteristically answer, “Rashi was also a lamdan.”

It was crucial — and it was doable! — to know all of Shas, he kept urging them. Yet even as he made intense demands, he told the bochurim to conduct themselves with an attitude of calm and serenity, his own yishuv hadaas a constant personal example.

One way he retained that inner serenity, even as so much was swirling around him, was not to overthink.

“He would read the newspaper while standing,” say his grandson, Rav Yisrael Levy, who has joined us for our conversation. “He would do that so that he’d only read what was necessary, in order to be up to date on the major events that were happening. He dedicated about a minute to this, not more.

“He always kept his focus, knew what he could change and what he couldn’t, but the only thing that sometimes bothered him was the situation in the yeshivah,” Reb Yisrael continues. “If there were disturbances or machlokes, that was very distressing for him. His worry for kavod haTorah and the situation in the yeshivah — the flagship of the yeshivah world — was one thing that caused him angst and could derail his pure, focused thoughts. But even then, he’d make sure to banish those thoughts and not let them drag him down. When he once heard that a group of bochurim was busy with the machlokes in the yeshivah, he went over to them and told them that these things were in the category of ‘dreams dreamed by others that we pray have no merit,’ quoting a line from the private prayer some people  say during Bircas Kohanim.”

Rav Gershon’s ability to stay calm, focused, and organized was a mainstay of his derech. “A balagan, a mess,” he would tell his students, “leads to loss of precious time.”

“In general,” says Reb Yisrael, “my grandfather held that one should sit and learn with yishuv hadaas, without pressure or anxiety. Even when talmidim came to him ‘looking’ for something to be pressured about, he did everything to ease their tensions. ‘This is not how you become a gadol,’ he would say cheerfully. ‘Someone who really wants to grow needs to not think about it. Just do what needs to be done, with simchah, with menuchas hanefesh, and without thinking too much about what will be and how it will be — and that’s how you really grow.’”

Added to all this was Rav Gershon’s strict adherence to all issues of bein adam l’chaveiro, of interpersonal relationships, about which he was extremely careful.

“People could sit with him for hours, pouring out their hearts. He didn’t always have a way to help them, but he never told anyone that it was time to wrap up,” Reb Yisrael relates. “But it went even further than possibly offending someone sitting in his presence. Even if he’d be asked to deliver a shiur or a shmuess in a yeshivah or kollel, if there was the slightest chance that someone on the staff would be offended or feel bad in any way, he would turn it down.”

Rav Gershon’s own modesty and humility was a dominant facet of his gentle personality, and it seems to have rubbed off on his son-in-law — or perhaps it was there all along. Many decades ago, Rav Gershon was taken by Rav Dovid’s greatness in Torah and yiras Shamayim, but what really captivated Rav Gershon when he chose him as a son-in-law was Rav Dovid’s kindness and self-effacing humility.

Rav Dovid, for his part, felt the same about his father-in-law, his role model for shalom bayis and unconditional love toward his family.

“The way he treated the Rebbetzin a”h,” Rav Levy says, “was extraordinary. There was no way not to be impressed by the special way he related to her. He always listened to her opinion and was always worried about her welfare in every way possible.”

Rebbetzin Meira Levy, Rav Gershon’s daughter, notes that her father would prepare the sandwiches for her and her hardworking mother, who were both teachers in the same school. And he wasn’t shy about helping with the housework, either.

“My father was unbelievably dedicated to my mother,” the Rebbetzin says. “He wouldn’t leave for Shacharis before she got up — he’d only leave after her — so that he could help her with the morning preparations.”

Rebbetzin Levy grew up in a very public home where “the door was never closed. The house was open to anyone. My mother was also like that. Together, they were a source of unparalleled inspiration for us. I never heard my father scream at anyone, and certainly not at us. We knew well what we needed to do and when, and most importantly, what not to do. It was clear to us, without mussar or punishments.”

The Rebbetzin describes how her parents were always available to the public. “When my mother would sometimes go take a rest for a few minutes to recoup her strength, I would secretly disconnect the telephone from the wall, because it was right next to her head and with the first ring she’d wake up. It was the only thing I dared to do despite her opposition, and only because I knew that otherwise she wouldn’t sleep at all.”

Rav Dovid says that when the bochurim would dance in front of Rav Gershon at a simchah, he would go over to his wife afterward and tell her, “Did you see them? They’re dancing for you! What is mine is really yours.”

“He would go with grandchildren everywhere,” Rav Dovid adds. “They loved to be with him. He emanated so much warmth, and the atmosphere around him was always one of happiness and joy. Somehow, he was first and foremost a husband, father and grandfather, as well as being the Abba to thousands of talmidim over the years.”

Perhaps it was his own humble beginnings that contributed to his being so real and grounded. Rav Gershon was born in April 1923 in the Russian town of Szumiacz near Smolensk, where his father, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Edelstein, served as av beis din. He and his brother Yaakov ztz”l, beloved longtime rav of Ramat Hasharon and one year his junior, spent their early years learning Torah with their father once the town came under Communist rule and cheder was closed down. In 1932, after the death of their mother, Rebbetzin Miriam (daughter of Melstovka av beis din Rav Mordechai Shlomo Movshovitz), Rav Tzvi Yehudah, his two sons, daughter Pesia (Gershonovitz, a”h) and his mother managed to obtain passage on a ship from Odessa to Eretz Yisrael.

As they had not registered with any of the political movements at the time, they had to fend for themselves for a place to live, and although relatives who came to greet them at the Haifa port offered to share their own tiny apartment with the new arrivals, there was really no room for all of them — and so the family split up, with Pesia going to one relative and her grandmother to another.

Rav Tzvi Yehudah refused to part from his two sons, however, and searched for a place where the three could live together so that he could continue to teach them Torah. Soon the small fragmented family found themselves a home — an empty chicken coop in the village of Ramat Hasharon. A few crates from the owner of a nearby orchard served as beds, chairs, and a table, but father and sons needed nothing more, as long as they could learn Torah together in freedom.

A short time later, Rav Tzvi Yehudah was asked to serve as the rav of the town, but even once they settled into proper accommodations, the young brothers continued learning with their father — their exclusive spiritual guide and mentor. There were few religious families nearby, and the only school was a government one — and so the brothers stayed home and continued learning from morning to night, daf after daf, perek after perek, masechta after masechta.

One day at the end of 1943, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky arrived in the dusty farming village and knocked on the Edelsteins’ door. Rav Rozovsky introduced himself and then got to business: Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman was establishing a new yeshivah on a hill in Bnei Brak, he told Rav Edelstein, and had hired him to serve as rosh yeshivah. The yeshivah would be named Ponevezh after Rav Kahaneman’s original yeshivah in Europe, which was decimated by the Nazis, and he had high hopes for its future. He was looking for bochurim to serve as the kernel of the yeshivah, and the Chazon Ish had recommended the Rav’s sons. Would the Rav consider sending them?

At the time, the Edelstein boys were in their late teens, yet aside from a short stint in the Lomza yeshivah, they had never learned in a proper beis medrash. But now the time had come for them to find their places in the nascent yeshivah world of Eretz Yisrael. Rav Tzvi Yehuda agreed to send his sons, and although he didn’t know it at the time, he also provided the new institution with its future rosh yeshivah — and the Torah world of Eretz Yisrael with its eventual commander in chief.

Those years in Ramat Hasharon equipped the Edelstein brothers with a mastery of Torah, from Chumash through Shas and poskim, but not only: They’d also acquired a true level of genuine ahavas Yisrael. There was just one shul in the village, where they davened with the farmers and craftsmen and vendors.

And Rav Gershon, very much the son of the community rav, not only learned with great hasmadah, but found the time, patience and heart for others as well. Rav Kahaneman took notice, and it wasn’t long before Rav Gershon, still a bochur, was asked to join the Ponevezh faculty. Months later, he married Rebbetzin Rochel — daughter of Rav Yehoshua Zelig Diskin, then the rav of Pardes Chana. When he left the world eight decades later, he had added many titles and roles to his persona, yet he always retained that primary post of first-year maggid shiur.

And just like his father-in-law, Rav Dovid Levy, too, has always remained the humble avreich, even as he became a maggid shiur in Ashdod’s Yeshivas Pri Eitz Chaim, followed by a similar position in Yeshivas Chaim Ozer and Yeshivas Ponevezh, where he was appointed rosh yeshivah after his father-in-law’s passing last year.

He’s never let his position get in the way of his self-perception as one among many. He’s been blessed with “golden hands,” and doesn’t shy away from helping others with his G-d-given talents — he happily fixes people’s appliances, electronic gadgets, and even cars. He was once stopped on Rechov Rabbi Akiva in order to fix someone’s car, and didn’t flinch when it meant crawling under the chassis of the vehicle. When someone came to his house with a jet-ski and asked him to help him fix it, Rav Dovid didn’t even think twice. For Rav Dovid, it’s all about chesed and sharing the technical gifts with which he’s been blessed, even as he’s a rosh yeshivah in Ponevezh.

“If there was one outstanding feature of my father-in-law,” says Rav Dovid, “it was his power of restraint. When you ask me who Rav Gershon was for me, the answer is that, aside from his tremendous toil in Torah and his lofty middos, he never, ever offended anyone. And that was in the merit of his unbelievable power of restraint.

“It was a life’s work for him,” Rav Dovid continues. “It happened often when the situation called for something to be said, a reaction, a comment. In the public sphere, there are enough such incidents. But he always held his tongue — perhaps someone might be offended. And if there was even the slightest question of someone being offended, he wouldn’t take the risk.”

IN the last decade of his life, after years of intentionally avoiding decisions relating to leading the tzibbur, Rav Gershon began to realize that the burden of the generation rested on his shoulders, and he could no longer avoid it.

Still, over many years as Rosh Yeshivah, he sometimes felt it was correct to express his opinion and render a decision — such as in the well-known machlokes in the yeshivah, where he firmly expressed his opinion and went on to absorb the blowback in silence. At the time, his fellow gedolei Yisrael even went out of their way and called for an atzeres in honor of Torah.

Many of his determinations left a strong imprint through the Torah world — for example, his instructions to institute sedarim in the yeshivos on Chanukah and Purim, a takanah that spread to yeshivos all over.

While he largely avoided political decisions and would nullify his own opinion to other gedolim, in his final years he began to respond to matters relating to the political representation in the Knesset and local authorities, where he always chose the path of peace and unity. He guided the chareidi representation in the Knesset on how to act in the draft crisis, and also provided guidance for the Torah world during Covid.

His grandson Reb Yisrael reflects on the period when he began to lead and make public decisions: “It was a very big surprise for me,” he says. “I always knew that he avoided such decisions, certainly regarding major issues affecting the chareidi public and the klal in general. He would always say he didn’t know enough about the issue to make a decision for others, and his motto was, ‘teach your tongue to say I don’t know.’ But apparently, Hashem sent him siyata d’Shmaya when the right time came for him to be able to lead Klal Yisrael.”

At the same time, while he didn’t take public positions on issues, Rav Gershon always answered clearly and decisively when it came to personal questions.

“He had the approach of ‘chanoch lanaar al pi darko’ when it came to the chinuch of children, or molding the path of talmidim, or in any other area in life. He held that a person needs to conduct himself and move forward based on the natural kochos that Hashem granted him, and not to try and force himself to oppose those strengths,” Rav Dovid says. “He felt that the reason for the high drop-out rate in the frum community despite the tremendous teshuvah movement among our non-religious brethren is because those dropouts were being taught in ways that didn’t suit them according to their nature, causing inestimable — and sometimes irreversible — damage.”

Rav Gershon would often illustrate the importance of adapting chinuch to the nefesh of the of the talmid by relating how the Steipler did not connect to the derech halimud of his son, Rav Chaim Kanievsky. The Steipler felt that Rav Chaim learned too fast, and so he tried to persuade his son to change his way a bit, to go a little slower, to linger on each sugya and delve further into it. Only after Rav Chaim burst out crying did the Steipler realize that it’s impossible to force someone to learn and advance in a way that his heart does not want to. It just doesn’t work.

“Adopt this rule of Shlomo Hamelech for yourselves,” Rav Gershon would say. “Chanoch lanaar al pi darko, because that is the only way that you can really be mechanech him given his specific and individual neshamah.”

While Rav Gershon generally shied away from making statements about public policy, once he was thrust into the leadership position of the litvish Torah world with the passing of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, all eyes were on him for the burning questions of the day. What would Rav Gershon say if he would be here today, regarding the difficult situation in Eretz Yisrael?

“First of all, he would have said to make a cheshbon hanefesh,” Rav Dovid says. “He would always tell the story about Rav Huna, who lost four hundred barrels of wine in a day, and his friends urged him to make a cheshbon hanefesh with himself. Likewise, we too have to realize that everything that befalls our nation is directly from Hashem, and that means that each of us has a responsibility to make a personal accounting, to make rectifications in our own lives in order to thwart the harsh decrees.

“Aside from that, he would always say that we need to strengthen two things: to learn mussar, and to manage all the little things in our lives. The smallest things. He would often say, ‘Big things come out of little things.’ He encouraged us to strengthen ourselves in matters that garner less attention — ‘things that a person tends to grind with his heel,’ to quote Dovid Hamelech. And of course, to boost our Torah learning for the sake of Am Yisrael, for the protection of Jewish soldiers and the success of the battles.”

Rav Dovid tells how Rav Gershon once came to a simchah of Noach Hertz, a well-known former  IDF fighter pilot captured and tortured by the Syrians during the Yom Kippur War before becoming a  baal teshuvah after eight months in captivity.

“I’ve had the zechus of learning with him b’chavrusa for the past 18 years,” says Rav Dovid. “Years ago, his oldest daughter got married, and he invited, among other people, his former friends and fellow pilots from the military. They sat together at one of the tables, without even wearing head coverings, and Rav Gershon, who also learned with Rav Noach every week, came into the hall. The pilots came over to him and said to him, ‘You should know, kevod haRav, that we protect you!’

“My father-in-law didn’t argue, didn’t enter into any kind of theological discussion or defend his position — he just smiled charmingly and said, ‘Thank you, thank you!’ and gave them the best feeling possible. That is the essence of who he was.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1016)

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