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A Word Is a Word

What a difference the Chofetz Chaim's presence might have made in the development of Israel's chareidi community

 

Because of the coronavirus, I had the privilege of being almost alone with Rav Ariav Ozer, Rosh Yeshivas ITRI, when he was sitting shivah recently for his father, Reb Shalom Ozer a”h. Besides reinforcing one of my fundamental maxims of successful parenting — parental erlichkeit is one of the prerequisites for good children — in recounting his father’s life, Rav Ozer also mentioned two interesting footnotes.

An absolute abhorrence of any form of falsehood was something that Reb Shalom and his late wife Rivka shared. I have previously written about how she could not utter a false word. Even signing a reused form granting permission to go on a school outing that was not strictly accurate as of the signing was beyond her.

Rav Ozer related how one Leil Shabbos, a shalom zachar was announced in shul, and his father went over to wish the new father a mazel tov. That evening, despite having been unwell at dinner, Rav Ozer’s father, already in his eighties, insisted on walking down five flights of stairs and back up to attend the shalom zachar. He was concerned that by his mazel tov, he had implicitly suggested that he would come to the shalom zachar, and no amount of entreaties from his family could persuade him otherwise.

Reb Shalom had been one of the top electrical engineers in Israel until his retirement. In those days, it was common practice for the general contractor on large building projects to substantially inflate the cost of the electrical subcontractor, and then split the overcharge with him. Mr. Ozer absolutely refused to participate in any such schemes or to ever again have anything to do with a contractor who proposed it, a stringency that cost him many large projects.

Since he and his wife lived in an apartment in which not even the mattresses, filled with sea grass, had been changed since it was built in 1933 (until they moved to Har Nof in 2015), money was never a temptation.

WHEN ASKED FOR AN EXPLANATION of his arichas yamim, Reb Shalom always attributed it to the fact that as a bochur he had personally cared for Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer ztz”l. During the 1948 War of Independence, a grenade exploded close to Rav Isser Zalman, and a good deal of shrapnel entered his leg, which became badly infected.

The doctors despaired of Rav Isser Zalman’s life. He was moved to the home of his son-in-law in Petach Tikvah, and a call went out for bochurim in the Lomza Yeshivah, which had been reestablished in the same city, to care for Rav Isser Zalman by changing his bandages twice a day, both a gruesome and delicate task.

Reb Shalom answered the call, but because he was among the younger bochurim to volunteer, it was some days before he was called to assist. After his turn finally came, Rav Isser Zalman insisted from then on that no one else should perform the twice-daily changing of his bandages, as Reb Shalom’s care and gentleness in doing so had been so qualitatively above anyone else’s. In later years, Reb Shalom would often say with wonder, “I held Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer in my arms.”

Rav Ozer’s father’s maternal grandfather was Rav Eliezer Shulewitz, one of the closest disciples of Rav Yisrael Salanter and the founder of Lomza Yeshivah in 1926, the first yeshivah in Poland. Rav Shulewitz appointed his son-in-law, Rav Yechiel Mordechai Gordon, as rosh yeshivah in his place, and in the 1920s came to Eretz Yisrael to live out his days in anonymity in Jerusalem.

A visitor from Europe, however, recognized him, and his period of being able to learn on his own, without distraction, came to an end. Word reached the Chofetz Chaim that Rav Shulewitz was living in Jerusalem, and the Chofetz Chaim wrote imploring him to establish a branch of Lomza Yeshivah, in the so-called Yishuv Hachadash.

The latter assented, but on one condition — that the Chofetz Chaim make aliyah and live on the yeshivah grounds. The Chofetz Chaim agreed, and even published a letter in which he announced his intention to make aliyah.

Thus in 1926, Rav Shulewitz opened the Lomza Yeshivah in Petach Tikvah, the first yeshivah of the New Yishuv, and even built a house on the premises for the Chofetz Chaim to live in. That house, known as the Chofetz Chaim’s house, still exists on the yeshivah’s premises today. Sadly, however, the Chofetz Chaim’s rebbetzin became ill at that point, and was unable to make the arduous journey to Eretz Yisrael. By the time she recovered, the Chofetz Chaim himself was too feeble to travel, and, as a consequence, he never made it to the Holy Land.

One can only speculate what a difference the presence of the Chofetz Chaim might have made in the development of the chareidi community in Israel.

An Unexpected Gift

The June issue of Commentary magazine features a moving essay by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, “The Best Revenge,” on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald by American troops. It is the latest in a series of Rabbi Soloveichik’s eloquent explications of Torah for a general audience.

The essay is structured around the memories of liberation of two men: Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight David Eisenhower and a young Orthodox officer from New York, Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum. Eisenhower not only insisted that American GIs tour the camp, he urged that American political leaders also be sent to Germany so that no one could ever deny the Nazis’ evil.

The youngest survivor of Buchenwald was the future chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who was still a child at the time of liberation. At the bar mitzvah of his son, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau (named for Rabbi Lau’s martyred father), Rabbi Lau quoted the verse, “Our battle against Amalek mi dor dor — from one generation to another” (Shemos 17:16), and interpreted it homiletically to mean that the battle is waged against Amalek precisely through the transmission of Torah and Jewish practice from generation to generation. Our victory and testimony to Hashem’s presence in history is through the continuity from generation to generation.

The absence of that continuity was intensely felt by the young survivors in Buchenwald — by the girls who approached the Klausenburger Rebbe ztz”l on Erev Yom Kippur and asked him to bentsh them, and by two young boys, just past bar mitzvah age, who asked the Yiddish-speaking Birnbaum to lend them his tefillin. When he asked them how they knew he had tefillin, they answered innocently, “All Jews have tefillin.”

A few minutes later, he caught them out of the corner of his eye passing the tefillin back and forth, and rebuked them that tefillin are not play things. They explained that they were in the camps long before their bar mitzvahs and did not know the laws of tefillin, a fact that brought tears to his eyes.

RABBI SOLOVEICHIK’S essay was a special present for me. Twenty-seven years ago, I wrote the book Lieutenant Birnbaum, primarily from tapes Reb Meyer dictated. Because it took me just six weeks to write, I never took too much pride in it, even though it is by far my best-selling volume. Until I had to write a eulogy for Reb Meyer after his passing seven years ago, I did not even have a copy to place on my bookshelves.

But with his unerring eye for the most powerful passages in the book — including the Klausenburger Rebbe’s derashah on the Al Cheit recited the first Yom Kippur after liberation — Rabbi Soloveichik showed me that I had undervalued my own efforts. True, I could not have written his essay, but at least I had helped furnish the raw material for an important message.

It is always good to be reminded that our actions have consequences, and sometimes for the good. And when they do, it is fortunate if we learn of them in our lifetimes. But even if not, we can be sure that Hashem will provide the ultimate reward in full measure for any positive impact we may have.

 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 818. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com

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