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Flashes of My Elter Zaidy

He taught me a way of life and how to view struggles and challenges, and that even in the face of obvious and overwhelming hardship, there’s always a positive to be found

28 Av, 5780

I’m sitting down to write this less than 24 hours after the petirah of my great-grandfather, Rav Chaim Dov Keller ztz”l.

The first wave of tears has passed, and the second wave has yet to come. The magnitude of the loss still hasn’t fully set in, and yet I feel the urgent need to sit and write. Not about who he was, the greatness he attained, what he stood for, or what kind of legacy he passed down to us; I wish to write down the warm memories I have of Elter Zaidy, the beautiful moments I was privileged to share with him, and the impact and impression he made on me. These recollections have inspired me for years, continue to fuel me, and will hopefully inspire others as well.

My earliest impression of Elter Zaidy stems from a story I heard from my grandfather dozens of times as a child. When he and Elter Zaidy came to Eretz Yisrael for my bris they flew together, as my grandmother had flown in earlier to help my mother. On the way back, my grandmother joined them and my grandparents went to the airport together, with Elter Zaidy scheduled to meet them there. For whatever reason, Elter Zaidy was delayed, and my grandparents ended up traveling back without him, rescheduling him on a flight for the following day. When my grandfather picked him up from the airport in Chicago, Elter Zaidy came running up to him. “Reb Mordechai, baruch Hashem you’re alive!” Confused, my grandfather asked him to elaborate, and Elter Zaidy replied, “I knew there must be a good reason that Hashem caused me to miss the flight yesterday. Who knows? Maybe the plane was destined to crash! I therefore prayed that all the other passengers on board, including my daughter and son-in-law, should be saved. Baruch Hashem my tefillos were answered and you were spared!”

There is much to be learned from this story, but my main takeaway has always been: There are those whose merits cause them to miss planes that are supposed to crash, and then there are those like my Zaidy, whose levels of emunah and bitachon, not to mention care and concern for others, cause them to daven nonstop on behalf of the people who got on the flight.

Something that always resonated deeply with me about my Elter Zaidy was the incredible balance between being one of the gedolei hador and the responsibilities that came with it, and at the same time being the warm, loving, down-to-earth Zaidy and rebbi we all knew and loved. I remember walking him to his seat in the front of the Telshe Yeshivah Chicago beis medrash to learn with him b’chavrusa, as we did occasionally when I was a young bochur in the yeshivah. I watched as the whole beis medrash stopped and stood up for him, feeling such pride to have a connection to someone so renowned. When I would join the group of talmidim and grandchildren flanking him on his walk home from the yeshivah on Shabbos after davening, I was in awe of his aura and persona. At the same time, the seudah in his house was a real-life lesson in humility, normalcy, and practicality. I would watch him labor over the cholent he made each week with such love and joy, and I understood, even at a young age, that my Zaidy was a special kind of gadol, one with time and patience for everyone and everything.

It still came as a surprise to me several years later when I was going through a rough time as a teenager, and Elter Zaidy called me one afternoon out of the blue. He asked me how I was doing, offered a few minutes of guidance and encouragement, and told me a vort on the parshah. His advice was so general that at the time I wondered how it applied specifically to me. It was only years later that I understood the gentle prodding and subtle pushing given over in such a nonconfrontational and nonjudgmental manner, exactly what I needed at the time. When I went to visit him shortly before my departure to yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael to say goodbye and receive a brachah, I asked him if it would be possible for Zaidy to daven daily for me and my success. His response? “I already do.”

His love, warmth, and care were not limited only to family. When I sat down next to my rebbi, Rav Pesach Siegel shlita, for the first time, he immediately asked me about my extended family, as he does with every talmid. Upon hearing that my mother was a Mannes from Chicago, he exclaimed, “You mean to tell me you’re a great-grandson of my rebbi, Rav Chaim Dov?” My rebbi regaled me with stories of how my Elter Zaidy, his rebbe, had changed the course of his life by showing him real love and warmth throughout his time in Telshe Chicago and beyond.

Several years ago, when Elter Zaidy visited Eretz Yisrael for the wedding of a grandchild, Rabbi Siegel arranged for him to speak at our yeshivah, Yeshivah Tiferes Yerushalayim (TJ). Elter Zaidy spoke on limud haTorah, a topic I’d heard him discuss many times before, and I was amazed at his flawless ability to transform the topic into something completely relatable to this specific crowd, making the same point and emphasizing the same truth he always did, but in a manner suitable for our group, which needed something different from his usual audience. Before and after he addressed us, I walked him to and from the car he arrived in. Although it was only a few feet, the walk was extremely difficult for him. I’ll always remember how he kept repeating, more to me than to himself, seeing how hard it was for me to see him in that condition: “Baruch Hashem, da kop arbeit noch,” a refrain I heard him utter many times since. He was telling me that as long as the mind is still clear, as long as he can still deliver a speech that rouses an audience the same way he was doing 60 years ago, the fact that his body was failing him was of little consequence. At the same time, he was teaching me. Teaching me a way of life and how to view struggles and challenges. Teaching me that even in the face of obvious and overwhelming hardship, there’s always a positive to be found.

As I witnessed my rebbi, Rav Siegel shlita, cry tears of joy and emotion upon seeing his lifelong teacher, and as I realized he’d prepared a list of topics and questions to discuss with him in the car ride as we drove him back to where he was staying, another layer of Elter Zaidy’s reach and impact was peeled back for me to see. I remember my rebbi asking him about the recent rise to power of a certain world leader that at the time many felt would spell disaster for Jews and the world as a whole. “How are we supposed to react to this?” my rebbi asked him. “What is the proper outlook in this situation?” Zaidy’s response was unequivocal. “Lev melachim v’sarim b’Yad Hashem,” he replied. Hashem wishes to show us, now more than ever, that all the rulers and leaders of the world are completely dependent on the Will of Hashem. When we have a person in power that we perceive as sensible, it may be easier to think that he’s the one in charge of us. Hashem wants us to realize that it’s all in His Hands, it always has been, and it always will be. Additionally, while not in any way endorsing this man as a person, Zaidy told my rebbi that some things he wishes to accomplish are admirable. “One thing about him” Elter Zaidy said, “if he says he is going to do something, he will.” Four years later, history has proven him correct. I continue to marvel at the clear vision and daas Torah of the gadol I was privileged to call Zaidy.

Right before we departed, I asked Elter Zaidy for a brachah. His usual brachah, “Du zol oisvaksin an ehrlicher Yid, a talmid chacham — you should grow up to be a righteous Jew and a talmid chacham,” was more than just that. It always came with a lesson afterward. “A brachah is just like filling your tank with gas,” he would tell us with a loving smile. “You still need to drive the car. Even after the best brachah, you still need to put your foot on the gas pedal.” This time, perhaps taking the standard nusach for granted, I wanted something more. “Can Zaidy please give me a brachah or advice specific to me and my current situation?” I asked him. He looked at me and said, “When you learn, make sure you don’t turn the page until you understand every word on it. And when you learn mussar, make sure you ask yourself how what the sefer is saying applies to you before you go further.” I was elated because for the past few months I had been struggling in that very area. I had finished several large masechtos in high school at a fast pace, but it hadn’t fulfilled me. I felt like I didn’t know the material completely and therefore something was missing. Now that I was learning seriously in Eretz Yisrael, I wanted to start learning more slowly and thoroughly, but had been afraid to fully commit due to concerns of not covering enough ground. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Those words continue to shape my mehalech halimud to this day, and I think of them often when I learn, and strive to incorporate them whenever I’m learning mussar.

On the way to the chasunah of a cousin, he shared with me something he had said at the aufruf, which took place on Shabbos Mevarchim. In Bircas Hachodesh we ask for, “Chayim sheyeish bahem yiras Shamayim v’yiras cheit — a life that has in it fear of Heaven and fear of sin.” Shortly after, we ask for “chayim sh’tehei banu ahavas Torah v’yiras Shamayim — a life in which we have in us a love of Torah and fear of Heaven.”

Why do we ask for yiras Shamayim twice? Elter Zaidy asked. He responded that the first time, we ask for a life that has yiras Shamayim in it. The second time, we say “sh’tehei banu” — the yiras Shamayim should be in us. He explained that sometimes a person can be lacking in the area of fear of G-d, but he lives in an environment where there is yiras Shamayim and the flaw can therefore go undetected. On the other hand, sometimes one lives in a place where the yiras Shamayim is not up to par, but he himself has it in generous doses. “You need both,” Zaidy stressed. “That’s why it’s said twice. One time we ask for our circumstances to include yiras Shamayim, and the second time we ask for it to be within us, imbibed as part of our essence.”

At the time, I was considering entering shidduchim, but was reluctant because I was still flourishing in yeshivah, baruch Hashem. I asked him for advice, and he told me that he had a similar quagmire at around my age. He approached his rebbeim and they advised him, “Throw yourself into learning, and it will all work itself out.” However, my Zaidy concluded, “This is the kind of sh’eilah in which the answer is dependent on the sho’el, the questioner. If one feels he can keep going, he should, but if he feels that it’s time, it’s time.”

The last memory I have of Elter Zaidy is a painful one. It was Erev Shavuos, and Zaidy had been in the isolation ward in the hospital for months already, battling a series of life-threatening ailments and illnesses. The grandchildren had arranged a Zoom call in which they would talk and sing to him before Yom Tov. Some participated via phone call, and a few, myself included, joined the video link. People kept urging me to talk to him and to join the singing, but I couldn’t get the words out. All I wanted to do was see this man I loved so much, my dear Elter Zaidy, and observe how these precious moments would play out. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I watched his reaction while the family started a heartrending rendition of “Lulei Soroscha.” Zaidy had been unresponsive for weeks, and no one was sure if he was aware of his surroundings, yet I watched as his face contorted with emotion at the age-old words he had lived by all his life, words he had witnessed his offspring hold dear as well. I’m almost certain I saw tears form in his eyes. The tears were not of sadness over his helpless situation, or tears of distress over the terrible suffering, nor were they tears of pain. It seemed to me that they were tears of emotion, tears of a person whose life was whole and complete. Tears of a giant of a man who although physically fading, was still very much present, and still spreading his holy message of absolute truth; no longer with words, but with his very essence: “Baruch Hashem, da kop arbeit noch.”

Yehi zichro baruch.



(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 829)

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