Rabbi Wallerstein’s life story holds manifold lessons about what it means to truly care about other Jews
I wrote recently about the importance of having models of gadlus in Torah who are relatable specifically because they did not have the proverbial glide path to greatness but instead struggled and overcame significant hurdles to achieve eventual success. But the same could be said of gadlus in any area, not just in Torah. And Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein, to whom I wrote an all-too-brief tribute in these pages last week, is a case in point.
As Yanky Elefant, Reb Zechariah’s brother-in-law and partner in so much of his work, said, paraphrasing the Gemara’s statement (Yoma 35b) about Yosef Hatzaddik and others, “Reb Zechariah mechayev es kulam, he obligates every one of us, because he was one of us.” What he meant is this: When we ask ourselves why we, in our own lives, haven’t achieved even a fraction of what he did in his short 64 years, it will not do for us to say, “But after all, Rabbi Wallerstein exhibited astounding resources of dynamism, ingenuity, ahavas Yisrael, generosity of money and spirit and much more, and I don’t have those capabilities.”
It won’t do, because neither did he know he had many of those resources — until he discovered them dormant within, waiting to be actualized. Is there anyone among us who has attempted to mine the motherlode of potential within yet come up short? Until that happens, Reb Zechariah mechayev es kulam, indeed.
Rabbi Wallerstein’s life story holds manifold lessons about what it means to truly care about other Jews, individually and collectively, what it means to give of oneself, one’s time and money and energy, without boundaries, what it means to live — as Rav Chaim Volozhiner said we were created to live — for the sole purpose of bringing benefit to others.
Yet while writing the piece, several thoughts came to mind about some other lessons to be learned beyond those obvious ones. One is about what financial independence can do for a mechanech.
From age 20, and for more than three decades, Reb Zechariah taught eighth-graders in the mornings, after which he would go in to the office to attend to his business. He was a dynamic and creative rebbi who was much-beloved by his talmidim and had a great influence on them. And he never took a salary from the yeshivah in all those years.
Although I don’t know enough about his life to say this with certainty, I would speculate that the fact that he wasn’t counting on a mechanech’s salary for his parnassah might have given him the mental space that helped him to excel as he did. That freed him from having to do tutoring on the side or run to another job in the afternoon just to make ends meet. Because when teaching is no longer about making a living, it frees the mechanech in a certain way and can affect, however subtly, his ability to devote himself heart and soul to his avodas hakodesh.
Perhaps, too, it allowed him to be the larger-than-life personality that he was in his school, to treat his classroom as his fiefdom in a way that captured his boys’ attention and allegiance, although surely his personality contributed greatly to that too. It was probably also very helpful that, as a former talmid of his told me, Reb Zechariah felt fully supported in his approach by the principal of Crown Heights Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Schroit, a former talmid of the Mir in Europe.
I wonder whether what Rabbi Wallerstein did could be replicated by many other businessmen and professionals whose natural talent for relating to youngsters and ability to convey their love of Yiddishkeit is going untapped. A few years back an idea had been floated by Rav Avrohom Chaim Feuer: Why not utilize the talents of the many retired people in our communities who have the time, patience, caring, and learning skills to lavish on our elementary and high school talmidim and talmidos as chavrusos and mentors?
It’s still a great idea, but as far as I know it’s still floating, not having been brought down to earth for practical implementation. But perhaps the idea could be expanded to include those who aren’t retired at all, and not just as chavrusas and mentors, but as rebbeim too.
There’s Another Area in which Rabbi Wallerstein showed us the way, if only we’ll have the courage to follow. He ran a successful business and founded and operated multiple mosdos with a combined budget totaling millions of dollars — and he did it all using a simple flip phone. He carried a composition notebook around with him in which to write down the many messages he received throughout the day.
He was an extremely busy, involved person, far more than most of us, and he had all the best excuses to use a “smart” phone, based on all the many more mitzvos he could have done and lives he could have affected. But he didn’t.
It seems to me that in this regard there are two currents within our communities, moving in opposite directions. One stream is flowing in the direction of ever-greater acceptance of the smartphone and social media as the new reality that must be accommodated. We all know that incrementally, the taboos are being worn away, one by one. The goalposts are moving. We are changing — and not for the better.
Many people aren’t paddling vigorously down that stream so much as being slowly carried along on it. They may not be happy with what’s happening to them and their families, their schools and shuls, but are resigned to it, feeling too weak, too meek, and too outnumbered to resist it. They know what our gedolei Torah uniformly hold about these matters, and they are forced to employ no small measure of cognitive dissonance in response.
But there’s another current that’s trending strongly in the opposite direction. It goes unremarked and unnoticed by many — until the shining example of someone like Rabbi Wallerstein brings it prominently to the fore.
I refer to the ever-growing numbers of balabatim from every field and area of endeavor, professionals and entrepreneurs, store proprietors and salespeople, and of course mechanchim and mechanchos too, who’ve said an emphatic “No!” to the smartphone. Some of them use a flip phone in conjunction with a tablet for access to Waze and important apps.
Their lives and livelihoods demonstrate vividly that one can be very successful and content without opening the portals to the outside world through which so much that is putrid and puerile seeps in and without compromising the holiness and purity on which our identity as Jews depend. To the claim that we can’t live without these devices, they respond that we can’t truly live with them.
And perhaps they too, like Rabbi Wallerstein, are mechayev es kulam.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 911)
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