Avreimi ztz”l could not have emerged from any other nation. (Perhaps not from any other family, either)
Reb Avrohom Nachman Wolfson was heir to a legacy of generosity, vision and achrayus created by his father — legendary philanthropist and Klal Yisrael visionary Reb Zev Wolfson. That sense of responsibility extended not just to the institutions of Klal Yisrael, but for every individual as well. Far beyond the extraordinary largesse, Reb Avrohom stood tall by virtue of his personal accomplishment: his devotion to limud haTorah, to chavivus hamitzvos, and to shemiras halashon. He was, in the words of Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, a pure, pure neshamah, rare in this generation. Rav Yitzchok Berkovits, rosh yeshivah of Aish HaTorah and rosh kollel of the Jerusalem Kollel, studied the ways of the niftar and notes what the rest of us can learn from him
An essential part of every Jew’s self-concept is the Jewish Nation’s chosenness. “Atah bechartanu mikol ha’amim — You chose us from among all the nations” is our constant refrain, and Chazal tell us that the choicest of the
birchas haTorah we say each morning is “asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim v’nasan lanu es Toraso” — that Hashem chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah. We dwell upon the fact that we are privileged in having been chosen among all the civilizations that ever inhabited the earth as the sole recipients of Hashem’s infinite wisdom.
But if we are to be fully accurate, it was not Hashem Who chose us; do Chazal not tell us that it was we who chose Him? He first offered the Torah to every other nation, and every one of them found reason to decline, with the exception of Klal Yisrael. Every other civilization had preconditions and first wanted to know what was written inside the Torah. Only Klal Yisrael responded with an unconditional “Naaseh v’nishma.”
Why, then, do we attribute our chosen status to Hashem and not to ourselves?
The Maharal writes that what happened was not a literal physical presentation to each of the nations. Instead, Chazal mean to say that the essence of each of the other nations is such that it is incompatible with Torah. Their lives revolve around gezel, sheker, and arayos — a lifestyle that cannot coexist with Torah. Only Klal Yisrael, whose genetic composition is “rachamim, baishanim, v’gomlei chasadim” — only we are the natural recipients of Torah.
I believe the “asher bachar banu” refers to Hashem having created Klal Yisrael in the way He did, as the true shidduch for the Torah hakedoshah. That is the secret of our chosen status, and that is why we attribute it not to our choice, but to the One who created us with the capacity to choose it.
What would Torah look like in the hands of Edom or Eisav?
The one example we find in Chazal is Elifaz, the jewel of Beis Eisav, who learned Torah from Yaakov Avinu. He is the lamdan of Beis Eisav. When Eisav sends him to kill Yaakov Avinu, Elifaz has to find a lomdishe fulfillment of kibud av that will still allow him to avoid murdering his rebbi. He arrives at “ani chashuv k’meis — A poor person is like a dead man,” and so he takes all of Yaakov’s possessions and leaves him destitute. That is the Torah of Beis Eisav.
What does Torah look like in Klal Yisrael?
It looks like Avreimi.
Avreimi ztz”l could not have emerged from any other nation. (Perhaps not from any other family, either.)
The fanatical pursuit of chesed, Avreimi’s girsa of the Wolfson legacy, coupled with a burning ahavas Torah that developed during his years in yeshivah and through his relationship with gedolei Yisrael and countless talmidei chachamim, made for a unique human being difficult to describe to anyone that didn’t know him.
Avreimi exemplified the middah of chesed, Avraham-Avinu style. Chesed is not synonymous with rachamim — compassion. When one sees a person suffer and feels sympathy for him, that is rachmanus, not chesed. When Hashem has to send three malachim to relieve Avraham Avinu of his agony over not having anyone to give to, that defines for us just what Avraham Avinu’s chesed was about. Chesed is the need to give, the feeling that life is just not worth living without the opportunity to share.
Avreimi ran after chesed even more than the needy pursued him. He had a way of seeking out those in need who weren’t up to asking. He carried them in his mind and heart and regularly let them know he was thinking of them.
And then there was Avreimi’s Torah. In the mitzvah of talmud Torah we find the pesukim of “v’limad'tem osam es bneichem l’daber bam — And you shall teach them to your sons to speak with them” (Devarim 11:19) and “v’shinantam l’vanecha v’dibarta bam — And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them” (Devarim 6:7), which Chazal divide into the mitzvos of teaching one’s children and teaching one’s talmidim.
Interestingly, the mitzvah of teaching our children includes “l’daber bam” — that you should teach your children to speak about Torah, turn them into bnei Torah who regularly speak in learning. The mitzvah of teaching talmidim similarly includes the phrase “v’dibarta bam,” but in this case it’s not referring to the talmidim but to the rav: It is the rav who is commanded to speak in learning all the time.
When it comes to teaching talmidim, the constant focus and speaking of Torah concepts stems not so much from one’s responsibility to them but rather as an expression of one’s enthusiasm for Torah. A Yid is to be so excited about his learning that he should constantly be speaking about it and sharing it with others.
Avreimi was the ultimate fulfillment of this concept. From gedolei Yisrael to kollel yungeleit to anyone he happened to meet, he always had a sh’eilah, a chiddush halachah, or a little-known maamar Chazal to share. He took full advantage of the open doors to the gedolei haposkim and roshei yeshivah (he was always careful to attribute that easy access to the recognition of his father) to ask kushyos and sh’eilos. He would proceed from one talmid chacham to another with the same question, and after hearing their take on it would share the rundown of what the others had said — only to return to the first ones with everyone else’s machshavos and ra’ayos, thoughts and proofs. He created a level of “pilpul chaverim” previously unheard of, perhaps since the days of the Amoraim.
I had the privilege of being part of that circuit, and there is so much that I learned in the process (not to mention the faxes when he discovered some obscure midrash or teshuvah and just had to share it).
Avreimi lived the world of halachah. His chesed could not just be dictated by his enormous heart. There were hilchos tzedakah, which he mastered and in which he opened up new sugyos. And, of course, there was his focus on shemiras halashon.
Avreimi learned hilchos lashon hara with several different outstanding talmidei chachamim and invested much of his endless energy in clarifying some of the most difficult inyanim not addressed directly in Sefer Chofetz Chaim. He was intrigued with diyukim in different places in the sefer that seemingly contradict one another, and these were his favorite topics for “pilpul chaverim” and of the shiurim he gave in yeshivos and kollelim. He also helped support mosdos on condition that they include hilchos lashon hara in their curriculum.
In the recent parshas hashavuah, we read how Yosef’s brothers searched the least respectable places in Mitzrayim in search of their long-lost brother. How is it that they couldn’t fathom his ever rising to greatness, even to the point of not recognizing him when all that had changed in him was the beard? The shevatim saw his dreams as indicative of self-centeredness, and were certain that a self-centered individual could never attain greatness.
Avreimi had no self. He related to his own self as a nonentity. Seeing him struggle to climb the four flights to my apartment, I would inquire about his health, but he would just change the subject. He regularly challenged me for a source for his not having a chiyuv to answer the phone or door while learning with a chavrusa or eating with the family. He would go from one phone call to the next, often juggling two or three calls simultaneously.
Our phone conversations would often be interrupted with his calling out to someone at home or at the office, “Tell the senator to call back in ten minutes, I’m on the phone with an important rabbi,” and a few more interruptions instructing that this one should come in 20 minutes and another one in a half hour.
He was oblivious to gashmiyus. To him, his apartment in Jerusalem meant a machlokes haposkim about where to place a particular mezuzah, and whether the Shabbos mode of the refrigerator could be relied on “l’chol ha’deios.”
But there was one aspect of his suffering that he did share with others: the pain of seeing yereim v’shleimim, pure, sincere Jews speaking during davening. There was no room in his heart for people who lacked proper respect and awe for a shul. This ate away at him and he made no secret of it. I would guess that living at high speed was not what damaged his heart. Perhaps not even the tzaros of others that he carried inside. It was more likely the heartache of seeing anashim chashuvim ignoring his plea — to speak to Hashem and no one else during davening — that cost him his health.
There was only one Avreimi Wolfson, and only Hashem can console his family over his loss. But they can all be proud of being part of a family that produces extraordinary human beings, and continue to live with that legacy. —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 842)
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