Rabbi Ilan Feldman remembers Rav Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg
hazal tell us that Torah should be taught k’nisonoso, in the manner it was given at Har Sinai. It has always seemed to me fitting, therefore, and most accurate to say, that it was at Har Sinai where I first came to know my rebbi, Rav Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg ztz”l. By that I mean that my first encounter with him was on Shavuos, at a mesibah in Yeshivas Ner Israel, where I was a talmid. At the mesibah, Rav Weinberg spoke about kabbalas haTorah. I don’t recall what he said; I do recall the impact it had on me. When he finished his talk, I stumbled out of the beis medrash in astonishment, encountering a friend and older bochur, and I exclaimed, “I have got to make this man my rebbi!”
What touched me that day wasn’t the content of what he said. It was who he was while he said it. He wasn’t talking about Torah; he was Torah. He was the truth of Torah, the energy of Torah, the bond between Klal Yisrael and Hashem that was Torah. In that one talk, the Torah was transformed for me from a Torah to a Toras Chayim. Before he spoke, I knew there was Torah, and I was committed to following it. After he spoke, I knew there was Torah, and I knew it was mine. Before he spoke, there was a Torah and I was required to learn it; after he spoke, I knew that a life of relationship and connection to the mekor hachayim was in store for me — no, was a gift of love, directly for me, from HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Having a future like that become yours is exhilarating and transformative. It is the experience of being at Sinai for kabbalas haTorah.
What I did not know then was that he was destined to give me no less than the entire Torah a second time. By the time I entered his shiur a year later, I had become oriented to thinking of serious talmud Torah as the property of the gifted few. Listening to the shiurim of the then-rosh hayeshivah, Moreinu v’Rabbeinu Harav Ruderman, and other talmidei chachamim, whose mastery of Shas and Rishonim was almost supernatural, I dreaded the day I would leave the yeshivah, knowing that I lacked the head of these giants and could never mimic their approach to learning. I would have to settle for a rudimentary level of learning for the rest of my life, always looking back wistfully to the heydays of my learning career in yeshivah, never feeling fulfilled.
Rav Weinberg changed all that. He showed us that through rigorous discipline, by abandoning preconceived notions, through formulating our questions properly, by listening to the nuances of language embedded in the holy words of the text, we could come to “hear” the Torah, unadorned and unadulterated by what we might want it to be saying, and successfully plumb its depths. What all this meant for me was that, no matter where I was located geographically, the freshness, excitement, and creativity of talmud Torah would come with me, as long as I was willing to do the work. The keys to accessing the fullness of Torah were embedded in the Torah! For a talmid who would be willing to leave the yeshivah to serve in a community where there was not even a beis medrash, that is a priceless gift. Sinai would be with me wherever I was.
What was remarkable to me about Rav Weinberg’s approach to learning was that our rebbi possessed the brilliance that allowed him to amaze his students with “fireworks” of dazzling logic. Yet, instead, he led us daily through the grunt work of listening carefully, following clues to make critical, revealing, but subtle discoveries, inviting us to toil, refusing to intoxicate us with dramatic questions and answers that would leave us marveling at the beauty of his Torah but that would never be our own.
This was how he learned. The text was not a playground for his brilliance. The pasuk, the statement of Chazal, the Rashi, the Rambam — these were always his teachers; he was forever the student. His brilliance was evident after he discovered what was being said, when he took the nugget of emes he had just uncovered and followed its implications through the entire sugya, or showed how life itself would change with this insight.
That same willful effort at intellectual humility seemed, to me, to govern his approach to life itself. Time and again, I watched as he practiced tzimtzum, contraction of self — removing himself from the equation, focusing only on what was a kiddush Hashem or a chillul Hashem, what would yield results in fulfilling Hashem’s Will or what would not. I never saw an ego. But when he perceived an assault on the glory of Heaven, he was a fierce lion.
He “listened” to life the way he “listened” to a pasuk. Nuances of a situation mattered greatly. He listened keenly to the presenter of a dilemma the way he listened to a Rashi. He had no formulaic responses; he crafted his direction based on the particulars of each unique circumstance. Policy was for those who didn’t want to think, or who were protecting turf or reputation, not for those consciously acting as agents of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. (He once told me, “If anyone ever defends what they are doing by saying it’s a matter of principle, run the other way,” emphasizing the word “run.”)
He was willing to abandon his approach to an issue based on the emergence of a new detail, even one that might seem minor to others. To him, there was only the question: What does the Ribbono shel Olam want at this moment? What will be a kiddush Hashem in this instance? This meant that different people could sometimes receive differing advice in response to seemingly similar situations, perplexing those insensitive to nuanced thinking. Rav Weinberg’s advice was designed to fit a particular individual, with unique strengths and in a precise context.
He never directed; rather he laid out with clarity what the options were, allowing the inquirer to grow into the answer. When my wife and I were consulting with him about a decision we had to make that might affect my future as a rav, he said something that became a lodestar for me: “What you should do I am not sure. But this I know: good rabbanim are the light of Klal Yisrael.”
He was in love with Klal Yisrael. That is to say, he loved the entity, not only the individuals in it. He loved its leaders, the talmidei chachamim who directed their people. An accurate story that captured the attitude of a leader of Klal Yisrael would move him to tears. (“It’s worth being born to hear such a story,” he would say.) Klal Yisrael bears Hashem’s Name, serves Him, loves Him, sacrifices for Him, is inseparable from Him. He worried about it. He anguished over its wellbeing. He reminded me of Moshe Rabbeinu’s plea to Hashem before his passing: “Let not the congregation of Hashem be like sheep who have no shepherd.”
Rav Weinberg was a founder, a pillar, of the outreach movement. As a young bochur, well before outreach was a familiar term, when American Jewry was experiencing its inexorable slide into ignorance and indifference, he was employing his clarity in hashkafic matters and his passion for emes to seek out public school students and connect them to Hashem. He was the personal mentor for those many who became the army of outreach experts and institutions, providing and leading the charge that motivated them for a lifetime to reach out to their brethren in Klal Yisrael. His younger brother, Rav Noach Weinberg, considered Rav Yaakov to be his rebbi and the chief inspiration for what eventually became Aish HaTorah.
His clarity in matters of emunah, his ability to articulate the significance of the Avos, the impact of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the essence of the machlokes of Korach, provided a level of confidence and clarity to those of us who were confronted regularly with ignorance cloaked in the sophisticated parlance of the academy. The principles of Yiddishkeit were articulated in a precise and compelling way. And he was always there to respond to a question or problem from his talmidim, or to an invitation to travel across the globe to address a critical issue. We knew he had our backs.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to the cause of kiruv was that he altered the consciousness of Klal Yisrael. This breathtaking virtuoso of the Rambam, this masterful detective who uncovered the deepest secrets of our Torah, this mentor of mentors and rebbi of major talmidei chachamim — he was the one who spent ten to twelve hours a day in the summer lecturing at Aish HaTorah, teaching newcomers to Torah, showing how the Torah addressed the philosophic and cultural issues facing our generation. Outreach was not a specialty; it was the natural outcome of love for HaKadosh Baruch Hu, of absorbing His Torah with clarity, of caring for His people. The flag of outreach would be raised not by those who could not do well in the confines of the beis medrash, but precisely by talmidei chachamim of the highest caliber.
Rav Weinberg was a revolutionary. There was an urgency to his being, an impatience with the status quo. Those who sought the comfort of complacency and contentment might have found him discomfiting. After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when there was an unavoidable sense that we had witnessed miraculous Divine protection of Eretz Yisrael, I discussed what appropriate teshuvah would look like in response to seeing the Hand of G-d so overtly.
He made a point that has haunted me since: Teshuvah does not simply mean doing more of what you were already doing well and fewer aveiros than before. It means the courage to assess basic assumptions or attitudes, even the willingness to abandon these approaches in favor of new ones, including those we might previously have rejected. The Hand of Hashem revealed in current events is intended to wake us up to reality we haven’t yet seen, not to reinforce what we already thought or “knew.” Of such ideas revolutions are made.
We were here to transform life as we know it, and never to be satisfied with “good enough.” He was at war with complacency. The Rambam’s 12th Principle of Emunah, belief in Mashiach and anticipating his arrival, required a Jew to be aware constantly that something essential was missing. A Jew knew what was really possible, what the world should really look like, how the world was supposed to work. It was a Jew’s responsibility to address it, to daven for it, to live for it. Being content with careful shemiras hamitzvos and well-developed frum communities, while not yearning for a restoration of Klal Yisrael to its original splendor, was insufficient for a servant of G-d. This principle called for nothing less than an awareness that the current state of affairs — exile, Hashem’s reign partially hidden, Klal Yisrael mostly unaware of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Rachmana litzlan — was unacceptable. Everything he taught was imbued with this urgency.
And with this urgency came a promise. If one’s relationship with Hashem demanded a yearning for a transformed world, then a transformed world was possible. Living for it, working toward it, even in its absence, puts one there already. Klal Yisrael had a future, a promise to fulfill. Rav Weinberg and his Torah embodied that promise.
Just as Shavuos was, for me, an apt introduction to Rav Weinberg, the tragic day of the 17th of Tammuz, the day of the shattering of the first Luchos, seems fitting as the day marking his physical end. His passing was a shattering of promise. There is always a sense of profound, irreplaceable loss when a tzibbur loses a gadol of this stature, irrespective of what they managed to receive from him and how old he is when he passes.
But something more than the grief of loss was experienced when our rebbi died. There was, and still is, the anguish of tragedy. He was taken from us so young, so filled with the energy and vitality and creativity of Torah, so urgent about work still to be done, so secure in HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s promises, it was difficult for us to acquiesce with ease to Heaven’s decree. Those who knew him could be excused for forgetting that the one who embodied and epitomized Toras Chayim could ever be overcome by an illness. There was the sense that his gadlus had not yet come to its fullest expression, that Klal Yisrael had not yet absorbed his message and the possibilities he represented. The Luchos were shattered.
But then we remember that the fragments of those Luchos are preserved in the Aron. The remnants beckon us to realize that our encounter at Sinai, aborted though it was, left us permanently altered. They are not there to torment us; they are there to remind of us two imperatives that go hand in hand. Those fragments are there to remind us of what is possible, of the promise our full relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu holds for us and the world. Sinai did occur. And they remind us of the nature of emes. The smashing of the Luchos at Moshe’s hand was ratified by their Author, because the truth is uncompromising and unaccommodating. Shivah Asar B’Tammuz is not only a day of tragedy; it is an invitation to remember what HaKadosh Baruch Hu thinks of us, and to accept responsibility to develop ourselves to be worthy custodians of Toras Emes.
So, too, it is with our rebbi, Moreinu v’Rabbeinu Harav Shmuel Yaakov ben Yitzchak Mattisyahu Weinberg. He brought us to Har Sinai, and we will never be the same. The work continues.
Yehi zichro baruch.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 769.
Rabbi Ilan D. Feldman, a musmach of Yeshivas Ner Israel and son-in-law of Rav Weinberg, has served Congregation Beth Jacob of Atlanta since 1980, and since 1991 as its senior rabbi. He is the founder of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel and Dean of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission. Rabbi Feldman is also the founder of the Atlanta Chapter of JACS (Jewish Alcohol, Chemical Addicts, and Significant Others), and Getting Chai, an outreach program for Jews and their families recovering from the disease of addiction.