| Voice in the Crowd |

What Might Have Been

The death of the righteous is likened to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash


There is mourning for what was, and that is profound.

And there is mourning for what might have been, the potential and hope that has been lost, and that is so much stronger.

No one can gauge, no one can know, and no one can quantify what might have been, if only…

That kind of loss is true churban.

Earlier this year, Rav Shmuel Yehuda Levin was a keynote speaker at the Agudah convention. There was an air of excitement as he ascended the podium, because he carried with him a little cloud of hope.

Here was a relatively young rosh yeshivah, a scion of giants — Rav Chaskel Levenstein, Rav Ephraim Mordechai Ginzberg, Rav Leizer Levin — the imprint of Brisk and of Kelm evident even as he embodied the dignity of Telshe. He was warm, he was pleasant, he was kind and he cared so, so much. His speech, his call for kevod Shamayim, came from the depths of his heart. His father’s echo was audible in his voice — and when he mentioned his father, he broke down, needing to collect himself.

I watched him in the lobby. There is a point when a person slips from being a respected rav into the realm of gadol — a certain aura and instant reverence that you feel when he passes or steps into the elevator with you. Rav Shmuel Yehuda had clearly entered that sphere.

But along with the seriousness and weightiness that accompanied that aura, he was somehow still able to smile, to comment, to acknowledge the people around him. He didn’t lose the common touch, even as he soared.

That night at the convention, the excitement we all felt wasn’t about the speech but about the future, about the potential for a tzibbur with this radiant Yid on its mizrach vant.

He was the answer to so many questions.

When Rav Aharon Kotler was maspid Rav Leib Malin, he said, “I thought he would be there to lead.”

We all had much to gain from him, and we have all been deprived.

My friend Rabbi Nosson Muller, a prominent Chicago menahel, was among the closest people to the Novominsker Rebbe, as both family member and devoted talmid. On that awful night when the Rebbe was niftar during Covid’s initial brutal wave, he was awakened with the news and thrown into an intense, profound sort of mourning.

Around 5 a.m., he texted Reb Shmuel Yehuda — not his rebbi and not a parent in his school — with a simple question: Is the Rosh Yeshivah up?

A moment later, Reb Shmuel Yehuda called him, and helped him through a very painful morning.

A few weeks later, Rabbi Muller met the Rosh Yeshivah and he apologized. He had been in complete shock, and his reaction had not been well-thought-out. Why, he wondered, was the Rosh Yeshivah, who put in long, exhausting days, up at that hour?

“I’ll tell you the truth,” replied Reb Shmuel Yehuda. “Since Covid began, there has been much heartbreak. I have talmidim who are not well, talmidim with sick parents or spouses, and sometimes they need help and cannot wait. I have started sleeping with my phone next to me, turned on.”

Weep for what might have been.

I once had the opportunity to interview the father of Rav Shmuel Yehuda, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin. He recalled driving one of two station wagons from Cleveland to Chicago to found the yeshivah in 1960, and that the bochurim were singing a song, a niggun that was sort of a theme song for this new yeshivah.

Samachti b’omrim li, beis Hashem neilech...

There was a special joy, he recalled, in building something new. And he explained.

His earliest memory of his rebbi, Rav Elya Meir Bloch, was at a Pesach Seder the Telshe Rosh Yeshivah spent at the Levin home.

The words in the Haggadah, “V’rov kemo shene’emar” are commonly translated as a reference to the fact that the Jewish nation was numerous.

Rav Elya Meir explained that “v’rov” did not refer to their size, as that is already described in the word atzum.” Rather “v’rov” refers to their greatness as a spiritually heroic people.

“The Rosh Yeshivah said that even when Yidden are at their low points, under the surface they are preparing to soar,” Rav Avrohom Chaim told me. “They were floundering in tumas Mitzrayim, and just forty days later they were at Har Sinai.”

Rav Levin explained that this insight was reflective of Rav Elya Meir’s vision for American Jewry. To the spiritually untrained eye, Judaism in America appeared to be dormant, even dying — but he was confident it was about to enter its glory era.

“The Rosh Yeshivah was right,” Rav Avrohom Chaim concluded, “and when we went to Chicago to start the yeshivah, it was with that confidence and belief, so we were happy!”

The pain right now is great.

We are Jews, so we know that churban is followed by nechamah.

We have seen the world’s greatest yeshivos suffer similar losses, and seen roshei yeshivah around the same age as the new Telshe-Chicago Rosh Yeshivah step in and fill their fathers’ roles with distinction, leading their yeshivos into periods of growth and expansion. Rav Malkiel and Rav Avrohom Yehoshua were younger, Rav Leizer Yudel a bit older, and look!

The yeshivah will certainly not just endure, but thrive.

But Klal Yisrael also needs nechamah.  Rav Shmuel Yehuda was just getting started, and he would have filled so many roles, lightened so many burdens, illuminated so many dark sugyas. What will be with us?

He was a serious talmid chacham, fluent in many areas of Torah, inhabiting a world of chochmah yet capable of seeing beyond the beis medrash walls and feeling the realities of Yidden everywhere, the legacy of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

On the eve of the new school year, Rav Shmuel Yehuda would call the menahelim at local mosdos to wish them hatzlachah during the new year. He would then call his talmidim across North America who were in chinuch for the same reason.

He was niftar on a Motzaei Shabbos: on Friday, the day before, he had spoken to over 60 people, mainly talmidim in need of guidance, a kind word, a listening ear, or just a loving rebbi to say, “Gut Shabbos.”

The death of the righteous is likened to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash: in both cases, we mourn what was, but so many more tears should be shed for what might have been.

Maybe it’s time. Maybe it’s time that we ride that station wagon together, maybe it’s time we merit our finest hour yet, and together, we’ll be singing Somachti b’omrim li, beis Hashem neilech… we’re going home, back to the House of Hashem.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 922.

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