L ast Tuesday the Jewish nation stood bowed by loss and grief. But only with the passage of days weeks and months will we truly understand just what Rav Steinman did for Am Yisrael and Toras Yisrael throughout the world — how he reigned over the Torah world from his humble little room on Rechov Chazon Ish with unparalleled clarity and wisdom.

Last Tuesday my heart was heavy as I walked among the hundreds of thousands who came to pay their last respects to Rav Aharon Leib Steinman. I’m sure many were troubled by the same thoughts that troubled me: How will tomorrow and the next day look for the chareidi world and for the entire world? True the same doubts arose when we lost Rav Elazar Menachem Shach ztz”l and again upon the loss of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ztz”l. But there is one basic difference. Rav Steinman ztz”l was the last survivor of a generation of giants the last of those who came after the Holocaust to restore the Torah to its place at the center of our lives the last link in a chain of leaders who stood head and shoulders above the ordinary man to guide him through the maze of life and through the crooked paths of Israeli politics. That chain of leadership began with the Chazon Ish and passed through the hands of the Brisker Rav; from him to the Steipler Gaon then to Rav Shach to Rav Elyashiv and finally to Rav Aharon Leib Steinman ztz”l the last link in that chain of greatness.

One of the Chazon Ish’s greatest talmidim a gaon of the present time said that Rav Aharon Leib’s approach to life reminded him of the Chazon Ish. And in fact the Chazon Ish would stand up when Rav Aharon Leib entered his room — even when the latter was just a 30-year-old yungerman.

We know of course that HaKadosh Baruch Hu placed His world in the reins of handpicked guardians and does not leave the Jewish People widowed. We are confident that other gedolim will arise to take these reins of leadership. But still this loss feels staggering. It is hard to fathom who can fill his place.

With the passage of days weeks and months we will gain a clearer picture of what Rav Steinman did for Am Yisrael and Toras Yisrael throughout the world. We will hear many new details about his reign over the Torah world from his humble little room on Rechov Chazon Ish.

People came there from all corners of the world seeking counsel and guidance on everything from personal matters to complex public issues and he answered them all with his unique brand of astuteness boring straight through the superficial layers and getting right down to the heart of the matter while tossing aside anything that obfuscated the truth like so much sawdust. Often the asker would be left in stunned surprise as all his pros and cons were suddenly shown to be irrelevant in the bright light of emes.

This is the rare power of a man who learns Torah day and night in purity sparing no effort — for the Torah becomes his life’s blood cleansing him of any bad middos that fog the average person’s vision. (During one of his hospitalizations several months ago he was asked if there was anything he needed or wanted and he replied “I need three things: Gemara Rashi and Tosafos!”)

Speaking of cleansing the Rosh Yeshivah’s hands were scrupulously clean in monetary matters. It is well known that he never laid a finger on one of the millions of dollars that passed through his hands and I can add that sometimes he didn’t even touch money that was rightfully his. When he was serving as rosh yeshivah in Kfar Saba it happened that due to severe financial straits the yeshivah didn’t pay him his meager salary for a full year during which time he lived in penury. At the end of that year the manager of the yeshivah came to him glowing with good news: he had obtained a large sum of money and was now able to pay the salary owed to the rosh yeshivah for the entire year. But Rav Aharon Leib refused to take the money. He had managed to get through the year somehow he argued; it was now in the past and there was no need to pay him support for a period of time that was over.

But above all he stood out for the quality of emes that was the core of his being allowing him to see every matter in its true light. Many will surely testify to that quality: talmidei chachamim politicians educators principals the simplest Jews and even young boys and girls whose pain he understood deeply and whom he helped as much as he could not sufficing with mere words.

Around the time that Klal Yisrael sensed that the mantle of leadership had fallen on his shoulders the Torah world was enjoying a period of tremendous growth especially in Eretz Yisrael. From north to south batei medrash were expanding and filling up. Many yeshivos and entire networks of kollelim were established with his encouragement and guidance. He was the founding father and director of Lev L’Achim a flourishing program in which kollel yungeleit give some of their time to kiruv rechokim in all parts of Israel. Distinguished rabbanim Knesset members and Degel HaTorah representatives in municipalities and town councils throughout the country benefitted from his advice. And all will testify that the genesis of all these activities was his pure dedication to Torah study.

His dedication to Torah above all lay behind some decisions that drew questions or even disapproval. For example for ten years the liberty of Torah learners in Israel depended on a law known as the Tal Law which allowed annual deferral of military service renewed indefinitely as long as a man could produce evidence that Torah was his full-time occupation. Those ten years were the most peaceful time the Torah world had ever seen. Rav Steinman and Rav Elyashiv were not the drafters of that law but they had given their agreement to its terms. Avishai Ben Chaim a secular journalist specializing in chareidi affairs recently wrote that Rav Steinman by astutely agreeing to the Tal Law had managed to “put the chilonim to sleep.” Somehow they failed to notice that the law was not producing the results that secular society was expecting and that the Torah world was blossoming and growing. How did that happen? Some things are better left unsaid; what matters is that during that period Torah scholars learned in peace despite the animosity of the society around them.

My parents may they rest in peace came to know Rav Steinman in Switzerland during World War II. He arrived in that country from his birthplace in Brisk together with his friend the gaon Rav Moshe Soloveitchik ztz”l while my parents had escaped across the border from southern France after that country was overrun by the Nazis. They developed a close acquaintance with both of the young geonim from Lithuania and knew that they both keenly felt a sense of responsibility as survivors while all those who had remained in Brisk were wiped out. He Who Foresees All had preserved them to bring the light of Torah to the Jewish People when the time came. Rav Moshe Soloveitchik was among those who established centers of Torah in Switzerland and later in Moscow and Rav Steinman was destined to lead the Torah world in Eretz Yisrael and abroad. My father a”h came on aliyah on the same ship as Rav Steinman and throughout their lives my parents kept up their relationship with the Rosh Yeshivah and his rebbetzin. My father often spoke of the Rosh Yeshivah’s holiness and purity.

Over the years I consulted with him and received his brachah on various matters. On one such occasion a family member was diagnosed with a medical problem. I went to Rav Steinman and said “It is written that when someone is sick in a man’s family he should go to a chacham not only to request his prayers but also to received his guidance on what he needs to correct in himself.”

His answer was “You write in the papers; it’s inevitable that you’ve offended someone. Go ask them for mechilah. And try your best not to offend anyone when you write.” And as I recall he also said “And if anyone offends you don’t answer them.” He certainly followed that last piece of advice in his own conduct. It is well-known that bein adam l’chaveiro was something he spoke about constantly.

I heard the following from an air force pilot the position considered the crème de la crème of secular Israeli society:

“I went in to Rav Steinman and introduced myself as an air force pilot. He smiled at me at said ‘You mean a baal agolah in the sky.’ In that moment he shattered all my arrogance about being a prestigious air force pilot.” The pilot later became a baal teshuvah.

The Rosh Yeshivah had the ability to bore through the outer shells (A pilot! In the air force!) and expose the truth within: really you’re just a wagon driver in the sky. In the sky yes but still a baal agolah. That was how he chiseled down to the truth at the core of every matter even — or especially — matters of great import.

Although much has already been told much more will yet be told of this extraordinary life story. We will learn what it really means to learn Torah in poverty. (Once during his tenure as rosh yeshivah in Kfar Saba he had nothing for the Shabbos meals but a few of the ubiquitous pale-green Israeli zucchinis. He told his rebbetzin “We’ll eat some zucchini for the first course and we’ll imagine that it’s fish; then we’ll eat a bit more and imagine that it’s soup and then we’ll have a bit more and imagine that it’s chicken.”) We’ll learn what it means to stand on principle without trampling others what it means to bear responsibility as a leader of the public along with cognizance of the limits of power.

All this will be told in the course of time and only then we will know what we’ve lost. (Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 690)