Thursday, November 7, 2019



          The eleventh of Cheshvan is the yahrtzeit of Rochel Imainu. It is also the yahrteizt of Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt’l, one of the most inspiring Torah leaders of our time.
          Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel once related the now well-known story with Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz at Kever Rochel [2]:
          Rav Shia Ozer Halpern related that he had the privilege of accompanying Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l on his morning walks at 6 a.m. One morning, he asked Rav Chaim if he wanted to visit Kever Rochel.  Rav Chaim responded by asking if there was a public phone nearby, because he wanted to tell his wife that he was going to be home forty-five minutes later than usual. One of the students found a phone and called the Rebbitzin and informed her. As soon as Rav Chaim was told that his wife knew he was coming home late, Rav Chaim began sobbing uncontrollably. He continued crying throughout the drive. When they arrived in front of Kever Rochel, the soldiers guarding the site asked if something happened.
          Rav Chaim entered Kever Rochel and cried out “Mammeh, dein zun Chaim’ke iz gekummen – Mother, your son Chaim is here.” He then davened for everyone he knew who was sick or needed another salvation. Before leaving, he cried out, “Mammeh, Hashem said that you should restrain yourself from tears – mini koleich mibechi. But your son Chaim says vein Mammeh vein – cry, mother, cry; keep crying for your children.”
          After completing the story, Rabbi Finkel asked what lesson should be gleaned from the story? The individual replied that Rav Chaim had so much love and care for Klal Yisroel. Rabbi Finkel replied that while that was definitely true, he learned something else: If a person knows that he is going to come home late, he should call his wife.”[3]

          Avraham and Noach were both spiritual leaders in their generations. Both were monotheists, spiritual beings, and prophets who communicated directly with God. Yet Avraham is counted as the first Jew[4], and Noach is counted as a gentile.
          The entire world, including the Jewish people, owes its very existence to Noach. Why is Noach not considered one of our patriarchs?  
          Parshas Noach begins with effusive praises of Noach: These are the generations of Noach. Noach was a righteous man in his generation Noach walked with God.”
          Few personalities in Tanach are described so nobly. Yet in this very passage there are also some veiled criticisms of Noach. One opinion of Chazal is that Noach was only righteous relative to the low moral standards of his time but would not have been considered as righteous had he lived in a different age.
          The Midrash[5] levels another criticism at Noach: The term generations applies not only to biological children but also to the students of a talmid chacham. The Torah suggests then, that unlike Avraham who had countless generations of students apart from his own family, Noach produced no followers beyond his own family. The use of the word eileh rather than ve'eileh suggests that the verse reads, "Only these are the generation of Noach."
          The Sfas Emes[6] explains that the reason for the deficiency in Noach's leadership and his inability to influence beyond his family lay in his perfection. This even manifested in the phenomenon of his having been born circumcised. Having known about God and Truth from birth meant he never had to struggle to become pious and never was challenged to discover faith. This very purity precluded him from being able to build bridges between his own lofty level and the degenerate lives of the people around him. He could not understand or relate to them, and in turn they could not understand or relate to him.
          Avraham, on the other hand, came from a family of idol worshipers and lived in a society where idolatry was the prevailing belief system. He had to challenge the core beliefs of his society and his own family, confront them with the falseness of their philosophies and offer them a compellingly attractive alternative vision. To do this effectively he needed to engage with the people of his time, connect with them, care about them and inspire them. He also needed to constantly challenge them. This is something Noach was too complete within himself and too self-sufficient to do. Noach's very greatness, his natural piety, was the flaw that inhibited him from reaching out to a population rather than just his own family. These are the generations of Noach - only these and no others.
          Based on the explanation of the Sfas Emes, Rabbi David Lapin[7] explained that becoming a leader and influencing others is contingent on the ability to be vulnerable and engage with the people of one's generation, to connect with them, understand them and at the same time challenge their beliefs. That is what differentiated Avraham, the Jew, from Noach the pious non-Jew. Until today many of the pious saints of other religions reach their piety through social and physical disengagement. Our Torah leaders however, are almost always people deeply engaged in the issues of their generation and are often people who have their finger on the pulse of the contemporary challenges of their times. Our leaders, like the ladder in Yaakov’s dream, have their heads reaching up to the sky but their feet firmly implanted on the ground.[8]
          Noach was a celebrity. The moment he was born his father declared that “this one will comfort us from the sadness of our hands.” Noach invented tools to plow the earth and he became wealthy and famous through that.[9] But all that only served to further distance Noach from being able to relate to his surroundings. Therefore, his legacy ended with himself.
          Unlike Noach, Avrohom was born in anonymity. He was “Abe”, Terach’s kid from down the block. Terach was an idol wholesaler[10]. But Avrohom pondered, strove, and yearned until he built himself into greatness. But he never forgot his roots, and he never lost touch with his beginnings. Therefore, he was able to relate to his generation, and that is why he was so successful in drawing people close to Hashem.
          The mark of greatness is the ability to relate to those well below you. The not-so-great are afraid to lower themselves to relate to those around them because it may tarnish their reputation. Only the truly great will be secure enough and caring enough to ‘go there.’

          Part of the greatness of Rav Nosson Tzvi was the veil of simplicity that he wrapped around himself. Any bochur could approach him and any bochur could make a seder with him. He once told someone, ‘I may not remember the name of every student in the yeshiva[11] but I love every one of them.’
          A couple once approached the Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe Rav Mottel Katz zt’l[12] because they were having marital issues. One of the husband’s complaints was that his wife insisted on his taking out the garbage, which he felt was menial and beneath his dignity, as someone who studied Torah all day.
          Early the following morning there was a knock on this couple’s front door. When the husband opened the door, he was stunned to find Rav Katz standing there. He was even more surprised when Rav Katz explained that he had come to take out the garbage, as he didn’t feel it was beneath his dignity to do so.

          Avrohom and Sarah were both builders of people. Avrohom headed an academy of Torah and was prominent and prestigious. Yet Hashem tells him (parshas Vayera) “Everything Sarah tells you, listen in her voice.” When you arrive home, all titles fade away, and you must prioritize being a spouse.
          That is of the great keys of Shalom Bayis. Not only respect for each other, but also to prioritize each other above all else!
          “If you’re going to come home late, don’t forget to call your wife!”

[1] Speech given at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbas Kodesh pashas Lech Lecha 5773, in honor of the Shabbos Sheva Berachos of Noam and Shira Israel.
[2] now immortalized by the song “Mama Rochel” composed by Abie Rotenberg and sung by Yaakov Shwekey
[3] From the Artscroll biography “Rav Nosson Tzvi”
[4] In halacha there is a fascinating discussion whether the Avos were indeed halachically Jewish. However, it is clear that the Avos, by dint of their title, are the spiritual progenitors of the Jewish people.
[5] Bereishis Rabbah 30:6
[6] נח תרנ"ד (ד"ה-איתא במדרש בנח כתיב)
[7] (Noach 5773)
[8] The Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanivesky zt’l, was known as an extremely saintly individual. Yet, there are countless letters of correspondence that he had with people struggling with issues of morality and purity. It is astounding that he was able to relate to them and convey practical advice and encouragement, despite his personally being on such an incredibly lofty level. Many of those letters can be found in the sefer K’rayna D’igrisa.
[9] Bereishis 5:29
[10] He owned the proverbial Idols-R-Us of its time…
[11] There were well over five thousand students in the Mirrer yeshiva
[12] This story has been mistakenly attributed to Rav Mordechai Gifter, another one of the Roshei Yeshva of Telshe. It is quoted in Bayis Umenucha of Rav Moshe Aharon Stern zt’l as having happened with Rav Mottel Katz.


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