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Chayei Sarah

In this week’s parashah, we are told, in great detail, the story of how Eliezer, servant of Avraham, found a suitable wife for Avraham’s son, Yitzchak. The entire episode is repeated twice, as the Torah describes what actually happened and then transcribes Eliezer’s narrative as he relates his experiences to the family of Rivka, the potential bride. Since the Torah is usually very concise, the unusually lengthy account caused Rabbi Acha to comment: “The ordinary conversation of the Patriarchs' servants is more pleasing to G-d than even the Torah of their children, for the chapter of Eliezer is repeated in the Torah whereas many important principles of the Law are derived only from slight indications given in the Text” (Midrash Rabbah, brought in Rashi, Bereishis 24:42).

In other words, the Torah of the children is written briefly, forcing us to analyze the text meticulously and derive from it the proper laws and rules of behavior, while the stories of the Patriarchs, and even their servants, is elaborated upon and repeated in great detail.

Actually, story-telling about great men has remained a major part of Judaism, and we find that hearing about the good deeds of a tzaddik often affects us much more than learning their Torah. I think the reason lies in something I once told a young yeshiva bachur.

Upon returning from my first visit to Israel, I was asked by Shimshie Sherrer, then a student at the Yeshiva of Philadelphia, what impressed me most on my trip. He expected me to say, “The Kosel Hama’aravi” or “Kever Rachel,” or something like that, and then he was planning to respond to my reciprocal question of what impressed him the most with a novel answer, “the Steipler Rav.”

However, he was disappointed when I answered, “What had the greatest impact on me was meeting with Reb Chatskyl Levenstein, the Mashgiach of the Ponevizsher Yeshiva,” in effect ruining his anticipated witty remark.

He then asked me why it is that most people comment that they were mostly impressed with the Holy Sites, whereas we two were moved by the holy people. I explained to him that most people have their own mind-sets about religion, usually based on their own preferences and conveniences, rather than on truth. When they approach the holy monuments, they read into them their own interpretations, imagining that the sites are proclaiming their views, thus reinforcing them. However, when one approaches a rabbi who lives according to different, much loftier, standards, he is not impressed, and perhaps is even repelled by his lifestyle which does not agree with his ideas and preferences. Therefore, he is less affected by him.

But those of us who search for the truth, I concluded, will be influenced most by observing the ways of those who go in the path of truth.

Similarly, simply hearing the conceptual Torah of a great man, often leaves room for interpretation and manipulation, according to our own desires and wishes, when we are confronted with the actual situation. But observing how the tzaddik actually behaved in a certain instance, illustrates beyond contention exactly how we are expected to act in similar situations, and obligates us to emulate him, as much as we possibly can.

With the unfortunate passing, last week, of one of the greatest rabbis of our generation, Harav Elazar Shach zt”l, we are being inundated with unbelievable stories about him. His dedication to Torah and his concern for all Jews is truly astonishing. Every one of his tens of thousands of students and followers has at least several stories to relate, and each one is more remarkable than the next. I would like to join them and share one of several experiences I had with this great Torah Scholar whom I was privileged to know intimately.

When I had the merit to make aliyah with my family, in 1977, I was first mashgiach of the American group in the Yeshiva Itri-Chadera, and soon after, head of Neveh Yehoshua in Netanya. I had heard that visiting Rav Shach meant going through various gabbaim (appointees in charge) and waiting in line when your appointment date was set, and I wanted to shorten the procedure. Since I was a very close student of Rav Ya’akov Kaminetsky zt”l, an old-time friend of Rav Shach, I approached the Rosh Yeshiva himself right before ma’ariv (the Evening Services) in the Yeshiva of Ponevizsh and I gave him regards from Reb Ya’akov. As I had expected, he perked up and responded immediately, asking who I was, what was my connection with Reb Ya’akov, and what I was doing here in Israel. After telling him the particulars in short, I mentioned that I would like to meet with him. He said “sure,” and I asked him when I could come to him. He said, “Come home with me right after ma’ariv, and we’ll shmooze (chat).” My plan had worked, baruch Hashem, and I was soon accompanying him down the stairs which led to a back entrance into his humble apartment where I spent a very pleasant half hour discussing all kinds of things with him.

On the way out, his grandchildren (who took care of him, since his wife had passed away) approached me and said, “We see you are new here.” I replied in the affirmative, and explained that I had only recently made aliyah. They politely explained to me that after ma’ariv the Rosh Yeshiva eats supper and then he receives people. Since I had spent so much time with him, he would now meet with the long line of people who awaited him without eating until much later. They asked me that in the future I never bother him during this time.

I was astonished and I felt very bad. But, defensively, I told them that I had specifically asked the Rav when it was convenient to come to him and he had said that I should go home together with him right after ma’ariv. Laughingly they replied, “Of course he did. Our grandfather himself couldn’t care less about eating and other bodily needs. His only concern is learning Torah and helping Jews. But we have to protect his health and make sure that he eats on time and sleeps at least the bare minimum.”

I was very impressed, and, apologizing profusely, I promised that I would be careful never to disturb him at meal-time again.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but only a few weeks later, there was an emergency situation in the yeshiva and I needed the sage advice of Rav Shach. The timing was such that I had no choice but to come to him, once again, during his supper time. This time, the grandsons were enraged at the chutzpah of the young man who dared to prevent the Rosh Yeshiva from eating, even after they had explained to him the situation. As I spoke with the Rav, they made lots of noise, banging plates and pots together, in protest over what I was doing. I understood the message well, and so did the Rosh Yeshiva. He shouted at the young men to be quiet, and, when that didn’t help, he went into the kitchen himself and reprimanded them for disturbing his meeting with “a rabbi of a yeshiva.”

When I finally got up to leave, they wanted to kill me. I tried to explain that it was an emergency and I practically swore that it would never happen again.

After that I was a “good boy,” always coming at the designated time, and eventually I became good friends with the grandchildren who would let me, and any of my students who mentioned my name, come in whenever it was possible.

One night, I came to Rav Shach at 10:30 pm. I was very surprised to see him speaking to some people, while a long line of others waited for their turn, and yet, in the other room I could see that his untouched supper was still on the table. I asked his grandchildren why the Rosh Yeshiva had not yet eaten at such a late hour, and they said, “Don’t ask what we had with our grandfather tonight.” They went on to explain that whenever the Rav ate supper, he assumed that no one had yet come to see him. Since he always entered his apartment from the back door, he was unaware that at the front door a crowd awaited the allotted time, 8:30 pm, when they would be allowed in to speak with him. But sometimes someone would knock on the door, and then the Rosh Yeshiva would tell his grandchildren to let him or her in, and he would meet with the visitor when he should have been eating.

In order to prevent this from reoccurring, the grandchildren hung a sign on the door, warning people not to disturb the Rosh Yeshiva until he finished his meal. Rav Shach never saw this sign, because he always came in the back way, from yeshiva, and always assumed that no one had come yet.

“But tonight,” my friend related, “our grandfather went to a bar mitzvah and came home through the front door. He was amazed to see a big crowd assembled in the hall, and even more shocked to see the sign on the door. Outraged, he ripped off the sign and tore it to pieces. He came into the house and shouted at us that he cannot eat while people are waiting to see him, and he vowed that he would not touch his supper until the last person left. So it’s now 10:30 and his food still awaits him.”

As we were talking, the last person left the Rosh Yeshiva and he began heading for the tiny “dining room” to eat. Suddenly, Rav Shach noticed me, and, realizing that there was still someone waiting to see him, he turned around to return to his room and speak with me. Only when I assured him that I had not come to speak with him, but with his grandchildren, did he agree to go and eat. When he was finished eating I approached him and said that since I’m here already, perhaps we could shmooze a little “too.” He sat with me longer than usual and, in a particularly jovial mood, he told me about his experiences in Russia and discussed the problems in the State of Israel today, and gave me some sound advice which I always kept.

May we learn to go in his ways and may the remembrance of Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man ben Azriel be a blessing to us and to all our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world, Amen.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel