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"And now, if You would but forgive their sin! -- but if not, erase me now from Your book that You have written" (Shemos 32:32).
Last week, I wrote about how true leaders of Israel sacrificially serve their flock; putting the people's needs before their own. I mentioned that HaRav Eliezer Shach zt"l, Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh, in Bnei Brak, was exceptionally outstanding in this way. I also promised to relate my personal experiences with him.
When I was privileged to make aliyah with my family, in 1977, I had no problem getting an appointment to meet with Harav Shach zt"l. I simply approached him before Ma'ariv (the evening prayer), in the Yeshiva of Ponevezh, and gave him regards from his colleague, Harav Ya'akov Kaminetsky zt"l. He asked me how I knew Reb Ya'akov, and when I told him that he was my mentor, he excitedly invited me to come and visit him. I asked him when would be convenient for him and he told me that I should accompany him on his way home right after Ma'ariv, which I did.
After schmoozing for about half an hour, I began to leave. Just before I went out the front door, Rav Shach's grandsons approached me and, realizing that I was new here, asked me not to visit at this time in the future, since the Rosh Yeshiva is scheduled to eat supper after Ma'ariv before he opens his door to receive visitors. Tonight, they continued, he won't be able to eat until he has seen everyone, and often the line doesn't end until very late at night.
I was shocked that I had caused such inconvenience and I apologized profusely, explaining that I had asked the Rosh Yeshiva when a convenient time to visit was and he had told me to come home with him right after Ma'ariv.
"Our grandfather!" they replied. "Of course he told you to come home with him. He doesn't care at all about mundane things like eating. He is totally spiritual. But we have to oversee him and guard his health for him otherwise he neglects it completely. We understand that you were not at fault this evening so you don't have to worry about it. Just be careful on future visits to come after he has eaten."
Unfortunately, just a few weeks later, I had a very important meeting in Jerusalem and I needed guidance from Rav Shach. In order to get to the meeting in time, I had to stop off by the Rosh Yeshiva on the way, and I arrived - you guessed it - right before Ma'ariv. I begged forgiveness as I explained to the Sage that I must see him right away. He said that there was no problem and that I should come home with him after the Evening Prayers.
This time, his grandsons were furious at the chutzpah of this young man who dared to come, once again, during the few moments they had to feed their grandfather. In the kitchen, they banged pots together in protest. I squirmed in my seat as I fully comprehended their message but I made believe that I was oblivious of what was happening. Suddenly, the Rosh Yeshiva stood up and ran into the kitchen and began reprimanding his grandchildren. I cringed as I heard him say, "I am sitting and talking to a Rosh Yeshiva and you dare to disturb us!"
I tried to keep the conversation as short as possible and as soon as we finished I ran into the kitchen to beg clemency before they could attack me. I explained that it was an emergency and I practically swore that it would never happen again. After that incident, I followed the rules and always came at the appropriate times (or, at least, not at meal times).
Eventually, the grandsons and I became good friends, and this friendship has lasted even until today.
One evening, I arrived at about 10:30 pm, and was surprised to see that the Rosh Yeshiva's food was still on the table in the small kitchen adjoining his study, while there was a line of people going in one by one. I asked a grandson why his grandfather had not yet eaten and he said, "Don't ask what happened tonight. The Rosh Yeshiva always comes home from Ma'ariv and enters his study from a back door which is situated next to the many stairs that lead to the yeshiva. While he eats supper, he is unaware that there are many people waiting in the hall at the front door for the designated time to begin coming in. However, sometimes, someone knocked or rang the doorbell too soon, and my grandfather insisted on receiving him immediately rather than ask him to wait until he finished eating.
"After this happened several times, my brother and I decided to hang a sign on the front door informing people that the Rosh Yeshiva is eating now and that they should please not knock or ring the bell until the time for receiving visitors. This worked very well, until tonight.
"Tonight, the Rosh Yeshiva went straight from Yeshiva, together with someone else, to a Pidyon Haben ceremony in town. When he returned, he came into the building through the front entrance. He was very surprised to see a whole crowd of people waiting at his front door. But he was horrified when he saw a sign on the door instructing people to wait until he finished eating. Furious, he ripped the sign off the door, came into the house and reprimanded us for making people wait while he ate. He vowed that he would not eat anything until the last person came in and saw him. It's now past 10:30 and the visitors keep coming and he hasn't eaten yet!"
As we spoke, that last person left the study and Rav Shach came out to finally eat. Suddenly he noticed me and asked, "Are you waiting for me?" and began to return to the study. "No, no," I shouted. "I just came to speak to the Rosh Yeshiva's grandson." Hearing this, the kindly Rabbi continued to the kitchen and ate his sparse meal. When he was finished, I joined him in his study and we schmoozed for quite a while. He was in an especially good mood and warmly told me stories about his experiences in Communist Russia and gave me some timely advice about living in Israel.
May his memory be a blessing for all of Jewry worldwide.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network