Hesped for Hagaon Harav Eliezer Menachem Shach zt"l
By: Rav Binyamin Beeri
We stand now at the shloshim since the passing of a great gadol, the Rav of all Beit Yisrael, Rav Shach zt"l. Chazal say, "The death is the righteous is comparable to the burning of the Temple." (Rosh Hashana 18b) Thus, we have an obligation to eulogize and to remember him. There are two purposes in this: First, so that we should sense and feel what the meaning of Torah is in Am Yisrael. One of the amazing things is to see the inner love of Am Yisrael for the Torah. Whoever was present at the levaya doesn't understand it... An old man, 104 or 107, and all of Am Yisrael came to cry over his death. There is no greater kvod haTorah than this. Thus, through eulogizing him, we raise kvod haTorah.
The second purpose is to learn from his image what we have to apply in ourselves. I would like to speak about my Rav Shach, if possible to say so -- as I knew him. Thank G-d, I had the privilege of knowing him personally, to speak with him a lot, to be close with him, and to ask him questions. I was privileged to recognize his personality, and I would like to relate not what I heard from others, but what I saw of his image with my own eyes.
I would like to make an important introduction, though. Someone may raise the question, "Is Rav Shach zt"l 'my' gadol?" Undoubtedly he was Torah giant, but it is possible that regarding many current issues his opinion is not like mine, and "my" gadol on this issue is not Rav Shach. Is Rav Shach "mine" that I need to cry over him? This is a very important principle regarding our view of all gedolei Torah. We find many disputes in the Gemara; this Tanna or Amora vs. the other, Bet Hillel vs. Bet Shammai, Rav vs. Shmuel. Do we say, "I am for one only -- for Shmuel and not for Rav? For R. Akiva and not for R. Eliezer?" All is part of Torah! "These and these are the words of the living G-d!" (Eruvin 13b) "There are seventy facets to the Torah." The main point is that all are for the sake of Heaven.
This is true not only for halachic issues -- Shabbat, Kashrut, etc. Clearly, if the Torah tells us what we may do and which meat we may eat, the Torah also guides us and provides answers in issues of State and hashkafa. Here, too, there are disputes, differing views among the gedolim, but all are part of Torah! A great example of this, that Torah does not belong to this group or that, is the Chazon Ish. All came to ask him, even those who differed with him. They recognized him as a gadol. The embodiment of this notion of a gadol, that all is Torah, both this view and that, is Rav Moshe Charlop zt"l, whose yahrzeit was a week ago, on 7 Kislev. On the one hand, he was privileged to sit before all the great scholars of Yerushalayim, but he was also very close with and was a talmid chaver of Rav Kook. The same is true with Rav Shach. He signifies greatness in Torah, he enlightened all of Am Yisrael, and he belonged to all of Am Yisrael. Especially in Kerem B'Yavneh -- all benefit from his Torah, either directly or indirectly. All the Ramim draw from his teaching. But even without this, he was a gadol for all of Am Yisrael.
Rav Shach was a very great in Torah. I barely reach his coattails, and cannot even describe myself as his "talmid." I was fortunate to "smell" a little of his Torah. Let me read, though, what the Brisker Rav wrote about him. The Brisker Rav would not give haskamot (approbations) at all. He gave only two in his lifetime; to R. Aryeh Pomoranchek, the Emek Bracha, and to Rav Shach. The Brisker Rav, who weighed every word, wrote, "In truth, he does not need any approbation from anyone, for he is very great ... in all subjects of the Torah, as one of the gedolim of our generation." This is what the Brisker Rav writes about Rav Shach. But I would like to relate what I saw.
What was Rav Shach's role in the Ponovich Yeshiva? There were three "Roshei Yeshiva," what we would call senior Ramim -- Rav Shach zt"l, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky zt"l, and Rav Povarsky zt"l, all gedolei Torah. They gave the third year shiur in Yeshivat Ponovich on a rotation basis, each one for a third of the year. In addition, they each gave a shiur klali once a week; Rav Shmuel on Sun. at 6:00 P.M., Rav Shach on Tues., and Rav Povarsky on Thurs. In addition, Rav Shach had another capacity; he was the "maishiv" of the Yeshiva. He was present for almost all the sedarim -- almost the entire second seder, and most of morning seder. He would stand in the corner with a shtender, completely engrossed in his learning, and talmidim would come and ask from all shas, in all areas -- whether iyun or bekiut. It was fascinating to watch. Whatever they would ask, it was as if he had just learned it this minute. It was unbelievable how he was in complete command everywhere. As soon as he finished answering, he returned to his Gemara, as if he had always been there. If the talmid asked a good question, worthy of arousing other talmidim, Rav Shach would call over others, "Did you hear what he asked?" In this way, groups would gather around him, with Rav Shach in the middle, discussing and arguing over the issue.
Another point: Rav Shach, his entire life, did not cease learning. His entire life he learned and learned and learned. A person sometimes thinks, "I already learned," and reduces the intensity of his learning. Rav Shach learned as if he was a talmid who just entered Yeshiva. His entire life he learned and learned without stopping, just as the Rambam writes, that one is obligated to learn his entire life, and it does not depend on his age. That is why we use the phrase "talmid chacham" -- the entire life one is like a talmid. This is a lesson for us never to cease learning, without any break. There is no such thing as, "I already know" -- we must always learn.
Moreover, he not only learned, but was completely immersed in his learning. All his thoughts were in Torah. You could see this with your own eyes. He lived near the Yeshiva, at the foot of the hill of the Yeshiva. He would walk back and forth from his house to the Yeshiva bent over, murmuring to himself and waving his thumb. This is the mental picture I have of Rav Shach. They tell a story about Rav Shach...
(A story is told about the Chofetz Chaim, that one time he was falsely accused. A character witness told the judge that the Chofetz Chaim was known for his integrity. People say that once he saw a thief stealing from him, and to save him from sin, he called out "It's hefker!" The judge asked the witness if he believed this story. He responded, "I don't know -- but do they tell this kind of story about you?!")
They tell two stories about Rav Shach. He was so engrossed in his learning, that once he was found walking in the opposite direction that he needed. Someone pointed this out to him, but he didn't notice him. Another time, he bumped into a lamppost and said, "Excuse me, Sir." I don't know if these stories are true -- they say it is correct -- but they are certainly plausible.
Yet, what was his greatness? Despite his learning, he had a warm heart for each and every Jew. This did not disrupt him. There is a story involving my own daughter, who was learning at the time at Michlalah, along with the daughter of a famous eye doctor in Yerushalayim, Dr. Zilberman. Once, when Rav Shach had an appointment for an examination, Dr. Zilberman suggested to his daughter that some girls come to get a blessing. She got together a select group of girls, who came full of excitement, not knowing what Rav Shach would do. (No one can contradict this story; there is a picture of my daughter together with Rav Shach.) When Rav Shach finished his exam and came out, he gave them a ten-minute drasha of chizuk in Torah and yirat shamayim. He also said good things about Michlalah, and, of course, gave them a bracha. (I once had a personal discussion with him on certain matters, and mentioned certain things that were said in his name. He responded that he did not say that, and that he can contradict everything that is said in his name.) He had a warm heart for everyone, but was completely engrossed in his learning.
However, I would like to say more. Rav Shach knew to be a big masmid and toil in Torah even when lacking, in difficult times and troubles. This is much harder. He writes about this a lot in the introductions to his works. He describes in that for almost his entire youth he suffered deprivation, since the first World War, when all Jews were exiled from Lithuania, and he didn't know where his parents were while he learned in Slutsk. Many years passed with great suffering. There is a story that Rav Shach told me personally. He would not walk upright, but bent over, drawing his jacket closed around him; a strange way to walk. He explained that this was because when he was in Yeshiva, he barely had any food and hardly any clothes. Once his pants tore, and he had nothing with which to fix them. He would cover the tear with his jacket, but since he wore a short jacket, he had to walk like this! This is what it means to learn with complete lack.
In his introduction to Sefer Nashim of Avi Ezri, he asks: Shlomo said, "Af chochmati amda li" (Kohelet 2:9) -- "The Torah that I learned with "af" (wrath, suffering) -- that is what endured." Similarly, the Rambam writes (Hil. Talmud Torah 3:12), "Torah does not endure in one who softens himself over them, nor in those who learn in comfort and eating and drinking, but rather in one who kills himself over it." Yet, elsewhere it says that Torah requires yishuv hada'at (a settled mind) Something which requires analysis and thinking can only be acquired through a clear head. This is contradictory! He says two things:
1) Torah is not like other studies. Torah is acquired when Hashem gives it as a present. "I toiled and I found -- believe!" "For Hashem grants wisdom; from His mouth [come] knowledge and understanding." (Mishlei 2:6) To whom does He give? To one who toils and exerts effort. Torah is not like other kinds of wisdom that a person learns through his own studying. When one toils in Torah -- then he gets a present from G-d. But still, how does a person learn with a clear head? He writes -- not as a drasha, but as something which is in the essence of his heart:
2) "A person's main task is to rise above all distractions." There may be many distractions, but one has to rise above them. It is like the guards at Buckingham Palace, who don't move, even if a bee comes, because they are standing before the king. All the more so, when standing before Hashem, learning and involved in Torah! What difference does it make if there are pants or no pants, food or no food. These all become trivialities. You are involved in much greater things. There is no suffering. The pasuk says, "Many troubles and distresses will encounter it [Am Yisrael]. It will say on that day, "Is it not because My G-d is not in my midst that these troubles have come upon Me?" (Devarim 31:18) Why does the pasuk conclude only with "troubles" and not with "and distresses?" He explains that troubles are all kinds of things that happen to a person. "Distresses" are how the person feels about them. There are two problems: the trouble itself, and the difficulty that the person feels. He is pressured, tense. This is because the person doesn't feel close to Hashem. However, once he thinks about this, and becomes aware of G-d. there are no longer any "distresses." The troubles may remain, but the person does not feel pressured.
I saw this with my own eyes. Rav Shach had nothing in olam hazeh. He wife was very sick and died many years ago. His daughter was also sick at that time, and he took care of his grandchildren. (His son-in-law was a Ram in Yeshivat Hadarom in Rechovot and was not available.) They were in his house and with him all day long. He would come to the Yeshiva and his grandchildren would be with him. Yet, despite all his troubles -- he was entirely engrossed in his Torah and learning.
Another amazing point was his liveliness, his enthusiasm in learning. It is hard to describe. He lost his voice long ago; you could barely hear his voice. He had a Yahrzeit on Erev Yom Kippur, and when he davened Mincha as the Chazan he could barely be heard. As I mentioned, he gave a shiur klali on Tues. The shiur was not given in the Beit Midrash, but in a special shiur hall, with shtenders and chairs all around, and Rav Shach in the middle. Most talmidim had no room to sit, but would stand. Rav Shach would say the shiur -- where would his voice suddenly come from? What liveliness, what enthusiasm, what sweetness! As if it were Torah from Sinai! His style was to involve the talmidim. He would ask a question and wait to hear from them, and then a big storm would arise, with he in the middle, running from side to side to hear what the various talmidim said. One American tourist (who was not familiar with this) once screamed out, "How can you disrupt?! Torah from Sinai and you're interrupting?!" There was vitality in his Torah; he suddenly got a voice. Rav Shach talks about this sweetness of Torah in his introductions, and compares it to fish in the water, who relish every raindrop. He was the happiest of men!
Another point was his love of the truth. A story is told about Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, that a talmid once said a certain dvar Torah to him. Rav Meltzer said that the logic did not seem so good. The talmid said, "But I heard it from you in shiur?" Rav Meltzer responded, "I had to give a shiur, so I said this logic; but what is your need?" There was no such thing for Rav Shach, just to say a sophisticated piece of logic. He was convinced and certain in his opinion. Once I asked him a question, and he answered and said, "This is the truth." I asked, "But Tosfot seems to say otherwise?" He responded, "I don't know -- but this is the truth." He once challenged a statement of the Brisker Rav from an explicit Gemara. Rav Shach related in shiur that the Brisker Rav's children told him that this passage was open in front of the Brisker Rav as he wrote the piece. Rav Shach said, "Whether there was a Gemara or not -- it is as clear as the sun that the Brisker Rav is not correct!
A similar story is told, that once during his shiur klali, a talmid asked a question. Rav Shach did not have an answer, and therefore said, "I am wrong, and I retract what I said," and ended the shiur in the middle. After a few minutes he found an answer, and called the talmidim back.
Rav Shach exemplified greatness in Torah, diligence, effort and toil. He was so engrossed and such a masmid. How could he do this with so many distractions and so many questions on all kinds of issues? Once there was a young man from Kerem B'Yavneh who was who was dating a young lady who learned in the Beit Yaakov system. Everything went well, but the girl refused to complete shidduch, despite the fact that the young man was excellent, because he learned in a Hesder Yeshiva. I was involved in the shidduch, and suggested that the girl ask Rav Shach for his advice. He said, "So what? In Kerem B'Yavneh there are no talmidei chachamim?! No bachurim who are Bnei Torah?!" He advised her to proceed with the shidduch, but the young lady did not listen. (Ultimately, the young man transferred to a regular Yeshiva, and is now a Rosh Yeshiva and a community Rav.)
Another example. When I became engaged, we had to buy an apartment in Rechovot. There was a choice of two apartments. One was in the religious neighborhood, on the fourth floor (with no elevator), and one was near this neighborhood, but in a mixed building, on a lower floor. I asked Rav Shach which he advised to buy. I was sure that he would say to take the one in the religious area. But Rav Shach advised to take the apartment on the lower floor. He said, "You are presenting the issue as if it is a choice of spirituality or materialism; a better neighborhood or a more convenient apartment. It is not so. Both are issues of ruchniut. If you buy the one the fourth floor, in a few years you will have children, and it will be difficult for your wife, and you will have to move, with all the ensuing hassles. It is better to be able to learn with a clear head.
Another example. My son-in-law studied [high school] in Medrashia. He wanted to transfer to a different school, where they didn't study for bagrut [comparable to Regents exams], while his father wanted him to stay and study for bagrut. Rav Shach advised a compromise, that he complete his high school studies in three years to satisfy his father, and then, in the fourth year, to transfer to a yeshiva. All this, while he was completely immersed. This is his greatness.
I want to say, that Rav Shach was not born Rav Shach, just as Rav Kook was not born Rav Kook. Each of the gedolei Yisrael acquired their way through great toil and effort. They say -- I don't know if it is true -- that Rav Shach was not particularly gifted as a child. He finished Shas the first time at age eighteen. However, he was diligent and toiled. You are in Yeshiva, and look at gedolei Torah, and say, "Who am I?" Everyone can be a gadol, but there are conditions: 1) Never stop learning. Learn your entire life, even when working as a profession. 2) One has to toil and expend effort in Torah. 3) Don't give in to the daily pressures of life. It is possible to rise above them. 4) Once, in a sicha to excite the talmidim towards avodat Hashem, Rav Shach spoke about Yaakov. "He rolled the stone off the mouth of the well." Very strange. Yaakov was a simple, studious person; he probably did not even exercise on Fri., and barely slept. Where did he draw this strength from? In the piyut for rain, we say, "Yichad lev -- he focused his heart -- and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well." He concentrated all his energies, and then, when a person focuses on his goal -- he receives strength. This is the secret -- "veyached levaveinu -- focus our hearts -- to love and to fear Your Name." If we focus and concentrate on Torah and service of Hashem, and do not divert out attention -- nothing can stop us. We can rise and rise.
Am Yisrael is sad at the loss of a great gadol, but we must remember his testament: to focus and grow in Torah, so that our life should be one of love of Torah, diligence in Torah, effort in Torah, and a focused heart in the service of Hashem. Then there will arise other gedolei Torah, who will enlighten Israel with their Torah. Amen.
Shiur ID: 4034