Rebbi for America: HaRav Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg, zt'l

by Mordecai Plaut

Part II

A Time of Transition

In June of 1945 (5705), R' Yaakov Weinberg wed Chana, the only daughter of HaRav Yaakov Yitzchok Halevi Ruderman, zt"l, one of the Alter of Slobodke's star talmidim, who had founded the Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore. Only a few weeks later, R' Yaakov's father Rav Mattis was niftar at the too-young age of 68.

R' Yaakov moved to Baltimore and his father-in-law's yeshiva, where he spent the rest of his life in harbotzas Torah, aside from a seven year period in the branch of the yeshiva in Toronto. His brother R' Noach, who later founded his own yeshiva Aish Hatorah in Yerushalayim, regarded his older brother as his rebbi and followed him to Baltimore.

R' Yaakov continued learning and soon began to say shiurim in Ner Israel. R' Nachman Kline, a close talmid of HaRav Ruderman in those days, recalls that the Rosh Yeshiva told him that he should go to his son-in- law's shiur. "You will hear things like you never heard before." He told other people that others make two or three shiurim from what his son-in-law says in only one shiur.

During the shiva, the family received a letter from a woman who lives in an isolated community in St. Mary's County, Maryland, a two hour drive from Baltimore. The correspondent was the daughter of someone who heard classes from Rav Weinberg more than 40 years ago. For seven years the young Weinberg couple would drive two hours each way to give classes (both of them) in that isolated Jewish community. The writer merely wanted to express her gratitude for that effort so long ago, and to say that there are now three frum generations as a result of that effort.

In those days the community in St. Mary's County built a shul. Everyone pitched in and even Rav Weinberg climbed up to bang in some nails on the roof. He never held himself above or aloof, but was a part of things with everyone else.

"The Chabura"

Once Rav Weinberg's son asked his father which were the best times in his life. Without hesitation he answered the period of the Chabura in Ner Israel and the years in Toronto.

By any measure, the Chabura was a remarkable phenomenon. A group of about 18 outstanding young students were selected, and put together in a special room with a devoted rebbe to learn and develop. They spent the whole day together, but separate from the rest of the yeshiva. HaRav Weinberg said shiurim in Bovo Kama and in Pirkei Ovos with the commentary of the Chossid Yaavetz. Everyone who participated remembers it as a time of tremendous, stimulating growth.

It is evident from a partial list of the talmidim just how much they grew, for many went on to great achievements of their own: HaRav Yochanan Zweig (rosh yeshiva in Miami), HaRav Moshe Hochman (a rosh yeshiva in Toronto), HaRav Nochum Lansky, HaRav Simcha Soloveitchik, and HaRav Uziel Milevsky, zt"l. This, again, is only a partial list.

In 1964 (5724), HaRav Weinberg went to the branch of Yeshivas Ner Israel that had been established a few years earlier in Toronto where he served as rosh yeshiva until 1971 (5731).

During that period many talmidim from the main yeshiva in Baltimore went to Toronto for various periods in order to learn with the Rosh Yeshiva there. He said many shiurim including, for a time, a daily shiur in Chumash in which he went slowly, posuk by posuk, analyzing and treating everything carefully and thoroughly. It was a relatively small yeshiva (the high school was the larger component) and there was an opportunity for those who wanted to learn from the Rosh Yeshiva to do so.

After that he returned to Baltimore, as the Toronto yeshiva became independent. He spent the next 28 years in the Ner Israel yeshiva in Baltimore, the last 12 of them as rosh yeshiva after his great father-in-law was niftar in 1987 (5747).

As the American Torah community developed, the function mentioned at the beginning of the first part, of linking those who grew up in America with the living wellsprings of the Jewish mesora, became less critical because now there are so many different ways in which everyone is connected. However, he had much more to give, and in his whole life he constantly gave more and more to his talmidim and everyone who came in contact with him.

A Selfless Individual

With his remarkable intellectual gifts, it would have been easy for him to dominate people. Thus, it is all the more impressive that no one ever felt that the Rosh Yeshiva was imposing himself on them even in the slightest way.

The fact is that his whole approach to living was based on a thoroughgoing and deeply rooted conviction and understanding that his efforts should be properly directed towards the outside, towards others. He stressed and lived the fact that a person's overall goal is to be an eved Hashem, a human tool of Hashem who lives to fulfill Hashem's will. Translated to the interpersonal level, this meant that he lived for his talmidim and was interested only in their benefit.

He once told a talmid: "You are interested in `why,' but I am interested only in `what.' "

"Why" did not matter to him. He made himself like a midbar to simply accept whatever Hashem wants, without question, without seeking any further basis behind it. Even to search for a "why" implies that there is some other standard, some other measure for what to do, and this is often where a person's self comes in. For him, there was nothing there.

He was an original thinker and had many ideas, and conceived many plans. However, once he was convinced that rotzon Hashem was otherwise, he accepted that and simply worked with the situation as it was. He no longer harbored any thoughts of "what if" or "if only." Once it was clear to him what the rotzon Hashem was in a given situation, he did it with all his powers and to the fullest of his abilities.

As one example that was cited by several people, when he came to their chasuna, he came early and stayed on. No one doubts that he had other things to do, other pursuits that might seem to be "higher" or "better" than sitting at a chasuna. But once it was clear that he was going, he went to fulfill the rotzon Hashem behidur, not grudgingly or sparingly.

Very Different

There were some ways in which he was very different from our generation. He was so abstracted from his physical needs, so far removed from normal physical desires, that in this aspect he seemed not of our times.

Once, when giving a shmuess in Mesilas Yeshorim, he was talking about a certain taava, a physical desire. He said that it was an absurd taava, something beyond the desire of normal people. Searching for a proper analogy, he finally came up with, "It is as absurd as saying, `He sat down and ate a quart of ice cream by himself.'"

This certainly caused some raised eyebrows among the talmidim listening to him. They understood the point he was trying to make, but the example he chose taught them more about the Rosh Yeshiva than about the Mesilas Yeshorim.

He Used to Say...

It is important not only to give a sense of who he was, but also, in memoriam, to try to give over some of the important lessons that he taught. Certainly all of his students carry these ideas with them in everything they do, but this is an appropriate venue to set them down so that they will be more widely available. Especially in view of the fact that he left so few written works, is it important to try to record and publish some of the valuable insights he taught.

Many of these teachings were so important to him that they could be prefaced with the introduction of so many mishnayos of Pirkei Ovos: Hu hoyo omeir . . . Almost everyone who had significant contact with him has heard them. Others, however, were not as widely known. All are nonetheless part of an integrated, consistent, coherent approach to his life's task of being an eved Hashem.

Two Stories

There is a story told about Vilna of more than 200 years ago. In those days it was often difficult to get arba minim for Succos, which had to be imported over long distances from other climes.

One year, it was almost impossible to get an esrog in Vilna. In fact, there was only one. The Vilna Gaon was the unquestioned godol hador and even he did not have an esrog for Succos. His talmidim did their best to secure the esrog for their master. They offered the possessor of the single Vilna esrog that year large sums of money -- but he turned them down. He did, however, make them a counteroffer: He would give the Gaon his esrog, if the reward for the Gaon's fulfillment of the mitzvo went to him, instead of to the Gaon!

It was a steep price and a very unusual one. The talmidim were not sure how their master would react. When they told him of the price for the esrog, he accepted immediately and radiated great joy, exclaiming, "Now I will be able to fulfill this mitzvo completely lishmo!"

Another, similar, story is told about a great Chassidic Rebbe. One time he announced to his followers that it was decreed in Heaven that they had, for one reason or another, lost all chance of any reward in Olom Haboh. The Rebbe declared his happiness about this state of affairs to all of his followers, for the reason that henceforth he could worship Hashem purely lishmo.

The Rosh Yeshiva would explain that he has no historical information about either of them, but based on the content of the stories the first is proper and correct, but he could not accept the second as valid.

Hashem created the world in order to give us reward, he explained. This is the purpose of His Creation, and this purpose must be fulfilled. But Kaviyochol had no particular person in mind when creating the world, and it makes no difference for His purpose who receives the sechar. Thus, it serves Hashem's purpose just as well if the original owner of the esrog receives the reward for a mitzva as if the Vilna Gaon himself receives the reward. Nothing is lost; the mitzva is fulfilled and Hashem gives someone the reward for that mitzva. The Gaon, who was only concerned with what Hashem wants without any concern for himself, could properly rejoice that he could do the mitzva purely lishmo, as long as someone was getting the reward.

If the reward is lost entirely, if no one gets it as in the second story, then Hashem's purpose in Creation of giving out sechar is not brought to fruition. If the reward for the good deeds is simply lost, then this is occasion for mourning not rejoicing, since Hashem's purpose has been frustrated, not fulfilled.

Sechar is Our Relationship

Since the desire to reward us is the basis of Creation, its nature and procedures are important. The Rosh Yeshiva insisted that the reward that we get for the good things that we do is not a "mechanical" sort of built-in response to our deeds, but rather a reflection of the consequent nature of our relationship to the Ribono Shel Olom after we have done what He bid us do.

Some say that the world is simply set up in such a way that there is an automatic response, in the spiritual realms, to our deeds. When we do what Hashem wants us to do, we are showered with the reward for their performance. The Ramban, however, says that the reward that we get for mitzvos is really a neiss.

The Rosh Yeshiva taught and explained that when we do Hashem's will, it enhances our relationship with Him. The reward that we get comes from this enhanced relationship.

The reward is there, and we must strive toward it. Yet we strive for it not in order for us to have it, but in order that the Ribono Shel Olom can give it to us, as we know that he wishes to do. When the Vilna Gaon fulfilled the mitzva of arba minim he knew that there was an attached reward and that Hashem wanted to give this reward. Yet it was not important to him that he be the recipient of the reward.

This is a complex idea, but the Rosh Yeshiva once illustrated it himself beautifully.

For the Sechar or Because of the Sechar?

A talmid once asked him about the posuk in parshas Vayeiro (Bereishis 18, 19) in which Hashem says of Avrohom Ovinu: "For I know of him that he will command his children and his household after him, that they will keep the derech Hashem to do tzedokoh and mishpot in order that Hashem can bring upon Avrohom all that he has spoken about."

This posuk, the talmid wondered, seems to fly in the face of the well-known principle that we should serve Hashem as slaves who work without thought of reward. Hashem commends Avrohom Ovinu because He knows that Avrohom Ovinu will send his children along the derech Hashem so that they will get rewarded. How is that reconciled with the charge to serve Hashem as an eved who serves without wanting any reward?

HaRav Weinberg explained it by analogy. He goes to visit his mother in Williamsburg, and whenever he comes, she insists on feeding him and obviously takes great pleasure in doing so. At first he protested. "Mother, why do you insist on serving me? I've already eaten enough."

"Do you think I want to feed you just because you are my son?" she asked rhetorically. "Not at all! I want to give you to eat because you are a talmid chochom!"

"If my mother were only interested in feeding me because I am her son, then if I have had enough to eat, she would have no interest in feeding me. It is all the same to her, as long as if I have enough to eat. However, since she wants to feed me in order to give pleasure to a talmid chochom, then she must be the one to feed me. I must eat her food.

"Since then," he told the talmid, "I make sure to finish every morsel of food. I am eating because it brings my mother pleasure for me to eat her food, but I am not eating for the pleasure of the good food." (Heard from HaRav Eliyohu Baumwolspiner)

Chazal say that the relationship between parents and children is analogous to the relationship between people and Hashem, and that is what we are trying to exploit here. We must serve Hashem in order that Hashem may give us the reward that He has promised, but we do not serve for the reward itself but in order to fulfill the will of Hashem which is that we receive the reward.

On the Subject of Sechar . . .

In the third perek of Hilchos Teshuvah the Rambam discusses the fact that everyone has zechiyos and avonos, and the way these are weighted and counted against each other, so that an individual and a country and the whole world are either tzadikim -- if they have more zechiyos -- or reshoim -- if they have more avonos.

In the third halocho the Rambam writes: "Whoever regrets the mitzvos that he did, and waives the zechiyos and says to himself, `What have I benefited in that I did them? Would that I had not done them,' has lost them all, and they do not mention for him any merit in the world, as it says, `The righteousness of the tzaddik will not save him on the day of his rish'o' (Yechezkel 33) -- this must be referring to none other than one who regrets his earlier actions."

What could this mean? Chazal always say what a great chiddush it is that teshuvah erases the sin, but here we apparently see that it applies to mitzvos as well. Moreover, generally Hakodosh Boruch Hu's consideration of good deeds is greater than His punishment for bad deeds (middo tovoh merubo). So how can it be that simply regretting one's mitzvos will fully cancel them out?

Consistent with his understanding of sechar as being of fundamental importance in the Creation, the Rosh Yeshiva learned here that the Rambam does not mean to say that the person loses the sechar of his good deeds if he regrets them, only that in such a case they are not taken into account when reckoning his status as a tzaddik or a rosho. The original sechar is preserved for him and will be given to him in one form or another, but once he rejects his earlier acts they are no longer included in the balance of all his deeds.

This is in fact evident from a closer reading of the Rambam. He writes: ". . . and they do not mention for him any merit . . ." This "mentioning" refers to the accounting that is done for each person, to determine whether he is a tzaddik or a rosho. Also, the posuk refers to "the day of his rish'o" which is consistent with this interpretation, meaning the day on which he is judged a rosho, the day on which an accounting is made of his zechiyos and avonos, and he is found a rosho since he loses those zechiyos that he regrets. (Heard from HaRav Simcha Cook.)

Only the Truth

The Rosh Yeshiva was always focused on the truth, even when it may not have been the most comfortable way to look at things. He was prepared to talk and act in ways that often sounded strange to others, when he knew that his way was the truth.

One instance was the case of a particular shidduch. The parents of a girl of marriageable age came to ask him about a particular young man, and he told them it was a good shidduch and they should pursue it. Someone from the side of the bochur came to ask about the same shidduch, but the Rosh Yeshiva told him that he did not know if he should pursue that offer.

Those who heard about both answers thought that the combination was strange, but the answer was simple: it was clearly good for the young lady, but not so clear that it was good for the young man. It was not a case of the Rosh Yeshiva taking a bold stand for truth, but simply that he was unwilling to answer any other way than to tell each what was exactly best for him or her.

To Reach the Soul

His goal with his talmidim was not just to impart knowledge but to elevate them. The truth that he wanted to give over was much deeper than what many people give over.

At one time, a certain talmid used to go to him to ask him questions consistently after every shiur that he gave. He confided in someone that the talmid was very krum and he thought that he could straighten him out, but he was not sure if he had the time and strength that were necessary for the task.

This is not the worry of someone who could not answer the questions that he was being asked, even to the satisfaction of the questioner. HaRav Weinberg certainly had no difficulty in merely answering the surface questions posed by that bochur. It is clear that his eye was on something deeper: he wanted to reach out to the talmid and to correct the roots in him that were leading him to ask such unnecessary or misguided questions.

Sometimes he volunteered remarks that seemed unprompted and unmotivated, almost like an oracle. He once told me, "You know Mordechai, you have to keep on thinking. Don't stop, but always push on and deeper."

I did not see why he said that. I did not understand what he could have seen in me that showed him I had such a problem, if I did in fact have such a problem.

However, I accepted the criticism and worked in the direction he indicated. Many months later I did see the wisdom of his remark and how it was excellent and important advice for me -- though I could never figure out how he could have known to tell me.

What is the Mitzva of Emunah?

The Rambam counts the mitzva of emunah as the first of the 613 mitzvos. As the Ramban explains, the gemora seems to imply this in saying that the two mitzvos we heard from the Ribono Shel Olom (and not Moshe Rabbenu who told us 611) were Onochi and Lo yihiye. The Bahag, however, does not count this mitzvo as one of the 613. The Ramban explains that this is because it is the presupposition of all mitzvos. How can there be a mitzvo without a metzave? Thus it cannot be an individual mitzva by itself.

What does Rambam hold?

The Rosh Yeshiva said that the emunah that is presupposed by all the mitzvos is not the content of this mitzva. Rather that emunah is presupposed by this mitzva as it is by all other mitzvos. This first mitzva however, is to make our emunah stronger and stronger. To work on our emunah and to develop it. This is something that can be done without limit. (Heard from HaRav Moshe Hochman)

The Rosh Yeshiva in particular worked very hard on the Rambam in all the halochos in Sefer Maddo among which the mitzva of emunoh certainly occupies a prominent position.

Emunoh Temima

He worked on emunoh but it was within Torah and bederech HaTorah and not relying on any outside tools.

He once commented to a talmid that there are many people who are temimusdik in their approach to emunoh. They simply have emunoh peshuta and do not ask any questions. They simply are mevateil da'as to the Ribono Shel Olom. This approach we can understand.

But someone like the Chazon Ish, he explained, is amazing. He knew all the questions and worked on them, but still came out after all that with such a perfect and wholesome emunoh. This is truly remarkable. (Heard from HaRav Nochum Lansky)

Stunning Brilliance

Time and again the Rosh Yeshiva would stun us. One could never know how he would react. One could have prepared a gemora so carefully, and worked on it so hard, only to sit on it with him and find out that he missed the main point. As HaRav Mordechai Blumenfeld put it, no matter how much you had prepared, "He would show that you hadn't begun to think about it."

But this did not only apply to divrei Torah. It was also true in derech eretz. Telling him over the apparently simplest story could be an adventure. He would often find some completely overlooked aspect that was critical, and put the whole thing in a new and surprising light.

This was a consequence of the fact that his yiro preceded his chochmah, as Chazal say it must. His wisdom was based on his fear of G-d, and grounded in everyday life, where this is important. His chochmah showed him not just how to think, and not just how to act, but even simply how to be. He created full, wholesome and "real" people. (Heard from HaRav Yochanan Zweig)

No, Yitzchok, You're Wrong

One of the most elusive, but significant, elements of the avoda of the Rosh Yeshiva was his constant, patient chinuch of his talmidim. It was something he was always ready to do, and something that he did willingly, over and over, whenever he had the opportunity. He would speak with them, elicit their comments, patiently analyze them, and develop the ideas that he wanted to convey using them. There was an interplay between the rebbe and the talmid that was, however, extremely elusive and difficult to capture. It was not the sort of thing that one took notes of, nor even recorded on tape.

Nothing can better convey this experience than an example. However, these were usually personal lessons, tailored to the talmid in question and the circumstances that were at hand, and by their very nature they did not lend themselves to any sort of recording or preservation.

I have, with considerable thought and effort, constructed an illustrative example. It is an imaginary dialogue in which a talmid of the Rosh Yeshiva is trying to convey some basic ideas about his rebbi to a student of his own. The talmid, in talking with his own talmid, uses the techniques that he learned and absorbed from his own rebbi, the Rosh Yeshiva. It is based on a story about the Rosh Yeshiva that several people who were very close to him told me, assuming that it happened as given here, and certain that in any case it reflects the way he acted. This exercise displays the Rosh Yeshiva and how he lived -- and what we can learn from him in our own lives. (I will note the true facts at the end.)

Yitzchok, I want you to think about the following story. Now listen carefully.

Some years ago, a relative of the Rosh Yeshiva lost a son who passed away well before his time, leaving behind a young family ranging from 2 to 10 years old.

The Rosh Yeshiva and the Rebbetzin went to be menacheim ovel. There were other people there when they arrived. After sitting for some time, the Rosh Yeshiva rose and said, "I have some people to talk to," and left the room.

No one knew where he went. He was gone for a considerable time. Only later did they find out that he had sought out the little orphans, and taken them to a room where he sat with them and discussed what had happened to them at their own level.

Now, Yitzchok, I want you to think carefully about this story. What do you think it shows?

-- I think that it is a beautiful story that shows that the Rosh Yeshiva was a man of deep feeling.

If that is what you think, Yitzchok, then you are wrong. Completely wrong.

If that is what you understand, Yitzchok, then you do not understand the first thing about the Rosh Yeshiva.

It is so clear, Yitzchok, that this story shows something entirely different. This incident shows the Rosh Yeshiva's brilliance.

It shows how he was able to grasp a situation, to see it from all sides, and to find the key point, that crucial element that everyone else missed, but that is -- once he showed it to us -- absolutely essential to a proper understanding of the situation and, now in retrospect, we feel should have been obvious to everyone.

Surely you see that, Yitzchok. Obviously the ones most in need of attention and the gemilus chassodim that is the very essence of nichum aveilim which was the whole purpose of the Rosh Yeshiva's trip, were the young orphans. Yet everyone is naturally distracted because they know the adults better.

Even hearing about the story we are stunned and impressed. That is brilliance, Yitzchok, absolute brilliance.

But now, is that all you see in that story, Yitzchok? Don't you see anything else? Is it just pure brilliance? Is that all you see here?

It's not enough. Yitzchok, you must go deeper. If you stop here, you've left the Rebbi in the league of brilliant minds, but it could still be with thinkers like Aristotle, who were geniuses but could at the same time be corrupt and degenerate. If that's where you stop, Yitzchok, you have not yet captured his essence.

What is remarkable here is the object of Rebbi's brilliance. It is not an abstract principle that he discovered, in the realm of pure knowledge, that can be polished and displayed and repeatedly admired, but it is a truth of life, a truth of deed, a truth that left the world a better place after it was discovered.

The Real Story

This story that was told about the Rosh Yeshiva was based on a similar true event, however in fact the idea of speaking with the young orphans was not the Rosh Yeshiva's but his daughters'. They thought about it in advance and arranged it as soon as he came.

The Rosh Yeshiva went to them in a side room, he made the children at ease and invited them to ask him whatever was on their mind. The children were most concerned about their departed father. Is he happy? they wanted to know.

This was a difficult question. It would obviously pain them to know that their father was unhappy, but on the other hand how could he leave them? The Rosh Yeshiva told them that their father was happy, but he missed them.

This went on for some time. The children asked; the Rosh Yeshiva comforted and explained.

At the end the young widow, who was present, exclaimed, "I know it helped the kids, but it helped me more." The young children later said that the Rosh Yeshiva sat with them with kindness and patience, and talked about their new situation and their father.

The truth is certainly beautiful enough.

To Call Out Besheim Hashem

At the Chag Hasemicha the Rosh Yeshiva spoke about the nature of a yeshiva, based on the Rambam in Hilchos Avodas Kochovim (1:3). It is the chapter in which the Rambam recounts the history of the idea of avoda zorah and the way Avrohom Ovinu developed on his own and recognized the truth of his Creator at the age of 40. As soon as Avrohom Ovinu recognized this he started to argue with the people of his city, Ur Kasdim. He was miraculously saved from the king there who wanted to kill him, "and he got up and called out to the whole world loudly to tell them that there is one G-d for the whole world who should be worshiped." He eventually reached tens of thousands whom he taught, each according to his own understanding, and "he implanted in their hearts this great principle."

Avrohom passed on this task to Yitzchok who in turn passed it on to Yaakov. "And Yaakov Ovinu taught all of his children, set Levi aside, and appointed him the head, and set him in a yeshiva to teach the derech Hashem and to keep the mitzvos of Avrohom."

This was what the Rosh Yeshiva saw as the purpose of a yeshiva: to teach the derech Hashem. All must be brought closer and upward. The staff of the yeshiva must spread this great idea and implant it deep in the hearts of the talmidim. Kiruv kerovim, reaching those who need to be reached, is as important as kiruv rechokim.

This is what a person must dedicate himself to do. To serve Hashem, by being an eved Hashem and prominently by calling out to the whole world in general and to each talmid in particular, to bring him to the derech Hashem. (Heard from HaRav Nochum Lansky)

Summation

There is certainly much more to say, and perhaps there will be other occasions. The avodas Hashem of an odom godol in more than 75 years can certainly not be contained in 10,000 words. Chaval al de'avdin, velo mishtakchin.

Tehei nishmoso tzerura betzror hachaim.

Back to Gedolim Homepage