Today, the 9th of Nissan, is R’ Aryeh Levin’s 41st yahrzeit. A man who was called “The Tzadiq of Yerushalayim” at a time when Yerushalayim held such greats as Rav Kook, R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, R’ Zundel Salant, Rav Zvi Pesach Frank… “The Father of the Prisoners”.
Every Shabbos and Yom Tov, from 1927 until frailty overtook him nearly 40 years later, he visited the prisoners in the Russian Compound, Jerusalem. He visited the women’s prison in Bet Lehem, and the men sentenced to death for fighting the British, imprisoned in Akko — even as he questioned the morality of the many of the attacks that landed them there. Rav Aryeh Levin, like his rebbe-chaver, Rav Kook, looked to the holiness of the soul, the person willing to risk it all for the love his people, and chose not to focus more attention on actions in the past with which he disagreed. He was able to turn to common murderers, hold their hand warmly, making eye contact, feeling the pain of that soul starving within, and connecting to it. His “children”, as they called themselves, made sure their yarmulkas were on their heads before they arrived. They didn’t wish to cause him pain. As I recently posted, even those standing in the shadow of the gallows — and the British made sure the condemned literally did so, giving them sells from which they can be regularly reminded of their fate — would feel a need to comfort Rav Aryeh of the pain he felt about their predicament.
But he would always leave with the words from the machzor, “teshu’as Hashem kehe’eref ayin — G-d’s redemption could be like the blink of an eye.”
Rav Aryeh Levin was appointed their formal chaplain in 1929, but he only accepted the position on the condition that it not include pay. This was his mitzvah, he wasn’t going to cheapen it by accepting money. When the prisoners of the resistance held a reunion and were going to honor Reb Aryeh, he went for a berakhah first, to beg Hashem not to let the praises change him.
What did the prisoners think of him? The week that they learned his daughter was suddenly paralyzed, after each aliyah, the prisoner asked the gabbai to make a Mi sheBeirakh. But they were prisoners, so when the gabbai would normally say “for the sake of their pledging … to tzedaqah” what could they do? “I pledge a day of my life” “I pledge a week”, “a month”. Dov Tamari, later a professor at Technion, got maftir. He asked the Almighty, “What is our life in prison worth, compared to our Rabbi’s anguish? I pledge all the remaining days of my life to the complete recovery of our rabbi’s daughter.”
After Shabbos Rav Aryeh Levin learned that his daughter started recovering. (But the Almighty didn’t collect on His debt… Prof Tamari passed away at 95 in 2006.)
Rav Aryeh Levin’s “job” was as a mashgiach at a children’s school, Etz Chaim. That meant not only his formal duties. It meant sharing his food with the boys who couldn’t afford regular lunches. It meant bringing food for his own home for the boys who weren’t eating lunch regularly because they simply didn’t like the fare the school could afford to serve.
R’ Yitzchaq Silverstein, R’ Elyashiv’s son-in-law and thus married to R’ Aryeh Levin’s granddaughter, first met his future grandfather-in-law at Etz Chaim. He shared these recollections with readers of Hamodia about how Reb Aryeh related to the people who were fortunate enough to encounter him:
There was once a robbery in a nearby makolet early in the morning, and somebody came running to Reb Aryeh, telling him of the robbery.
Reb Aryeh went over to the thief, who was packing the loot into his car, and said, “The Torah says lo signov, you mustn’t steal!”
That was all he said, yet his words penetrated the thief’s heart. He immediately stopped packing the stolen goods and asked Reb Aryeh what he should do.
“Put it all back, and I’ll help you,” Reb Aryeh replied. And together they returned all the goods to the shelves.
I remember another time when Reb Aryeh asked a woman who had come to visit him to give him a brachah that he shouldn’t have to be helped by his children.Copyright 2009 by Hamodia
I was surprised by him asking such a brachah - he had such chashuvah children, his sons Harav Rafael, Harav Yaakov and Harav Shlomo, and his sons-in-law, Harav Yudelevitz, Harav Yaakobovitz, Harav Elyashiv and Harav Palchinsky, all geonim and talmidei chachamim - so why did Reb Aryeh think it would be so bad if he was helped by them? And why should Reb Aryeh ask for a brachah from this unknown woman in the first place?
After the woman left the room, Reb Aryeh, who had noticed my surprise, explained.
“This woman is a widow who didn’t merit having any children. I was worried that when she saw my grandchildren and great-grandchildren it would make her own sorrow more intense. I therefore tried to ease her grief by showing her that despite my many descendants, a person prefers to care for himself.”
Indeed, after giving the brachah, the widow finally smiled.
In his marriage… There is the famous story of his taking his wife to the doctor when she injured herself. “Doctor,” Reb Aryeh said, “her foot hurts us.”
A Torah thought from R’ Aryeh Levin on a topic from this week’s parashah (Tzav), the qorban Todah, the thankgiving offering.
The qorban todah is the origin of our practice of bentching gomel, thanking G-d when being saved from danger — crossing the sea, the desert, upon being freed from prison, or healed from illness, or when being saved from something life-threatening.
Our sages say that “the qorban todah, the thanksgiving offering, will never stop being brought.” R’ Aryeh asks, how is this a blessing? How is it good news to learn that we will never cease finding ourselves in predicaments that require such salvation?
After Moshe’s first trip to Par’oh, Par’oh increases his requirements of the Jewish slaves, requiring them to maintain quota but also now collect the supplies for brick-making themselves. Moshe asks Hashem (Shemos 5:22-23), “Why have you made things worse for this nation?” To which Hashem simply answers, “You will see!”
[Side-note: This is akin to a later conversation between Moshe and HQBH. After the incident of the Golden Calf, Moshe asks Hashem if He could show him His ways. Hashem replied "You can see me 'from behind' but my 'Face' can not be seen." We never really fully understand G-d's ways. But the glimpses we do get come with hindsight, after we had a chance to see some of the outcomes. -micha]
What did Hashem expect Moshe to see? Rav Aryeh cites a medrash, that when Yoseif died, the Jews started assimilating into the Egyptian people. In fact, at the time Hashem took them out, we are told they were on the 49th level of tum’ah, and any delay would have meant there was no distinct Jewish People left to redeem!
By increasing the hatred the Egyptians felt for us, Hashem slowed that process. The oppression was thus a necessary part of the redemption.
What then was Hashem’s answer? Why did He make things worse in Egypt? So that “You will see.” Not just you will see why, but the awareness itself is the reason.
It is for that which we bring the qorban todah, and why it is good that the qorban todah never ceases. Sad is the child whose Father provides no limits, no structure.
Similarly, our Sages proclaim that the Land of Israel is acquired only through suffering. Rav Aryeh explains this in light of Devarim 8:5 “And you will know with your heart that the way a man chastises his son, to Hashem your G-d chastises you.” Israel is acquired through suffering, but it is the suffering of a child who knows it comes from the Father’s love.
Philosophers debate the two things about morality: The first, its formal definition — what does it mean to behave morally? The second, finding a pragmatic test — how do I know that a given act in a given situation fits that morality. There are few answers I can offer to that second question as reliable as that in the subject line.
Before acting, ask yourself: What would Rav Aryeh Levin do?