61 years ago today, 5 Shevat 5708 (Jan 16, 1948), 35 Hebrew University students set out to the besieged settlers of Gush Etzion. A previous convoy had been attacked a month before, and the settlers of Ramat Rachel themselves were attacked twice in the previous week. So, at an age when most of us don’t have bigger worries than keeping our grades up or finishing the next paper these youths volunteered with the Haganah and chose to head into danger. Under the leadership of Danny Mas, they each took a 60 lb pack and headed into the Judean Hills.

We don’t know exactly what happened next, but there were enough messages intercepted by the British police to reconstruct some detail. (Not that the British tried to use this information to save lives.) The group passed an Arab shepherd outside the town of Suref, and rather than kill him to ensure his silence, they compassionately chose to simply lie about their intent. The shepherd informed an armed group, and this troop was attacked twice, involving hundred of local Arabs.

Dr Solomon Bloom tells his part of the story in an open letter to his daughter:

The settlement Ramat Rachel, slightly south of Jerusalem, was being besieged by the Arab Legion. The Haganah decided to send a small force of thirty-five soldiers, most from the Pal Mach’s best veterans, plus a few from our group of American recruits, to try to lift the terrible threat at Ramat Rachel. I was one of the Americans selected to join the thirty-five. During the final determination of who was to go, I was on my bunk listening to the officers of our battalion discussing those to be sent. One said; “Well we can’t send Shlomo Bloom, he’s married.” The other officer asked; “Why not?” The reply came back; “Well suppose Shlomo becomes a casualty and doesn’t get back here after this action. Then we have his American wife sitting, grieving alone here in Jerusalem. We can’t handle all the problems that would come up. There will be too many diplomatic and political problems if that happens; we just can’t be concerned with such a problem.” So I was struck from the list and Moshe Pearlstein, whom I had trained with but had no previous U. S. army experience, was selected in my place to join the thirty-five.

I will always remember how formidable – yes, how heroic – the “35” appeared in all their battle gear, as they assembled on the edge of Beit Hakarem. They were the Yishuv’s best and seemed invincible in my eyes. The group went out to reach Ramat Rachel, but never made it through the Judean hills. Twenty-four hours went by and no word from the “35.” Then our officers assembled a further group, I among them, to seek them out. Just before we started, the officers were listening to the news and there was this British bulletin stating that the “35” had been caught in an Arab ambush and there were no survivors. This tragedy was a terrible blow to the Haganah, the kibbutz fell to the Arab Legion a few days later and its surviving members were taken prisoner.

My dear daughter Ruth, I write this story forty-seven years after its occurrence. Being married to my first wife Helen in January of 1948 was my salvation. And what eternal gratitude I have for that Haganah officer who decided not to send me because of my marriage. That sweet soul Moshe, my good friend from training days and life together in the Haganah, became, as far as I know, one of the first Americans to fall in the war of independence for Israel. His sacrifice has given me a long eventful life – baruch Ha-shem. And it was just that twist of fate that I was luckily married at that time.

Ruth, if you should ever visit Israel again, be sure to ask the location of the “Forest of the Thirty-five.” Yes, there is today a forest planted to memorialize those “35” hero soldiers of Israel.

Moshe Pearlstein, the person who volunteered in Dr. Bloom’s place, was my grandfather’s cousin.

I recall the last time I visited my grandfather a”h, which was a few weeks before the yahrzeit. “Grandpa” expressed his frustration that he no longer healthy enough to make it to the annual gathering of family members of the Lamed Hei at the military cemetary Har Herzl. His worries that he would take with him a piece of the past were justified. I wish I had asked my grandpa when he was still alive more about Moshe Pearlstein so that I could draw for you a better portrait. (I wished I had asked him more about many things.)

What I do know is that Moshe Pearlstein made aliyah from Jersey City, NJ. He was an alumnus of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchal Elchanan (today the yeshiva affiliated with YU) who was studying Agriculture and Jewish Studies at the time of his murder. He was 23.

None of them survived. They were so brutally beaten, Rav Aryeh Levin zt”l had to rely on a Goral haGra, a lottery system attributed to the Vilna Gaon, to identify the last 12 bodies.

Danny Mas, the leader, was an amateur cartoonist. He drew the pictures on the right. We’re not talking of hardened soldiers, anonymous “troops”. We’re speaking of young people who put the lives of those at Ramat Rachel, ahead of their own. Men who risked, and ultimately gave, their own lives rather than risk killing an enemy civilian needlessly.
The names of these 35, the Lamed Hei, were:

  • Yisrael Alonai (Marzel)
  • Haim Engel
  • Benny (Sailor) Bogoslavsky
  • Yehuda Bitansky
  • Oded Binyamin
  • Ben-Tzion Ben-Meir
  • Yaakov Ben-Atar
  • Yoseph Baruch
  • Eitan Gaon
  • Sabo Goland
  • Yitzchak Gintzburg
  • Yitzchak HaLevi
  • Eliyahu Hershkovitz
  • Yitzchak Zvuluni
  • David Tash (Tur Shalom)
  • Alexander Cohen
  • Yaakov Cohen (Jordan)
  • Yechiel Kalev
  • Yaakov Kaspi
  • Yona Levine
  • Alexander (Avraham) Lusting
  • Eliyahu Mizrachi
  • Amnon (Mischel) Michaeli
  • Danniel (Danny) Mas
  • Shaul (Sully) Pnoali
  • Moshe Pearlstein
  • Binyamin (Benitzky) Persitz
  • Baruch Pat
  • David Tzabari
  • David Zwebner (Shag)
  • Yaakov Koting
  • Yoseph (Yup) Kopler
  • Tuvia Kushnir
  • Danniel (Chichu) Riech
  • Yaakov Shmueli

It’s strange to think, but they would have been, should have been, grandparents by now.

But it’s inspiring to think of the human potential. Man’s ability to place others ahead of his own very survival.

Yehi zichram barukh.

Osniel ben Kenaz

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב בשעה שנפטר משה רבינו לגן עדן אמר לו ליהושע שאל ממני כל ספיקות שיש לך אמר לו רבי כלום הנחתיך שעה אחת והלכתי למקום אחר לא כך כתבת בי (שמות לג) ומשרתו יהושע בן נון נער לא ימיש מתוך האהל מיד תשש כחו של יהושע ונשתכחו ממנו שלש מאות הלכות ונולדו לו שבע מאות ספיקות ועמדו כל ישראל להרגו אמר לו הקב”ה לומר לך אי אפשר לך וטורדן במלחמה שנאמר (יהושוע א) ויהי אחרי מות משה עבד ה’ ויאמר ה’ וגו’ במתניתין תנא אלף ושבע מאות קלין וחמורין וגזירות שוות ודקדוקי סופרים נשתכחו בימי אבלו של משה אמר רבי אבהו אעפ”כ החזירן עתניאל בן קנז מתוך פלפולו

Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: At the time that our teacher Moshe was released to gen eden, he said to Yehoshua, “Ask me about any uncertainty you may have.” [Yehoshua said, “Have I ever left your side, even for a moment? You have written about me, ‘and his assistant, the young Yehoshua, did not stir from the ohel mo’eid.’ ” Immediately, Yehoshua’s strength waned and he forgot 300 halakhos and 700 doubts were born to him. All of Israel got up to kill [Yehoshua]. Hashem said to him, “It is impossilbe for Me to [let Myself] tell you. Go, distract Israel with war.” As it says, “and it was, after Moshe, Hashem’s servant, died . . . God said, ‘Go and cross the Jordan…’ .” (Yehoshua 1)

– Temurah 16a

אמר רבי יוחנן שעורין ועונשין הלכה למשה מסיני עונשין מכתב כתיבי אלא הכי קאמר שיעורים של עונשין הלכה למשה מסיני תניא נמי הכי שיעורין של עונשין הלכה למשה מסיני אחרים אומרים בית דינו של יעבץ תיקנום והכתיב (ויקרא כז) אלה המצות שאין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה אלא שכחום וחזרו ויסדום

Rabbi Yochanan said: Measures and punishments are [all] laws given to Moshe from Sinai. “Punishments”? They are written [and thus wrong to classify them as orally given to Moshe]! Rather, this is what was said: The measures over which one is punished were given to Moshe from Sinai. Other say the court of Yaavetz established them. But doesn’t it say “These are the mitzvos” (Vayiqra 27) — that no prophet is worthy of adding anything from now on? Rather, they forgot them, and they went back and reestablished them.

– Yuma 80a

תנא הוא עתניאל הוא יעבץ

Mishna: Asniel is Yaavetz.

– Temurah (ibid)

Today, the 7th of Adar, not only marks the birth and death of Moshe. I want to point out another significant event. Until Moshe’s death, one could resolve halakhah by turning to Moshe to ask Hashem. However, we see in this gemara that the moment Moshe died, “lo bashamayim hi — it [the Torah] is not in heaven” took effect. Hashem couldn’t restore the lost Torah to Yehoshua, that’s not what Torah is supposed to be.

Osniel ben Qenaz did something new. He was the first rabbi in the sense of the halachic give-and-take we find in the mishnah, gemara, codes, commentaries, responsa and lomdus. The era of Rabbinic Judaism begins with Osniel, even as Yehoshua carries on the prophetic inspired approach to Torah.

Osniel prefigures another event in Jewish history. Note the phrase “שכחום וחזרו ויסדום — they forgot [the laws], and they went back and reestablished them.

דאמר רבי ירמיה ואיתימא רבי חייא בר אבא מנצפ”ך צופים אמרום ותיסברא והכתיב (ויקרא כז) אלה המצות שאין הנביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה אלא מה’ הואי, מידע לא הוה ידעין הי באמצע תיבה הי בסוף תיבה, ואתו צופים תקנינהו. -ואכתי, אלה המצות – שאין הנביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה! – אלא: שכחום וחזרו ויסדום

Rabbi Yirmiyah said and others believe it was Rav Chiya bar Abba: Menatzpa”kh [an acronym listing the letters that have final forms] were said by the seers. Is this logical?  But doesn’t it say “These are the mitzvos” (Vayiqra 27) — that no prophet is worthy of adding anything from now on? Rather, they are from Hashem, but they didn’t know which went in the middle of the word and which at the end of the word, and the seers came and fixed it. But again “These are the mitzvos” (Vayiqra 27) — that no prophet is worthy of adding anything from now on! Rather, they forgot them, and they went back and reestablished them.

– Shabbos 104a, Megillah 3a

And similarly the Ashuris script is described as restored,  as well as many other things forgotten during the Babylonian Exile. This same using reason to restore what was forgotten was a key part of the job of the Anshei Kenesses haGdolah. Theirs was not only an era after much Torah was forgotten during the pressures and assimilation of exile, but also the end of a prophetic alternative. The Great Assembly included the last of the prophets. One couldn’t “feel for” the right answer as reliably, and halachic reasoning came to the fore.

I fell in love with one of the central ideas in Professor Moshe Koppel’s book, “Metahalakhah”. There are two ways to learn a language: The native speaker doesn’t learn rules of grammar before using them, he just knows what “sounds right”. In contrast, an immigrant builds his sentences by using formalized rules, learning such terms as “past imperfect” and memorizing the forms that fit each category. R’ Koppel notes that the rules can never perfectly capture the full right vs wrong. A poet has to know when one can take license.

He argues that halakhah is similarly best transmitted by creating “native speakers”. It is only due to loss of our progressive loss of the Sinai culture with each generation that we need to rely on transmitting codified rules. In each of our cases, there was a major cultural shift.

With Moshe’s death, we not only lost Moshe’s level of prophecy. Note the words spoken by Yehoshua. “I have no doubts; I never left your side.” Overconfidence, in contrast to Moshe’s anavah. And therefore there was a shift from knowing by having a prophetic feel for what’s right to formal rules of derashah, of qal vachomer and gezeira shava.

Similarly the reestablishment of numerous laws by Anshei Keneses haGedolah when their prophecy was waning, and they needed to restore the Torah forgotten by our being mingled among the nations by Sancheirev.

The 7th of Adar therefore also represents Torah in our generation. We’re still reeling from the cultural dislocation caused by the Holocaust and the shift of Torah centers from Europe to Israel and the United States. From Sepharadim being forced out of century old communities. We’re still rebuilding. And again we see a focus on formal rules, on halachic guides.

However, there is a next step. Osniel was from the tribe of Yehudah and later became the first of the Judges, but he is not the one with whom Hashem established the kingship. It’s not until a leader emerges who is not only king, warrior and sage, but also the author of Tehillim — David.

Perhaps this is what it means when we say in the birkhas ahavah, the second blessing before the morning Shema, “lishmor vela’asos ulqayeim — to guard, to do, and to make permanent.” Shemirah, guarding, is a term used for prohibitions, mitzvos lo sa’asei. Asiyah obviously refers to duties, mitzvos asei. However, after watching to refrain from the prohibited and to do the mandatory, one has to allow them to make a permanent impact on one’s soul. This is qiyum hamitzvos —making the permanence of the mitzvos.

An Osniel can reestablish a mitzvah. Yasdum, literally — he gave them a foundation. But we still had Yehoshua giving us a building atop that foundation. We are now rebuilding our foundations. Now we need to Davidically stand upon them and sing.

(See also “Halachic Process – part I“.)

Hod shebiGevurah

Given that we’re a little shy on prophets right now, we have to find G-d’s word as He relays it as the Author of history. Looking at these “coincidences” He allows to crop up.

One of them is the convergance of meanings the Jewish People assign to the 27th of Nissan.

In the sefiras ha’omer, today is day 12, which the Qabbalists teach corresponds to the sefirah of Hod as it is manifest as part of the week’s sefirah of Gevurah. In other words, somehow day 12 has/represents the aspect of Divine Will which we perceive as the humility inherent in self-control.

More recently, most of the Jewish world assigned today as a day to remember the Holocaust. I am not getting into the question of its religious significance, if any. Looking at this “coincidence” as simply a historical artifact created / permitted by the Almighty…

During the omer, my email signature generator poses thought-questions related to the sefiros of the day. Today’s is “Hod shebiGevurah: What aspect of judgment forces the “judge” into submission?” And it struck me.

Nothing speaks to “Where was G-d during the Holocaust?” more than Hod shebiGevurah. G-d “held himself back” from acting, even though it caused the world to question Him.


Yeshivas Kenesses Yisrael (Slabodka), Chevron 1911

Yeshivas Kenesses Yisrael (Slabodka), Chevron 1911

This Shabbos, 18 Av, marks the 80th yahrzeit of those killed in the 1929 massacre in Chevron.

The message of Slabodka, the yeshiva that relocated there before the massacre, is realizing the potential and dignity of every person you encounter. Dan Slonim Hy”d not of the yeshiva, although he was always there when they needed assistance. As he was for every one, both the Jews, the local Arabs, even the very members of the mob who slaughtered him, his wife Hannah, his little son Aharon, and 19 others in his home.

The message of Slabodka is also the dignity of oneself, knowing one’s true worth, and how to strive for the kind of greatness Hashem Yisbarakh created you capable of acheiving. Whether it was the constant learning of Simchah Yitzchak Broide, who was killed in the yeshiva, his blood spilled across the gemara; or the chessed of Alter “Ashpooler” Sher, one of the students who founded a gemach within the yeshiva; R’ Moishe “Warsawer” Grodzinsky, a talmid of the Chafeitz Chaim who was known to greet every person first, and with a smile — whether the yeshiva student in his bording house, the sheikh or the Arab waterboy.  (Reb Moishe Warsawer was killed just weeks before his son’s wedding.)

These are just a few portraits of those who were killed that day. All of them very distinct, made in different molds. And yet each led a life of reaching for greatness.

The Alter of Slabodka with Students, Chevron

The following was written by Rabbi Leo Gottesman of the West Side Congregation and a Yeshivas Chevron Alumnus, on the occasion of the first yahrzeit in 1930. He spoke of those who came to Chevron, and told stories of those he knew who were murdered there. I used that section as one of the sources for the quick sketches I wrote above. However, I chose to include Rabbi Gottesman’s closing words of hope in full — that G-d is still with us, and it is for us to continue the ideals for which they lived.

WHAT shall we derive from all this?

Shall we allow the hopes and dreams and prayers of over eighteen centuries to be washed out by the blood of the martyrs of last August? Shall we throw up our hands in discouragement and call ourselves defeated.

No! That is unthinkable!

Reading over what I have written before; reading the account of the wonderful, the pure, the noble souls whose earthly careers were snuffed out in the twinkling of a gory, degraded passion for which the Arabs will never be able to forgive themselves when they have grown more enlightened, it might seem indeed that we are in a helpless situation. It might seem that in addition to our own helplessness we are faced with an absence of divine sanction; that God, Who permitted that unspeakable atrocity, has not cared to look with favor upon our efforts to reestablish ourselves spiritually and materially in the land of our forefathers. But to think so woud be to fall into an enormous error.

It would be wrong to hold in mind only the few score martyrs who fell beneath the weapons of the mad mob—who fell thus and thereby rose so high that it is given to few to hold rank with them in their greatness. It would be wrong not to give thought to those who were saved. And by this I mean not the vast multitude, the whole Jewish population of Palestine, more than 150,000 souls, whose survival may be ascribed to the purely natural cause that the danger did not come very close to them. I mean rather the hundreds who, though engulfed by the flames, were nevertheless drawn out of the fire; and were saved by such means that it is hard not to say— miracle, hard not to perceive the hand of Providence in it, hard not to realize that their being saved means that God has not averted His face from us but stands by yet to spare His children and speed us on the road to victory.

Yes, a few died; but many more were saved. Let us not make the mistake of looking only upon the little heap of sacred ashes. Let us gaze with understanding eyes upon the survivors, the living evidence of our ultimate victory. Because I have said so much in detail about those that died, let me say something about those that were saved; and I will leave it to many others to build up the remainder of the encouraging picture. I will content myself by concluding this brief record with a few accounts of how some of our fellows escaped the fate that threatened alt.

I have already written of some that survived, the manner of it being nothing short of miraculous. There were Lezer Yanishker and the young sister of Hannah Slonim, who were hidden in a closet. Whence came so much strength to the arm of a single youth, holding a door shut against the efforts of a mob——?

And there was the wife of Zaimon Welan-sky who, clinging to her husband, fell beside him in a swoon as he was stabbed by many knives, and was covered with his blood—so that the Arabs though they had stabbed her too. By this her life was saved. How much less than a miracle is it?

And there was William Berman’s younger brother. Who can say by what miracle he was permitted to live even where his brother and his friends were murdered. What stopped the Arabs, who thought him dead, from making sure of it?

Not all the Arabs in Hebron participated in the massacre. Some remained aloof, and some helped the intended victims to escape. Many hid in pits, in trees, in bushes—anywhere to be out of sight when the torrent broke loose. And many were concealed by friendly Arabs. One Arab gave shelter to thirty people, including the old Rabbi Slonim.

Two young boys were caught alone in a house when a mob began to break in the door. They ran up to the roof. The mob entered and plundered what they could. Then they began to look for persons—and were soon bound for the roof. The trembling boys sought a way of escape. They looked down into the yard, and there was an Arab—beckoning to them to jump down. They declined at first, being afraid of him. But seeing the mob about to come up, they were forced to take the leap—the height not being great. The Arab below took them by the hand and led them to a safe place and guarded over them until the worst was over.

Among those whose escape borders very close upon the miraculous is Rabbi Mosheh Mordecai Epstein, the venerable Dean of the Yeshivah. He was in his own house when the attack began, and there were twenty-five people with him. The doors were fastened. They were not molested at first. But late in the day, when the Arabs were finished with their horrible work elsewhere, they turned to the Rabbi’s house.

As they were actually breaking in the door, some trucks transporting soldiers from Beer Sheba to Jerusalem passed through Hebron and though the street where the Rabbi’s beleaguered house stood. These soldiers had not been sent for by anyone in Hebron. They had no business there and had no knowledge that anything was wrong in the city of the patriarchs. They were merely passing through on their way to Jerusalem . But they arrived in the nick of time. Five minutes later would have been too late to save many lives.

The soldiers, not knowing what was going on, but seeing a violently behaving mob, fired a few shots in the air—and the cowardly pack dispersed. They were in no mood for anything but the murder of the defenseless men and women and children. Thus, at the last moment, at the very moment of resignation, the Dean, and over a score of people with him, were saved.

Too numerous are the escapes, natural and, in a sense, miraculous, for me to write of all that I have heard about, though many of them are so extraordinary that it is hard to resist putting them on record. But I will content myself with giving just one more here—that of my own brother—whose escape was hardly less noteworthy or miraculous than any.

My brother was studying in Hebron . Having received a check from home, he was in Jerusalem on Friday, August 23, purchasing a suit. Late in the afternoon he took the auto that runs between Jerusalem and Hehron, intending to return in time to be in Hebron for the Sabbath.

The locality was in a hum of excitement. Many rumors were afloat—among them a rumor that trouble was brewing for the Jews in Hebron . My brother’s friends tried to dissuade him from returning to Hebron . They begged him to stay over in Jerusalem for the Sabbath and if things remained quiet in Hebron he could return to the Yeshivah on Sunday. But my brother, like the other American boys, was not afraid. He was confident that no harm would befall them. He insisted on returning for Shabbos to Hebron and, against the wise counsel of his friends, took the auto for Hebron and was soon on his way.

It happened that he was the only Jew on the auto. All the other passengers were Arabs. As soon as they were on the road, he began to feel most uncomfortable. The Arabs were whispering among themselves, and casting peculiar glances at him, and pointing to him when they thought he was not looking, and smiling in an unpleasant way. He began to feel that his friends in Jerusalem had been right.

What if indeed some horror was afoot? The Jews in Hebron were not ignorant of the danger. There was nothing his presence could contribute if trouble really came. And were not these snickering Arabs pointing to him as “another customer” riding carelessly into the jaws of death? He began to wish he had not started out. He wished he could go back. If only there were some way of withdrawing from this unfriendly company! Might they not attack him on some lonely part of the road? But what excuse could he offer for having the car stopped? And if he began to run, woud they not chase after him?

Suddenly a great gust of wind arose and carried his hat off a good way back on the road. He began to shout to the driver to stop—he must recover his valuable hat. The driver was in no hurry to hear him. He took his time at it, and slowly, very slowly, brought the car to a stop. In the meantime the car had gone on a considerable distance and the hat was far, far back. My brother alighted and loudly requested the driver to wait there with the bus until he got his hat. Was there not a malignant grin upon the driver’s face as he promised that he would certainly wait for him?

My brother hastened along after his hat. What with the distance the car had gone, and the velocity of the wind, the hat had been left very far behind. When my brother got it, he was practically out of sight of the auto. Not stopping to dust it, he fixed the hat firmly upon his head and began to walk at a very rapid pace—back towards Jerusalem —and let the automobile wait there for him.

And so it happened that the next morning, Saturday, August 24, the day of the massacre at Hebron, my brother was not there, but safe in Jerusalem . Had it not been for that blessed gust of wind that carried his hat off, my brother would have been in Hebron together with Bennie Horowitz and William Berman, and the others—and who knows what might have been?

One of my friends, to whom I told of this miraculous escape, remarked that that was no ill wind which blew Friday afternoon on the road between Hebron and Jerusalem. Indeed it was not an ill wind but a wind of Providence, of that same Providence Who has watched over the Jewish people and preserved it throughout the long night of the exile, Who watches over it still in the dawn, and will continue to do so through the bright new day that is speedily coming.

תהא נשמתם צרורות בצרור החיים

May their Souls Be Bound in the Bond of Life

… and may we follow the path that it was  not their lot to complete.

25th of Shevat

Today is R’ Yisrael Salanter’s yahrzeit.

I just want to point you to a biography of Rav Yisrael written in 1899 (16 years after his passing), posted by fellow AishDas-nik R’ Neil Harris on his blog. Translation by Google, with some touch-up by RNH.

Here’s a teaser. Click on the post’s title for the complete blog entry.

Rabbi Israel Lipkin was born on 3 November 1810 at Sagar in the province Samogitia in Russia, the birthplace and birth land of his father. His father, Rabbi Wolf Lipkin, held the office of a rabbi, first in Goldingen (Courland) and afterwards in Telshe in Russia.
From the high learning of his father came his “marginal notes” to the Talmud.  These notes can be found reprinted in the latest edition of the great Vilna Talmud.  He had also been the first teacher of his son, Israel.  In accordance with the custom at that time among the Russian Jews, which was still standing, almost in boyhood Lipkin became engaged to the daughter of one of the religionists named Rabbi Jacob Eisenstein of Salant, called Jacob, who takes over, also according to the fashion, food and drink for the young couple in their home while the young husband is carefree and undisturbed resigns employment with the doctrine….
My previous posts about R’ Yisrael’s yahrzeit:

Olei haGardom

The Keneset will be holding a special commemoration today for the 13 “olei hagardom”, those who went up to the noose, hanged during the British occupation: Eliyahu Hakim, Eliyahu Beit-Zuri, Mordechai Alkachai, Yechiel Drezner, Eliezer Kashani, Meir Feinstein, Moshe Barazani, Yaakov Weis, Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar and Mordechai Schwartz. All but the last, members of Etzel (Irgun Tzeva’i Le’umi — National Military Organization) and Lechi (Lochamei Cherut Yisrael — Fighters for Israel’s Freedom); Mordechai Schwartz was from the Haganah (The Jewish Agency’s official defense arm). Hashem yiqom damam.

While I admit I find the morality of their actions non-trivial, their mesiras nefesh, their willingness to proudly die to fight the White Paper that kept Jews escaping the Holocaust into Palestine, is a holiness few can fathom.

I happen to be reading “A Tzaddik in Our Time“, a translation of “Ish Tzaddiq“, Simcha Raz’s biography of R’ Aryeh Levine z”l. The book contains an entire chapter on those who wore the scarlet prison clothes and the room in the shadow of the gallows that marked them as condemned men. Both those whose sentences were commuted, and those who were killed. It was very hard to read; stories of people about to die whose final words were often attempts to alleviate the shared pain of their rabbi. Questions about what to say or do, if moments remained after the final Shema.

In looking for something to share, I found an essay by Yehuda HaKohen that is particularly appropriate for the season. Here is an excerpt:

Between Israel’s slavery in Egypt and the ultimate Redemption in Jerusalem, the story of the Exodus continues throughout time. In every generation we find challenges and heroes in our unbroken struggle for freedom as we inch ever closer to HaShem’s final goal.

The festival of Pesach is the holiday of Israel’s initial liberation, marking the birth of the Hebrew Nation as well as G-D’s great love for His people. It was on this day that HaShem took Israel out from Egyptian slavery in order that we become His national expression in this world. We were brought from subjugation to freedom in order that we establish the holy kingdom meant to bless humanity with the light of His Truth. This light can be fully illuminated only through Israel existing as a sovereign Nation over the entire territory that G-D has assigned to us according to His Divine wisdom. It is therefore precisely on Pesach — on the birthday of the Hebrew Nation — that we must educate ourselves to the true value of freedom.

Rashi teaches that the miracles of the Exodus began on the tenth of Nisan, the Sabbath directly preceding Pesach. It was on this great Sabbath that Israel overcame all fearful reservations and liberated ourselves from psychological slavery. Each household sacrificed a lamb, the national god of Egypt, and displayed it defiantly for all gentiles to see. Although the Egyptians would naturally seek to slaughter their Israeli slaves for such an offense, the Children of Israel were miraculously unharmed. This was therefore the day on which the miracles of Redemption began and when Hebrew courage was first demonstrated after so many years of terrible persecution.

On Pesach of 5707 (1947), the last year of British colonial rule in the Land of Israel, an important seder took place in the Jerusalem prison. A few days before their scheduled executions by the foreign regime, six young men were sharing the holiday’s ritual meal together with Rabbi Yaakov Goldman. They were Dov Gruner, Mordechai Alkachi, Yechiel Dresner, Eliezer Kashani and Meir Feinstein from the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization) and Moshe Barazani from the Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel). Dressed in their red death row jumpsuits, these boys were provided with haggadot and food for their seder in order that they could sit together and celebrate the holiday of Israeli freedom for the final time.

The young men eventually arrived at the part of the haggadah which relates Rabbi Akiva, and other Sages discussing the Exodus from Egypt all night in B’nei Brak. When dawn broke, their students came to inform them that it was time for the morning prayers — it was time to say “Shema Yisrael”.

The Jewish prisoners sitting around the table discussed where these rabbis might have been that they could not see the light of day in order to know the time. It is well known that these rabbis had supported the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome and that Rabbi Akiva even served as Bar Kochba’s personal arms bearer. Acting as the spiritual leader of the insurrection, Rabbi Akiva had gone so far as to proclaim Bar Kochba the Messiah. These rabbis must have been hiding in caves from where they were organizing the revolt. They were discussing the Exodus — the importance of freedom and independence for the Hebrew Nation — all night long and when dawn broke, their students came to tell them that it was time for “Shema Yisrael” — time to sanctify G-D’s holy Name through liberating His Nation and His Land from foreign rule.

Nearly two thousand years later, these six boys — warriors captured while fighting for Israel’s freedom and sentenced to death — were reading the story of the rabbis in B’nei Brak. Dov Gruner said to the others, “It is a shame that the Jewish Agency does not learn what Rabbi Akiva said, that if the Egyptians had not received fifty makot and another two hundred and fifty makot at the sea, they would never have granted the Hebrews their freedom. If Rabbi Akiva understood that in order to become free, there had to be makot, then why is it so difficult for Israel to understand now that we must give makot to the British in order to win our freedom?”

Dov Gruner, who was scheduled to be executed by the British authorities, understood the teachings of Rabbi Akiva, who was brutally and publicly executed by Rome. Now, after nearly two thousand years of terrible persecutions, the students of Rabbi Akiva had arrived to proclaim that dawn was at last braking. The students that history had been waiting for had finally arrived. The students, all dressed in red, eating a prison seder only days before their execution by a modern incarnation of Rome, had arrived to establish a new Hebrew state on the foundation of their corpses. These were students who walked in the path of Rabbi Akiva, knowing that it was their last Pesach before singing HaTikvah on their way to the gallows. And without fear or regret, they wondered why the Jewish leaders of their generation had not understood the teachings of Rabbi Akiva.

Prior to his execution, Dov Gruner wrote a farewell letter to his commander, Menachem Begin:


From the bottom of my heart I thank you for the encouragement which you have given me during these fateful days. Be assured that whatever happens I shall not forget the principles of pride, generosity and firmness. I shall know how to uphold my honor, the honor of a Jewish soldier and fighter.

I could have written in high-sounding phrases something like the old Roman ‘Duce est pro patria mori’, but words are cheap, and skeptics can say ‘After all, he had no choice’. And they might even be right. Of course I want to live. Who does not? But what pains me, now that the end is so near, is mainly the awareness that I have not succeeded in achieving enough. I too could have said: ‘Let the future take care of the future’ while enjoying life and being content with the job I was promised on my demobilization. I could even have left the country altogether for a safer life in America. But this would not have satisfied me, neither as a Jew nor a Zionist.

There are many schools of thought as to how a Jew should choose his way of life. One way is that of the assimilationists who have renounced their Jewishness. There is also another way, the way of those who call themselves ‘Zionists’ — the way of negotiation and compromise, as if the existence of a nation were but another transaction. They are not prepared to make any sacrifice and are therefore forced to make concessions and accept compromise. Perhaps this is a means of delaying the end but, in the final analysis, it leads to the ghetto. And let us not forget that in the ghetto of Warsaw alone there were five hundred thousand Jews.

The only way that seems, to my mind, to be right, is the way of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the way of courage and daring without renouncing a single inch of our homeland. When political negations prove futile, one must be prepared to fight for our country and our freedom. Without them the very existence of our nation is jeopardized, so fight we must with all possible means. This is the only way left to our people in their hour of decision: to stand on our rights, to be ready to fight, even if for some of us this way leads to the gallows. For it is a law of history that only with blood shall a country be redeemed. I am writing this while awaiting the hangman. This is not a moment at which I can lie, and I swear that if I had to begin my life anew I would have chosen the same way, regardless of the consequences for myself.

Your faithful soldier,

Dov Gruner fully internalized the message of Rabbi Akiva…. After receiving Gruner’s letter, Menachem Begin wrote:

“Great is the courage in Israel at a time of destruction and in this time of resurrection. We will be proud of them all and in all of them we will recognize holiness. But in the ladder of Jewish heroism, there is one level which is supreme. And from that level arise those who are Harugei Malchut. They were fighters whose fighting was not passive. It was active. They were revolutionaries whose revolution was not without choice but initiated. They went to the gallows and their heroism was not once. It is eternal. From their bleeding hearts, a song of freedom was sung. The song that sang how there is no purpose in being slaves anymore and that liberty would win and justice would arrive. And now, G-D of Israel, I tell You: Because You have given Israel such children as these, I say ‘Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Sh’mei Rabbah‘.”

Menachem Begin says “Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Sh’mei Rabbah” — “May His Great Name be exalted and sanctified”. The evidence that G-D’s Name is exalted and sanctified is that Israel has sons who are prepared to give their lives for the freedom of Israel — Boys who are ready to sacrifice themselves on the alter of Redemption so that the next generation will see a Hebrew flag over Jerusalem.

The famous tzadik of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Levine, came to see Yechiel Dresner before he was taken to the gallows. Dresner asked the tzadik for help with the confessional prayer before death and Rabbi Levine began to cry. He told Dresner not to worry and that the prayer was not necessary.

And dawn broke. Not long after the execution of these boys, did the British retreat from Eretz Yisrael. A flag of Hebrew sovereignty once again rose over parts of our homeland, initiating the first flowering of our Redemption.

The Talmud (Berachot 20a) asks why Israel experienced less open miracles in Talmudic times than in Biblical times. The Sages question if it might be because the Nation in Talmudic times were less immersed in Torah. But the Talmud dismisses this and answers that it can be proven that there were Biblical generations that studied less Torah but still experienced greater miracles. The Talmud continues by revealing that the difference is due to a distinction not in learning but in self-sacrifice. Israelis in Biblical times were more willing to sacrifice their lives for the sanctification of G-D’s Name. The Talmud therefore concludes that miracles are a result of courage and selfless devotion. When Israel is ready to meet HaShem half way, we are rewarded with great miracles.


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 at the Kotel

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.)

Portrait by Ahuva Perlov

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?

R’ Dr Eliezer Ehrenpreis z”l

So there I was, first day of calculus class, and the professor, Dr Leon Ehrenpreisz”l hands out a xerox of a page of gemara. The blatt is Sukkah 8a, a conversation of the minimum size of a sukkah, and what it would mean for someone who makes a circular sukkah — do we need to match the diameter of the circle to the length of the smallest square, does the sukkah have to large enough to encompass the smallest square, or a position in the middle, that it be the same in area? In discussing this last position, the gemara explains that the area must be 3*r*r, the limit of approximating πr2 that is “close enough” for halakhah.

Tosafos then set out to prove that given that the circumference of a circle is π times the diameter (2πr), this would be the area of the circle. These diagrams are reproduced from the Tosafos as it appears in the Vilna Shas.

  1. In the top left, we see the circle filled with co-centric strings. The outer string must be πd = 2πr long, since it’s the outside of the circle.
  2. We then cut the strings from one edge to the middle, as denoted by the white radius.
  3. Unwrap the strings, producing the triangle on the right. This triangle’s rightmost string is the old 2πr string.
  4. Now cut the strings from the obtuse point down the middle, again, as denoted by the white line. This will produce two right triangles, of the same area as the first one. Each triangle has a horizontal side of r, and a vertical side, half that long strong, of πr.
  5. Rearranging the right triangles, we get the rectangle shown in the bottom left. The rectangle’s short side is the side we already identified as being r wide, and the long side is πr.
  6. The area of the rectangle is thus r*πr =πr2, and since that’s the string we started with, that means the area of the original circle must be πr2 as well.

However, Dr Ehrenpreis noted,  this proof isn’t what a contemporary mathematician would consider rigorous. Rather than strings of finite width, what would happen if we use ever skinnier “strings” and progressively approached the limit of  an infinite number of them, each of zero width..

And that’s how Dr Ehrenpreis introduced the notion of limits, with which he began teaching calculus in earnest.

But to the man who also worked as Rabbi Eliezer Ehrenpreis, there was much less value to math without connecting it to Torah. Secular and knowledge as one seamless whole — an example of a life lived with Torah im Derekh Eretz.

He gave a course titled “Modern Scientific and Mathematical Concepts in the Babylonian Talmud”, where we explored topics like how the machloqes about whether Adam was created as a newborn or at the same point of development as a 20 yr old could explain debates about the international date line. (Was the sun created at dawn or at noon over Jerusalem?) How using set theory and the notion of classes might explain the difference between doubts that are resolved by probability, and those considered gavu’ah. (A question that stuck with me so much, I eventually developed the ideas in this post. A different resolution.) Or how the question of the age of the universe is meaningless, since the physical constants — those concepts that divide the quantum uncertain world from the commonsensical one, the relativity that defines time itself and its speed of flow — the constants themselves were being created. And if the one constant called alpha, a ratio of most of the other fundamental constants of physics, was shrinking asymptotically to its current value until the revalation at Sinai (as implied by the medrash linking “the sixth day” to the sixth day of Iyyar, when we reached Mt Sinai), then it’s quite possible the rainbow wasn’t visible to the human eye until after the flood.

Dr Ehrenpreis was one of the five most famous mathematicians of the generation. He not only appeared regularly in the journals at age 77 in a field where you proverbially peak at 27, there were conferences held and journals published in his honor. A chair was inaugurated for him at Temple University. On Dr Claude Chevalley‘s Wikipedia page,  his having Dr Ehrenpreis as his PhD student in Princeton is among his listed accomplishments.

But we’re also speaking of a man who embraced Torah observance later in life back in a time when no one spoke of “kiruv“, “baalei teshuvah“, never mind “BTs”. He studied under Rabbi Yehudah Davis and then Rav Moshe Feinstein. Legend around YU had it that he received semikhah from Rav Moshe a mere 5 years after the first time he opened a gemara.

Meeting Rabbi Ehrenpreis might have posed a halachic problem: Do I say the berakah of “שנתן מחכמתו לבשר ודם — … Who gave from His Wisdom to flesh and blood”, the blessing made on meeting a superlative secular scholar? Or do I say the berakhah “שחלק מחכמתו ליראיו — Who apportioned from His Wisdom to those who have yir’ah of Him” being that this is one of the most brilliant minds I ever met who studied Torah? Do I say both — and if so, which comes first?

But in truth, the question wouldn’t have come up even if I thought of it. The berakhah is said when awestruck by someone’s wisdom. And Rabbi Ehrenpreis was too down to earth to leave anyone awestruck. This was also the man who ran in every NY Marathon from its inception in 1970 until he got too ill in 2007. Ran in 37 marathons — and completed all 37, holding a record for the oldest person to complete the marathon by a large margin.

Yes, he enjoyed discussing intellectual pursuits. He leined from the Torah with a precision and meticulousness that showed the same inclinations that made him successful in math. He more than enjoyed teaching, he had a deep-seated need to teach.

And that need to give wasn’t merely the ego of someone who knew he was more intelligent than the others in the room. It extended to his giving tzedaqah; Rabbi Ehrenpreis was the kind of man charities repeatedly honored. His Shabbos table constantly had guests. There was always someone in need of a place to stay borrowing a guest room.

But he would not talk math with another Jewish mathematician (regardless of religious affiliation) without the conversation ending up in both Torah and in catching up on what’s going on in their lives.  A world-class genius, yes. But he had no more problem finding what to speak about with his children who inherited that intellect as he did with his son who has Downs. And he could find what to say to the homeless person who sat next to him on the subway. The woman who cleaned the trash in his hospital was struck by how Rabbi Ehrenpreis would remember her son’s name and ask about him. Awestruck by Rabbi Ehrenpreis? Never in his presence.

Rabbi Dr Eliezer Ehrenpreis passed away An exemplar of Torah im Derekh Eretz, of chessed, of “accepting all people with a beautiful expression on the face” regardless of the events in his own life, of connecting to others. A Renaissance Man who was one of my heroes.

תהא נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים
May his Soul be bound in the bond of life

The Ninth of Av 5761

Elad Fogel, age 4

his big brother Yoav, 11


We say, “משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה — when Adar comes in, we increase in joy.” But this year, like too many years, Adar brought with it events that more fit our saying for this month. “משנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה — when Av comes in, we decrease in joy.”

baby Hadas

Bruria and her husband, Rabbi Meir, had two sons who both died Friday afternoon, just before Shabbos. Bruria refrained from telling her husband of the tragedy during Shabbos, a time when one cannot hold a funeral or to mourn openly. Since there was nothing he could do, why should Rav Meir be told now, and his Shabbos ruined? After Shabbos, she opened with a halachic question: If one person borrows two jewels from another and then the original owner requests that the return of the jewels, what is the borrower to do? Rav Meir replied, obviously, that one is obligated to return them. Beruria then took her husband to where their two dead sons lay and said, “God has requested that we return the loan of our two jewels.” (Medrash on Mishlei 31:10)

Leiby Kletzky, almost 9

כָּלוּ בַדְּמָעוֹת עֵינַי
חֳמַרְמְרוּ מֵעַי
נִשְׁפַּךְ לָאָרֶץ כְּבֵדִי,
עַל שֶׁבֶר בַּת-עַמִּי;
בֵּעָטֵף עוֹלֵל וְיוֹנֵק,
בִּרְחֹבוֹת קִרְיָה.

My eyes have run out of tears,
my innard burn,
my liver is poured upon the earth,
for the shattering of the daughter of my people;
because the young children and the sucklings are missing
from the broad places of the city.

– Eikhah 2:11

Portraits in Holiness

We will soon get to Rav Shim’on Shkop’s explanation of the mitzvah “qedoshim tihyu — and you shall be holy.”

נלענ׳׳ד, שבמצוה זו כלול כל יסוד ושורש מגמת תכלית חיינו, שיהיו כל עבודתנו ועמלנו תמיד מוקדשים לטובת הכלל, שלא נשתמש בשום מעשה ותנועה, הנאה ותענוג שלא יהיה בזה איזה ענין לטובת זולתנ…

It appears according to my limited knowledge, that this mitzvah includes every foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another….

In light of this sentiment, here are two stories of holy people.

Sargent Michael Ryan of the NYPD was off the day of Sept 11, 2001. When he learned of the attacks, he went in to the 144th Pct and took the detectives he supervised to downtown Manhattan. They assisted in the evacuation of the area, and directing walkers across the Brooklyn Bridge. (Who knows? Maybe I was one of those he directed to the FDR Drive…)

The next day he started work at the morgue, and later he was assigned to sifting through debris from the World Trade Center site collected at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Often working 12 hour shifts, he never complained, knowing how desperately people were waiting for news of loved ones, so that they can finally bury their relative and friend and get further along in their mourning and healing.

In May of 2006, Sgt Michael Ryan sought medical attention for a persistent sore throat ailment. The physician prescribed an antibiotic, assuming a simple infection was the cause. Two weeks later a large lump formed on Michael’s neck, and a few weeks later, a large growth appeared in his armpit. Sargent Ryan was eventually diagnosed with three different forms of non-Hotchkins lymphoma, later reclassified as a single rare form of lymphoma which showed a complex picture to the microscope — mixed B & T cell, mixed small & large celled indolent (ie slow-growing but also harder to kill) lymphoma

On November 5th, 2007, Sargent Michael Ryan lost his battle with cancer. He was 41 years old. He left behind his parents, Jim and Ann; wife Eileen, sons Liam and Aiden, and daughters Erin and Casey.

A two and a half weeks later, November 24th, 2007, the fire department lost one of NY’s Bravest — also to lymphoma. EMS Lieutenant Brian Ellicott was also close to Sgt Ryan in age — 45 rather than 41.

On 9/11, Lt Ellicott arrived at the World Trade Center site that night, and put in over 100 hours work sifting through debris looking for survivors. His EMS partner, Edward Cosenza, told reporters “Brian would always say, ‘this is my job, this is what I do.’ This man was a true hero, and he lost his life doing his job and serving his city.” The dust got in his lungs and gave him a hacking cough, but he kept on working.

Brian Ellicott was a loving father, who shared his love of science fiction and fantasy with his children.

Both died of the same very rare form of lymphoma. After over 8 years of remission (barukh Hashem ubeli ayin hara) after my own bout with this obscure lympoma, it’s natural for me to empathize with the people they left behind. It would seem 9/11’s death toll is still climbing.

Why did I survive and they didn’t? They were their doing G-d’s work, whereas I was just caught at my desk putting in a day at an investment bank job. Can we speak of inspirational stories of how Hashem watches over us? And yet, He clearly did.

The Almighty made me with only a sliver of bone in my pinky toe.

On October 15th, 2003, I was laid off from that job at the investment bank. A few nights later, my daughter plunked herself down on my bed — landing on my foot. I was in a lot of pain. In fact, a couple of hours later, the pain was so consuming, I hopped a block away to the ER to get that toe taped. While talking to the doctor, I asked about the swollen gland that didn’t seem to be going away. She felt it, said it wasn’t really an ER issue. I should see a doctor. Tomorrow.

So, six days after losing my job, I found out I had cancer.

But because the Creator made me with that deformed bone, my toe broke easily, and I got the medical attention I was stalling on. It was caught in Stage I, meaning, before it spread beyond that first lymph node. Had I not been caught that early — who knows?

And so, I think of those two families who G-d chose not to save such pain with much sympathy. Those who lost out because they loved someone kind and generous, men whose “greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator.”

An Ideal “Balebos”

We often speak of gedolim who pursue the learning and teaching of Torah as both their vocation and avocation — rashei yeshiva and other great rabbanim. Today (10 Sivan 5772) is the 108th yahrzeit of a role model that may be easier for those of us who have full-time jobs outside of religious work to take life lessons from.

Reb Kalonymus Ze’ev (“Kalman Wolf”) Wissotsky (RKWW) was born in 1824 in Zhagory, in the Kovno district of Lithuania. His father was a shopkeeper; they weren’t poor, but certainly not wealthy either. His parents provided a traditional cheider education, and was married at 18. That’s when his life starts taking an interesting trajectory.

A half-year or so after getting married, RKWW studied for a while in the Volozhiner Yeshiva.

Then he left Volozhin to join a Jewish agricultural colony in Dubno (near Dvinsk).  But the land the czar’s government gave the cause wasn’t fit for growing anything.

So, Reb Kalman Wolf went back to the beis medrash, this time to Kovno, where Rav Yisrael Salanter was just starting the Mussar Movement. RKWW was a noted member of Rav Yisrael’s circle, becoming the gabbai of the beis medras “Niviezer”, in a movement that valued service. When Rav Simcha Zisl Ziv, the future Alter of Kelm, was sent off to Reb Kalman Wolf’s hometown of Zhagory to help the local efforts to build a Mussar Kloiz (a house of mussar), Rav Yisrael sent RKWW along to be his chavrusah. One gleans from this that his learning was of a level that could keep up with the Alter’s.

It was during this period of his life (1849) he started up the tea company that still bears his name. The success of that business eventually brings him to Moscow in 1858. Not only did RKWW get a license to live outside the Pale of Settlement, his wealth was such that Czar Alexander III “invited” him to live nearby (where he could be watched). Wissotzky Tea grew into a global firm; by 1904 it followed other Jewish immigrants to New York. In 1907 it spawned the Anglo-Asiatic Trading company, operating out of London. By the time the Soviets took over all Russian manufacturing, the company had also added branches in Poland and Italy. (The factory in Rishon leTzion was his grandson Shimon Zeidler’s idea in 1936, to provide jobs for the yishuv.)

And he knew that his wealth was in trust for the many. In the 1880, when Chovevei Tzion began, he was among their most ardent supporters, and elected to the board at the Katowice Conference (see picture at right). Chovevei Tzion was a proto-Zionist organization most famously associated with Achad haAm (who also hired by Wissotzky Tea to run the Anglo-Asiatic Trading Company) and Leon Pinsker, but was founded by noted religious Zionists, R’ Zvi Hirsch Kalisher, R’ Shmuel Mohliver and R’ Yaakov Reines (who later founds Mizrachi, as a “markaz ruachani — religious center” for the Zionist movement). RKWW gave money to Alliance Israelite in Paris, to HaShiloach, a monthly magazine edited by Achad haAam, and to numerous other Zionist causes. Technion was founded on 100,000 rubles from his estate, out of a total of 1,00,000 granted for Jewish national causes.

And similar amounts of money were also invested in Torah charities in Europe, such as a yeshiva in Byalestok that also provided trade education, and the fund upon which Yeshivas Ponovezh (when it was in Ponovezh) was founded.

Rav Yaaqov Maze”h, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and fellow Chovevei Tzion activist (and the namesake of a beautiful street in Tel Aviv), records in his memoirs how RKWW came to him once for help figuring out to whom to give his tzedaqah, as ma’aser (a tenth) of his wealth came to around half a million rubles. To give you a sense of how important the decision was, a ruble was backed by 0.514oz of gold, roughly 3/4 of the gold then used to back a dollar. Checking US dollar inflation rates (not gold), we’re talking about donating in one sitting he purchasing power of around $160 million dollars in today’s money.

When they finished deciding whom to give what, Reb Kalman Zev “arose and paced back and forth, his hands on his head, crying out a quote from Chazal: ‘Oy lanu miyom hadin! Oy lanu miyom hatockhachah! — Woe to us from the day of judgement! Woe to us from the day of rebuke!'”

But he wasn’t “merely” a philanthropist who contributed money.

At this point in Russian history, the term served by Jewish boys drafted to be “Cantonists” was at the reduced (comparatively) length of six years of study, 12 of military service, and 3 years of reserves. This is far shorter than the 25 years originally mandated, but still long enough to accomplish the desired goal of Russification — erasing the boys’ ethnic identity and fealty to Torah to make them full members of the Empire.

R’ Kalaman Wolf used his location to their benefit. He opened a clandestine school that held minyanim and classes on Shabbos, smuggled them kosher food, matzah on Pesach, and on Rosh haShanah, they would meet in the woods outside the city for shofar blowing. And many a boy, when released, was reunited with his family through the use of his money and his political contact.


An amazingly successful businessman, a baal middos, who didn’t get caught up in the pursuit and maintenance of his wealth, but utilized his position to be a visionary who cared for the Jewish People’s future in our homeland, learned, and willing to risk his own life to bring Torah to captives. As I said in the opening, a role model from whom one can learn how to be not only holy despite leaving the yeshiva to work, but holy through being a working man.


My rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz, passed away on 9 Tammuz 5753, 20 years ago today. I am posting a gemara that rebbe would often refer to in his shmuessin. Yuma 86a:

At Rabbi Yanai[‘s school] it was said: Anyone whose peers are embarassed by what is heard about him, that is a desecration of Hashem’s name.
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchaq said: For example, if people say [about him], “May the Lord forgive So-and-so.”

Abaye said: As the beraisa says, “‘And you shall love Hashem your G-d’ — that the Name of Heaven shall be beloved because of you.”

If someone studies Tanakh and Mishnah, and apprentices under the Sages, is trustworthy in business, and speaks pleasantly to people, what do people say about him? “Enriched is his father who taught him Torah! Enriched is his rebbe who taught him Torah! Woe for those who didn’t study Torah! For So-and-so who learned Torah, look how pleasant his ways are, how sweet his deeds!” The pasuq says of him “[Hashem] said to me: Yisrael, you are my servant that in you I will be glorified!” (Yeshaiah 49:3)
But, if someone studies Tanakh and Mishnah, and apprentices under the Sages, but is not trustworthy in business, and his words are unpleasant toward people, what do people say about him? “Woe for his father who taught him Torah! Woe for his rebbe who taught him Torah! So-and-so who learned Torah, look how accursed are his ways, how disgustinghis deeds!” The pasuq says of him, “About them people say: These are Hashem’s people, and they are gone from His land.” (Yechezqeil 36:20)


דבי ר’ ינאי אמר: כל שחביריו מתביישין מחמת שמועתו (היינו חילול השם).
אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק: כגון דקא אמרי אינשי שרא ליה מריה לפלניא.
אביי אמר כדתניא: (דברים ו, ה) וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ — שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידך.
שיהא קורא ושונה ומשמש ת”ח ויהא משאו ומתנו בנחת עם הבריות מה הבריות אומרות עליו אשרי אביו שלמדו תורה אשרי רבו שלמדו תורה אוי להם לבריות שלא למדו תורה פלוני שלמדו תורה ראו כמה נאים דרכיו כמה מתוקנים מעשיו עליו הכתוב אומר (ישעיהו מט, ג) וַיֹּאמֶר לִי עַבְדִּי אָתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר בְּךָ אֶתְפָּאָר.
אבל מי שקורא ושונה ומשמש ת”ח ואין משאו ומתנו באמונה ואין דבורו בנחת עם הבריות מה הבריות אומרות עליו אוי לו לפלוני שלמד תורה אוי לו לאביו שלמדו תורה אוי לו לרבו שלמדו תורה פלוני שלמד תורה ראו כמה מקולקלין מעשיו וכמה מכוערין דרכיו ועליו הכתוב אומר (יחזקאל לו, כ) [וַיָּבוֹא אֶל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר בָּאוּ שָׁם וַיְחַלְּלוּ אֶת שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי] בֶּאֱמֹר לָהֶם עַם ה אֵלֶּה וּמֵאַרְצוֹ יָצָאוּ.

Other posts related to Rav Dovid:

  • Rebbe – Bios and hespedim
  • Brisk and Telzh – on how his shiur differed from Brisker derekh (and why I am happy with my choice), published in Kol haMevaser
  • Shalom Rav – on peace and wholeness, and why they share the same root, another theme Rav Dovid often revisited

Who in his time?

There were two lines from the Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh haShanah that particularly spoke to me this year — “mekhalkeil chaim bechesed – Who sustains the living with lovingkindness”, and the line from Unsaneh Toqef which tells us that on Rosh haShanah it is written and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed… mi beqitzo umi lo beqitzo — who in their time, and who not in their time”?

Less than 24 hours before Rosh haShanah began I was at JFK Airport, at the funeral of a young man I watched grow up next door to me. “Sustains the living with kindness”? Can I see the generosity of allotting him a mere 22 years of life? “Who in their time”? How can that be the fate sealed for someone who was just beginning his life?

Why is the term used here for the arrival of the denoted time “qeitz”, at the endpoint (from “qatzeh”, edge, c.f. Shemos 36:33)? How does it differ from saying that the “zeman”, or “eis” (both meaning “time”) had arrived? Fortunately, we have a handle on that question from its use in the Torah.

Parashas Miqeitz opens “Vayhi miqeitz shenasayim yamim — and it was at the end of a pair of years of days”. After Yosef spent two years in prison, Par’oh’s dream leads the wine steward to remember Yosef and eventually leads to his redemption. But why does the pasuq say “shenasayim yamim”, rather than just “shenasayim”?

This duplication of terms for time is echoed later in the narrative, when Ya’akov describes his age to Par’oh as “The days of the years of my travels…” (Bereishis 47:8) as well as at the beginning of parashas Vayechi, in counting out Ya’aqov avinu’s lifespan, “… And the days of Ya’aqov was, the years of his life…” (Ibid. v. 28. Notable is the use of singular “hayah – was” referring to the days.) The repetition implies that there are distinct concepts. Yom and shanah refer to different things.

The Zohar (Pinechas 249a-b) describes a system of grammatical gender follows the conventions of sexual reproduction: Biblical Hebrew uses masculine nouns for those things that we think of as initiators that start a process. Feminine nouns take that seed and develop it into something more complete and usable. “Yom”, being in the masculine is therefore an initiator. “Yom” represents a unit of progress. It is a unit of linear time, a progress from birth to death. The culmination of history is notably called “acharis hayamim” (Eg. Sukkah 52b) and in the navi, “yom Hashem” (Eg. Sukkah 52b).

In contrast, “shanah” is from the same root as “two”, “to repeat”, “to learn”, or “to change”, and perhaps even that of “to age” and “to sleep”, as in “venoshantem ba’aretz“. And notably it’s in the feminine. A shanah is not the end of a line, it’s the means of producing further.

Perhaps this is why the Malbim (Bereishis 47:8) explains Ya’aqov avinu’s reply to Par’oh as having two parts. To Par’oh’s question about years, he answers that he traveled this earth 130 years. About days, Ya’akov laments that he did not use his time as productively as did his fathers, “Few and insufficient were the days of my life’s years, and they never reached the days of the years of my forefather’s lives.” (Ibid v. 9)

Referring to just a zeman or an eis, like referring to a yom or a shanah, cannot represent the goal of the trip. It’s the qeitz, in which both the process of shanim and the progress of yamim reach a culmination. And it was at the qeitz of shensayim yamim“. A qeitz, an endpoint, can only come from both.

Some die of an old age, and some die younger. Hashem supports life, meaningful existence, with lovingkindness. Each trip is exactly the right length for a person to reach their potential. But the tragic would have been dying without getting to where he was supposed to go.

I’ll miss you Buzzy!


Seiver Panim Yafos

שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמוֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:

Shammai would say:

Make your Torah a fixture [of your day].

Speak little and do much.

And be accepting of all people with a pleasant facial expression.

– Pirqei Avos 1:15

Rav Yisrael Salanter says that we do not own the right to walk around with a grumpy expression. A smile is infectious, and therefore our smiles are not entirely our own, they impact the mood of everyone in our environment.

23 years ago, on the first day of chol hamo’ed Sukkos, Siggy gave birth to a little girl we named “Aliza Kayla”, for two beloved great-aunts.

The typical infant (if there were such a thing) learns to smile socially at around 6 to 8 weeks.

23 years ago, today, the 4th of Teves, I had a hard day at work, and my day was ending early. Siggy was putting Kayli to sleep, but I asked to hold her first and say good night. And as I played with her, I smiled and Kayli smiled back to me. For the first time.

Kayli never woke up that night. It seemed to me her soul might have been brought down to earth just to learn how to share a smile.

So how could I be stingy with mine?

עליזה קיילא בת מיכה שמואל

HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l

When someone passes away, I try to find a life-lesson from their lives that I can incorporate into my own. This is rather easy with regard to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, as the rosh yeshiva left the Centrist / Modern Orthodox / Religious Zionist community with a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our communal soul. Things that he saw we as a community need to look at and improve.

See “By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God” by R’ Reuvein Zeigler, notes of shiurim by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, pp 220-252, which is available on-line at Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, as the email shiur from the series “Developing a Torah Personality” Lecture 12: Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting. Listing the rashei peraqim (subtitles):

  • The Shift To the Right
  • The Need for Soul-Searching
  • Commonalities and Differences With the Right
  • Shaking Our Confidence In General Culture
  • The Complexity of Experience
  • Literary, Psychological and Historical Sensitivity
  • Attitudes Toward Zionism
  • “Torah Only” or “Torah And”
  • The Possibility of Integration
  • Theory and Practice
  • Dialectical Tension or Tepid Indifference?
  • Instilling Passion
  • The Need for Spirituality
  • Diffusion and Dilution
  • The Ascendancy of the Moral Over the Intellectual
  • “Do Not Fear Any Man”

Here’s one piece near the end, that stays with me each time I read the article:

… Perhaps much of what I have said in relation to culture, quoting Arnold and Yeats and others, seems very rarefied. People may be asking themselves, “What does this have to do with us? We have to deal with children in elementary school or high school; this is not our concern.” Nevertheless, I have related to culture at its apex, because the kind of vision which is maintained at the pinnacle has an impact, and should have an impact, upon what is done at lower levels. In this respect, the awareness of the evaluation of culture does have practical consequences for whatever level of education we are dealing with.

Granted that, our challenge is to see to it that indeed we maintain our position with depth and gusto. Given our constituency, of course, we cannot instill many of our students with the optimal level of love of Torah; we know from where they come. But, within our overall community, and surely within its leadership, such a level should exist. Woe unto us, if the only choice lies between tepid compromise and arrogant kana’ut.

A couple of years after we moved to Yerushalayim, I was once walking with my family in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, where R. Isser Zalman Meltzer used to live. For the most part, it consists of narrow alleys. We came to a corner, and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging by their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul, based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b), about whether they should help him or not. They said, “If he walks around bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asrot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce…”

I wrote R. Soloveitchik a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, “Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.” My feeling then was: Why, Ribbono shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him.

If I can refer again to my experience over the last several decades, I think that one of the central points which has reinforced itself is the sense, in terms of values, of the ascendancy of the moral over the intellectual — with all my love for and commitment to pure learning. But, when all is said and done, you have to be guided not by what you love; you have to be guided by Torah. And the Torah tells us what is good:

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה֞ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹקֶֽיךָ׃

He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. (Mikha 6:8)