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The Essence Of A Gadol

An essay by Rabbi Avi Shafran:

The unaffiliated Jewish woman attended three of the rabbi’s lectures in the 1950s, visibly intrigued by the ideas he put forth, about the historicity of the Jewish religious tradition. Then she abruptly stopped coming.

Another woman who had also attended the lecture series tracked her down and asked why she was no longer showing up. The first woman answered straightforwardly: “He was convincing me. If I continue to listen to this man, I will have to change my life.”

What a remarkably honest person. (I like to imagine that she came, in time, to pursue what she then fled.)

And what a remarkable man was the rabbi who delivered the lectures. He was Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, whose tenth yahrtzeit, or death-anniversary, will be marked on the fast day of Shiva Asar BiTammuz (July 9). He later became the Rosh Yeshiva, or Dean, of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. He was my rebbe.

As an 18-year-old studying in the Baltimore yeshiva in 1972, I watched him from afar. His father-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, of blessed memory, was the Rosh Yeshiva then; Rabbi Weinberg headed the Kollel, or graduate student program, and also delivered general Talmudic lectures. The depth of his knowledge, the power of his critical analyses of both Talmudic and worldly topics, his eloquence and his knowledge of history and the sciences all impressed me deeply.

But what I came to realize was that his brilliance and erudition were mere tools with which he was gifted. His essence was his dedication to truth, to Torah and to his students – indeed, to all Jews – and his humility.

When I think back on the many times I telephoned Rabbi Weinberg from wherever I was living at the time to ask him a question about Jewish law or philosophy, or for his advice, I am struck by something I never gave much thought to at those times: He was always available. And, I have discovered over the years, not only to me. As I came to recognize all the others – among them greatly accomplished Torah scholars, congregational rabbis and community leaders today – who had also enjoyed a student-rebbe relationship with Rabbi Weinberg, I marveled. In my youthful self-centeredness, I had imagined him as my rebbe alone. Who knew?

And his ongoing interactions with his students somehow didn’t prevent him from travelling wherever his services were needed. A sought-after speaker and arbitrator for individuals and communities alike, he somehow found time and energy for it all.

More telling, he felt responsible to undertake it all. He (and, may she be well, his wife, Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg) gave so very much to others (as the Rebbetzin continues to do). That, I long ago concluded, is the defining characteristic of true Gedolim, literally “great ones” – the term reserved for the most knowledgeable and pious Torah leaders of each generation: selflessness.

How painfully ironic, I sometimes think, that small, spiteful minds try to portray Gedolim oppositely. Then again, as the weekly Torah-portion of Korach recently read in synagogue reminds us, no less a Godol than Moses – the “most humble of all men” – was also spoken of cynically by some in his day. Plus ça change…

It wasn’t just in his public life, in his service to students and communities that Rabbi Weinberg’s self-effacement was evident. It was in little things too.

In the early 1980s, he was asked to temporarily take the helm of a small yeshiva in Northern California that had fallen on hard times. Although not a young man, he agreed to leave his home and position in Baltimore and become interim dean.

My wife and I and our three daughters lived in the community; I taught in the yeshiva and served as principal of the local Jewish girls’ high school. And so I was fortunate to have ample opportunity to work with Rabbi Weinberg, and to witness much that I will always remember. One small episode, though, remains particularly poignant.

Rabbi Weinberg was housed in a bedroom of a rented house. In the house’s other bedroom lived the yeshiva’s cooks – a middle-aged couple, recently immigrated from the Soviet Union.

Though Northern California has a wonderful climate, its winters can be a bit chilly, and the house’s heating system was not working. The yeshiva administrator made sure that extra blankets were supplied to the house’s residents, and an electric heater was procured for Rabbi Weinberg (the cooks, it was figured, had been toughened by a truly cold clime).

After a week or two of cold, rainy weather, it was evident that Rabbi Weinberg had caught a bad cold. Suspecting that perhaps the electric heater was not working, someone went to his room to check it. It wasn’t there.

Where it was, it turned out, was in the cooks’ room. Confronted with the discovery, Rabbi Weinberg sheepishly admitted to having relocated the heater. “I thought they would be cold,” was all he said.

Another heater was bought. And a lesson, once again, learned, about the essence of a Godol.

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.


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About me

  • I'm Rabbi Ally Ehrman
  • From Old City Jerusalem, Israel
  • I am a Rebbe in Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh.
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