. . . For the past 20 years, I have been writing biographies of modern Jewish leaders. If one bright thread unites the lives of all the disparate figures whose lives I have researched it is their commitment to the Torah imperative that “the Name of Heaven should be become beloved through you.” In the 1930s, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, today renowned as one of the premier Jewish thinkers of the century, supported himself in London tutoring young public schoolstudents. He instructed one of those young students to drop a coin in the cup of all the numerous beggars along the way. To another, he suggested that he should always go to the upper deck of the London bus he rode to the lessons. Since he only traveled one stop, perhaps the conductor would not reach him to collect his fare, and then he – an identifiably religious Jewish boy – would hand the change to the person next to him and say in a loud voice, “The conductor did not collect my fare, please pay him for me.” The lesson: Not only must one sanctify G-d’s name through one’s actions; one must seek out opportunities to do so.
These figures saw themselves as teaching about Torah in every situation. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, the wise man of American Jewry, once took a ball out of his pocket in a doctor’s office and started playing with a young boy.When asked if it was not beneath his dignity, he replied, “He may never see another old Jew with a white beard. I want his association to be a good one.” When he passed away, a group of nuns in Monsey wrote a letter lamenting the loss of the old rabbi who always smiled at them on his walks. For 13 years, the Klausenberger Rebbe traveled the globe raising the money to build Laniado Hospital in Netanya, to create a model of a Torah approach to healing. Once, he learned that a pamphlet on the laws of family purity was being distributed to patients and ordered it be stopped immediately. He built the hospital not to do missionary work but to demonstrate how the Torah views healing. That was reflected in the no-strike clause in every doctor’s contract, the surfeit of respirators so no triage decisions would ever have to be made as to who would receive a respirator, the willingness of nursing students, inspired by the Rebbe, to spend days and nights by the beds of patients upon whom everyone else had given up; and the use of much more expensive, but less painful, disposable syringes for shots. The Rebbe was famous for his stringency with respect to shmiras einayim (guarding one’s gaze). But in the DP camps after WWII (in which he lost his wife and 11 children), when he heard that young Jewish girls, dehumanized by what they had been through, had set up a red light district, he personally went to bring them back to their heritage.
THESE GREAT Torah leaders treated each and every person with whom they came into contact with respect and empathy. Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky and another rosh yeshiva once entered a cab, in which the music was blaring. The other rosh yeshiva asked the cab driver to turn off the radio. But Reb Yaakov told him not to. “The driver’s work is so monotonous that he’ll go mad without out it so we have no right to ask him to turn it off,” said Reb Yaakov, citing a Talmudic passage in support. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would not jump up from his seat on the bus if a woman not dressed according to halachic standards sat down next to him, lest she feel insulted. He would simply push the button as if his stop was coming up and get off the bus. A religious family undertook to cover the expenses of the fertility treatments of a non-religious Jewish couple, and sent them to Israel to receive blessings from great tzaddikim, including the rosh yeshiva of Mirrer Yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel. When the couple arrived at the rosh yeshiva’s house in summer attire, not usually seen in Mea She’arim, Rebbetzin Finkel greeted the wife with a hug and words of encouragement – “You are both Jewish. It is such a big thing to marry Jewish today.” To avoid embarrassing her visitor, the rebbetzin explained that her husband was such a holy man that out of respect she donned a shawl when she went in to speak to him, and offered her guest another shawl and a piece of matching jewelry. Reb Nosson Tzvi remained silent when the couple entered. The person who escorted them in started to explain their situation, but the rosh yeshiva stopped him short: “Of course I know who they are, I’m thinking of their pain.” Then he turned to the husband and asked, “Do you ever feel people are staring at you?” The husband nodded. Reb Nosson Tzvi added, “I often feel that way and that people cannot understand what I’m saying [on account of the loss of muscular control from debilitating Parkinson’s disease]. Let’s cry together.” And that’s what the Mirrer rosh yeshiva and the childless couple did.
Non-religious Jewish politicians who worked closely with Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the long-time president of Agudat Israel of America, never felt that he looked down on them. New York Mayor Ed Koch said, “He personified the Talmudic rule, ‘Hate the sin, not the sinner.’” Upon Rabbi Sherer’s death, Alexander Schindler, the head of the American Reform movement, wrote a eulogy in The New York Times. The morning after his funeral, the woman behind the entrance desk at the building housing Agudat Israel’s office, whom Rabbi Sherer always made a point of greeting effusively and inquiring after, and the building superintendent, whose family had been spared deportation because of Rabbi Sherer’s use of his political connections on their behalf, both wept openly.
LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, a rabbi who was one of my role models at the beginning of the journey, and who remains one today, spoke about yesterday’s fast of Aseret b’Tevet, which, inter alia, mourns the sale of Joseph by his brothers. The Torah portion of the week, Vayigash, relates how Joseph and Benjamin fell on each other and wept. Rashi comments: Joseph wept for the two Temples that stood in the portion of Benjamin, which would be destroyed; and Benjamin wept for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at Shiloh, in the portion of Joseph’s son Ephraim, which would also be destroyed. What is the connection between those destructions and the reunion of Joseph and Benjamin? Joseph had constructed an elaborate test for his brothers to see whether his brothers would stand by their half-brother Benjamin, and thus rectify their sale of him. The brothers passed that test. But only in part. Throughout Judah’s plea to Joseph on Benjamin’s behalf, he refers to the latter as the son of their father Jacob and as “the lad,” but not as “our brother.” Something was still lacking in brotherly unity. And that lack was felt in the destruction of the Temple for causeless hatred.
Until we can repair that lack of brotherhood, the Temple will not be rebuilt. Mrs. Tzila Schneider, the head of Kesher Yehudi, is trying to do just that. In recent years, she has organized thousands of learning partnerships between religious and non-religious women. The main message she offers the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) volunteers is: “If you see yourself as only a teacher in this relationship, but don’t feel you have anything to gain or learn from your secular partner, this program is not for you. This program is only for those who believe every Jew is special and that we are all intimately bound to one another.” I have been present at events in which the phone study partners met each other for the first time, and the warmth and excitement was palpable. Many pairs sat with their arms around each other for the rest of the evening. Last Shabbat was spent with a group of over 100 women university students receiving an introduction to Torah Judaism under the auspices of an organization called Nefesh Yehudi. I was amazed by the sophistication and breadth of Jewish thought of the lecturers, including Mrs. Miriam Kosman, who made her debut in these pages last week. The conversation on Friday night lasted until 4:00 a.m., and the students did not hold back with their questions on every topic – relationships, homosexuality, why most haredi women wear wigs, and, of course, Ramat Beit Shemesh . . .
. . . It is unrealistic to expect an entire community to attain the level of the great figures I have spent the last two decades writing about. But, at the very least, we should strive to emulate their example of turning every encounter with a fellow human being, and especially a fellow Jew, into a positive experience.
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post. The complete article can be viewed at http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=252393.