Shemen Zais Zach
A true story heard “first hand” from “the brother.” The incredulous mother asked her son again. “Did you say that you wouldn’t attend your sister’s wedding because she is marrying a Gentile?” Yes Mom, I’m sorry but I don’t think that I am permitted to go, as intermarriage is clearly forbidden by the Torah.” “I don’t believe that any reasonable and responsible rabbi would tell you that you cannot attend your sister’s wedding.” “That’s an idea, let’s ask the Rosh Yeshiva, I saw him come in to the building a few minutes ago, I’ll see if we can ask him this.” The young man returns a few minutes later and says that the Rosh Yeshiva can see them now. “Rabbi, thank you for taking the time to see us, my son tells me that he thinks that he will not be able to attend his own sister’s wedding, because she is marrying a Gentile, is that true? It sounds absurd to me.” “Yes, that is correct, Ma’am. I am sorry, as I know it must be painful. But we cannot sanction national suicide.” The mother, looking a bit stunned, thanked the rabbi and left his office with her son. She was mumbling “national suicide,” over and over as they walked out of the Yeshiva.
Not long after this discussion the mother got on the phone with the daughter and said, “I love you very much, and I think that it is important for you to come here and see the heritage and beautiful lifestyle that you are forsaking, before you do so.” The daughter, a bit taken aback by the mother’s forthright manner, listened and soon got on a plane to Israel. Her brother brought her to classes at Neve Yerushalayim, which she loved. She ended up calling off the wedding with the Gentile, moving to Israel, marrying a Jew, and raising a family. The brother told me that, looking back, he attributes the Rosh Yeshiva’s “empathic straightness” as one of the prime factors leading to this “miracle.” The brother thought that the Rosh Yeshiva’s frank yet feeling approach got through to the mother so powerfully that she was inspired to utilize a similar and equally effective approach with her daughter. The Rosh Yeshiva HaRav HaGoan Rabbi Mendel Weinbach, zt”l, inspired many of these “miracles” with his “empathic straightness.”
As the other Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Nota Schiller, lhbch”l, eulogized his colleague of over 50 years, it was “matim” that the day of the Rosh Yeshiva’s passing should have been כ"ז כסלו, the 27th of Kislev, the third light of Chanukah, as the letters of the date spell זך, referring to the “shemen zais zach” which is the preferred oil to use for the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah Menora. The Rosh Yeshiva’s attitudes, beliefs, and behavior were “pure,” unadulterated by the “need to accommodate in a modern world.” It was as if to say, Hashem’s Will does not change over the generations, the Truth of His Will is eternal.
Yet, at the same time, the empathy always shined through; when the love is felt, the Truth is easier to accept.
As a talmid of 4 years in Ohr Somayach, my first and most essential and formative 4 years of learning Torah and keeping mitzvoth, I had many opportunities to witness the exemplary midos, the depth and breadth of Torah knowledge that a neophyte could only observe from afar in awe, the yiras shamayim that inspired each on his own level to strengthen himself in this vital aspect of avodas Hashem.
Later, as a rebbe in Ohr Somayach for 7 years I grew to appreciate the Rosh Yeshiva’s multi- facetedgreatness even more. Living in Mattesdorf, I invited the Rosh Yeshiva to speak at a Shabbaton we were hosting for a group of about 18 beginning students. The Rosh Yeshiva told of a famous novel called Faust by an 18th –19th Century German author named Johann Goethe, in which the protagonist “makes a deal” with the Satan that he can live forever if he chooses the moment that he would like to make eternal. Faust can’t find the “perfect moment,” fails to choose hence loses the challenge, and surrenders his soul to the Satan. Rabbi Weinbach said something like, “I would never get into such a conversion or such a deal, but if I had to make such a choice, do you know what moment I would choose?” Every face was riveted toward the Rosh Yeshiva’s, one could feel the suspense in the air, as we awaited the Rosh Yeshiva’s response, and the finale of this fascinating d’var Torah. “I would choose this very moment,” the Rosh Yeshiva said with emphasis and obvious emotion that accompanied his famous broad smile, “a Shabbaton in Mattesdorf, a wonderful group of talmidim, a rebbe in our Yeshiva who began as a talmid, what nachas for me, what a beautiful moment!” I (and everyone, I am confident, who heard the Rosh Yeshiva’s beautiful words that evening), were deeply moved, so deeply moved that I recall the incident clearly decades later.
Only, there was something that bothered me a bit about the Rosh Yeshiva’s Vort. Why that moment? What about the moments when the Rosh Yeshiva was leading a Shabbos Seudah with his beloved family, or when the Rosh Yeshiva was delivering one of his deep, eloquent, and vital shmuzzin to the entire Yeshiva or to any other of the numerous groups that the Rosh Yeshiva was so frequently invited to address, or when engrossed in his learning of Shas and poskim that was so precious and indispensable as to truly be deemed “ki hem chayanu v’aruch yamanu,” or when ensconced in tefillah with his Creator in which he appeared to have left this world, or … ? The list could go on and on. Then the answer to my query struck me, it was true that the Rosh Yeshiva felt that moment of the Shabbaton truly a unique moment in his life, or an Ish Emes like the Rosh Yeshiva would never have said it; it surely was not an empty compliment to make us feel good. Rather, adaraba, the Rosh Yeshiva was the polar opposite of this fictional Faust figure. Rather than not being able to make any moment eternal, the Rosh Yeshiva lived in such a way as to make every moment eternal! The Rosh Yeshiva lived with such joy, such intensity, such mesiras nefesh for Hashem, His Torah, mitzvoth, and holy nation that every moment could have been chosen to make eternal!
I am proud and deeply grateful to have spent the first 4 vital and indispensable years of my development as a Torah Jew, under the wise guidance and loving inspiration of the Rosh Yeshiva. I am proud and deeply grateful to have spent the first 7 vital and indispensable years of my development as a rebbe and counselor of other searching Jews, under the wise guidance and loving inspiration of the Rosh Yeshiva. I am proud and deeply grateful that the Rosh Yeshiva was the sandek at the bris of one of our sons, read our kesuba at our chasuna, and spoke so beautifully at our Vort (I saw the Rosh Yeshiva at a vort several years hence on the same parsha, and asked him what precisely he had said at our vort. Looking surprised he retorted with a chuckle, “I don’t recall, but it seems to have worked!”) I am saddened that he suffered at the end, and that he did not reach even the years of gevuros, but am strengthened by the thought that perhaps he didn’t need the extra years as every year was lived with such gevura, and he did so much in so many ways in the time that he was allotted.
The Rosh Yeshiva will be sorely missed, truly irreplaceable at the helm of the beloved Yeshiva that occupied so much of his time, energy, and concern. Yet, the light that he spread during his blessed lifetime, the “light of happiness,” the light of “pure olive oil,” will continue to burn in the hearts and minds of generations of his beloved natural family and generations of his beloved “adopted” family! 'ה' זכרו ברוך!