Harav Hagaon Rav Avraham Mordechai Isbee, ztl
The Gemara in Rosh Hashana 18b says in regards to Tzom Gedaliah:
“The death of Tzadikim is equal to the burning of the Temple.”
The death of the great Tzaddik, Rav Avraham Mordechai Isbee during the Three Weeks leading up to the commemoration of the destruction of the Holy Temple is certainly an illustration of the Gemara’s dictum.
The first time I heard of Rav Avraham Mordechai Isbee was in Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland in the 1970s. The Roshei Yeshiva, the Kollel yungerleit and the alumni, when telling stories of illustrious talmidim of the Yeshiva, mentioned him first. I thought at the time that if someone were to compile a “Hall of Fame” of the Telshe Yeshiva alumni, Rav Isbee would be at or near the top. He entered Telshe at the age of 12 and stayed for 17 years. The stories of his hasmada were legendary. It seemed he never slept, except perhaps for the occasional times when he would put his head down on his shtender and appear to doze off, and then wake up after a few minutes to resume learning. His finger never left its place on the page so that he never had to search for his exact place.
The next time I heard of him was when I came to Ohr Somayach. He was a rebbe here. I was in Rav Moshe Carlebach’s shiur (may he have a refuah shleima very soon), and he mentioned that even as a young boy in Detroit, Rav Isbee was special. They were in the same class in the day school in Detroit. He remembers that in the first grade when they were learning Chumash, the rebbe would ask a question and the inevitable answer was, “Morty says that Rashi says….” To his classmates, he was the Gadol Hador.
He had been a magid shiur in the early years of the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem. By the time I came in 1986, he was learning in the Beis Midrash in the afternoons and giving weekly shiurim in Chumash, Navia nd hashkafa. One could ask him any question on anymesechta in Shas — not just the one which the Yeshiva was learning.
Rav Yehuda Samet, an early chavrusah of Rav Isbee in Israel, told me that Rav Isbee took the monthly Mifal HaShas test every 30 days on 30 blatt ofGemara since its inception by the Klausenberger Rebbe in 1982. He testified that Rav Isbee knew Shas intimately. He also recalls a parlor meeting about 50 years ago in Mattersdorf, where they lived, for a new kollel that would be learning halacha. Even though he had little money, Rav Isbee was the largest donor. Rav Samet asked him why he gave so much. His answer was that since he spends all day learning Gemara, Rishonimand Achronim, he had little time for halacha, and that the kollel would give him a chelek in halacha.
Rav Moshe Newman relates the following story: “Sometimes I had the chutzpah to ask Rav Isbee if he would say a chabura to a certain group of avreichim who learned together b'chevrusa in the afternoons. He always agreed, with much humility. Once, after we planned a hastily arranged chabura to start in ten minutes, I told the other talmidim in which room we would meet, and we would get ready to go together. It was on a complex subject, for me at least. I wasn't sure it was a fair request, and I noticed that Rav Isbee had started pacing, in thought, in the Beis Hamidrash, almost immediately after he agreed to teach us. I was concerned I had been out of order and that the request was perhaps "too much" — and that maybe he was trying to think of what he would say to us. I immediately expressed this concern to Rabbi Yisrael Rakovsky, a magid shiur at the time who later became Rosh Yeshiva at Ohr Somayach in Monsey. He laughed, saying that Rav Isbee didn't need to think of things to say. He was pacing and carefully deciding about what things to leave out and not to say! He could speak to us on that topic for hours and days and weeks, and more, without lacking beautiful divrei Torah on that topic — or on any other.
I was once at a pidyon haben for the son of a friend of mine, Reb Binyamin Wolpin. Rav Isbee was the Kohen. He was also related to Rabbi Wolpin’s wife, so it was a family gathering. Rav Isbee told a story about his grandfather, who was sent to America by the Gerrer Rebbe in Europe, the Sfas Emes. In the 1880s the American Jewish community, especially outside of New York, was becoming rapidly secularized. The influence of the Reform movement was strong and the obstacles to making a living while still keeping Shabbos were almost insurmountable. The Sfas Emes decided to send one his closest talmidim, Rav Isbee’s grandfather, to Detroit to try to strengthen the frum community there. He didn’t want to go. How could he leave the holiness of the Rebbe’s court in Ger and go to the wasteland that was America, where almost every Jew becamefrei or his children becamefrei? The Rebbe told him not to worry, and gave his a special beracha: “Not only will your children and future descendants stay frum, but they will all be talmidei chachamim.” More than one hundred years later, said Rav Isbee, one could see that the beracha was still being fulfilled.
Rav Isbee suffered for many years from a debilitating illness, to which he finally succumbed. He fought mightily and with simchas hachaim, to overcome its effects. He would give the Shabbos HaGadol and Shabbos Teshuvah drashot in the Ohr Somayach Beis Midrash during all of the years that I was in the Yeshiva. Watching him speak from the heart with such hislahavus, love and emunah was a lesson in itself. No one could be in his presence without feeling his holiness. He was an inspiration for all of our staff and talmidim. The loss is great, like the burning of our Holy Temple. May his memory be a blessing for all of us, and, as we hope to see the Temple speedily rebuilt in our days, may we also see HaKohen, Rav Isbee, doing its avoda.