Reigniting The Flame

June 27, 2024

Rav Moshe Wolfson Zt”l, Mashgiach Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and Rav D’Khal Emunas Yisrael

R’ Yechezkel Ostreicher

The young, sincere bachur entered Rav Moshe Wolfson’s room looking for advice. Soon after, he left with a profound new perspective on life.

He had been listening to the Mashgiach’s schmuessen and had developed a desire to learn Midrash, a chelek in Torah the Mashgiach showed proficiency in. But he needed advice: “Can the Mashgiach give me hadrachah how to learn Midrash?” he asked.

“Me? I don’t know Midrash,” the Mashgiach replied. He knew that a bachur that age should be devoting his time to Gemara and Tosafos, not to midrashei Chazal.

“But the Mashgiach always quotes midrashim in his schmuessen and finds the exact ones that fit into the theme he’s discussing…”

“I ate a bagel this morning for breakfast,” the Mashgiach said. “Do you know that Hashem made that bagel specifically for me? How did it come to my plate? Hashem has His ways of making sure that I get the food I need. And He makes sure I find the midrashim I need for each particular schmuess.”

It was the pure, undiluted emunah couched in sincere humility that was the essence of the tzaddik Klal Yisrael lost this week. He lived emunah. He lived with Hashem. And he lived Klal Yisrael.

Moshe eved Hashem

Rav Moshe Wolfson was an American-born gadol, a general who stood behind an unparalleled revolution in avodas Hashem.

Born in 1924, he learned in the fledgling Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, where he derived much of his unique approach to avodas Hashem from Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. R’ Shraga Feivel had a special place in his heart for the young Moshe Wolfson and guided him to forge a unique derech in serving his Maker.

Among the directives R’ Shraga Feivel inculcated in his charges was to love and respect every Yid, to seek to grow at all times, and as he wrote in his tzava’ah, to protect the hur vur (lit. “hair of truth”) and the pintele fun chassidus. The truth is hard to grasp, like an elusive strand of hair. The pintele chassidus, R’ Shraga Feivel taught, can be found only with intense searching. One must be ready to accept from all who offer any part of it.

It was a lesson that the Mashgiach absorbed and continued practicing his entire life.

He was always searching for ways to come closer to the ultimate truth, to come closer to Hashem. He forged connections with many of the tzaddikim of the previous generation, in whom he found pathways to the truth he so desperately sought. He found it in the melodies of the Modzhetzer Rebbe, in the intense avodah of the Skverer Rebbe and the Satmar Rav, in the deep discourses of Chabad, and in the fervor of Stolin.

He transcended party affiliation. “Noshing,” he used to refer to it. Wherever and whenever he found a minhag or practice that brought the Ribono Shel Olam into his life, he embraced it warmly. He took from everyone, and he united it all in a splendid display of pure avodas Hashem.

He had no problem accepting from those younger than he. He would sit before the current Skverer Rebbe with complete self-negation. He would quote Rav Elimelech Biderman and anyone else who helped him in avodas Hashem.

From watchmaker to mashgiach

At a young age, Rav Moshe Wolfson became a cheder rebbi in the yeshivah that raised him, Torah Vodaath. It was a position he held for a few years, during which he taught various grades, imbuing in the young hearts of his talmidim a love of Hashem and emunah in His presence in their lives.

His career as a rebbi ended when he contracted a severe case of laryngitis, which hindered his ability to speak and forced him to leave the classroom. Instead, he took up a job in a Manhattan watch repair shop.

That year, he would later comment, was most decisive in his avodas Hashem. He felt that by working on himself to tune out the impurities that surrounded him then, he shteiged more than in any other period in his life. “My best shticklech Torah come from those train rides,” he told a close talmid.

What bothered him about that period was that at night, he would dream of wheels and springs instead of the Torah he had taught in the classroom.

It didn’t last long. The rosh yeshivah of Torah Vodaath, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, saw that this yungerman had a future beyond repairing watches, and he appointed him as mashgiach of the yeshivah. The bachurim were quickly taken by his brilliant schmuessen, in which he brought the inyanim of the parshah to life in a practical and uplifting way.

Making of a minyan

When the yeshivah went upstate during the summer, the Mashgiach started the Masmidim program for both staff members and campers looking to shteig during the afternoons. But what made the greatest impression on the bachurim was the Shabbos minyan he started with them. The campers and counselors, most from simple American backgrounds, were taught the Stoliner nusach, and the intense davening lifted their Shabbosos to new heights. Davening took longer, but every minute was a spiritual delight.

When the boys came home from camp, many were reluctant to go back to a regular davening. They consulted with the Mashgiach, who lived in Williamsburg at the time, and a small minyan of 20 bachurim formed with one goal: davening b’kol ram with hislahavus, kavanah, and emunah.

As time went on, the minyan grew, and the Mashgiach became its manhig. He would speak during shalosh seudos, urging the members to realize the importance of tefillah and of coming on time to davening.

The change that was taking place in that small minyan in Boro Park did not come easily. While the gedolim of the time succeeded in replanting the fundamentals of Yiddishe life, including chadarim, batei midrash, mikvaos, and kashrus, investing effort and energy into davening and avodas Hashem was foreign to the masses. Davening for three and a half hours on a regular Shabbos morning was seen as outlandish. They were ridiculed and called names.

But the Mashgiach wasn’t affected by the naysayers, nor by the honor that came to him after his ideals took root and people realized that the hair of truth was by him. He remained a simple eved Hashem.

One of the highlights of Shabbos was shalosh seudos. The lights were set to turn off, and the heartfelt singing and divrei Torah would continue deep into the night. The Torah the Mashgiach said then was breathtaking. The gematriyos were astounding, as they revealed the inner aspects of each parshah. He would take the audience into the depths of Torah, revealing how much every Yid is worth, how no Yid is too far and no Yid is worthless.

He was so encouraging yet so demanding. “Der Eibershter is waiting for our tefillos, for each and every one of our mitzvos… Can we let Him down?”

He encouraged the mispallelim to give huge sums of money to tzedakah, quoting the Ba’al HaTanya, who said that one cannot become poor from giving tzedakah.

More people joined the minyan, some who didn’t realize the severity of speaking during davening. One Shabbos morning, the Mashgiach stood up before Baruch She’amar and said that the Tosafas Yom Tov was told from shamayim that those shuls where people didn’t speak during davening were spared from the tragedies of tach v’tat. “Everyone is welcome here…but you can’t talk here during davening.”

Indeed, the mispallelim included men wearing shtreimels, bent-down hats, and no hats at all, and no one spoke during davening.

Tzaddik b’emunaso yichyeh

In time, the kehillah bought a building and called the shul Emunas Yisrael, “the emunah of a Yid.” Pure emunah, the Mashgiach would constantly reiterate, is what our dor needs to survive. And there was no one better to teach it than Rav Moshe Wolfson. His emunah was so crystal clear, so pure and real, that it was reminiscent of the emunah of the Yidden in the alter heim. He believed with conviction in every ma’amar Chazal, in every saying of tzaddikim.

A talmid was once driving him to an appointment when he realized he had gotten lost. It was the pre-GPS days, and the talmid naturally got flustered.

“Why are you upset?” the Mashgiach wanted to know. “The Ba’al Shem taught that a person ends up where he is meant to be. Obviously, the Eibershter wants us to be here now to be able to be mesaken something that needs a tikkun.”

His emunah was real, and his relationship with Hashem was real. A talmid whose family had endured a few distressing incidents came to the Mashgiach to ask if he should check his mezuzos. “We have such a libbe Tatte in himmel; go talk to him. Tell him what you need.”

Seeing him daven was like seeing a child pleading before his father. He would say Nishmas with such ne’imus, with such intensity, with undiluted joy.

Once in 6,000 years

One of the main points the Mashgiach taught his talmidim was the significance and joy of every aspect of avodas Hashem. “There is so much ne’imus in every single mitzvah!”

The Mashgiach overheard a few bachurim discussing how a certain makeup in tefillah is so rare, it only happens once in a few years.

Rabbosai, the Minchah we are about to daven is one that happens only once in 6,000 years,” he said softly.

Every tefillah was seen as a meeting with Hashem. Every mitzvah was rich with meaning; one only had to put in hartz, put in thought and emotion. A cup of wine on Purim, the Mashgiach noted, is like an esrog on Sukkos.

Every Shabbos was a chasunah with Hashem. He said “bo’i kallah” during Kabbalas Shabbos with such sweetness and sincerity, one could almost sense the Shabbos Queen walking down the aisle.

Realizing the importance of every aspect of one’s life should translate into action. Any matter of importance is preceded with excitement, and every mitzvah should be the same, the Mashgiach taught. Hachanah was stressed as a matter of great importance.

From Thursday night on, it was hard to speak to him about the mundane—Shabbos was coming! He davened every day of the week that his Shabbos would be uplifting. And when Shabbos came, he was in a different realm. One needed only to walk into the Friday-night sheves achim, and he felt Shabbos in the air.

In the weeks before a Yom Tov, the Mashgiach was already speaking in shul about significance and meaning of the upcoming mo’ed.

He appreciated kedushas hazmanim, and he appreciated kedushas hamakom. He was deeply enamored by Eretz Yisrael and anything that had to do with it. For over two decades, he would travel every summer to spend two months in the embrace of the Shechinah. While there, he was intoxicated with emotion. He studied ever corner of the Land and would often say that every stone in Eretz Yisrael was a diamond.

Once, when he returned to the States, his landlord offered to put his suitcases in the basement, as there was limited space in his apartment.

“Suitcases that went to Eretz Yisrael can’t be stored down in a basement,” the Mashgiach replied with a smile.

He loved Eretz Yisrael so much, and he yearned for the geulah even more. After Yom Tov, he would express how disappointed everyone was that Mashiach hadn’t come, but we must never give up hope—“b’chol yom achakeh lo.”

V’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od

He stood at the helm of a vibrant kehillah, he inspired thousands, and he was the cause of a spiritual rebirth, but he never saw himself as a leader.

“It’s not my beis medrash, I’m merely the president,” he would quip.

He wouldn’t offer opinions on anything in the shul unless he had been specifically asked. He would sit on a simple chair like all the other mispallelim, and when he got older and needed an armchair, he insisted that all other elder mispallelim receive one as well. He would daven that his shul stay out of the limelight.

He was once featured on the front page of the New York Times, and someone mentioned it to him.

“Tomorrow,” he said, a twinkle in his eyes, “I’ll be in everyone’s garbage can.”

There was nothing he needed for himself. Some 20 years ago, an alumnus of Torah Vodaath, Rabbi Yossi Auerbach, had a terrible fire in his home, which took the life of one daughter and left his wife and other daughter in critical condition.

Later that week, a talmid of the Mashgiach, Rabbi Aharon Kovetz, made a bris, and the Mashgiach served as sandak. After the bris, R’ Aharon told the Mashgiach that it was a great zechus to have him as sandak.

The Mashgiach was quiet for a moment and then said, his eyes brimming over, “R’ Aharon, I don’t want to fool you, but I’m on empty. I davened that whatever zechus I ever had should go to Rabbi Auerbach’s family.”

The richest man

The Mashgiach considered Purim one of the most important days in a Yid’s life, and it was celebrated with much fanfare in Emunas Yisrael. One Purim, the Mashgiach announced that he wanted to teach the talmidim a song.

“It is a song about me; it is a song about you. It is a song about every Yid.”

The song was a shir yedidus of Klal Yisrael to Hashem, and the refrain was, “It’s hard to find someone so wealthy; there is no one rich as mein Jamale (the nickname he used for the Yid for reasons he explained at the time).

In the song, he described how Jamale was a prince, how fortunate he was to be called the sister, wife, and mother k’vayachol of Hashem. Jamale, he sang, had diamond rings on fingers of tefillin straps, representing how bound we are to our Maker. He had soldiers at his door encased in a box with a shin on it, and his cloths were bedecked with strings of royalty on its fringes. Jamale warmed himself in the winter with a Bava Kama and cooled himself in the summer with a Ketzos Hachosen. He was the envy of the malachim when he sang “Az Yashir.” Jamale regarded the pleasures of this world with disdain; they didn’t come close to his “Kol Mekadesh Shevii.” The riches of the world didn’t compare to the water of his negel vaser

On Sunday, tens of thousands gathered to part from a man who needed nothing for himself but was the richest man one could find.

As the mittah made its way from the majestic bastion of tefillah he had formed, one could feel the pain of a community that had lost its connection to the hur vur, the pintele chassidus, and the riches that one with pure emunah lives with in this world and the next.


The writer thanks Rabbi Yecheskel Hasenfeld, rav of K’hal Emunas Yisrael Lakwood; R’ Yehudah Horowitz; and R’ Mordechai Finkelman for their help with this article.