Stepping Up to the Plate
March 4, 2021
Rabbi Yecheskel Ostreicher
It was a year ago to the day, when it all began; the week after Purim. We weren’t sure what it was, that slight cough, the almost non-recognizable fever, the loss of smell… By the time we realized, we were sucked into the new and painful reality called COVID. And what a year it has been! We received one hit after the other, with hardly any respite from one tzarah before the next one came barreling down toward us. The message Hashem is sending us with all this, I do not profess to know. But there is one lesson I learned during this year, a lesson that I hope to keep in my consciousness for many years, and a lesson I think applies to most of you as well.
Over the last year, we as a klal suffered the loss of many gedolim and tzaddikim. We lost many of our elders, who were the last connecting links we had to the previous dor. As a people whose destiny is so dependent on its connection to the past, the loss of so many of that generation has an even greater orphaning effect on all of us.
When such people pass away, there is a rise in interest in their lives and legacies. People want to hear their hashkafos, their life stories, and their words.
Due to this reality, a new section on the Chayeinu hotline was recently formed, Sifsei Yesheinim, in which recordings of gedolim we recently lost are available to listen to. Unfortunately, this has become a popular go-to section, as our nation has suffered the loss of so many leaders in such a short amount of time.
And that brings me to the point I’d like to make; the lesson that I learned. Many of these influential people were in our personal spheres before they were taken from us. Did we truly appreciate what they had to offer? For most of us, the answer, I’m afraid, is “not enough.”
It is not a new phenomenon; this is how it was with Rav Pam, with the Chafetz Chaim, and even with Moshe Rabbeinu. The true greatness of our leaders is usually underestimated in their lifetime.
What would you give to go now to a Chumash shiur of Rav Dovid Solovetchik to hear his fiery transmission of truth, or that of Rav Dovid Feinstein to hear his geonus cloaked in simplicity? What would you give to hear and appreciate the wisdom of Rav Shmuel Miller or Rav Yehudah Jacobs? To hear a Shiur Da’as from Rav Chaim Dov Keller? To speak in learning with Rav Yitzchok Scheiner or Rav Elya Meir Sorotzkin? How about those elderly Holocaust survivors we lost? Wouldn’t you love to be able to speak to them about the past, reveling in their tales of times long gone by? Just one time? But it is too late now. We are left with an acute taste of regret in our mouths.
Personally, this feeling of regret was magnified by meriting to write the recently published The Novominsk Haggadah, which features the Torah insights and lessons of the Novominsker Rebbe zt”l. Working on the Rebbe’s Torah the past few months was a true zechus, but it also made me acknowledge how much more I could have gained while in Yeshivas Novominsk. I had heard a significant amount of the Torah in this sefer while learning in yeshivah, but I did not truly appreciate the depth, the profundity, and the beauty of his outlook on Yetzias Mitzrayim until now.
In a sense I missed the boat. And now I regret it.
Why is it that only when these people are no longer with us that we appreciate their impact? Why do we not take full advantage of these gedolim while they are still in our midst?
There are many contributing factors. A large part of our exposure to greatness comes while we are still young and immature—in yeshivah for instance—and that certainly explains, to a degree, this unfortunate attitude of ours. At that point in our lives, we are unable to grasp their greatness, and we are easily distracted by small features such as style and personality. We lose focus of the big picture, of what we can gain from these great men. But it is not only that; as long as someone is with us, we cannot truly feel his impact.
There is a Torah-prescribed answer to this question: the mitzvah of kibbud talmidei chachamim and zekeinim. Demonstrating kavod is to make us appreciate what we can gain from these people. We should use these expressions of honor to instill in ourselves what we already know, but very often lose focus of—that our continued existence throughout the generations is dependent on being connected to them. If you are fortunate enough to have an adam gadol with whom you can relate—who cares about you and shares with you—don’t let the opportunity go to waste. Don’t wait until achrei mos to appreciate the kedoshim.
The year 2020 has been a tough year, with many bitter losses, but if we learn this lesson, we will have gained something of value.
Rabbi Ostreicher has merited to be exposed to the greatness of multiple great men and has written multiple articles focusing on their greatness as well as conveying their messages to the next dor. Correspondence, comments, and compliments can be communicated to Ostreicherm@gmail.com.