By A. Miller
Our father, Rav Mordechai Michoel Miller, was born in 1943 in Boston to his parents, Rabbi Yeshaya and Mrs. Yehudis Miller. The spiritual climate in Boston in those years was in decline, and most of our father’s peers forsook a Torah life, with only a small minority even remaining shomer Shabbos. At 18, recognizing the direction in which his peer’s lives were heading, he firmly resolved that he did not want to lead such a life, but felt a strong desire to lead a Torahdike life. At the time, Rav Leib Heiman headed a mesivta in Boston and so our father approached him to arrange for chavrusas.
Two years later, at 20, he married his devoted wife, our chushuve Mommy, Rebbetzin Chana Miller, shetichye. While our father was accepted into Harvard and could have entered the professions, setting aside time to learn Torah every day, and living a normal olam hazeh life, our parents wanted a life of only Torah. Together, they chose to live in great poverty and dedicate themselves exclusively to Torah learning—regardless of the difficulties, even holding their wedding in the yeshiva lunchroom instead of a normal wedding hall so as to save money for living expenses after the chasunah. Thus began their lifelong career of shunning materialism and devoting themselves solely to Torah.
Following their wedding, they moved to New York where our father, upon the advice of his esteemed uncle, HaRav Avigdor Miller, zt’l, went to learn by HaRav Yehudah Davis, zt’l, in Brighton Beach. He was the first, and for a while the only kollel member, but this did not disturb him, and he learned in the yeshiva with incredible hasmada for a few years until their money ran out. With no income, our parents sought a way to continue learning and contacted Rav Leib Heiman and asked if he would allow them to live in the yeshiva dormitory in exchange for tutoring bachurim. Rav Heiman was amazed to see a couple so devoted to Torah learning that they were even willing to live in a dormitory, and he immediately agreed. And so our parents, with their young daughter, moved into the Boston yeshiva’s dormitory, and our father, with his trademark intensity, learned in the yeshiva for a number of years. When the yeshiva closed, the family returned to New York. Our father became a magid shiur in the mesivta of Kaminetz in Boro Park, where he taught for 25 years, and then, for the last 12 years of his life, served as an eighth-grade rebbi at Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel in Flatbush.
Our father strove to turn his hundreds of students into Torahdike talmidim. He had an enormous influence on scores of talmidim and truly concerned himself with their success—even years after they left his class. He felt that a boy who was once his talmid is always his talmid. As Rabbi Yehudah Jacobson, shlita, said, “Rav Miller’s sense of achrayus was legendary.” As an illustration, a talmid was unable to go to camp and so our father learned with him throughout the summer—without pay. He did this for several consecutive summers. This was not an isolated incident. By him, it was pashut that this is what you have to do. His attitude was always: “He is my talmid; it is my achrayus to take care of him!” Our father did not teach a class of 25 boys, but rather 25 individuals in a class. He cared about each one individually. Our father did not teach Gemara; he taught talmidim, and with his incredible depth of understanding, he enjoyed great hatzlachah in helping them realize their potential.
Totty was an all-around lamdan and spoke with his talmidim not only in learning but was also able to talk with the boys about literature, scientific analysis, vocabulary literacy, mathematical theories, and any and all subjects. His talmidim loved to see him; they basked in his trademark smile and felt his warmth and genuine caring. One talmid told the family that our father’s smile was so warm and caring that he felt as if our father was hugging him. He created a close kesher with many talmidim who kept up with him, and were heard, even years later, quoting their mesivta rebbi. They saw in him a true Torah personality and wanted to be close to him and be influenced by him.
Our father was an incredible masmid. Throughout the year, he would get up every day at 4:00 a.m. to learn before Shacharis, then go to yeshiva to teach, then immediately after yeshiva, to his afternoon seder, and then, after a quick supper, on to his night seder chavrusa. The gadlus of our father was that he kept to this schedule—every day—with absolutely and literally no exception. No matter what was occurring in his life, our father was up at 4:00 a.m. the next day. During the summer, the family went to a bungalow colony within walking distance of Camp Morris. Every day, our father went to Camp Morris for Shacharis and, immediately after davening, sat down and learned straight—with deep intensity—until 7:00 p.m., except for a few-minute break where he would eat an apple and a plain rice cake. On Shabbos, our father never took a nap. Immediately after the seudah, he would go to the Lakewood minyan and learn all afternoon until Minchah. He did this every Shabbos—without exception. We were brought up in a home where our father had an acute awareness of what we are here for. Our father would frequently tell us, “Life is short. I can’t waste it.” Perhaps a possible interpretation of “tzadik b’emunaso yichye” is that while we all “believe,” a tzadik ensures that he consistently in fact lives his life, i.e. ‘yichye’, in a manner which conforms to that which he believes, i.e. b’emunaso’.
The family jokes that our father never came on time for davening. It’s true; he always came early. To him, on time meant, at the very least, 20 minutes before the scheduled time. We children often could not understand why he was rushing to, say, Minchah, when it was starting in 30 minutes and it was only a six-minute walk.
The hallmark of our father’s personality was his midah of emes. This midah permeated every facet of his life. Our father despised sheker and could neither tolerate nor relate to any behavior that was not entirely genuine. While emes is typically understood as being honest with others, and our father was renowned for his remarkable honesty, we refer here, primarily, to his extraordinary self-honesty. As an illustration, once, in his later years, his son-in-law, Rabbi Avrohom Goldberg, asked him why he does not wear a kapota, as by then he was a rebbi for over 30 years and many of his contemporaries wore a kapota. His answer typifies his approach to his avodas Hashem. He replied, “You know, when I was a young man and for a short tekufah learned in the Matersdorfer Yeshiva kollel, the rav asked me to grow a beard as the chasidishe bachurim in the yeshiva could not relate to a yungerman without a beard. So I grew a beard. And I felt that I lost 50-percent of my drive to grow in learning since I already had a beard and felt like a choshuve person. If I were to wear a kapota, I would lose all my drive.”
Totty had no shtick. He was an absolutely real person and was only concerned about p’nemiyus. Once, when an old talmid met him and asked what he was involved with, our father answered, “I am working on the subbasement.” He meant that he was working on his inner self; his inner p’nemiyus. This is all that mattered to him. He gave no credence whatsoever to externals.
Our father was not a man of means, yet he somehow managed to send substantial checks to numerous talmidei chachamim in New York and Eretz Yisrael every month—for over 30 years. How did he do this? Because he and our mother, shetichye, did not need anything for themselves. They, by choice, lived b’dachkus gadol. We usually associate such a standard of living with the gedolei Eretz Yisrael. Whether it was two tiny rooms off the kitchen in the Mountaindale yeshiva, the dormitory in the Boston yeshiva, a basement, an attic, and finally when they bought their house, they always lived in such a plain, simple manner. And they were joyful. They felt they had it all as they were leading such a full, meaningful life. For himself, he needed nothing. For others, his generosity of spirit knew no bounds.
Our father lived with Hashem and often spoke about how bitachon is a matter of experience—not faith. He frequently related how Hashem has helped him and how if we only take the time to think, we can see Hashem’s hashgachah pratis so clearly. When asked how he was doing, our father, with great exuberance, would invariably reply, “Wonderful! What could be better? I am alive! And I am learning!”
Four years ago, on Shabbos parashas Ki Sisa, the 18th of Adar, our father sat at the dining room table learning masechta Tamid. He completed the masechta and then got up to wash for shalosh seudos when he was suddenly niftar—marking his siyum on his personal “Masechta Tamid”—his lifelong perpetual non-stop avodas Hashem.
An appreciation of our father is incomplete without speaking about his lifelong helpmate, our Mommy shetichye, who, for nearly 46 years, devoted herself with extraordinary single-mindedness solely to the cause of “Totty learning.” There are no words that are adequate to this task, so we will simply quote what our father himself so often told people: “My wife makes me feel like a million dollars! All my Torah and ruchniyusdike growth is to her credit!” And he meant it. And, dearest Mommy, we, your children and grandchildren, know it.
Our father used to tell us that we should daven not only for arichas shanim, but also for arichas yomim, meaningful days. Totty, you not only merited arichas yomim, you personified it. May we, your children and grandchildren, be g’bentched with the sechel and wherewithal to follow in your ways so that we too can be zocheh to true arichas yomim—meaningful days. Yehi zichro baruch. v