By Rav Aryeh
Chofetz Chaim Torah Center
We are all leaders. Some are leaders in their homes, others in classrooms or in shuls, and then there are a select few who merit leading all of Klal Yisrael. What defines a leader who is truly worthy of leading the community at large?
I would like to offer a suggestion.
Every once in a while the human condition is such that in a weak moment we may actually believe that our leadership qualities have what it takes, until we are confronted by true leadership and we are brought back down to reality. Recently I personally experienced just one of those reality checks.
A few weeks back, with Purim behind us, I began to plan for the month ahead. I was overwhelmed. In the following four weeks, in addition to the regular full plate, there were two Shabbos HaGadol derashos to prepare, four pre-Pesach lectures at local high schools and seminaries, she’eilos to respond to from various ba’alei batim, and making myself available for mechiras chametz for the community and also for the members of my father’s shul, who have been without a rav since his untimely petirah more than two years ago. Add to that the colossal work needed to prepare for 1,000 distinguished guests from throughout the Jewish world who would be spending Pesach with us at the Doral Hotel in Florida, where I serve as rav of the program. Preparing shiurim and the programming, putting up the eiruv, overseeing the religious concerns and needs of so many Jews from all backgrounds and walks of life was overwhelming. I remember sharing with my wife that I didn’t know how I would be able to get through the coming weeks with all the responsibilities lying ahead.
And then yom tov arrived. I remember making Havdallah at the conclusion of the first days of yom tov and feeling, for a brief fleeting moment, a sense of accomplishment. For a few minutes, I was ready to give myself a proverbial pat on the back—but soon it all came crashing down.
A very distinguished guest and a new friend, Dr. Heshy Schwimmer from Boro Park, shared the following vignette with me that underscores what true leadership is all about. His mother, the late Faiga Schwimmer, a’h, had for many years suffered from a heart problem that required taking several medications daily. Every erev Pesach for more than 20 years, she would call the gadol ha’dor, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, and ask him if she was permitted to take these medications on Pesach. Each year, he permitted them and would wish her a good yom tov. After many years of doing this, she had become older and weaker, and one year on erev Pesach she did not make her yearly call to Rav Moshe. It was a short while before yom tov and the phone rang in the Schwimmer home. It was Rav Moshe calling. He hadn’t received the call that day as in the past, so he was concerned and wanted to know if Mrs. Schwimmer was OK. Upon assurances that she was and after making sure she knew the medicines that were permissible to take, he wished her and her family a gut yom tov.
Hearing this wonderful story from Dr. Heshy himself, I was truly overwhelmed. This is true leadership of Klal Yisrael. The gadol ha’dor, whose every waking moment is filled with accomplishing things that affect the entire Torah world, the posek ha’dor whose every word is recognized as Torah MiSinai by an entire generation, found the time and the opportunity to reach out to one almanah, who, due to her great yiras Shamayim, called him every erev Pesach to consult with him on her medications
When I heard this inspiring story it was a reality check, and I began to look at myself with a bit more honesty and introspection. What was accomplished was not at all important; it’s what wasn’t accomplished that defines a person. I began to think of the many people I personally know who were recently widowed or divorced who could have used a special “good yom tov—thinking of you” phone call, yet it never came. What about so many older singles suffering silently, for whom yom tov is the toughest time—couldn’t I have made a quick phone call to them with wishes for a good yom tov? And so whenever we have a weak moment and begin to marvel at what we’ve accomplished, we need to take a glimpse at the gedolim amongst us and see their love and concern for each and every Yid; that should shake our complacency and help us understand a bit more clearly what true leadership of Klal Yisrael is all about.
When Dr. Schwimmer shared this vignette with me and my dear chaver Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro of North Miami Beach, Rabbi Shapiro responded with an unbelievably inspiring story of his own.
The late gadol ha’dor and builder of Torah in post-war America, Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l, used to divide his week between his home in Boro Park and the yeshiva in Lakewood. There was a Yid, a neighbor of Rav Aharon in Boro Park, who had gone through the seven levels of Gehinnom during the war and lost his wife, children, and every other living relative. He was constantly depressed and couldn’t move on with his life. Whenever Rav Aharon would see him in the street, he would go over to him and have long conversations with him, trying to instill life back into his tortured soul.
After much effort, Rav Aharon convinced him to remarry and build a new family. Rav Aharon was his mesader kiddushin and was also present at the kiddush he made upon the birth of his daughter. Rav Aharon gave him a berachah that he would come and dance with him at her chasunah.
Around 12 years later, Rav Aharon passed away. Ten years after that, as the proud father was dancing in the middle of the circle at his daughter’s wedding, he saw a commotion and then saw the Lakewood rosh yeshiva, Rav Shneur Kotler, zt’l, entering the hall. He came into the dance circle and started dancing with him, around and around. After they stopped, he went over to Rav Shneur and thanked him profusely for coming and sharing in his simcha, but he said, “I don’t understand why the rosh yeshiva came; we really don’t know each other and I didn’t even send you an invitation—why did you come?”
Rav Shneur replied, “Around ten years ago my father was on his deathbed and knew that his time had come. He summoned me and gave me a list of instructions for the yeshiva and for the klal, and then told me that there is a Yid in Boro Park with whom he promised to dance at his daughter’s wedding, and since he obviously would not be able to do so, he wanted to make sure that I would go in his place,” Rav Shneur said. “That is why I came here tonight.”
Can you imagine? The gadol ha’dor who, with just a handful of other gedolim, rebuilt Torah in America and had the entire Klal Yisrael on his shoulders, finds the opportunity to remember and fulfill a promise made to one Holocaust Yid whose life he helped rebuild. This is true and genuine leadership in Klal Yisrael. That despite the overwhelming responsibilities of the tzibbur as a whole, there is time and room in the heart for every single Yid in Klal Yisrael, whether it is an elderly woman with a heart condition or a despondent Yid broken from the Shoah. They represent Klal Yisrael.
Not only were these vignettes inspiring and instructive as to how limited our leadership ability is in Klal Yisrael despite our many accomplishments, it also provided a deeper appreciation of the Sefirah period that we are in the midst of.
Volumes have been written with explanations of why the 24,000 talmidim of Rebbe Akiva died. After all, the Gemara explains their sin as not treating each other with the proper respect, but this is not a sin that is punishable by death. Maybe the explanation is that these were not just students of Rebbe Akiva; they were being groomed to become the future leaders of Klal Yisrael. And so while they were scholarly, brilliant, and wonderful people, the fact that they didn’t treat each other with respect implied that their feelings for the individual Yid, for the one Jew who needs to be treated with dignity and kavod, were lacking. If they couldn’t do that, then they could not very well be the true leaders of Klal Yisrael. Since their role was to be the future leaders and they lacked the very fundamental definition of true leadership, of treating each individual like the klal, they couldn’t fulfill that role and had to be removed from the scene altogether. It wasn’t the sin itself that warranted death, but the fact that they could not function as leaders of Klal Yisrael, as befitting their stature as Rebbe Akiva’s talmidim.
If this is correct, that true Torah leadership is defined by the concern for every Yid who comes into our orbit, then we can evaluate whether we truly qualify for leadership. If we don’t, we should at least take the opportunity to strive for it. v
Any inspiration that comes from this article should be a zechus for the refuah sheleimah of Zahava bas Sara Necha (Goldwasser).