More than a month has passed since the petirah of Rav Aharon Leib Steinman ztz"l. And with the passage of time, the magnitude of the loss sinks in ever more deeply.
Last week Rav Ahron Lopiansky, rosh yeshivah of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, delivered a hesped of Rav Steinman in Yeshivas Mir. His focus was not on Rav Steinman's individual greatness, but rather on the middah with which he guided a generation. That middah is ziknah.
We can begin to understand the middah of ziknah in contrast to its opposite: na'arus, youthful impetuosity. That term is used to describe Yosef Hatzaddik at the beginning of parshas Vayeishev. Seforno writes that for all his brilliance, Yosef acted as a na'ar in bringing back to his father, Yaakov Avinu, an evil report on his brothers, for he could not foresee the consequences of his actions. He lacked the life experience to take a long view of matters. As Chazal say (Shabbos 89b), "There is no counsel in the young." The slice of life that the youth has seen is simply too short to offer advice as to future consequences.
The zakein, by contrast, is ideally suited to give advice. On the verse "Ask your father and he will relate [it] to you; your elders [zekeinecha] and they will tell you" (Devarim 32:7), the Vilna Gaon describes the zekeinim as having developed over time a set of categories into which they can classify events based on a few critical facts.
Ziknah is the quality of being able to take a long view, of seeing things in a larger perspective. At the end of bentshing we recite, "I was a youth, and now I am old [zakanti], and I never saw a tzaddik abandoned and his children begging for bread" (Tehillim 37:25). Yet if we are honest with ourselves, each of us can think of cases when it seems to us that a righteous person has been abandoned, and we offer explanations.
But, writes the Malbim, the verse teaches us that our explanations may be flawed simply because we are viewing too small a slice of Divine Hashgachah. We lack a longer view. Yes, it appears that the tzaddik has been abandoned, but if we take a longer view, at least his future generations were not left searching for food.
The first human being to be marked with the physical signs of ziknah was Avraham Avinu. Avraham asked HaKadosh Baruch Hu to change his appearance to distinguish him from his son Yitzchak. White hair and other external signs of old age represent wisdom acquired over time and the consequent ability to evaluate events and their consequences beyond the moment.
As the first of the Avos, Avraham Avinu's essence is expressed throughout the generations, beyond his 175 years. Similarly, the perspective of the zakein projects far into the future.
ZIKNAH IS NOT just a quality of human beings; it is one of the crucial middos with which HaKadosh Baruch Hu directs the world. At Har Sinai, Hashem is described in various midrashim as a "zakein filled with rachamim."
Hashem saw that the Creation could not exist based only upon Middas Hadin, and moved to the throne of Rachamim. If strict justice were meted out every time a person failed, none could exist. Rachamim (mercy), derived from rechem (womb), in which the child is nurtured by the mother for many months, means taking a longer view and placing the actor in a larger context rather than executing judgment immediately.
The Gemara relates (Sanhedrin 38b) that the angels opposed the creation of man. After Dor Hamabul and Dor Haflagah, they returned to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and asked, "Were we not right?" Hashem responded, according to the aggadeta, with a verse from Yeshayahu, "V'ad ziknah Ani Hu, v'ad seivah [another term for old age] esbol — I will bear [you]." Ziknah can be understood, in part, as a reference to Avraham Avinu, the first zakein, as well as the middah of forbearance with which Hashem guides His creation.
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 5:3) tells us that all the ten generations from Noach until Avraham Avinu angered HaKadosh Baruch Hu, until Avraham came and received the reward for all of them. The Ben Ish Chai clarifies that this does not mean that Avraham received a very large reward, but rather that he was the culmination of those earlier generations, that somehow they created the basis for him. That is what HaKadosh Baruch Hu, with His vision encompassing everything until the end of time, understood that the angels did not.
RAV STEINMAN was not the zakein hador because he was very old, though certainly his experience of Yiddishkeit as lived in different places and epochs — prewar Europe and postwar Eretz Yisrael — was crucial to his ability to lead the generation with the middah of ziknah. It might be more accurate to say that his extreme longevity was a reward to the generation for his quality of ziknah.
That ability to evaluate the present in the context of nitzchiyus (eternity) depends on living one's life with a focus on eternity. Rav Steinman's extreme separation from the pleasures of This World was another manifestation of the degree that he lived with an Olam Haba perspective, and that prishus, in turn, enhanced his ability to place events within the perspective of eternity.
Rav Lopiansky mentioned how his late brother-in-law, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz"l, frequently went to Rav Steinman for advice, and how the sagacity of that advice inevitably became clearer with the passage of time.
The quality of ziknah with which Rav Steinman led our generation was one cultivated in the great European yeshivos: Show restraint, don't hurry to respond; don't limit your judgment to the immediate event or what is before one's eyes; place events in a larger context and evaluate future implications.
At a rally in support of the Agudah slate of candidates for the Lithuanian parliament, a leading rosh yeshivah said, "Cursed be all those who vote [for the rival slate]." An audible murmur went through the crowd, and a note was passed to the speaker, who read it, folded it, and placed it in his pocket. He then restated his charge to the crowd: "Blessed will be those who vote for the Agudah candidates."
The sharpest reproach in the Mirrer beis medrash in which he grew up, Rav Lopiansky related, was "kinderish — childish." Don't be quick to respond, hyperreactive. The message in both learning and life was the same: First, gain a bigger kuk, a wider perspective.
When a bochur would bring Rav Nachum Partzovitz ztz"l a strong diyuk in Rashi, Reb Nachum's response was inevitably: Slow down, learn more Rashis, see how your diyuk fits into the entire sugya. To understand a comment of Rashi one must first put it in the context of many other comments of Rashi.
A talmid chacham once brought a difficult Rambam to Rav Yechezkel Abramsky for explanation. Rav Abramsky began learning the preceding halachah in the Rambam. The questioner thought he had been misunderstood and pointed to the Rambam that puzzled him. To which Reb Chatzkel responded, "Am ha'aretz. A Rambam is learned from the Rambam before and the Rambam after."
OUR GENERATION is blessed with many outstanding virtues and exemplary achievements. But it also suffers from a certain quality of excitability and haste in reacting. Throughout Mishlei, the Gaon defines a particular type of foolishness — evilut — as alacrity in responding to what is immediately in front of one's eyes or giving immediate expression to whatever idea pops into one's head.
The task of leadership is to avoid that quick response, to place everything in its proper context, and evaluate its long-range implications. In imposing chumras, for instance, the quality of ziknah is always required. Does the worrisome behavior under consideration represent the beginning of a general unraveling and therefore require a protective chumra to nip the process in the bud? Or will greater restrictions only lead, in the long run, to more rebellion and expedite the breakdown? Only one who possesses the quality of ziknah can make the decision.
For decades, Rav Steinman served as the brake on our generation's impulsivity, the voice of experience and calm, counseling that we not just react, but look ahead.
May we learn from Rav Steinman's example to try to conduct every aspect of our lives with the middah of ziknah. And may Hashem show His rachamim on our orphaned generation and guide us with His ziknah.
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