He Loved to Do Good
What it means to take responsibility for a fellow Jew
Wednesday, January 23, 2019
Last week, the street running adjacent to Jerusalem's Shamgar Funeral Home was blocked off for the levayah of Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Merzel a"h. Everywhere one looked on the street and inside there were circles of sobbing mourners, comforting one another.
That size levayah is unheard of for any but the most well-known talmidei chachamim. And throughout the week of shivah the Merzel home and outside succah porch were overflowing with visitors. I arrived back in the country from London on the last night of shivah, and the home was still filled close to 11:00 p.m.
I did not know the niftar. I was only there because I have learned in the same night shiur with a younger brother of his for years and my wife is close to a sister. Therefore, I only want to focus on one point about the niftar: What it means to take responsibility for a fellow Jew.
As a young bochur, Rabbi Merzel was the star of P'eylim, traveling all over the country to mekarev youth from secular Israeli schools. Later, he established a seminary through which hundreds of young women from non-religious homes have been fully integrated into the Torah community. Many are grandmothers today. If he did not think a particular young woman was suitable for his seminary, he would help her find another seminary and follow up with phone calls to find out how she was doing in her new home. Just because he did not feel his seminary was appropriate was not an exemption from responsibility for a bas Yisroel.
Recently, one of his sons rented an apartment on behalf of a friend to a new French oleh in Jerusalem. He told his father, who immediately asked him what he had done to smooth the aliyah of the newcomer to Israel. Had he gone to his neighbors in the building and alerted them to the presence of a new neighbor? Had he given one of the neighbors money to purchase a greeting cake or housewarming gift?
A couple of weeks later, Rabbi Merzel again asked his son about the new immigrant — someone he had never met and with whom he had no connection. Had his son found out where he davened? Had he spoken to the gabbai to make sure that he was aware of a newcomer in shul and was making him feel welcome? Thus did he teach his son that we should do everything possible to help our fellow Jews no matter how peripherally connected.
He had an ability to connect to anyone. The oncology ward was his frequent haunt during the last three years of his life, and he served as the glue holding the ward together. As soon as he walked in, people flocked to him. It was rare for him to leave, no matter how long or short the visit, without having set up chavrusas for various patients or having been enlisted to solve a shalom bayis issue.
During one of his chemotherapy sessions, he overheard, while lying in his hospital bed on intravenous, a woman on the other side of the room divider talking on her cell phone about her daughter's upcoming nuptials.
He told his son to give the woman 1,000 shekels. When the son questioned whether the woman was even needy, Rabbi Merzel told him that he had discerned the tension in her voice.
In due course, the woman's husband approached Rabbi Merzel in his room to thank him, and the latter immediately engaged him in conversation. In response to Rabbi Merzel's question, the man said that he was from a small moshav in the north that Rabbi Merzel would never have heard of.
But Rabbi Merzel not only knew the moshav well from his days as a P'eylim activist, he mentioned three brothers whom he had brought from there to the children's home run by the Ponevezher Rav 37 years earlier and asked the man what had become of them. "Tell them Shmuel Dovid asked about them," he said.
Upon hearing the name, the man drew closer and kissed Rabbi Merzel. He told him that he was one of the three brothers and that Rabbi Merzel was responsible for all the blessing in his life and those of his two brothers. He even called his nonagenarian father to tell him the exciting news. (He reminded Rabbi Merzel that the events in question took place, in fact, 45 years earlier.)
The man confided that the upcoming nuptials were not a source of happiness for him. His daughter was marrying a nonreligious young man, and he did not intend to attend. That stance had created tension with his wife. Rabbi Merzel insisted that he should attend, and even make a sheva brachos, for which Rabbi Merzel offered to pay for all the food and to attend personally. He would also offer the groom a personal chavrusa. And that is precisely what happened.
Just two and a half months before his passing, an avreich in one of the kollelim he had established called Rabbi Merzel and told him that a brother-in-law's son had been rejected by a particular cheder on the grounds that the family was too modern. Rabbi Merzel also knew the brother-in-law, and he sent a message to the neighborhood's rav, one of Jerusalem's most respected poskim and a longtime chavrusa of Rabbi Merzel, that he would take full responsibility for the boy and the rav should get him into the cheder.
The rav replied that he had no influence with the cheder. Soon thereafter the rav and Rabbi Merzel met at the chasunah of the latter's niece, and Rabbi Merzel told him point-blank that as the rav of the neighborhood and the most respected talmid chacham, this was precisely the type of issue for which it was his duty to take responsibility. The boy was accepted in the cheder.
One of his sons summed up his father for me: He lived to do good for Hashem's fellow human beings.
HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED that whenever you learn a new word — one that you have managed to do without your entire life — you suddenly hear it numerous times in the following weeks? So it is that when I am writing about a particular theme, I suddenly start hearing stories relevant to that theme from every direction.
Recently, another member of my nighttime shiur made a chasunah. The chassan is from the States, and his family came with a large wedding party. Among those in the wedding party was a no-longer-young Jew from Brooklyn who played a major role in the religious development of the chassan's parents and was their shadchan.
The parents, one a doctor and the other a therapist, had each used a particular office in the Brooklyn institution that the older man ran one day a week. The latter determined that they were suitable for one another, and one day called a staff meeting to which only they were invited. His intuition proved correct.
After the chasunah, the husband received an excellent offer in a community far from Brooklyn — a community that was in those days not on the Torah map. Concerned about how the couple would continue to grow religiously in their new home, the shadchan flew there so that he could personally survey the situation.
He was dismayed to find that there was no solid Orthodox shul, and even worse, there was no local day school where their children would one day be able to learn. (Today the community has more than one thriving shul, and a day school as well, though many children commute over an hour away to a larger community.)
The shadchan pushed the couple to take an active role in founding a shul, and a few years later when their son (the chassan) was born, began worrying about the boy's chinuch. As a consequence of his concern, the boy learned every day for years with the son of the rosh yeshivah in the larger nearby community and developed into a fine ben Torah.
The point: The shadchan did not feel his responsibility was over when he guided two young Jews to religious observance and to the chuppah. Rather, it was lifelong.