Drawing Our Fellow Jews Close
"The holy words of Chazal require each of us to try to draw close the hearts of those far away to our Father in Heaven and not to remain enclosed in his home worrying only about his own Olam Haba," declared Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at the annual convention of Lev L'Achim in Bnei Brak last week.
Reb Chaim didn't say so explicitly, but strongly implied that even on its own terms the focus only on one's personal Olam Haba is doomed to failure, and will only decrease that Olam Haba. After all, if one truly loved Hashem, he would want every other Jew to do so as well.
As the author of Chovos Halevovos writes (Sha'ar HaBitachon, Chapter 4): "A person's good deeds alone do not make him suitable for the reward of the World to Come. G-d considers him suitable only because of two other factors in addition to his good deeds. The first is that he teaches others about the service of G-d and guides them in doing good . . . ."
Were we to take Reb Chaim's words seriously, both as individuals and as a community, I believe that we could do a great deal to improve the image of Torah and Torah Jewry among our fellow Jews. The first step, as always, would be to do no harm and to file a metaphoric Kiddush Hashem impact statement prior to every action. That would be enough to end a host of recent actions that have both infuriated and appalled the general public (including fellow chareidim) in Israel, such as demonstrations closing major thoroughfares and physical assaults on soldiers wearing kippot.
Those actions too often destroy the impact of thousands of avreichim and their wives who have heeded Reb Chaim's call and are busy every week in learning Torah with not-yet-observant Jews.
FOR ME, RABBI NISSON WOLPIN, zt"l, who passed away last week, exemplified the combination of absolute seriousness about Torah and mitzvos, with the warmth and good humor that lifted up everyone in his presence and drew them closer to Torah. He demonstrated that seriousness and a ready smile are not a contradiction to one another, but necessary complements.
Reb Nisson's dikduk in mitzvos was absolute. I don't think I ever saw him make a berachah m'ayin shalosh, for instance, without the text in front of him. The clarity of his focus was reflected in the rigor of his daily routine. Until making aliyah a little over six years ago, he was at Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz's early morning daf hayomi shiur in the 16th Ave. Telshe minyan every morning, and at his dining room table with the Gemara in front of him every evening, as he learned by telephone with his chavrusah of decades, Reb Nochum Dick. Every day concluded with a seder in Chafetz Chaim with his wife, and each Shabbos meal had its own fixed learning seder.
The second indication [GB1] of that seriousness is the Wolpins' success in passing their values down to all their children and grandchildren. Every Wolpin child is involved in full-time Torah learning and teaching and/or married to someone who is, and that pattern has been maintained as well by over one hundred grandchildren.
And yet Reb Nisson's seriousness of purpose did not detract in any way from the pleasure of being in his company. From 1991 to 2009, I once calculated that I spent more than a year living in the Wolpin household. (To say that I was guest would not capture the experience.) Very rarely did I fail to set the alarm clock for 5:15 a.m. I did not want to miss the sheer enjoyment of accompanying Reb Nisson on his brisk twenty-minute, early morning walk from his apartment in Brooklyn's Kensington neighborhood into Boro Park for his daf hayomi shiur.
There was no one whose company I enjoyed more, and I selfishly did not want to share it with others. Unless it was very icy or the sidewalks were piled with freshly fallen snow – and usually even then – we almost always turned down proffered rides. I could never get enough of his stories of the gedolim with whom he worked closely as editor of The Jewish Observer for four decades, of growing up in Seattle and attending public school -- until graduating at sixteen and travelling cross country by train to join his older brothers at Torah Vodaath -- of the years as senior dorm counselor in Torah Vodaath, vice-principal of Yeshivat Ohr Yisrael in Queens, and as assistant head counselor to the legendary Rabbi Josh Silbermintz in Camp Munk. I know far more about the Wolpin family than I do about my own.
He made everyone with whom he came into contact feel happier, including fellow passengers on the subway who were the recipients of one of his witticisms as he navigated the crowded cars or moved rapidly across the platform between one car and another. As an editor, he could deftly turn flabby prose and incomplete thoughts into sparkling articles, while offering encouragement to a neophyte author. Few employees of Agudath Israel of America could resist the temptation to peek into his office for a few words, as they passed by on the way to the coffee room.
THE WOLPINS SERVED as surrogate parents for numerous ba'alei teshuva, both single and entire families. Those ba'alei teshuva were regular – and, in one case, weekly -- guests at the Wolpin Shabbos table. The Wolpins investigated shidduchim, made sheva berachos, interceded with school principals.
I remember Reb Nisson spending many lunch hours – lunch was, in any event, eaten at his desk -- learning and talking with a young professional who had become drawn to Torah, but whose spouse was not yet similarly inclined. And at night, he would tutor a teenager eager to catch up after a late start in Gemara learning. Upon moving to Eretz Yisrael six years ago, one of the first things Reb Nisson did was set up a late afternoon chavrusah across the street at Ohr Somayach, where the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Mendel Weinbach, was a close friend from their days together at Torah Vodaath 60 years earlier.
Reb Nisson was the very embodiment of Rabbi Kanievsky's charge -- someone who drew many fellow Jews close to Torah with his wisdom, wit, and kindness precisely because he took Hashem and Torah so seriously.
Beware of High Places
"Don't become too close to the ruling authorities," Chazal warn in Pirkei Avos. Jewish history has more than borne out the wisdom of that advice. Numerous times, identifiable Jews in high positions have brought disaster upon themselves and their fellow Jews.
As vizier to the King of Granada, Shmuel HaNagid (993-1056 C.E.) was one of the most powerful men on the Iberian peninsula. A great Talmudist and Hebrew poet, his reign brought honor to Torah and the Jewish people.
Shmuel HaNagid was succeeded as vizier by his son Yosef. Ten years later, in 1066, angry Muslim mobs stormed the palace and murdered Yosef. The next day they turned their wrath on the entire Jewish community and wiped out 1,500 Jewish families.
The 1922 assassination of Germany's Jewish foreign minister under the Weimar government, Walther Rathenau, by a right-wing group is seen by historians as foreshadowing the rise to power of Hitler, ym"sh, a decade later.
Sometimes the concern is that identifiable Jews in high places will bend over backwards so they won't be perceived as favoring their co-religionists. That was certainly an issue in 2000, when many Orthodox voters hesitated to support the Gore-Lieberman ticket, despite vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman's longstanding identification with the community.
And indeed President George W. Bush turned out to be about as supportive a president as Israel could have wanted, effectively ignoring Yasir Arafat and his successor for eight years. Meanwhile, Lieberman remained an effective pro-Israel voice in the Senate.
I DON'T KNOW about other readers, but I'm experiencing some of that engrained wariness about President Trump's elevation to power of a number of highly identified Jews, the most prominent of whom is his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner has been appointed czar in charge of just about everything from bringing about Middle East peace to restructuring the federal government.
In recent weeks, news stories have been full of reports about how Kushner and Gary Cohn, former head honcho at Goldman Sachs and chief Trump economic advisor, have successfully pushed the demotion of Stephen Bannon. Bannon, who was named chief strategist at the outset of the Trump administration, and generally touted as the most influential member of Trump's inner circle, has since lost his seat on the National Security Council and was dismissed by Trump as a "good guy" in an interview with the New York Post's Michael Goodwin.
Bannon is the administration figure most identified with the populist agenda that carried Trump to the presidency. As President Trump backs off of campaign promises – e.g., withdrawal from NAFTA, listing China as a currency manipulator – it is not far-fetched that his most ardent supporters will lay the blame at the door of Jared Kushner, whose Orthodox education and family ties are mentioned in almost every article.
To date, polls show almost no loss of support for Trump among his hard-core supporters. But that could change as Democrats set about portraying his tax proposals as giveaways to hedge-fund managers and the so-called "one-percenters," and as the president, who campaigned against Wall Street and tarred Hilary Clinton with her huge speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, retreats from more and more campaign promises.
If that happens, however, having Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn seen whispering in the president's ear may not seem like a good thing for American Jews.