Rav Aharon Leib Steinman ztz"lYonoson Rosenblum
A merkavah for the Shechinah in This World
Ihad no personal relationship with Rav Aharon Leib Steinman ztz"l except through friends who were close to him. Yet like hundreds of thousands of others around the world, I found myself crying upon hearing of his passing. Why? Because I knew he cared about me and every other Jew, from elite Torah scholars to young teenagers struggling in their Yiddishkeit.
The stories of his pashtus, his asceticism and kedushah, his incredible hasmadah, and his wry humor are legion. But what stands out most for me is his sense of achrayus for every member of the tzibbur, and for Klal Yisrael as a whole. We have all seen the famous video of a well-known askan trying to convince Rav Steinman of the necessity to exclude certain types of talmidim from our educational institutions, and Rav Steinman's angry response: "Gaavah, gaavah, it's all gaavah." He relates how neither he nor the son of the Brisker Rav learned in the "frum" cheder in Brisk.
In his nineties, he undertook multiple trips abroad to any place where he felt he could inspire and uplift Yidden and increase their commitment to Hashem and His Torah. Each day's schedule was packed from dawn until late at night. A friend of mine who accompanied Rav Steinman on one of his overseas trips was embarrassed one morning when Rav Steinman asked him (50 years his junior) why he had not been at the haneitz minyan, despite the fact that they had retired only a few hours earlier.
I first heard of Rav Steinman in 1989, from my rebbi Rav Aharon Feldman. Rav Shach had just founded Degel HaTorah. With the new party, an English-language Yated Ne'eman came into existence. Rav Feldman was the founding editor and I assisted him. Rav Feldman felt it important that I — then a baal teshuvah of only ten years, who had been to Bnei Brak once in my life — should understand that we were involved in something a lot more important than mere politics, even religious politics.
To convince me, he would inevitably describe the awe that overcame him when he saw Rav Steinman ztz"l at the founding congress of Degel HaTorah. (Until then, Rav Steinman had not been involved in public affairs.) To Rav Feldman there could be no greater proof of the importance of what we were doing than that a Jew of Rav Steinman's purity had consented to enter the public realm on behalf of the new party. The way that Rav Feldman spoke of how he trembled in Rav Steinman's presence has always remained with me.
BECAUSE RAV STEINMAN TOOK RESPONSIBILITY for Klal Yisrael, Hashem graced him with incredible pikchus (sharpness). I had two occasions to personally experience that quality. During the time I was running Agudath Israel of America's Am Echad office in Israel, I hatched a plan to do battle with the Israeli Supreme Court. A major philanthropist was prepared to pour tens of thousands of dollars into the effort.
The philanthropist in question and then Bnei Brak mayor Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz and I went to Rav Steinman's spartan apartment, where Rabbi Karelitz explained the concept. Rabbi Steinman told the gvir in question — someone who sought Rav Steinman's guidance in all his vast tzedakah — that he would be wasting his money, and the whole plan might even be counterproductive. Despite my immense disappointment at the time, later I came to realize that Rav Steinman had been right.
On another occasion, one of my closest friends had been offered a prestigious rabbinic position in America — a position for which he had prepared himself since he was a young yeshivah student. Rav Steinman told him to turn down the position, and as far as my friend was concerned that was the end of it. But I was convinced that either Rav Steinman had not fully understood the circumstances in America or that perhaps my friend, in his modesty, had not shared how eager he was to accept the position.
So I went to Bnei Brak, and waited in line after Minchah in Rav Steinman's home to speak to him. Just watching a man in his nineties remain standing for close to an hour talking to each visitor in turn was an inspiring sight.
Rav Steinman listened to me, but did not change his mind. I later learned that several other friends of the rabbi in question — friends who would have had far greater credibility with Rav Steinman than I — had already made the same journey and had proven incapable of moving Rav Steinman.
My friend, who learned weekly with Rav Steinman, was completely at peace with the decision. And it turned out that contrary to what I and his other friends had feared, he has had a greater impact in various positions in Eretz Yisrael than he would in all likelihood have had in America.
From a young age, Rav Steinman's only ambition in life was to serve as a merkavah for the Shechinah in This World. And that he did to a remarkable degree. To be in his presence for even the briefest time was to perceive godliness with absolute clarity.
Our Kids Do the Most Amazing Things
I was recently told that Rav Elya Brudny gives regular chizuk to the staff of Amudim, an organization that deals with almost every type of challenge facing our community. And inevitably at least part of his message is to remind them that what they see in their work does not typify our community, which is an overwhelmingly beautiful one.
Similarly, it is easy to lose sight of how special our children are in the main, as we read constantly of the ravages of technology, the toll of abuse, and so on. In that vein, I want to share periodically some stories of the amazing things our children do that have nothing to do with overcoming major life challenges. (To be clear, I am not advocating that we downplay in any way the many challenges facing our young — or us.)
Over Succos, my son's brother-in-law and family were scheduled to visit Israel from South Africa, where he is a rav and school principal. They had not been in Israel for seven years, and many of the cousins have never met one another. So the visit was awaited on all sides with great anticipation.
Unfortunately, the family's youngest son, six, was unable to obtain a passport in time due to the vagaries of the South African bureaucracy. Fortunately, his plight did not render the entire visit moot. The boy's South African grandparents were more than willing and able to host him for the chag.
His next-oldest brother, who is all of nine, however, told his parents that he could not possibly leave his younger brother behind. He insisted on remaining at his grandparents' with his younger brother, and missing out on meeting two sets of aunts and uncles and cousins for the first time, not to mention seeing Eretz Yisrael.
That capacity for empathy with a younger sibling, and the ability to put aside his own desires — in a boy of nine — amazes me. Actually, it amazed his three older siblings as well, each of whom told his or her parents that they would have never considered volunteering to remain behind in South Africa, even when their younger brother did so.
I have nothing to add to this story other than to say that I am eagerly looking forward to meeting the two younger brothers when they get their promised trip to Israel — hopefully soon.
SHORTLY AFTER the Houston Astros' first-ever World Series victory in seven games over the Los Angeles Dodgers, I e-mailed a friend in Houston to congratulate him. He replied that I had obviously forgotten that he is from Los Angeles and a die-hard Dodgers fan. His wife, however, is from Houston.
That sort of mixed marriage might have caused some tension in the home during the closely contested, back-and-forth World Series. Happily, however, both parents were both too busy shepping nachas from their 14-year-old bechor. Every night during the World Series, he tore himself away from the computer screen where his younger brothers were fully absorbed in the game to go to a voluntary night learning seder with four other classmates.
I doubt readers in Eretz Yisrael, or even in the more yeshivish bastions of the East Coast, can fully appreciate the willpower involved. The idea of going to a pro sports event is not something totally foreign to Orthodox boys growing up in the American heartland. My friend estimates that this particular son went to between five and seven Astros games this year.
Yet at the moment when the whole city was talking of nothing other than the World Series — an epic struggle involving his two favorite teams — his desire for an extra seder of Gemara learning with a beloved rebbi prevailed.
May we all know such nachas from our kids struggling with their various personal temptations — l'mineihem — and overcoming them.