"Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and he saw their suffering." (Exodus 2:11)
Moses' preparation for his role as a leader of the Children of Israel began with feeling the suffering of his brethren. That quality of identification with each individual is the hallmark of every true Jewish leader.
Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Vilna, leader of pre-WW II Eastern European Jewry, was once told of an unlearned shoemaker who had lost one of his eight children. Reb Chaim Ozer was inconsolable. Those present could not understand the extent of his tears. Not long before, Grodzinski had lost his only child, a daughter who was bitten by a rabid dog shortly after becoming engaged. Yet even then he had not cried so bitterly. Indeed, he had continued writing halachic responsa almost until the moment of her death.
"When my daughter passed away," Grodzinski explained, "I could console myself with the knowledge that she was going to a better world. That is clear to me. But I don't know that the World-to-Come is as real to the shoemaker. I'm crying for his pain, not my own."
Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, who passed away last Friday, was a worthy heir to the mantle of leadership once worn by Grodzinski. He never sought the role. He needed no other joy than that of studying and teaching Torah, and until the age of 70 he did nothing else.
As a young yeshiva student, he owned only the clothes on his back. His pants were so full of holes that when tested for admission to the Slutsk Yeshiva he wore them inside out to conceal how threadbare they were. When he married, he and his wife did not even own a closet. Two pegs on the wall sufficed for all their possessions.
He became the guide of haredi Jewry around the world because the community sought his guidance. He was neither elected nor appointed. An entire community simply knew, as if instinctively, that he was their shepherd.
The burden was enormous. It meant being available whenever a Jew anywhere in the world needed his advice. Each issue, whether it involved an individual or an entire community, was weighed carefully. He consulted with experts and sought to be continually updated about changing circumstances. When in his late 90s he could no longer give each matter that same thorough consideration, Rabbi Shach retired from public activity.
They turned to him - individuals, yeshiva heads, and communal leaders - because they knew that whatever he said was the absolute truth as he saw it - a truth shaped only by the Torah to which he had devoted his whole life.
Rabbi Shach was the antithesis of modern political leaders, zigzagging according to the advice of their pollsters. No suspicion of personal interest attached to him. A wealthy man once offered his son-in-law $100,000 for the latter's yeshiva if Rabbi Shach would write a letter of recommendation. Rabbi Shach refused. A leader, he felt, cannot afford to be beholden to anyone.
MONEY and honor were meaningless to him. At a time when the media was filled with stories of Shach's political power, a secular journalist who interviewed him was astounded by the way he lived: a cot for a bed, bookshelves made of the packing crates, and a bare bulb in the living room.
The greatness of a Jew is measured by how many are included within the ambit of his "I." God Himself is referred to as hagadol (the Great) because His concern extends to every living being. Similarly, the gadol hador (great man of the generation) is one whose concern encompasses every Jew.
So it was with Rabbi Shach. In 1992, he rejected every blandishment to allow his adherents to join the Rabin government in which Shulamit Aloni was Education Minister. Rabbi Shach would not consign the education of millions of Jewish children to someone who had made a career of heaping scorn on the Torah, even in return for millions of dollars for Torah institutions.
Even when he spoke in the idiom of a biblical prophet, as at Yad Eliyahu stadium in 1990, he did so out of intense love, as did the prophets themselves. He asked: "You don't fast on Yom Kippur; You raise pigs and rabbits; Your proclaim yourself 'new Jews.' What about your lives links you to all of Jewish history?"
Thank God, the question still hurt, could still provoke outrage. Secular Israel had not yet reached the point of a "dead flesh that does not feel the knife."
That night, Rabbi Shach refused to support Shimon Peres' effort to break up the national unity government in favor of a narrow left-wing government. Rabbi Shach supported territorial compromise if it would save Jewish lives. Yet at Yad Eliyahu he refused to abandon the amcha yidden, the stall owners in Machane Yehuda. He knew that most on the Right were not mitzva observant. But he also knew that they had not yet hung out the "out of business" sign on their Jewish identity. They still took pride in being Jewish, and had an affection for Jewish tradition. If the Torah world were to abandon them at that moment, Rabbi Shach feared, the remaining connection to Torah and commandments might be severed.
In his late 80s, Rabbi Shach required surgery to remove a growth on his leg. The surgeon told him that general anesthesia would be required. Rabbi Shach would not agree because the anesthesia would cloud his thinking, and he could not afford that. He told the surgeon that he could deal with the pain. Students pinioned his leg to prevent any involuntary movement when the surgeon cut into his flesh.
During the same period in his life, he was informed that a helicopter had crashed, killing four soldiers. He burst into tears. He did not ask whether the soldiers were religious or not. That was irrelevant. They were Jews.
His own physical pain he could control, but the pain at the death of a Jew, he could not control.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Rabbi Shach's passing is that so many Jews do not know what a loving father they have lost.