We live in the age of triangulation. Policy decisions are poll-driven, and pollsters have replaced policy wonks as the closest advisors of politicians. A cynical public assumes that every politician’s foremost concern is his or her re-election.
Thus trying to explain to reporters from the world media last week why hundreds of thousands of Jews flocked to Bnei Brak last Friday for the funeral of Rabbi Eliezer Menachem Shach, I found myself consistently stymied in the search for useful analogies. What does one do to become the Torah leader of the generation, they asked. My reply -- ``One does nothing, absolutely nothing" – left them perplexed.
The essential condition of Torah leadership is that no suspicion of self-interest of any kind attaches to the leader. Anyone who pursued a leadership role would automatically disqualify himself.
Rabbi Shach was more than seventy years old before the mantel of leadership fell on his shoulders. Until that time, his entire life was devoted to the learning and teaching of Torah. Torah study was his only joy. Money and honor were meaningless to him.
As a young yeshiva student he owned only the clothes on his back. When he arrived in the Slutsk Yeshiva to be tested for admission, he wore his pants inside out, so conceal how threadbare they were.
He and his wife did not even possess a closet when they married: two pegs on the wall sufficed for all their clothing. Their possessions consisted of two cots, two stools, and a table. At a time when the Israeli press was filled with accounts of the power he was supposed to wield, a secular journalist who came to visit Rabbi Shach was astounded by the simplicity in which he lived: a single cot, books stored on bookshelves made out of packing crates, and a single uncovered light bulb above his living room table.
Rabbi Shach was scrupulous to ensure that no taint of personal interest ever clouded his judgment. A wealthy man once offered $100,000 for his son-in-law’s yeshiva provided that Rabbi Shach write a letter of recommendation. Rabbi Shach refused. His leadership role, he felt, precluded him from placing himself in a position of being beholden to any man.
For nearly thirty years, every individual and communal leader seeking guidance made his way to Rabbi Shach. They knew that whatever answer they received was shaped only by the Torah to whose study Rabbi Shach had devoted himself.
At the height of his leadership, Rabbi Shach enjoyed a degree of authority experienced by few Torah leaders in the past two centuries. Yet that authority derived from no formal position. Rather it was the outgrowth of an organic process. His authority was a function of the intrinsic respect in which he was held, and the deference shown to him by other great Torah authorities.
The reporters kept asking: How was he appointed? Are there elections? They could not fathom how an entire community simply knew, as if intuitively, that this man was their leader. He was their guide because they sought his guidance. The ultimate democracy.
The burden of that trust was immense. It meant being available almost round the clock whenever a Jew anywhere in the world needed his advice. He did not just give his opinion and wash his hands of the matter. Each issue, whether it involved an individual or an entire community, was weighed carefully. Rabbi Shach consulted with experts, did not hesitate to revise an earlier opinion, and sought to be continually updated about changing circumstances. When he could no longer give each matter that same thorough consideration, he simply retired from public activity, albeit only in his late ‘90s.
Moses proved his fitness to lead the Jewish people when he chased after a young lamb that had become separated from the flock he was shepherding and carried it back to the flock. A Jewish leader is concerned with every single lamb.
Rabbi Shach too loved every single Jew. At an advanced age, he needed an operation to remove a growth on his leg. The doctor recommended a general anaesthesia, but Rabbi Shach refused for fear that his thinking would be left cloudy for two days. Instead he had close students hold down his legs to prevent involuntary movements in response to the surgeon’s scalpel.
At nearly the same time, he was informed that an Israeli helicopter had crashed killing four soldiers. He burst into tears. His own physical pain he could control, but the pain at the death of a Jew, he could not control.
Every Jew has lost a loving father. The only difference is that some of us are fortunate enough to know what we have lost.