by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 6, 2005
Last Tuesday, politicians, comrades-in-arms, and thousands of ordinary Israelis paid their final respects to former president Ezer Weizman. His funeral was front-page news.
The same day, 35,000 mourners accompanied Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a ninety-year old Torah scholar, to his final resting place on Har HaMenuchot. Tens of thousands walked for over two hours from Jerusalem's Gush Shmonim neighborhood to Har HaMenuchot. Rav Wolbe’s funeral merited little notice in the eyes of the media.
As long as Israel exists, a large debt will be owed to Ezer Weizman for his role as architect of the lightning air strike at the outset of the Six Day War that paved the way for victory. By the time of his death, however, his personal influence had waned to near zero.
By contrast, there were few present at Rabbi Wolbe's funeral who did not feel that they had been somehow shaped as human beings by their contact with him, either in person or through his words. Hundreds had studied with him in small groups in Yeshivat Be'er Yaacov, which he directed for 35 years. Thousands more had corresponded with the Mashgiach (as he was known) on crucial life issues or waited in line on the stairs of his nondescript apartment building to speak to him privately. Most of those present had heard him speak publicly, and all had read at least some of his published works.
Hard of hearing from an early age, he was far from a dynamic speaker. And any natural charisma he possessed was carefully hidden. What, then, explains Rabbi Wolbe's extraordinary influence?
He offered the thrill of self-discovery. G-d, according to the Talmud, refers to Abraham as "unique in his world." And it is the primary task of each of Abraham's descendants, the Mashgiach taught, to become aware of himself as a complete world of incomparable depth, worthy of a lifetime of intense self-scrutiny.
Individuality and chareidim are terms not generally associated with one another – especially by those conditioned to view chareidim as all alike with their uniform dress and lives structured by mitzvah observance. Indeed the Mashgiach’s message shocked many chareidim too. When he decried the tendency of people today to view themselves as sheep in a flock, he was addressing his world as well.
But, in fact, external similarity only highlights the essential uniqueness – superficially Jacob and Esau were twins; at a deeper, internal level they were opposites.
In the Mashgiach’s vision, there was nothing solipsistic about the quest to discover one's individuality. Hand in hand with the discovery of one's uniqueness goes the discovery of one's specific mission in life. To recognize that one possesses a singular constellation of talents and weaknesses, that one was born into a different familial and historical situation than anyone who has come before or who will follow, is to recognize that one's life is not by chance and that it has purpose.
For the Jew, that purpose must always be related back to Klal Yisrael. He told one of his closest students, "Klal Yisrael has not produced many like you. Now you have to give back to Klal Yisrael." The student felt simultaneously diminished to learn that he was not self-made, and elevated to hear that an important task awaited him.
All individual spiritual growth, all Torah learning must be understood as for the benefit of Klal Yisrael, Rabbi Wolbe taught. One who has only Torah learning, without deeds of chesed, he said, quoting the Talmud, is likened to one who has no G-d.
In Olam Yedidut, a collection of addresses given to secular Israelis, Rabbi Wolbe portrayed the world as one of one connection – connections between a Jew and his Creator, between a Jew and his fellow Jew, to other human beings, and even to animals and inanimate objects. Yedidut (friendship), he pointed out, is formed from yad-yad (hand in hand). A friend is one with whom one walks hand in hand.
Though most of his life was spent within the walls of yeshivot, he was connected far beyond. Nor was he afraid to step outside when the needs of Klal Yisrael demanded. During the war, he established an orphanage in Sweden for 120 orphaned Jewish girls from Eastern Europe.
And when a spirit of spiritual awakening was felt in the wake of the miraculous deliverance of 1967, he did not hesitate to go out to secular kibbutzim. Himself the product of an assimilated German Jewish home, he had a special affinity for those turning towards religious observance. Every ba'al teshuva, he believed, had experienced a special level of being taken by the hand by G-d. He felt strongly that was the case in his own life, beginning when his father, a German academic, permitted him to go study, after completing his first university degree, in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland. He tirelessly encouraged his students to reach out to every Jew.
Rabbi Wolbe shaped the lives of thousands of his students, and through their families and students will continue to shape thousands more. His influence will also be felt, however, by many Israelis who never even heard of him.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, World Jewry
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