"There is no free man," say our Sages, "except one immersed in the study of Torah." This statement is usually understood to mean that only Torah study frees a person from enslavement to his yetzer hara. Another interpretation, however, occurred to me as I listened to the hespedim for Rabbi Moshe Dombey, whose Shloshim we mark this week: Only one with a complete mastery of the four parts of Shulchan Aruch can experience freedom from worrying about what the neighbors will say.
In that sense, Rabbi Dombey was the freest person I knew. He lived with only one question -- What does Hashem want of me at this moment? – without ever worrying about the opinions of others. A dark blue straw hat and red pullover were his trademark attire. Once he determined that they met all the requirements of halachah, he wore what he felt most comfortable in.
The year after his marriage, he drove a cab while studying for semichah from Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik, his rav muvhak. It never occurred to him that driving a cab was beneath his dignity. He had a responsibility to support his family, and that was that. Years later, as head of Targum Press, he could frequently be seen shlepping cartons from the storeroom on a dolly. Again, all that mattered to him was that the task had to get done.
Where did his independence come from? I believe it came from his absolute command of halacha. "About what was written in Shulchan Aruch, there could be no deviation; and what was not written in Shulchan Aruch did not exist," said a chavrusa of twenty years.
A leading music critic once commented that Bach was the greatest of composers because he never varied from the accepted rules of composition of his time, and yet wrote works of astonishing originality and unsurpassed beauty. So too was Rabbi Dombey’s strict adherence to every detail of halacha the form within which he expressed his individuality.
For a quarter century, he taught halacha, mostly to newly religious young women. These shiurim were justly famed for their exceptional clarity. In his hands, the complexities of kashrus and Shabbos seemed far less formidable.
That clarity characterized everything he did. From high school age on, he took pains to lain almost every week, even in his last years when each breath came with an audible gasp due to repeated tracheal stents. His exceptional knowledge of both Hebrew grammar and the cantillation turned his laining a commentary.
At the age of 24, he already headed a small community for newly married ba’al teshuva couples in an abandoned immigration center in Givat Ada (and subsequently Zikaron Yaakov). He was the community’s rav, posek, rebbe, chief financial officer, ba’al tefillah, and ba’al koreh. A student from that period remembers his Gemara shiurim as a perfect mirror of his personality – "clear, direct, honest, unadorned by mental gymnastics or arrogant pretension."
One of the crucial lessons he imparted in his halacha shiurim was that Hashem’s laws are Toras Chaim; they are meant to be lived by normal people. His own unsung normalcy was the best proof.
I once asked a bochur who a hausbochur of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky’s what he saw. He replied, "I saw nothing, absolutely nothing." Everything was effortless. And so it was with Rabbi Dombey.
Those who worked with him soon discovered the depths hidden by his outer calm. "Usually when you work with a person for a long time in close quarters, you discover more and more of their faults. With him it was just the opposite," says Mrs. Diane Liff, chief graphic artist at Targum for nearly two decades. "My respect for him grew every year. He was absolutely straight. You always knew exactly where you stood with him."
Though he was multi-talented, he nevertheless never failed to show his respect for the talents and efforts of others. Once the Targum graphic staff designed an announcement for a new publication that had to be folded into three for maximum effect. The non-English speaking printer mistakenly folded the announcement into quarters instead. Rabbi Dombey insisted on opening 10,000 announcements and refolding them properly so that the efforts of the graphic staff would not be wasted.
There was nothing dry or mechanical about his rigorous adherence to halacha. (For years he taught a weekly shiur in Reb Tzadok.) He sought to derive from the halacha precisely what kind of human being Hashem wants us to be, and to live his live accordingly.
"He taught us," says Targum’s chief editor Mrs. Miriam Zakon, "that it is possible to run a successful business without cutting any corners in halacha or mentschlikeit, and with all the emunah and bitachon described by the Chazon Ish." Just before a new book was scheduled to go to press, he once found out that a competitor had just published a book in the same area. "Each book has its own Siyata D’Shmaya," was his only comment.
The last decade of his too short life was one battle after another with the Angel of Death: a successful liver transplant, after his doctors had given up hope; three months in critical condition as a result of his car being hit by a driver running a red light. After each brush with death, he bounced back. He was too focused on the tasks ahead – the day’s daf, the work of Targum -- to spend time wallowing in self-pity.
Whenever he had the strength, he immediately marshaled it for productive activity."You are always busy," a nurse in the hospital told him, marveling at the pile of seforim piled on one side of his bed and the emails from Targum on the other.
He thanked Hashem for every breath, and that all his yissurim were of a physical and not spiritual nature. He always presented an upbeat and cheerful countenance so that even those closest to him were surprised by news of his passing.
Rabbi Dombey’s last act typified this ultimate ish halacha. Together with his wife Mimi, he wrote out all the January salary and royalty checks from his hospital bed, in fulfillment of the din that one should not go to sleep with his workers unpaid. Four hours later, he was gone.