The following article appeared two years ago in the American Yated Neeman in tribute to Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. We republish it here in honor of his second yahrtzeit, today.
By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Klal Yisroel is in shock.
We have experienced so many tragedies this week, we are in shock. A two-year-baby choking to death in Lakewood. A nine-year-old boy killed by a school bus in Monsey. Two yeshiva bochurim killed as they were returning to learn at the Waterbury Yeshiva. Lo aleinu velo aleichem.
A senior rosh yeshiva passing away in Monsey. A senior rosh yeshiva passing away in Yerushalayim. And, as we sit here on Rochel Imeinu’s yahrtzeit, we ask, “Mini koleich mibechi.”
Please Ribbono Shel Olom, enough already. Enough pain, enough suffering, enough tragedy!
And then we hear of the passing of the Mirrer rosh yeshiva. And we are overcome.
He was sick, yes, but he was so alive. He accomplished so much despite his affliction. He inspired so many. Who could see him in action and not be moved? Who can complain of aches and pains and lethargy after seeing him deliver a shiur or drag himself to a gevir to beg for a donation in order to sustain the empire of Torah he built?
He built an empire. Sick, hobbled and incapacitated, he became a historic builder of Torah. With tremendous siyata d’shmaya he expanded the yeshiva by leaps and bounds, continuously erecting new buildings in Yerushalayim and Kiryat Sefer, and filling them with 7,680 bochurim and yungaleit looking to grow in Torah. There was nothing that could stop him. More Torah, another yungerman in the kollel, another bochur in the beis medrash, another beis medrash, more chaburos, more shiurim, a larger budget; he continuously strived to build and increase the ohalah shel Torah and kedushah.
He did the impossible because he didn’t know it was impossible. He saw the void, he saw the need and he filled it. Hashem helped him and Klal Yisroel rose to his side with an abundance of love, admiration and support. People donated generously to the yeshiva, though it was never enough.
He did what healthy people could never conceive of doing, because he loved the Torah, because he heard its song, because he felt its warmth. He lived it. He felt one with all Yidden who shared the Torah with him, brothers breathing the same air.
Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was a rosh yeshiva to thousands of people. He delivered brilliant shiurim and said many chaburos each week, but what made him a rebbi to Klal Yisroel was something else. It was the lesson he taught each day just by example. It’s a lesson that’s relevant and applicable to every single Yid, regardless of his level of learning and background.
Rav Nosson Tzvi taught us, with his every move, that a Yid has to face his personal limitations with simcha, optimism and courage. Perhaps that’s why crowds of talmidim and admirers were drawn to the Mirrer rosh yeshiva wherever he went.
The rosh yeshiva was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease for years, yet he tended to his many responsibilities undeterred, adding to them rather than scaling back.
Rav Nosson Tzvi’s mark on Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim and Torah in our day was incredible. Even if he had been healthy and hale, the phenomenal growth he effected would be deemed magnificent and historic, but when you consider what his condition was and ponder the remarkable physical and spiritual expansion of the yeshiva he led, it is nothing short of awe-inspiring, especially in an age when superlatives are employed for accomplishments of much smaller magnitude.
The last time I had the honor of meeting and speaking with Rav Nosson Tzvi was the final time he was in America to raise much-needed funds for Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim.
We, as a community, are at a loss for words over tragedies and losses we have recently suffered. Meeting Rav Nosson Tzvi was also an experience that rendered one speechless, not from pain but from admiration.
Observing him left one without words. Rather than succumbing to self-pity, he persevered, adding to his yeshiva’s budget, continuing to tend to his garden of Torah, and supporting an environment for Torah to blossom in our day.
During his visit to Monsey, he attended a breakfast fundraiser for the yeshiva. As Rav Nosson Tzvi began speaking, a hush descended upon the assembled crowd. He spoke simple words, as most great people do. He spoke about why Torah cannot be found amongst people who are consumed with gaavah and why most of the 48 tools which the Mishnah says are necessary for kinyan haTorah relate to matters of interpersonal relationships. Rav Nosson Tzvi explained that the reason is because Torah is not the domain of any single person. It belongs to all of Klal Yisroel, and the more you make yourself a part of the klal, the more you can have a relationship with the Torah.
One who is humble and shares his wisdom with others, who is prepared to learn from others, can earn a share and develop in Torah. Thus, Torah is nikneis, or acquired, with hard work coupled with anavah and achdus, humility and unity.
Rav Nosson Tzvi was undoubtedly one of the towering gedolim of our generation. What does it mean to become a gadol? The posuk tells us, “Vayigdal Moshe vayeitzei el echav vayaar besivlosam.” One cannot be a gadol by being on his own, locked in his own daled amos, without caring about others and learning from and with them. He cared about every Yid. He did whatever he could to help bring every Yid closer to Torah. That is the definition of true and selfless love. He had something which was precious and he sought to share it with everyone.
A Mirrer talmid, today a rosh kollel, told me that a few years back, while he lived in Eretz Yisroel, he received an early-morning phone call that his grandfather was niftar in Flatbush. He rushed to catch a flight to New York, but by the time he arrived, the levaya had ended. He met the aveilim as they returned from the cemetery. This is what he said: “A few minutes later, I received a call on my cell phone. It was someone sitting together with Rav Nosson Tzvi.
“‘The rosh yeshiva is in Brooklyn, but is not feeling well, so he can’t come to the shivah. Since you are not an aveil, however, perhaps you would like to come see him.’
“I was never so shocked in my life,” the rosh kollel continued. “He knew and he cared to reach out to me. People say that the Mir is so big, that the roshei yeshiva can’t possibly have a shaychus with the talmidim. Well, I spent 20 years in various yeshivos. I had many different rabbeim and roshei yeshiva, but Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel was the only one to call me then. I was never even in his shiur and rarely went to his shiur klali, yet he reached out to me. He loved his talmidim and they loved him.”
His son recounted that Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, the rov of Antwerp, once visited Rav Nosson Tzvi. Later, Rav Kreiswirth was asked why it was fitting for an elderly rov to visit a relatively young rosh yeshiva. He replied that a rosh yeshiva who has three thousand talmidim and knows each and every one of them is worth visiting.”
The story was repeated to the rosh yeshiva, who protested, “I don’t know if it’s true that I know each and every talmid, but it’s surely true that I love each and every talmid!”
A 19-year-old average American bochur who learned in the Mir would daven sporadically in the yeshiva. He would enter into the beis medrash through the door near where the rosh yeshiva sat. As he would enter he would say “Good morning” to the rosh yeshiva and the rosh yeshiva would respond to him “Good morning.” One morning upon entering as he approached the rosh yeshiva he saw that he only had on his tefillin shel yad and had not yet put on the shel rosh, so he didn’t say “good morning.”
He made his way to his seat in the back of the beis medrash and davened, thinking nothing of it. When davening was over the boy noticed that the rosh yeshiva had stood up from his seat and with great difficulty was walking through the beis medrash and making his way slowly to the rear. It was so difficult for the rosh yeshiva to walk that he was wheeled in and out of davening in his wheel chair. All eyes turned to watch the scene as they tried figuring out what was so pressing for the rosh yeshiva to undertake such a strenuous effort through the beis medrash.
He stopped at the shtender of the bochur and said to him, which a voice full of love, “Good morning,” and then turned around and made his way back to his seat on the Mizrach.
Like so many others, the bochur was overcome and inconsolable upon hearing of the rosh yeshiva’s sudden passing. He loved him so. He made him feel like a prized talmid. In fact he was. Every talmid was prized and special. Every Yid was prized and special.
Like the tent of Avrohom Avinu, the Mirrer Yeshiva has four doors, open to anyone, literally, as long as they want to learn.
The Mir, under his leadership, welcomed lomdei Torah from every segment of Klal Yisroel.
For those who saw their mission as supporting kiruv rechokim, Rav Nosson Tzvi could point to the hundreds of baalei teshuvah who’ve achieved their life’s goal of learning at the Mir, soaking in its rarefied atmosphere.
Chassidishe Yidden gave generously to the yeshiva where so many of them learned, where the rosh yeshiva formed a special chaburah for chassidishe bochurim, giving them their own place for tefillos and events.
He loved them all, because he loved the Torah, their joint legacy.
He personified the chashivus of Torah. We all know the concept, but with Rav Nosson Tzvi you saw it in front of you. And when all was said and done, he just went back to his Gemara and whoever wished to learn with him. With his legendary hasmadah and legendary mesirus nefesh, he was a walking mussar shmuess. How could a human being put up with such torment, exert so much effort, and assume so much responsibility for Klal Yisroel and still come up smiling? If he could do all that given his challenges, what are we capable of?
His very presence was a demand for growth, watching as he refused to be daunted by obstacles or impediments. As Rav Refoel Shmulevitz said at the levaya, “He had no limitations because his neshamah had no guf to limit it.”
Last summer, as the rosh yeshiva was on one of his frequent fundraising trips to America, and sat near Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman on the plane. Speaking of the flight, Rav Aharon Leib expressed a similar thought. “We tend to refer to people who work hard as people of mesirus nefesh, but it’s not an accurate term. They don’t give up their nefesh with their toil; they give up their comfort, their guf. Uber der Mirrer rosh yeshiva hut nisht kein guf. He operates on a purely spiritual level. He is the only real baal mesirus nefesh we have!”
Rav Nosson Tzvi carried all the achrayus when anyone else would have easily said that, with ebbing strength and physical frailty, they were not up to the challenge.
An askan who picked him up from the airport in London in the early afternoon for a fundraising trip related that the rosh yeshiva asked what their schedule was. The askan, who wanted to give Rav Nosson Tzvi an opportunity to rest up a bit after his flight, responded that they had an appointment at 5:30 p.m. The rosh yeshiva, with his constant desire to utilize his time productively, replied, “That sounds like a great third appointment,” suggesting that there was time for at least two more appointments that afternoon. Time was so valued by him and he wished to maximize his hours for the benefit of the yeshiva. Despite his condition and having just taken a flight, rather than taking some time for a brief respite, Rav Nosson Tzvi was focused on one thing and one thing only.
Less than two months ago, he was asked to address the chavrei hakollelim around this country on a pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call. There were hundreds of yungeleit on the line from dozens of cities around North America when Rav Nosson Tzvi was connected. He was having a trying day and tried to speak, but it was difficult to comprehend what he was saying. After five minutes, he finally stopped. A yungerman in Eretz Yisroel came on the line to apologize for what he considered a disaster and for wasting everyone’s time.
There was a long pause after which one yungerman spoke for everyone. “The words that weren’t audible gave us more chizuk than any words we’ve ever heard!”
Rav Nosson Tzvi sat at the shivah of a supporter of the yeshiva who had left behind an almanah and young yesomim. He had just flown in from Eretz Yisroel and had come directly from the airport, so he was exhausted. He was having difficulty maintaining his posture. As he began to speak, he lost control, and he was unable to sit straight any longer, yet he continued speaking. His message for the almanah was more important to him than his personal dignity.
Someone described visiting the rosh yeshiva’s home after a long day of farhering bochurim. Rav Nosson Tzvi was drained, lying prone on his sofa, unable to speak. Yet, he received his guest, a klal activist, warmly, and found words of chizuk for him just the same.
We have to march on with his image before us, living for other people, remembering that what makes us and our people great is the subjugation of our selfish impulses in order to benefit others.
We must learn from the rosh yeshiva to ignore our own physical limitations and seek to help spread Torah and Yiddishkeit.
We have to love every Jew. We have to love the Torah, the lomdei Torah, the marbitzei Torah, those who build Torah, and those who transmit Torah to the younger generations. We have to breed within ourselves the ability to rejoice and cry with others with a Yiddishe hartz that really encompasses all Jews.
Like the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Klal Yisroel’s rebbi, taught us to.
Not through words alone, but by the way he lived his holy life. And though he is gone, his example remains seared in our memories, his mussar in our hearts and his Torah in our minds.
May he be a meilitz yosher for his talmidim and for all of Klal Yisroel in this frightful period as we are beset with problems from inside and out; as rockets are trained on Eretz Yisroel, and every day brings with it a new and greater tragedy.