By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
As night settled and Yidden across America ushered in the seventeenth day of Sefiras Ha’omer, the dark news was passed around in hushed tones.
Rav Simcha is gone.
Klal Yisroel intoned the tefillos, focusing on the special Sefirah of the day, the unique spiritual energy – tiferes shebetiferes – and the pain was acute.
We lost the splendor against which splendor is measured, the tiferes shebetiferes of the American Torah world.
Through this bleak year, as gedolim passed on and tzaddikim were taken, we had a spark of confidence in our souls, for here, in America, we still had our secret. Surely, Reb Simcha would lead us to greet Moshiach. Surely, the aish tomid that burned in the privacy and seclusion of Stamford, far from the public eye, would burn brightly for a long time.
His name was Simcha and he exuded such a pristine, holy joy, unadulterated simchas haTorah, the simcha of true humility, of tzidkus and ahavas Yisroel.
So glorious, the tiferes of tiferes bonim avosam, father to a family that has risen to prominence in the olam haTorah, marbitzei Torah and mussar par excellence camped proudly around its crown, Reb Simcha.
Now, the mourning has hit home. It has gotten personal.
Rav Simcha has been taken from us.
We’ve lost our simcha and our tiferes.
Rav Simcha Schustal was without a doubt one of the purest, holiest people we had. He was a Yid who spent his life doing what Hashem wants us to do. He was so pure. As I sit here trying to type out the words depicting him and the great loss we have suffered, pure and holy are all I can think of.
He sat and learned and served Hashem. He loved everyone, and everyone who knew him loved him. He did mitzvos the way mitzvos are meant to be done. His davening was legendary. His shiurim were masterpieces of hureving to understand the sugya according to the derech of his rebbi muvhak, Rav Shlomo Heiman. With unfailing humility, he personified greatness. He was kulo Torah. Simple goodness, kindness and gentleness.
All who ever came in contact with him were cognizant of his greatness. He was one of the last of the truly great ones.
Rav Elazar Shach zt”l once remarked that he didn’t understand how there could be Lamed Vov secret tzaddikim in our generation. There is so much to do in our world, so many issues that need our urgent attention. How can a person stay hidden as a Lamed Vov tzaddik? A tzaddik does not have the luxury of being able to hide in his own daled amos. He has to make himself available to the masses of people who seek Torah wisdom and guidance.
Rav Simcha provided the answer to Rav Shach’s question. The secret tzaddikim of our generation upon whom the entire world exists do not hide themselves from the public. They are out there in plain view, learning, teaching, davening and doing all they do with so much tzidkus.
They are tzaddikim nistorim not because they hide themselves from us, but rather because we hide ourselves from them. We didn’t take the trip to Stamford to see him. We rarely invited him to speak at our functions. He never sought fame and was zocheh to be able to sit and learn without being bothered. He was able to spend his life toiling valiantly in the vineyard of Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
He was a world-class talmid chochom and tzaddik, American-born and bred, who developed into one upon whose Torah the world stood.
He showed what a person could develop into if he applied himself to learning. From the age of fourteen, when he entered the shiur of Rav Shlomo Heiman, he set his brilliant mind to learning the Torah of his rebbi. He was destined for greatness.
Never seeking anything but the truth, with amkus and a tremendous koach hachiddush, he developed into one of the greatest talmidei chachomim America has given birth to.
His depth in learning was matched by the depth of his pure simplicity and his devotion to his talmidim.
He showed us how Torah and tzidkus can lift man to the loftiest heights. His entire life was Torah, and with that came sweetness, majesty of greatness, and romemus. His davening was a lesson in itself. Every day was like Rosh Hashanah, and on Rosh Hashanah itself he would daven for the amud, leading his talmidim along in his personal tefillah, which was like him: beauty in simplicity, majesty in devotion, a shirah to Hashem ke’eved lifnei rabo.
One who watched Rav Simcha learn Torah wanted to learn, and one who heard him daven became closer to Hashem just by that experience alone.
When Chazal say that one’s rebbi should be like a malach, they were referring to Rav Simcha, for indeed he was an angel in the guise of a man.
He never showed off or demanded anything from anyone. When his family brought him the galleys of his sefer Chemed Simcha to inspect, the first thing he did was get up from the table and go to his bookshelf to pull out the sefer Chiddushei Reb Shlomo. When they asked him what he was doing, he told them that the pages seemed quite large to him, and he wanted to make sure that they weren’t larger than those of the sefer containing the chiddushim of his rebbi, Rav Shlomo Heiman. “Mein sefer ken nit zein gresser foon der sefer foon der rebbe,” he said. That was the depth of his humility and his devotion to his rebbi.
My earliest memories are walking up the steps to his humble Monsey bungalow on Maple Avenue every Sabbos with my father and siblings. We felt as if we were entering the home of malochim. We would sit on the hi-riser in the dining room, which doubled as a couch, and watched as my father spoke to Rav Simcha. The topics were beyond the level of us children, but we so looked forward to that weekly sojourn into the company of holiness. His smile and warm words were as anticipated as his rebbetzin’s cake and drinks. His image left a lasting impression on us. His face bespoke aristocracy and magnificence. His splendor and radiance developed from spending his entire life engrossed in Torah and avodah.
He always greeted everyone warmly and with a kiss. He was so happy to see you. It was real. And so it was for every talmid and everyone he knew. Real warmth. Real ehrlichkeit. He attended every simcha that anyone in our family made and added so much to it.
He was as ehrlich as could be, a nefesh noki vetzaddik. Rav Shlomo Heiman said about him when he entered his shiur at age fourteen that he had a “fartigeh kup.”
Rav Shlomo also said about him that “Ehr hut zich gemacht ois illui.“ Though it could have come easy to him, he worked hard hureving in learning. When he said a sevorah, he thought it through painstakingly from every angle to make sure that it was glatt, pure and correct. He would sit for hours thinking through a sevorah.
One day he announced that he wasn’t going to be saying the shiur klali. The talmidim asked him why and he said he wasn’t sure if what he was going to say was emes, the pure truth. They asked him what it was; to them it sounded good. They asked him what was shver, what was bothering him about the chiddush he wanted to say. He told them. A battle ensued. The tamidim were defending the chiddush, begging the rebbi to say the shiur. But Rav Simcha wouldn’t budge, I don’t feel it’s emes, and I can’t say it. So that day there was no shiur on the sugya, but there was a shiur on how to say a shiur on any sugya, and how to learn.
A person’s life is comprised of many experiences that become linked together, forming a long chain. That was Rav Simcha.
For most of life, most experiences are small. A person is shaped by many small actions that he performs. Not every day is it possible to engage in historic activities and not every person is granted the opportunity and wherewithal to do things that impact a tremendous number of people. However, all people are granted the ability to attain greatness by doing many small things correctly. Rav Simcha was American-born just like us, and he showed us the way.
Our avodah during the Sefirah period is to pay attention to the small things, climbing towards kabbolas haTorah, one Sefirah step at a time. Pesach is a major Yom Tov, commemorating Yetzias Mitzrayim. Shavuos is also one of the shalosh regolim, commemorating the day we received the Torah. Between them are these days of Sefirah. They don’t have the holiness of regolim, but they are here for us to work on ourselves and our middos so that the lessons of the regolim can be learned and the levels attained can be maintained.
Gadlus, greatness, is achieved not only by being great on the great days of the calendar, but also by being good and seeking improvement on the less prominent days.
Rav Simcha had a special love for my revered zaide, Rav Leizer Levin zt”l, who was the beloved av bais din of Detroit and a close talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. Rav Levin once described his rebbi classically to me. He said that if you looked at the Chofetz Chaim and didn’t know who he was and that he was a giant, you didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but if you knew that he was a great man, then, when you studied his actions, you saw that everything he did reflected gadlus.
There was nothing grandiose or spectacular about the way the Chofetz Chaim acted. Rather, his life was one of simple and perfect harmony, with nothing standing out.
The adam hasholeim lives a life with a consistent regimen of ratzon Hashem which guides each moment of each day. Rav Simcha was such a Yid. The ratzon Hashem was his guide, day after day, and, as such, he grew to become that adam hasholeim.
Rav Shmuel Auerbach recounted that the chinuch of his father, Rav Shlomo Zalman, was not for achieving gadlus, but to always be considerate of others. Someone who is inconsiderate not only lacks in middos, but lacks in his very essence. Thus, his entire life, Rav Shlomo Zalman worked on improving his middos, always caring about other people’s needs and concerns. Middos tovos are not just fine attributes for which a person should strive. As the sefer Orchos Tzaddikim states, “If you don’t have good middos, then you don’t have Torah or mitzvos either, for the entire Torah is dependent upon a person improving his middos.”
Rav Simcha was unfailingly considerate of everyone’s feelings. Each despondent person meeting him was uplifted by his smile and kind words. He had the ability to make you feel important to him, because you were. Everyone was. He would do anything and go anywhere for a talmid.
A bochur who learnt b’chavrusah with Rav Simcha when he was already aged said, that when he sat down to learn, “He was like on fire. I never saw anything like that in my life; he was jumping up and down in learning, azah rischa d’oiraisah.”
One time Rav Simcha called his chavrusah into the office and with his simple anavah, he turned to the young bochur and asked him, “Are you tzufriuden with the chavrusahshaft?” When the bochur responded, “Of course, rebbi,” Rav Simcha said to him, “You are a mistapeik b’muot.” It wasn’t fake, it was real. The great gaon in Torah, was a great gaon in middos, especially in the middah of anovah and he wanted to make sure that his chavrusah was truly satisfied with the learning arrangement.
One time, the bochur developed phlebitis and had to go home. Rav Simcha called him every day while he was out to check on his development. When the bochur returned to yeshiva he had to keep his foot up. He was concerned that sitting with his foot in an elevated position while learning with the rosh yeshiva would be a lack of respect and asked that they learn after he was healed. Rav Simcha would have none of it. And that was how they learned in the beis medrash; chavrusos like all other.
The gadlus of Rav Simcha: Torah, gedulah, anavah, leading to a simchas haTorah like none other.
Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz wrote in his tzava’ah that no lofty titles should be used to describe him, as he wasn’t sure that he was deserving of them. He explains: “Even if a person does a great deed, perhaps displaying selflessness or humility, that doesn’t make him a selfless or humble person. It may be that he acted that way because at that moment his yeitzer tov was stronger than his yeitzer hara, but the act does not define him. Doing exceptional mitzvos or displaying exceptional middos doesn’t automatically mean that a person is exceptional. That can only be determined through consistent, repeated deveikus in a middah or path.
“So while people may hear a story about something I did, even if the story is true, that doesn’t mean that I am worthy of a lofty title.”
Rav Michel Yehudah teaches us that acquiring proper middos is a long, slow, steady process, and only when they become a person’s essence can one be defined as a baal middos. Rav Michel Yehudah was a talmid of Rav Shlomo Heiman, as Rav Simcha Schustal was. And just as Rav Shlomo was the quintessential, consummate talmid chochom and baal middos, so were his beloved talmidim, Rav Michel Yehudah and Rav Simcha.
Perhaps this is one of the many reasons that the learning of Pirkei Avos is a prerequisite to kabbolas haTorah. We spend time during the long Shabbos afternoons of the weeks of Sefiras Ha’omer focusing on developing our middos and working to become worthy recipients of the ultimate gift of Hashem’s Torah.
Rav Ovadiah M’Bartenura explains the common phrase found throughout Pirkei Avos of “hu hayah omeir,” which refers to quoted statements that Tannaim “used to say.” The Bartenura says that it doesn’t merely mean that a Tanna quoted this teaching or lesson occasionally. It means that he constantly repeated it, lived with it, and embodied it.
As Rav Michel Yehudah pointed out, unless there was consistency, it wasn’t “his” saying. Becoming a baal middos means working on incorporating these lofty behaviors into one’s life in a consistent way.
Chazal teach in Maseches Shekolim, “Ein osin nefashos letzaddikim, divreihem hein zichronan.” We don’t erect monuments for tzaddikim, for by quoting their words we have an enduring remembrance for them.
Why, one may ask, is this only true for tzaddikim? Why not for the common folk as well? By repeating a good vort or idea heard from an ordinary Jew, he is also remembered, is he not?
The answer is that the fact that someone says a good vort doesn’t mean that he will be remembered, for he may have been a mere instrument to make that idea heard. Only a tzaddik, who is one with the ideas he espouses and who lives by his own maxims, is remembered through his teachings.
Rav Simcha was that tzaddik.
Hu hayah omeir.
And it can be achieved even by people like us. As one of the very first American-born gedolim, Rav Simcha showed that anyone, anywhere, can make that climb, excel, and reach the pinnacle of greatness.
Perhaps the prime theme of the upcoming Yom Tov of Shavuos is that Torah “lo bashomayim hi,” the high levels demanded by the Torah are accessible to, and attainable by, every one of us.
This past Shabbos, I was discussing with someone a biography on the life of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. The most amazing part of the book is that so many of the anecdotes relating to Rav Shlomo Zalman describe actions that we can perform in our own lives. His mentchlichkeit and middos, the way he treated people, and his unfailing consideration of others are attributes that we can emulate, imitate and make part of ourselves. They are not “bashomayim,” attainable only by malochim and gedolim. The greatness of someone even as distinguished as he was, is achievable and within reach of simple people like us.
The same is true when reading biographies of other gedolim. As we read on, we find ourselves nodding along, realizing that there is so much we can learn from them and adopt in own daily lives. Many of their behaviors and practices aren’t out of reach. If we are sensitive to them and prepared to work on ourselves, we can also attain greatness.
And so it is when we think of someone as great as Rav Simcha. He proved that gadlus is attainable to those who forsake all else and dedicate themselves to Hashem and His Torah.
During this period leading up to kabbolas haTorah, we learn Pirkei Avos. Written by the spiritual fathers of our people, these Mishnayos contain the most vital lessons. It is essentially a guide containing the tools for life. It has the keys to success that most people are sorely in need of.
When you read the hu hayah omeirs of the various Tannaim, their teachings jump off the page right into your heart, as you know that you are reading the quintessential truth. For generations, Jews have studied it all through the spring and summer months. They knew that it contains the answers to the most frequently asked questions, as well as the keys to personal happiness.
Through these Mishnayos, the greatest fathers and teachers of Am Yisroel teach us how to be productive and content, and how to live life with a smile on our faces and a sense of serenity in our hearts. In the Shas in every Jewish home, printed right alongside those Mishnayos is the peirush of the Rambam, bringing the words of the Mishnah home in a way that is so real and immediate that you are forgiven for thinking that his explanations were written today. Rabbeinu Yonah’s explanations are also printed on the page with the hu hayah omeirs. His insights are also remarkably contemporary.
There are hundreds of other commentaries on these Mishnayos, each with a new angle, adding flavor and subtlety to the endless stream of wisdom of how to achieve greatness, how to live life to its fullest potential, and how to deal with other people and ourselves.
Our task is to inculcate the hu hayah omeirs to the point that they become second nature and our very own essence.
Gedolei Yisroel work so hard, for so long, that their sterling middos have become part of them, as natural as breathing. Middos are them. Middos tovos define them.
Torah, gedulah and middos tovos defined Rav Simcha.
On the last Simchas Torah of his life, he was in Lakewood. He was at the hakafos with his talmidim and everyone was dancing and very lebedik. All of a sudden Rav Simcha raised his hand and beckoned them to stop dancing, as he wanted to say something. Everyone, led by Rav Meir Hershkowitz, quickly approached Reb Simcha and bent their ears to hear his soft words.
He said to them that Torah has chochmah, but besides for the chochmas hatorah, the segulas hatorah is daas usevunah. For the posuk states, “mipiv daas usevunah.” When we make the brochah every morning and recite the words, “asher bochar bonu,” He chose us to give us the Torah; although the Torah was offered to other nations, they were not offered the daas usevunah.
We thank Hashem for being bocheir bonu to provide us with the koach hatorah of mipiv daas usevunah which has in it the ability to change a person and raise him maalah maalah.
Rav Simcha concluded that the koach hatorah to be meshaneh ha’odom, is only effective if the Torah is learned with yiras shomayim and with yegiah and ameilus. He concluded, “That is what we are celebrating today on Simchas Torah, the abundance of simchah is for that Torah.”
That was Rav Simcha; that was his essence, his yiras shomayim, yegiah, his ameilus, and that was how he was able to spend his life on a steady incline of greatness, of gadlus, and of simchah.
Asher bochar bonu, we make a brochah that Hashem chose us to give us the Torah so that we can produce giants such as Rav Simcha who pave the way for us. We had the brochah of Rav Simcha among us for so many years, epitomizing the greatness we aim for.
As the world around us spins out of control, with public and private individuals sinking to levels unprecedented in recent memory for their depravity and selfishness, we work on climbing higher and higher. It is almost as if there is a crossroad in front of us. We can follow the majority down a path that ultimately leads to sadness, depression, constant wanting and loneliness, with ruin as its final destination, or we can follow Rav Simcha and take the path that Chazal lay out for us in Pirkei Avos, the path of the few, the chosen, the strong, the proud and the joyous.
The path of Sefiras Ha’omer which we currently traverse, is a daily hike that peaks at Har Sinai. We reach our destination by remembering that gadlus is not necessarily reached by attaining levels that are not accessible to regular, normal people. It is achieved by doing all the small things in life properly and attentively. Torah lo bashomayim hi. It is not a manual for malochim, but for man, and every man can excel by following it.
The Tanna Rabi Akiva plays a great role in our observance of Sefirah. Chazal relate that at the age of forty he adopted a life of Torah after studying the effect of dripping water on a stone. He saw that despite the strength of the stone, the constant drip-drip of small drops of water were eventually able to penetrate the stone. He took that lesson to heart and realized that even at his age and station in life, by studying small amounts of Torah, his brain and soul could be affected and he could develop into the supreme talmid chochom that he became, enriching Klal Yisroel for all time.
We arrive at the destination by working on ourselves bit by bit, Sefirah by Sefirah, day by day, and by learning Pirkei Avos, a perek a week, and following its guidelines and lessons.
I had known Reb Simcha my entire life. My father had learned by him at Bais Medrash Elyon. He traveled with his rebbetzin to Detroit for my parents’ wedding. In those days, such trips weren’t as easy as they are today. You didn’t just get onto an airplane and arrive in Detroit an hour and a half later. It was a journey. But what wouldn’t Reb Simcha do for a talmid? He and his wife both made the trip. It took them a few days to get there and a few days to return, and they stayed in Detroit to fully partake in the simcha for a few days.
Rav Simcha would often remind me of the droshah that my grandfather delivered at my bris. As young children growing up in the Monsey of old, Bais Medrash Elyon was almost our second home. We would daven there, play there and learn there. And Rav Simcha was almost always there in the bais medrash learning. We would see him talking in learning or sitting by himself in deep concentration. When he wasn’t in the bais medrash, he was walking by himself, lost to the world, deep in thought, working through the sugya, or engaged in animated discussion with another of the giants of the hallowed yeshiva.
Indelible impressions, never to be forgotten. An example to always try to emulate.
Later, I learned for a year at Yeshiva Bais Binyomin in Stamford and, once again, I merited to bask in his glow and benefit from his Torah, shiurim and shmuessen, and just by being in his presence. The yeshiva in Stamford sought to recreate the glory days of Bais Medrash Elyon, and through the leadership and examples of Rav Simcha, Rav Moshe Schapiro shlit“a, and Rav Dovid Hersh Mayer zt”l, it probably came close.
Through the ensuing years, we remained very close. He called a few weeks ago to thank me for agreeing to host a parlor meeting for his yeshiva. Though he was obviously weak, he spoke, as always, with warmth and love, expressing effusive brachos.
The last time that Rav Simcha came to our home, he was old and bent over. I went out to the car to welcome him. He was surprised. “You didn’t have to come out,” he said simply. He was my rebbi in so many ways. How could he not have known how much he meant to me? How could he not have understood why I would go out to greet him?
But that was him. He was genuine. He really meant it. He never asked anything of anyone and never wanted to be matriach anyone. Why were you matriach for me? he was saying.
He walked slowly. He came inside and sat down. His voice was strong. His warmth was the same as it had been for decades. His face glowed. He drank a cup of tea and made a brochah that touched my neshomah.
When he softly said “shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro,“ I felt his emunah in ma’aseh bereishis come through. The emunah with which he lived his whole life. With which he hureved. With which he davened. With which he was dovuk in the Borei.
I sensed that my whole house was gebentched because he made a brochah inside it. I felt as if in his zechus the world existed. I prayed that he would be strong enough to lead us to greet Moshiach.
We spoke a little and then it was time for him to go. I walked him to the door and opened it, sort of expecting there to be a crowd of people to see him, to come and catch a glimpse of him, to see true greatness, to set their eyes on a malach b’demus adam. But alas, we were alone.
And now we are truly alone, for Rav Simcha has left us.
He has gone to the better world. To the world where his rabbeim, Rav Shlomo and Rav Shraga Feivel, are. To the world where Rav Akiva Eiger, the Rashba, and Rashi and the Baalei Tosafos are. To the world where the Tannaim and Amoraim, whose divreihem hu hayah omeir, are.
They most definitely welcomed him into their chaburah and are now all together hureving with that same pashtus, teefkeit and ehrlichkeit that he displayed his entire life.
And they are preparing the world for the coming of Moshiach.
Tehei nishmaso tzerurah betzror hachayim.