By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The Yerushalmi in Yoma (1:1) derives from this week’s parsha that the passing of tzaddikim atones for the sins of those left behind. “Rav Chiya bar Abba asks, the sons of Aharon died on the first day of Nissan, so why does the Torah mention their passing together with the laws of Yom Kippur? To teach that just as Yom Kippur atones for the sins of the Jewish people, so is the passing of tzaddikim a kapporah for [Klal] Yisroel.”
Last week, with the passing of the great gaon and tzaddik, Rav Simcha Schustal zt”l, we received another kapporah. His loss is just the latest in a chain of losses we have suffered over the past year with the petiros of so many senior, venerated gedolim and manhigim, talmidei chachomim and anshei maaseh.
There is the inclination to say, “It is all over. We are bereft, left without greatness.” There is the urge to think that we cannot replicate that which has been lost. There are those who would say that we are doomed to mediocrity in leadership and in Torah.
Over one of the most famous archways in the Jewish world, located in Meron, the words “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro” are written. They reflect the teachings of the holy Tanna buried there: “Amar Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, chas veshalom shetishtakach Torah miyisroel, shene’emar ‘Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro” (Shabbos 138b).
Rabi Shimon bar Yochai taught that the Torah will never be forgotten by Am Yisroel. This lesson, personified by a Tanna so central to the transmission of Torah, is a large part of his legacy. Rav Nachman of Breslov points out that the sofei teivos, final letters, of the words of the quoted posuk, “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro,“ spell the name Yochai, a hidden reference to the one whose soul was bound with the teaching, Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, who did all in his ability to ensure that the Torah would not be forgotten after the 24,000 talmidim of Rabi Akiva, the mamshichei hamesores, were wiped out.
Besides for being seasonal, the words are replaying in my mind, for they symbolize the mission of those charged with mesiras haTorah.
There are always challenges, hardships and bumps in the road, but there is a Divine havtochah in Devorim – ki lo sishochach – that assures eventual triumph.
Sometimes, the challenges are more apparent and obvious to everyone, and at other times they are beneath the surface and not as perceptible. As difficult as the challenges are, though, we must not abandon hope and permit ourselves to despair, losing our drive for excellence and greatness in Torah.
Meforshim point out that Rabi Shimon’s epic teaching was expressed at a time when the Sanhedrin finally completed its wandering and gathered in Kerem B’Yavneh. The period marked the onset of a long, painful golus. Jews would be pulled this way and that, chased and beaten, oppressed and nearly destroyed. Through it all, the Torah would be oppressed along with them, bound with chains of steel to the Jewish soul, its fortunes following theirs.
The rabbonon were convinced that the journeys and travails the Jews would endure in the exile would cause the Torah to be forgotten. Against this backdrop, Rabi Shimon issued his resounding promise: Chas veshalom! It will never be forgotten!
When the Vilna Gaon passed away, his talmidim were distraught and utterly shattered, wondering how they would be able to continue without the oxygen of their rebbi’s Torah. However, it was Chol Hamoed Sukkos, a time when it is forbidden to mourn, so they valiantly battled their sadness.
When Simchas Torah arrived, they felt unable to rise to their feet and dance the Hakafos without their rebbi. The legend goes that one of the talmidim – some say it was Rav Chaim Volozhiner – suddenly stood up from among the group and began to chant a new song: “Olam Haba iz ah gutte zach,” it began. Our rebbi, the gaon, is in a good place, the talmid intoned, but we who are here, in this world, have a mission to learn Torah. So, continued the talmid, “lernen Torah iz ah besserer zach.” Therefore, he concluded, “We must throw away the pain and mourning and sit and learn, noch un noch, more and more.”
The song worked its magic, and the talmidim were soon dancing together, swept up in the obvious truth of the message. Perhaps the ever-relevance of the theme has made the niggun a treasured part of Simchas Torah celebrations until today.
The talmid wasn’t really singing a new song, though. It was the song that Rabi Shimon taught back in Kerem B’Yavneh.
As long as there are Yidden, there is Torah. Nothing can change that.
Rav Shmuel Berenbaum taught the same lesson. The sefer Kisroh Shel Torah recounts that Rav Shmuel commented that the Mirrer mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, left the United States shortly after his arrival here following the Second World War. He emigrated to Eretz Yisroel, saying that he didn’t think that young men would be able to excel in Torah in this land of gashmiyus.
Rav Shmuel pointed out that, in fact, Torah is flourishing here, and there are thousands of bnei Torah, some of whom have risen to the highest levels of learning. Can it be that Rav Chatzkel, the saintly mashgiach, erred in his estimation of this country?
Rav Shmuel explained that according to teva, Rav Chatzkel was correct and Torah should not have been able to take root in this country, but Torah thrives on these shores miraculously as a result of the posuk’s havtochah of “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro.”
Thus, we are witness to one of the greatest rebirths in our people’s history, a history that has seen pogroms, exiles, and myriad challenges to our gashmiyus and our ruchniyus. Despite it all, we endure, we flourish, and Torah prospers.
The Telzer yeshiva in Cleveland is another manifestation of a fulfillment of that Divine promise, transplanted on these shores by two “oodim mutzolim mei’eish,” giants who miraculously survived the Holocaust. Delivered here divinely before the outset of the war, they saw the Yad Hashem in their salvation and resolved that it was so they could recreate here what was left behind in the Churban of Europe.
Few gave them any chance of success, but Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch and Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz, would not be deterred. Their yeshiva went on to develop into a beacon of light, spreading Torah from the Midwest all across the land and the world.
The yeshiva has had its ups and downs, and with the passing of its senior rosh hayeshiva Rav Chaim Stein, last year, there was reason to give up hope and declare its mission in Cleveland ended.
But the talmidim and hanhalla rallied to fill the void left by his petirah, and this Sunday many hundreds of talmidim and chovevei Torah will converge on Cleveland to commemorate the yeshiva’s rebirth and proclaim “Ki lo sishochach mipi zaro.”
Rav Simcha Schustal was another fulfillment of that promise. Born in this country, he rose to become an embodiment of the greatness of his rebbi, Rav Shlomo Heiman, transmitting the mesorah of Torah to the next generation. Much the same can be said of his shutaf, ybl”c Rav Meyer Hershkowitz, an American boy who learned under the great gaon, Rav Aharon Kotler, and rose to the highest levels of Torah and gedulah.
The Stamford Yeshiva that they jointly led is one of America’s finest, heir to the golden path tracing its way back to Kletzk, Vilna, Volozhin and beyond. It is a place of intense limud hatorah and intense hasmodas hatorah. It is a place of authentic yiras Shomayim and genuine middos tovos.
If successful chinuch depends on role models, it’s hard to imagine better role models than those who guided generations of Stamford talmidim.
The saintly images of its two roshei yeshiva, Rav Simcha and, ybl”c, Rav Meir, were lessons in humility, kedushah and anavah, and, of course, in ameilus batorah.
And now, Rav Simcha is gone.
Certainly, Rav Simcha will be looking down from Above, concerned for the welfare of his beloved yeshiva, but it’s a time when we need to hold tight to Rabi Shimon’s assurance.
The great rosh yeshiva is gone, but his Torah lives on.
Olam Haba iz ah gutte zach, but lernen Torah iz ah besserer zach.
Something else also happened with the petirah of Rav Simcha. The story of the tzaddik and gaon that was Rav Simcha Schustal has now become common knowledge, and we are aware of the treasure we lost.
We read the articles. We saw the massive outpouring of kavod at the levayos in Lakewood, Stamford and Eretz Yisroel.
And now it behooves us to show him honor by supporting his life’s work.
When a great man leaves the world, there is an opportunity to tap in to his gifts, his strengths and his kochos, and develop some greatness within ourselves. We now have an opportunity to ensure the continuance of the yeshiva in which he invested his neshomah, thus maintaining what he started.
His beloved shutaf, Rav Meir, with whom he had a relationship that was an embodiment of aidlekeit and mutual respect, is left alone, carrying the burden of a thriving yeshiva. We are presented with an opportunity to not only support Torah, but also to be mechazeik a talmid chochom muflag and tzaddik while paying tribute to one who has gone on to the next world.
The Stamford Yeshiva will continue to thrive, be’ezras Hashem. It will grow stronger, continuing to stand tall on the American Torah landscape. Now, in its time of challenge, those who love the Torah will rally around it, extending arms and bending backs, ready to work.
In just a few days, I will have the honor and merit of hosting a parlor meeting for the Stamford Yeshiva. Please join me. Come for the precious talmidim and their dedicated rabbeim. Come for the Torah itself, for its song is heard between the walls of that yeshiva during the long days and through the silent nights. Come for the alumni who look back at those years as the best and most uplifting of their lives.
And come for the roshei yeshiva, both of them: Rav Simcha zt”l, with his sweet, holy smile, and Rav Meyer shlit”a, with his sincere, saintly humility.
Stamford was blessed with two great lights, two gedolim, Rav Simcha and Rav Meir.
Rav Meyer, the ohr and light of Torah, is there being mei’ir, shining brightly and illuminating the way.
Now, however, the simcha is gone. Things are less joyous. Let us help perpetuate the mesorah of the departed rosh yeshiva.
Let’s join together and do our part in realizing the timeless prophecy of Rabi Shimon. Torah will never be forgotten. It will grow and flourish here until the coming of Moshiach, may it be bekarov.