By Dayan Moshe Swift
The Ponevezer Rav was known to the Torah world as a Master Builder. This appreciation, from a hesped delivered in London by Dayan Moshe Swift, reveals that aspect of the Rav which was best known only by those who were close to him.
I speak not as a member of the Rabbinate of this country or as a member of the Bais Din. I speak as a talmid of the Ponevez Yeshiva when it was still in Ponevez, Lithuania. My relationship with the Ponevezer Rav goes back 43 years, when he first visited England in 1926, and he urged me and persuaded my parents to send me to Lithuania. I was, I believe, the first English born student to leave these shores to become a yeshiva bachur in Ponevez. For a short while I stayed in his home. I saw his wonderful family life, it was majesty; I saw him among his students, it was royalty; I saw him among his ba’alei batim, it was loyalty; and I saw him among his colleagues, it was dignity. I saw him in many parts of the world. He was a man without a name, he was known only as the Ponevezer Rav.
He was like an angel, someone with a mission. He was adored and idolized. I saw people run after him in the streets to kiss his hand. He was an unusual man, a rare type. I had a feeling when I was in his presence that there was something angelic about him. He had indomitable energy, for over twenty years he lived with only one kidney and was under a strict diet. He hardly enjoyed a full meal, he hardly slept four consecutive hours. His mind was alert, his love for people, Ahavas YisraeI, was indescribable. He had an insatiable appetite for Torah and his love for Eretz Yisrael was like the prophets in Temple times. Like Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel who kissed the floor of the Temple, every grain of sand was holy to him. He was the real “Zionist.” He lived for it and he died for it. To him, the link with Israel was not the language, it was the Jew himself.
To see him was to see a living embodiment of G-d, Israel and Torah combined in one … The Rabbis say that Moshe Rabbeinu was promised that he would never be forgotten, because down the ages the prophet’s voice could be heard, “Remember the Torah of Moshe my servant.” Yet when Moshe died it was only a section of the people who wept for his passing. “The Children of Israel wept for Moshe.” The Ponevezer Rav was compared to Aharon the Kohen Gadol. He wore not only the crown of Torah, he also wore the crown of Kehunah. When Aharon died the Torah says, “The whole House of Israel wept.”
Until I met him I never understood what the wisest of all men meant in his Song of Songs when he broke out in ecstasy and spoke of the cholas ahava, the sickness of love. He was literally sick all his life with the love of his fellow Jew.
In one of my heated arguments with him in the United States when, as was his loving nature to embrace every Jew, I said to him, “You come and go, but we have to struggle here and disentangle ourselves from the entanglements in which these men involve us.” He looked at me with his angelic eyes and said, “A Yiddishe Neshamah. These people are sick.” I retorted and I said, “You love too much. You love like Yitzchok Avinu whose eyes were so dim that he could see not wrong, not even in Eisav.”
He was the greatest Oheiv that I have ever known. The Rabbis say that when Isaac was bound to the altar the angels cried and the tears dropped from their cheeks directly into Isaac’s eyes from so far away. The Ponevezer Rav felt the pain of another Jew from miles away. He was indeed a patriarch.
I can think of no rabbinic figure since the Chofetz Chaim – whose pupil he was and who inspired him in his life’s work – whose name was so worldwide and who was so internationally known as the Ponevezer Rav. They used to say during the war that Winston Churchill was worth ten divisions in the army. A thousand men…could not achieve what one Ponevezer Rav was able to do: the Torah he built, the orphans he comforted, the widows he helped, the mouths he fed – the students he taught, tens of thousands, may well be countless all over the Jewish world, [and] he exercised a benign influence.
When the Rabbis portray the death of Moshe Rabbeinu, they speak of the Almighty eulogizing his passing with the words Mi Yakum Li Im Miraim, “Who will rise up for Me against these evildoers?” There are two ways of translating these words. The world needs two types of rabbis: One, who will rise up against evildoers, tell them of their wrongs, condemn them when necessary, reproach them. There is another way, too, to be an advocate for them: to say, forgive them for they are ignorant. The Ponevezer Rav was of the second type. The angels cried and they said, HaChochmah Mei’ayin Timtza. I translate that as meaning that wisdom may come mei’ayin, from nowhere, if yeshivos are built and Torah is studied and every effort is exerted and every muscle is strained . . . This was the Ponevezer Rav.
The heavens wept, and said, Avad Chasid, a pious man is gone. The stars and the planets, and the sun and the moon wept, and said, Lo Kam K’Moshe, no one has arisen like Moshe. This to me is the personification of the Ponevezer Rav. Everybody seems to cry at his passing. In our generation there was none like him. He fed two thousand mouths a day. He was in the process of building seventeen yeshivos.
V’Yamot Yoseif V’Kol Echav V’Kol HaDor, And Yoseif died, and all his brothers, and all that generation – with the death of this great Yoseif there moves out into history an entire epoch of that generation and of his brethren. He was the last of all the Lithuanian Rabbis. Of seven hundred rabbanim, he was the only one who was saved for us from the annihilation of Lithuania. The Rabbis say that when Moshe died, not only did the people weep, not only did Yehoshua weep, the Almighty wept too. A great light has been extinguished.
On Rosh Hashanah we quote in the Zichronos the reference to the Shofar which was sounded at Sinai. V’Kol HaShofar Holeich V’Chazak, The sound of the shofar waxed stronger and stronger. Our Rabbis say, Shofar M’Heichan Ba, what produces a voice that never weakens while all other voices become weaker and weaker? All the world’s philosophies and ideologies and civilizations face bankruptcy.
The indecency, the immorality, the violence – how does the world look today? They face bankruptcy while the voice of the shofar Holeich V’Chazak … where does that sound come from? – Shofar Shel Ayil, the ram that was offered up by Abraham in place of his son. And again they wonder, but surely that ram was an olah, completely consumed by fire! But they reply, Gaval HaKadosh Baruch Hu Aphro W’Hechziro B’Mah SheHayah, The Holy One collected the ashes, moulded them, shaped them, and transferred them to their original state. The voice of Jewish sacrifice that began with the Akeidah is a sound that can never be silenced. While every other voice is crushed and every holocaust is silenced and even forgotten, the voice of Jewish sacrifice rises above it all.
The Ponevezer Rav saw the olah, Lithuanian Jewry, completely annihilated; among them over seven hundred gedolei Torah, scholars and students. Great yeshivos like Slobodka and Ponevez fell; great Jewish communities like Shavl and others, the cream of world Jewry, were completely wiped out. He was the only surviving Rav. He was the shofar, saved from the ashes, moulded and shaped from all these Rabbanim, from the whole of Lithuanian Jewry, saved from the Akeidah, calling to the Jewish world.
He told me again and again, he felt that this was his purpose in life. He felt that he bore upon his shoulders the burden of seven hundred Rabbanim. It means that we Jewish people today bear upon our shoulders the burden of six million Jews. So in paying our humble tribute to this great master and teacher, this angel among men, this giant among humans, it is a challenge to us to maintain and to double our efforts in maintaining the institutions that he built and was in the process of building, and never to forget our own responsibilities to [all] Torah institutions.
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.