Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Gaping VoidWaiting To Be Filled

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It was a little over ten years ago. The phone rang early on a Friday morning. My wife answered and told me that Rabbi Sherer was on the line and wanted to speak to me. It had to be a prankster, I thought. Everyone knew that Rabbi Sherer had re-turned the night before from Eretz Yisroel and headed straight for the hospital. His dreaded disease had come back and everyone feared for his life. How could it be that he was on the phone, early in the morning, wanting to talk to little me?

I took the phone, and it was him. The words still ring in my ears: “Pinnaleh, this is Moshe Sherer. I came back from Eretz Yisroel last night. I am in the hospital. I don’t know if I will leave here alive. You know how much I love you. I want you to listen to me.”

For forty-five minutes, he directed me what to do in his absence. How to run the paper. How to carry myself. General rules for life and success.

When he hung up, it took me time to gather myself together. Here was the great Rabbi Sherer, telling me that he was dying and giving me a tzava’ah to live my life by. I was so awed and humbled at the same time. His words were engraved in my heart with fire and ice and I seek to follow them until this very day.

I pulled myself together and called my rebbi, Rav Elya Svei shlita, and told him what happened.

“I feel as though he was giving me a tzava’ah,” I told him.

“He was,” responded Rav Elya. “Tell me what he told you.”

I repeated the entire conversation to him.

“You should follow him,” Rav Elya said.

“I thought I knew him. I thought I had a special relationship with him. But I never realized how smart he really is,” I said sheepishly to Rav Elya.

“Now that you found out,” he answered me, “you should be clever enough to remember what he said and to follow his every word.”

I was very young and very raw when I fell under Rabbi Sherer’s influence. I never really understood what he saw in me or why he took such interest in me. I attributed it to my friendship with his son, Rav Shimshon, then known as Shimshie. From the first time Shimshie introduced me to him, he always encouraged me to do great things with my life and reminded me of my yichus. He always had something positive to say and would seek to motivate me, even at a young age, when I was unable to appreciate what he was trying to do.

I remember the first time I met Rabbi Sherer. It was at an Agudah Convention, of course, back in the days when the conventions were held in Atlantic City. Many people would stay in the various small motels which dotted the area and converge on the convention hotel for the tefillos and sessions. Since my grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin zt”l, was there, I was permitted to leave yeshiva for the weekend. I went with Refoel Wolpin, son of Rabbi and Mrs. Nisson Wolpin, and stayed with the Wolpin family and ate the meals with them.

When we were done, we went to the Sheraton Hotel. I was in awe. I was a small boy, from a small town, and had never seen so many frum Jews together. I saw great people whom I had only heard about. My grandfather introduced me to them and asked them to bentch me. One of those was Rabbi Sherer. He gave me his trademark broad smile, which could have made any skinny, scrawny, country kid like myself feel like a million bucks. It was the first of many.

Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l and Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l spoke, as did many other of Klal Yisroel ‘s treasures. There was a hush in the room as each one of these great men rose to speak, and everyone in the cavernous hall swallowed every syllable that was offered.

The weekend built to a crescendo, which was reached when Rabbi Sherer addressed the large gathering on Motzoei Shabbos. There was just something about his presence that caused a young boy who didn’t know much to sit there and take notice. His diction was perfect; his sentences hung together. His message was powerful, as he wrapped up the entire convention and held the audience in the palm of his hands.

From that time on, whenever I met him or thought about him, I saw him as a public speaker, a public figure, on stage, essentially performing via his speeches and using his oratory skills to affect people and effect change. I always saw him as a public person, not as a private individual.

That was until our early morning conversation. It was then that I realized that there was so much more to him than the public persona he had created and which had sprouted around him. He wasn’t just a person who could appeal to the hamon am. He wasn’t just a Jewish statesman who could quiet a hall, mesmerize and audience, and set the agenda for Orthodox Jewry. He was an intellectually gifted, astute, keen, thinking person, with a huge heart.

He was blessed with the ability to mold words into thoughts and emotions, that were able to change the entire Orthodox world and the way we are perceived. His public messages were carefully crafted and, with them, he brought together disparate groups of Holocaust survivors and refugees, transforming them into a vibrant, burgeoning, powerful and effectual group.

At the same time, however, he was able to relate to individuals. He never lost sight of the trees for the forest. He never grew too high to be able to reach the little people. Holocaust survivors who had lost everything, arrived here penniless and embarked on rebuilding their lives one slow painful step at a time were as enamored by him as were Yankees born on these shores.

Because everything he did was l’sheim Shomayim, he never tired and never quit. For a man to be as immensely successful as he was, countless sleepless hours had to be spent away from his family poring over documents seeking solutions others argued didn’t exist. He was a workaholic on behalf of his people, toiling day and night far away from the spotlight.

The same person who walked with presidents strolled with little Pirchei boys, according them the same honor he gave heads of state. When standing in corridors of power, he knew he was there as a shlucha deRachmana. He knew that he was there so that the young Pirchei boys and Bnos girls would be able to grow and flourish in a free country unencumbered by the vagaries of the exile which were part and parcel of the lives of their parents and grandparents.

And since the years of World War II when he began his years of service for Klal Yisroel, generations of children have grown with so much to be thankful for, taking for granted all that was gained through decades of mesirus nefesh of a man who lived for them.

Alas, as I sit here preparing this week’s edition, these thoughts come to me. There’s no doubt that many others will also think about Rabbi Sherer as his tenth yahrtzeit approaches. They will recount his greatness and bemoan the great vacuum glaringly apparent a decade later. Some will offer up public memorials and others will speak about him privately. They will all hope and pray for a man like him to rise from our midst and occupy the space that he did in the hearts and minds of Am Yisroel.

I will join with them and pray that our generation will merit to create the proper environment in which a man like that can function and succeed.

A decade later, I still miss his phone calls and gentle “knips” on the cheek just as much as his statesmanlike pose and timeless prose.

We all pray to be zoche to be greeted by the ultimate leader who will take us from golus and bring us to the geulah sheleimah, bimeheira b’yomeinu.


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