Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l

By Rabbi Pinchus Lipschutz

The most joyous occurrence in our world is a wedding. People whose children have gotten married know that following the emotional highs and joy experienced at the wedding, there is an entirely different delight as they watch the new couple go about life together when sheva brachos is over.

After the music, noise and laughter have faded, the supreme nachas takes over as they watch the couple adopt the blessings, happiness, hope and optimism that have been expressed over the prior week and transform them into their new lives together. The excitement of potential is replaced by the exhilaration of realization. They descend from flying in the clouds to living in the real world. 

In last week’s parsha, Yisro, we experienced the drama, thunder and roar of Kabbolas HaTorah, as Hashem’s nation was presented with a gift that would change them and their identities for all time. Hashem and Klal Yisroel entered into an eternal bond.

This week, in Parshas Mishpotim, the glory and splendor of Har Sinai is distilled into concepts as perfect and precise as creation.

The magnitude, scope and depth of Torah are filtered down to reflect the realities of this world.

How can it be? How can a celestial Torah be constricted to human limitations?

Had you ever spoken to or just observed Rav Yisroel Belsky zt”l, you would have the answer.

In an age when talmidei chachomim and gedolei Torah are regularly vilified, Rav Belsky was an example of a person with expansive understanding of the entire Torah, with no personal agenda or bias, who could not be bought or cowed into a position. Blessed with a brilliant mind and sterling character, he ignored other opportunities and chose to spend his life in the beis medrash, where his brilliant mind and hasmodah gained him comprehensive yedios and havonah.

Though he was smarter than most others, his greatness wasn’t arrived at through superficial study. Rather, he immersed himself in Torah and spent every free minute horeving in learning. Hashem blessed him with a superior mind, but that is not enough. There are many smart people whose intelligence is squandered on trivialities and never develops, eventually withering due to passivity. He worked hard to utilize his gift to grow and advance in Torah study and dissemination.

He accomplished much and was involved in many different organizations and causes, but Torah was his calling.

From his youth, he was seen as a prodigy destined for greatness. Despite that, he always remained a simple, humble person, with time for everyone who sought him out. The same giant who could rule on the most intricate issues would spend much time explaining sugyos to talmidim, elucidating complicated concepts for young people seeking to grow and excel in Torah.  

He was so kind and sweet, and nothing was beneath him. No person or situation was irrelevant. No matter what it was, he was prepared to discuss it and explain it to anyone. The man who knew all of Torah and could point out every star, figure out complicated mathematical calculations, play every musical instrument, write and appreciate piyutim, would also daven for the amud and lain.

It was said that the only things he didn’t know was how to braid challah and repair cars. Everything else was revealed to him and understood by him to the degree that he could patiently explain anything to anyone. His mind was always engaged. He never stopped thinking until his final sickness.

He didn’t just learn halachah. He didn’t only pasken shailos. He knew and understood the issues better than most. He understood the practical implications of every halachah. When he would learn something, he would immediately figure out how to adapt and apply what he had learned, along with the limitless flow of information in his mind.

Once, although he was ill, he arrived at a scheduled halachah shiur. Apologizing, he explained that his illness left him too drained to prepare a shiur for that day. He told the talmidim that he regretted that he could not say the shiur, but he didn’t want to leave them without imparting Torah knowledge. Instead of saying shiur, he asked if they minded asking him questions on sugyos that troubled them.

What could they ask? Anything. Any shaylah or halachah or p’shat in Shas or the daled chelkei Shulchan Aruch. In his weakened state, he sat there, answering questions from across the landscape of Jewish law. He addressed so many issues that day. Though his body was weakened, nobody could detect any weakness in his knowledge and ability to incisively analyze all types of situations through the prism of Torah.

It wasn’t the shiur they were expecting. It was a lesson in gadlus ha’odam. They got to see how high a man can reach if he lives a Torah life.

My son once attended a shiur delivered by a leading contemporary posek, who discussed whether turning on a fluorescent light on Shabbos is a melochah d’Oraysah or derabbonon. The posek concluded that it was a sofeik.

My son told Rav Belsky about the shiur and the conclusion. The rosh yeshiva smiled and shrugged. “You should know that there are things that are sefeikos, situations where you cannot achieve clarity, but this isn’t one of them.

“When there is a machlokes haposkim and there is no accepted way to rule, that constitutes a sofeik, because the matter is really in doubt. But if one can take apart the light bulb and study it and see how it works, then the halachah is not in doubt and it is not a sofeik.”

With total humility, Rav Belsky nonchalantly said that he had done that, and proceeded to explain to the young man how a bulb works and at what conclusion he arrived after studying fluorescent electricity.

When he looked at a chicken, he saw Hashem’s creature. He saw dapim of Gemara, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. He saw halachah and Shas in full display. And when he would teach Shulchan Aruch, it was with the fascination of a genius who had thoroughly examined every aspect of the chicken. His knowledge was overwhelming. He seemingly knew everything there was to know and so easily conveyed it.

When he looked at a potato chip, he didn’t see a snack. He saw hilchos brachos, and bishul Yisroel, and everything else involved in producing the crunchy delight.

There is Elokus everywhere, and everything can be understood from the Torah.

Rav Belsky knew that every component of the briah is an expression of Hashem’s will and that there are halachos that govern every particle of the world. Thus, halachah tells us which brochah to recite on thunder, which to say when blossoms sprout, how to be mekadeish the levonah and the chamah, and how to approach so many aspects of the world, because everything in creation is, in reality, a sugya cloaked with holiness by the ratzon Hashem. The Torah we received on Har Sinai is the oxygen of the universe. To understand Torah is to understand the world as well.

Someone who studies all of Torah comprehends that stars, flowers, apples, fields and oceans are all part of a bais medrash.

Rav Belsky studied the stars and heard them sing about Hashem’s magnificence. He couldn’t help but share his knowledge with all who fell under his wing. During the summers, he would sit across the grassy expanse of lawn at Camp Agudah surrounded by wide-eyed campers, teaching all types of lessons about the constellations. It was an eye-opening experience for the campers. Here was a man they knew as a rov, the camp’s posek and spiritual guide, yet he was also the source of so much knowledge and wisdom about Hashem’s creation. Early on, they learned that it was all one.

Mah eilu miSinai, af eilu miSinai.

One night, during a star-gazing walk, Rav Belsky noticed a cluster of stars forming a pattern in the sky that he had never previously witnessed. The next morning, he called NASA to report what he had seen and ask them if they could explain it. Scientists there told him that they had also noticed the formation and were as perplexed as he.

The Camp Agudah administration noticed - how could they not? - that he rarely got to eat his meals without numerous interruptions. They arranged for him to take his meals in a private dining room. He rejected the offer, explaining that he wanted to eat together with the campers. He understood that his presence in the dining room would encourage young people to approach and ask their questions. They asked the usual “What brochah do you make on corn flakes?” questions, as well as, “How many pretzels do I have to eat for a shiur?” and, “Should I wash on pizza?” By seeing him sitting there in such an approachable fashion, they were empowered to ask questions that had been lying dormant and find answers for things that bothered them.

Rav Belsky, like the most accomplished rabbeim, understood that the avodah Moshe Rabbeinu faced following Ma’amad Har Sinai was “Vayeired Moshe el ha’am - Moshe descended to the people.” The master of halachah sat among the people hungry for counsel in all matters of Torah, allaying their concerns and providing guidance and direction.

Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU described at the levayah how Rav Belsky would calculate shiurim for bittul without use of pen, paper or calculator. He would figure out the area and circumference of a large barrel in a moment and issue his ruling.

He would also just as quickly size up the nuances of a person.

Rabbi Duvie Frischman recalled entering Rav Belsky’s office in Camp Agudah. As he approached the room, he noticed a young bochur running out and Rav Belsky was sitting at his desk with tears in his eyes. He asked why the rov was so pained. Rav Belsky told him that the bochur had a severe stutter. The camp’s rov had overheard him speaking and approached him, saying, “I can help you. Come to my office.”

Rav Belsky explained that if the boy would come to his office every day, he could cure him from the speech handicap. Camp being camp, as much as the boy wanted to speak properly, he couldn’t pull himself away from the activities to sit in the rov’s office. He found his way there two or three times and that was it. The boy had come to the office to say goodbye, and Rav Belsky was overcome with grief when he heard the boy speak and realized he had failed in rectifying his stutter.

The next summer, the boy returned to camp and Rabbi Frischman noticed that he had been cured of his stutter. Remembering how upset he had been at the end of the camp season, he went to Rav Belsky and shared the good news with him. “Remember that stuttering boy you were feeling so bad about? He’s back and he is cured. I thought the rov would want to know that.”

Rav Belsky smiled broadly. It later turned out that the boy had gone to Rav Belsky throughout the school year for speech therapy.

The rosh yeshiva who delivered shiurim, sat on botei din, was a rov, served as a posek for the largest international kashrus agency, and was a mohel, shochet, baal tefillah, baal kriah and father and grandfather to many talmidim and a large family, carved out time to administer speech therapy as well.

He comprehended greatness where it was, and had compassion and understanding for all of Hashem’s beings. He cared for all, loved all, and was treasured by all who knew him, despite his self-effacement.

Gadlus ha’odam.

The Satmar Rebbe once commented, “Oib nisht fahr di alte Vilhelm,” if not for Rav Binyomin Wilhelm, who established Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, “volten aleh farvisht gevoren,” Yiddishkeit in America would have been wiped out.

Rav Binyomin Wilhelm’s eldest grandson was Rav Belsky, who inherited his achrayus and strength. No challenge was too intimidating, no charge too daunting. He trained young mashgichim in the complexities of machinery and equipment, taught young shochtim and mohalim how to excel in their meleches hakodesh, answered the most complicated and thorny medical shailos, and helped doctors understand the interface between medicine and halachah.

He and his wife had the courage to travel to the Soviet Union when such a journey was fraught with danger, sharing Toras Hashem with desperate neshamos locked behind the Iron Curtain. In time, when the walls would fall and a stream of Russian Jews would arrive in New York, the connection would be revealed as Divinely ordained. Many new immigrants settled in Kensington, near the rosh yeshiva’s home, and he and his wife would emerge as their surrogate parents. For several years, the rosh yeshiva led his Pesach Seder in three languages - English, Yiddish and the Russian he’d taught himself - in order to accommodate the many guests at his table.

His rebbi, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, the consummate ish emes, showered upon this talmid the ultimate praise, referring to him as an ish emes. His devotion to the truth empowered him to be able to withstand pressure and personal attacks. He was rooted in the words of the Shulchan Aruch, his actions defined only by what he saw there.

As strong as he was outside of the classroom, he was soft, gentle and caring when dealing with his talmidim. For despite all he did and accomplished, teaching talmidim was the crown of his many achievements and what he viewed as his main obligation in this world.

He tolerated their questions, welcomed their difficulties, and was metzamtzeim his brilliance to joyfully help a mediocre bochur understand p’shat, just as he brought his brilliance and encyclopedic knowledge to bear when he would discuss complicated rulings with distinguished colleagues.

His comprehension was so clear that he was able to transmit the knowledge precisely and clearly in a way anyone could understand. He loved people and he loved to learn, so what could be better in life than learning with people and teaching them and explaining the beauty and depth of Torah, halachah and maasei bereishis?

Following the Second World War, a Holocaust refugee arrived in Bnei Brak with the gold bars he had hidden throughout the war. He related that he was wondering what to do with the gold bars and where to keep them.

“I was walking one night down the street that would come to be named Rechov Chazon Ish, and I met an elderly man who I recognized to be the Chazon Ish. I had never met him before, but I had heard that he was a person people went to for brachos and eitzos, so I decided to ask him what to do with my gold bars.

“He picked up his cane and pointed in the direction of an empty mountain. He said to me, ‘Reb Yaakov Halpern is going to be selling lots on that mountain. Take as much gold as you have and buy property from him.’

“I had come from a different world and didn’t really know who he was. I was furious about his advice. What? Take the gold I risked my life for and invest it in an empty, dusty hill?

“I didn’t argue with him. I said, ‘Thank you,’ and walked away.

“Halpern was selling property there for next to nothing, but I didn’t buy even one acre from him. Instead, I tried all types of investments, none of which panned out. Had I listened to that old man, oh how wealthy I would be today! I’d be worth millions upon millions.”

The Torah advises us what to invest in, how to live our lives and how to spend our time. Those who follow the Torah and its gedolim lead productive lives and merit happiness and nachas. The Torah stands as a light post, as a guide in the dark. Those who excel in Torah, the Chazon Ishes of every generation, calmly convey its lessons to those fortunate enough to listen.

This Shabbos, we read about a people fresh from the inspiration of Sinai learning to incorporate the lofty ideals into the practicalities of monetary dealings, of boundaries and damages. They were given the tools to elevate themselves so that they would approach widows and orphans with halachah as their guide, the dinei haTorah teaching compassion and heart.

To encompass the fullness of Torah and the grandiosity of Ma’amad Har Sinai is to recognize that what we have is a gift from Hashem. It is our duty to use those gifts to perfect the world by studying Torah, living Torah lives, and being affected by it, treating all of humanity as we want to be treated, loving all and being loved by all. 

Rav Belsky’s ability to grasp the massive picture never precluded him from seeing the small parts of the intricate puzzle that is Torah. The greater a person is in Torah, the more humble he is. Rav Belsky was as humble and simple as can be. As great as he was in learning, as brilliant as his mind was, that is how diffident he was.

How appropriate for Rav Belsky’s soul to return to its Maker during the week of Parshas Yisro and for his kevurah to take place during the week of Parshas Mishpotim. The parshiyos that deal with the receipt of the Torah and its practical application to man so typify Rav Belsky.

He was deathly ill four years ago on exactly the same date on which he passed away. But he was spared and given exactly another four years to live, teach, guide, learn and rise. Four years later, 208 Shabbosos from when he was clinically dead, he left this earth as we learned the parsha of Kabbolas HaTorah and naaseh venishma.

Life is a matter of perspective. Ours is formed by Torah and gedolei Torah. People such as Rav Belsky, who forsook all other careers, had no use for any of life’s pleasures and dedicated themselves to farming in the vineyard of Hashem, propagating his Torah, teaching and guiding others with humility, simplicity, kindness and grandeur. It is people such as he who make our people great and ensure that we remain a mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh.

Rav Belsky wasn’t a throwback to a past generation. He lived here with us until last week. He demonstrated that human greatness can be attained here and now. He showed that we can be humble and walk with Hashem and with all types of people. He raised a generation of children and talmidim like he, great and distinguished, dignified and noble.

The story of our nation, the story of our greatness, is the story epitomized by the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaas, Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky. May his memory be a source of brochah.


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