Thursday, November 1, 2012

Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach OBM

I've been saving this for today, the 16th of Mar Cheshvan, Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach's yahrtzeit. I read it this year in Song of Teshuvah by Rav Moshe Weinberger:

There was a Chassidic Jew in Bnei Brak who had lost everything during WWII and was spiritually broken. One day he came to pour his heart out to Rav Menachem Man Shach, who was not at all Chassidic, but who understood full well the pain of a broken Chassidic heart.This Jew told what had happened to him and said, “I cannot even pray anymore.”Rav Shach said, “What Chassidic group do you belong to?”The man told him, and Rav Shach began to hum a niggun, a tune, from that group. The Chassid closed his eyes and hummed the niggun together with Rav Shach, until he started to cry. 
Rav Shach said, “For a Chassid, it’s not enough to sing a niggun. We have to dance.” So Rav Shach stood up and danced with this Jew for a long time.Afterwards this Jew could pray again. Rav Shach did not give him a theological explanation about where God was during the Holocaust. 
He knew that this niggun was still inside that Jew, hidden underneath the pile of ashes from Auschwitz.
A lot of people presume to know the mind of this gadol, not to mention that they seek to question his status of a gadol to begin with. I cannot honestly say that I understand him, and there are many things that I do not understand about his positions on many issues.

 But one comment that his son Dr. Ephraim Shach made about finally realizing that Rav Shach's entire worldview was through the prism of Torah sheds some light:

"חזרתי לדבר איתו אחרי שנה, אבל להבין את הצד שלו הבנתי רק ב-71', כשאבא שכב בבית החולים תל-השומר. גילו אצלו סרטן והוא עמד בפני ניתוח. פתאום הוא אמר לי שהוא רוצה שאקח אותו חזרה הביתה, כי אין לו בבית החולים אפשרות ללמוד כמו בבית. אז הבנתי שאין מה לעשות – לימוד תורה קודם אצלו לכול, גם  לבריאות שלו                                                                                                                                 
I started speaking to him again a year after [Mother's death], but I only understood his position in '71, when Father was hospitalized in Tel HaShomer. He was diagnosed with cancer, waiting to be operated on. Suddenly he told me he wanted me to take him home, because he couldn't learn in the hospital the way he could at home. Then I understood that there was nothing to do - learning Torah came before everything for him, even his own health.
 Many might shake their heads in a mixture of astonishment and incredulity; how can we possibly relate to that level of commitment? Some might even criticize that single-minded dedication to one element - after all, doesn't it say v'chai bahem, that we are meant to live by the Torah which includes taking care of ourselves?

Perhaps the answer is "yes" - certainly for us down here dealing with all of our nisyonot. Perhaps one can say that this might have been Rav Shach's nisayon. Perhaps, but I don't think we can say one way or another, and we should look at his life as an example of what our lives could look like if we strove to have that same level of dedication. At the end of the day, the stories of his "meshugass" (I shudder at phrasing it that way, but it's for the sake of making a point) in contrast to our own craziness...? I know which one I would prefer to have.

There is a lot more to say about this topic and the general problem I see with our (and I include myself in this) hubris in assuming that we're on any similar level with certain individuals. That we have the gall to say "I disagree with Rav _______" on a given subject that we maybe have some familiarity with, and certainly not the specific details or cheshbonot involved in a specific discussion is a sign of real unprecedented chutzpah.

I believe that one source of this problem is the proliferation of media that enables everybody to espouse his unsolicited opinion on any topic under the sun*. This use to happen in the mikvah and at kiddush clubs and around the water cooler on a regular basis; it's not a new phenomenon that one fellow who has the right amount of charisma, bluster, and confidence can hold forth on any subject to his rapt audience, of course. But now it has become global and more vocal, and these people find reinforcement among like-minded individuals, so it becomes a self-perpetuating problem to a dangerously larger degree.

Sorry about the rant, but a comment from last year's post set this off.

* yes, I caught the irony. It goes without saying that I am guilty as charged, I think.


Anonymous said...

The comment posted last year (by me) did not voice a personal opinion about Rabbi Shach. It merely pointed out that you were ignoring the fact that he was a very controversial individual and that many great rebbes and other rabbis vehemently disagreed with him.

Shmuel said...

Anon -

Sorry about not responding sooner. First of all, I don't want you to think that this post was aimed at you - it wasn't, but your comment did get me thinking. Other writings that I have been seeing with increasing frequency set it off.

As for your comment itself, controversy and opposition does not necessarily go hand in hand with a lack of recognition of a person's stature. As Dr Marc Shapiro writes concerning reactions to Reb Shach's various positions:

"In fact, I think it is a testament to the respect people had for R. Shakh's great Torah learning that he was generally not subjected to abuse by those groups he condemned."

Granted, this follows the assertion that since Reb Shach was only recognized as the leader of Charedim, members of other religious camps didn't feel the need to follow his stances, but we still find that respect was accorded to him, barring a few extreme exceptions.

In any case, one should not think that any of Reb Shach's positions came from a personal position or that he held any individual opponent in contempt. There are numerous anecdotes that portray his deep sensitivity towards others Jews, regardless of their background. Like Rav Aviner clarified after Rabin's assassination in response to some of his followers' disparagement of the late Prime Minister: "Chilukei de'ot, kein; chilukei levavot, lo!"

The same can be said about many other figures who took very strong public approaches, but were known for their personal warmth and concern for other Jews.

yoni said...

Here's a blog with tons of great articles about Rav Shach:

and here's divrei Torah and mussar from Rav Shach: