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Thursday, June 01, 2006


I found my Gedolim

Shlomo Hamelech says it's better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting, because it's hard to be introspective at a party.

Unfortunately, I had the opportunity to visit a 'shiva' house yesterday, and I understand, in a limited way, what Shlomo Hamelech meant.

My Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Berel Wein, Shlit''a, is sitting shiva for his wife, Rebbetzin Jackie, Yocheved bas Harav Eliezer.

Yesterday was his "Monsey" day, and people from throughout the tri-state area came to pay their condolences.

The stories being exchanged in that shiva house, and the wry and heartfelt and poignant comments coming from the mourners and visitors alike, could fill a book. I joked, somewhat tastelessly, that the Yeshiva could create a new tape series just from the shiva conversations.

But the truth is, I could have sat there for hours. Rabbi Wein was reminiscing with some of the older visitors who were close with his wife, and telling stories about her father's struggles to support his family, and about their emigration from Lithuania, which was orchestrated by a non-religious relative. "There was a time in Jewish life when family meant something, regardless of how religious you were," Rabbi Wein said.

A few minutes after I arrived, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, shlit''a, came in. "Oy, Shia," Rabbi Wein said. "You have a lot of fans, but Jackie was your number-one fan."

The dozens of other visitors sat in respectful silence, as is appropriate in a shiva house, but it was inspiring just to see these two men sitting together. R' Twerski was very subdued as well. Does Orthodox Judaism have anyone more erudite in psychology than he? I don't think so. But he let the mourners take the lead and he conversed quietly with them.

"We were married for 51 years," Rabbi Wein said, "Vayehi b'einav k'yamim achadim b'ahavaso osah." ("And they seemed to him like a few days, in his love for her." A quote from Parshas Vayetze.)

Can you imagine? A Rosh Yeshiva speaking so plainly about loving his wife?

A few minutes later, Rav Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, called to express his condolences. Rabbi Wein said, "Ata yadata es machovi..." ("You know my pain" - a play on a verse in Parshas Shmos). His voice faltered as he thanked the rebbe for calling.

Rabbi Wein talked about the way Jackie always followed him as his rabbinical career evolved - from Detroit to Chicago to Miami to New York to Monsey to Jerusalem - even though she was already popular and well-established in each community. He spoke about her teaching, and the way she made every student feel important and integral to the class. He spoke about how difficult it was to make Aliyah, when all the children and grandchildren are still in the States.

I wish I knew Rebbetzin Wein better. I met her only a handful of times. But I remember clearly her kindness and pleasant demeanor, no doubt from serving as mother and grandmother, teacher and role model to hundreds of students, Rebbetzin to hundreds of congregants, and 'surrogate mother' to hundreds of Yeshiva boys.

The sense I got (and I never really forgot this, but the conversations brought it home more tangibly), is that these exceptional people (Rabbi Wein, Rabbi Twerski, and others) are real. Their parents and their children and their friends all enjoy(ed) normal relationships, despite the rabbinic celebrity of the family and the thankless, oppressive roles of leadership they took on.
And if I want to find role models for myself, and for my children, these are the people I would want to emulate.

That's a very tall order, and rather daunting. But at least I had the opportunity to see them in action -- in joy and in grief, G-d forbid. And I'm grateful to my parents for sending me to Shaarei Torah, where I could learn from Rabbi Wein's Torah and his example, even if I didn't fully appreciate it at the time.

May the Weins be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Thank you for this important post - Rabbi Wein is truly one of the leaders of our generation - he just doesn't have a PR group and a newspaper (rhymes with Bated) that writes about him calling him MARAN all day long.

Maybe it's time to start a MO newspaper that will inform it's readers every time the MO rabbis (to be known as "MARANAN VRABANAN")go to the bathroom or eat a peice of chocolate?
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