Think Again: Why we weep for Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel

If you want to understand a person or a community, observe what he or they honor:

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel funeral 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel funeral 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On the yahrzeit of our foremother Rachel, as I prepared to leave for the funeral of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, of blessed memory, I received a call from a reporter from Sydney.
She wanted to discuss the antics of the zealots in Ramat Beit Shemesh. The next day Sky News called to discuss sexually segregated buses.
I told both reporters the same thing: Stop wasting your time on fringe groups and trivial issues. If you want to understand the haredi community, first find out why over 100,000 people attended the funeral of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, with tens of thousands of adults sobbing openly and unashamedly. If you want to understand a person or a community, observe what he or they honor: “[A] person [reveals himself] according to what he praises” (Proverbs 26:21).
Who was the remarkable man whose passing inspired such grief? When Rabbi Finkel took over the reins of Mir Yeshiva from his father-in-law, Rabbi Beinish Finkel, in 1990, he had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
Many wondered how he could carry the burden, yet under his leadership the 1,000-student yeshiva expanded rapidly. New buildings were built; another branch was started in Kiryat Sefer. One yeshiva head quipped that Rav Nosson Tzvi might as well put a roof over the entire Beit Yisrael neighborhood (adjacent to Mea She’arim) and call it Mir Yeshiva. Today, 6,000 students learn in Mir Yeshiva’s many study halls, making it the largest yeshiva since the completion of the Talmud, perhaps the largest ever.
“Even when I lie down, I can’t rest because of the trembling,” he told one of his brothers-in-law, “so I think of ways to spread Torah.” Our Sages say that the Ark carried those who carried it. And so it was with Rav Nosson Tzvi.
After one long flight to Los Angeles, a crying stewardess told those who came to the airport to meet him, “Promise me you’ll never let him do this again. How could you do this to this holy man?” When people accused his brothers-in-law of “shlepping him” on grueling trips, they replied, “We don’t shlep him, he shleps us.”
He used his debilitating disease to build more Torah and to teach. A rich businessman refused his request for a large donation. “I can’t,” he said. The rosh yeshiva told him, “I can’t either, but I do anyway.” He received the donation.
Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, was once was brought to see the rosh yeshiva along with a group of prominent businessman. They had not been told of his Parkinson’s, and instinctively averted their eyes when he entered the room. Soon they heard a bang on the table and Rav Nosson Tzvi commanded them, “Look at me.
“I know you are all busy men,” he continued, “so I’ll be brief. What is the most important lesson of the Holocaust?” He proceeded to describe the situation of the Jews arriving in Auschwitz and other death camps, after having been packed into cattle cars for days, without water or facilities of any kind, and then being separated from their loved ones. When the lucky ones reached a barracks, they were given one blanket for six people. They could choose to share it or each one could try to grab it for himself.
They chose the former. “The greatest lesson of the Holocaust,” he concluded, “is the triumph of the human spirit. Now, each of you return to America and share your blanket with five others.”
Someone once asked him for advice on how to learn Torah even amidst afflictions. Rav Nosson Tzvi told him that he didn’t know. “I learn with great simha (joy),” he said. He refused to take the strongest medicines to control his disease for fear they would cloud his mind or rob him of his memory. When he mounted the dais in the Mir Yeshiva to give a lecture in the main study hall, he had to hold fast to two podiums to remain upright and he never knew whether he would be able to control his tongue sufficiently to speak. Once a violent tremor threw him from the couch, on which he lay prone, onto the floor while in the middle of learning with a student.
Even before he was helped up, he was asking his study partner to repeat the interpretation he had been offering.
Just as one would not begrudge the money spent to ransom a loved one, he viewed his ordeals as trivial price to pay for teaching and learning Torah, and not as selfsacrifice.
Everywhere he went, people of all ages rushed to be within four cubits of him and witness a soul that had so transcended the limits of the imperfect vessel of his body.
OUR SAGES give several possible explanations for the tests with which a tzaddik (righteous person) is afflicted.
Sometimes those tests serve to actualize his potential; sometimes to publicize his greatness. I will never forget the first time I saw Rav Nosson Tzvi, over 30 years ago, at the wedding of a former student. I had no idea who he was, but I could not take my eyes off of him. A Mona Lisa smile did not leave his lips the entire time I watched. It conveyed goodness and love and elation in a student’s joyous occasion. I asked someone, “Who is that man who looks like an angel?” The special qualities were already there.
With love, he inspired thousands of young men to reach heights they had never dreamed possible. In the Mir Yeshiva, under Rav Nosson Tzvi, it did not matter where you were from, your family connections, or how high your IQ. Rav Nosson Tzvi was prepared to help each student reach his potential. He never forgot that he had arrived at the Mir Yeshiva, lanky teenaged Nattie from a coed Jewish high school in Chicago, wearing a Cubs hat (though, he quipped, the golf clubs were left behind).
From his days as a young newlywed until he was felled by a sudden heart attack, he made it a practice to establish study sessions with any student who requested one.
A rosh yeshiva several decades Rav Nosson Tzvi’s senior once came to visit him. Despite Rav Nosson Tzvi’s protests, the older scholar insisted it was incumbent upon him to visit someone who knew 3,000 students by name. “I’m not sure if I know each one by name,” Rav Nosson Tzvi said, “but I love each one.” All those who entered the Mir found out that this was true.
A ba’al teshuva (returnee to religious observance) recently arrived at the Mir from the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva could not find the special penitential prayers in an unfamiliar prayer book. His humiliation was rising by the second, until Rav Nosson Tzvi, who had somehow noticed his discomfiture, came rushing over with a prayer book open to the correct page. Such stories are legion: Rav Nosson Tzvi checking on students in their sealed rooms during the Gulf War; Rav Nosson Tzvi personally taking a student who fainted in class to a doctor and then insisting that he move into the crowded Finkel home; Rav Nosson Tzvi accompanying a student who was about to be married in his search for an apartment; Rav Nosson Tzvi, just back from a fund-raising trip abroad, crying at the beginning of his Friday Torah class because “I missed you all so much.”
Those who had been sure the rosh yeshiva would not remember them from years before in the yeshiva were astonished to be greeted as “My Chaim,” in a long receiving line, or to be reminded of a difficulty they had posed to the rosh yeshiva a decade earlier. Some sought to avoid imposing on the rosh yeshiva to officiate at their weddings, which entailed him arriving in a wheelchair and being assisted by at least two others to the huppa. To no avail. Inevitably they would receive a call in the middle of wedding that the rosh yeshiva was outside and wanted to wish the new couple “mazel tov.” A former student from America begged the rosh yeshiva not to attend his son’s bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. “I missed your chasanah [wedding] 15 years ago; I’m not missing the bar mitzva,” Rav Nosson Tzvi told him.
“Not a blade of grass grows unless an angel strikes it and says, ‘Grow,’” our Sages teach. Rav Nosson Tzvi was that angel for tens of thousands of students and dozens of promising young scholars whom he appointed to give classes in Mir Yeshiva. The image of the rosh yeshiva learning in a freezing cold room to be able to meet his daily quota of learning inspired. But above all it was his smile, the way he grasped your hand in both of his, that will leave a lasting impression.
Mendy entered the Mir Yeshiva after an indifferent career in other yeshivot. But the rosh yeshiva was always ready to provide another chance. Toward the end of a long five-month semester, the rosh yeshiva announced that he would like the unmarried students to commit to learning 12 hours a day, without any breaks. It never occurred to Mendy that the rosh yeshiva could have meant him. A few days later, the rosh yeshiva approached Mendy and asked why his name was not on the sign-up list.
Mendy could not believe the absence of his name had been noticed among hundreds of names. But when he saw that the rosh yeshiva was serious, he signed up. The first days were very difficult. But after dropping into bed exhausted on the third night of the new regime, Mendy found himself dreaming about the Talmud in his sleep.
The next morning he told the rosh yeshiva what had happened. Rav Nosson Tzvi spontaneously began to dance with him in the study hall.
Now you know why we are weeping.