“Rebbi.” One of the most beautiful words in the Hebrew language is “rebbi” – “my Torah teacher.” It is a title earned through Torah knowledge the teacher must possess and then transmit, through love, to his students. The word is said with respect and affection of the highest nature. It bonds rebbi and student together like no other word.
I write these thoughts 32,000 feet above the earth as I fly back to Dallas after having spent an emotionally draining afternoon in New York where I attended the funeral of my rebbi, Rabbi Alter Hanoch Henach Leibowitz, of blessed memory, the rosh hayeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Queens.
Thirty-eight years ago I had the privilege of being a talmid in the rosh hayeshiva’s “Blatt” shiur. I still remember the first time I asked the rosh hayeshiva a question and prefaced it with the magical word “rebbi.” Feelings of awe, love, and warmth flowed through my body, all triggered by that one word. For the next 38 years, every time I spoke or wrote a letter to the rosh hayeshiva and used this hallowed term, I felt elevated and truly blessed.
How did Rebbi command the respect, reverence, loyalty, and love of thousands of talmidim across the globe? For starters, Rebbi was a world-class scholar and pedagogue. His in-depth analysis of a Talmudic passage or a commentary on the Torah would illuminate hidden nuggets of beauty that the talmid would otherwise skim over and miss.
He would challenge us by giving us the texts to study before class or before his lecture, and then create an atmosphere of give-and-take between us to tackle a difficult Torah topic. He listened keenly to our questions and approaches and gently guided us to a sound Torah answer. He would take off his jacket and roll up his sleeves, and would learn with us with gusto. He gave us the keys to sharpen our abilities of in-depth analysis and an appreciation for the exactitude with which the commentators wrote their interpretations.
When Rebbi saw the study was becoming too difficult and intense, he would laugh, sing, launch into stories of the Gedolim, or speak about the Torah approach to modern-day issues. We then would return to the Torah topic at hand mentally and emotionally refreshed.
And Rebbi loved us. Once I drove Rebbi to the barber. After entering the shop, I gently and respectfully helped Rebbi take off his coat and I hung it up. The barber came over and asked me, “Is this your father?” I proudly answered, “No, he is my teacher.” Rebbi told the barber, “But he is my son.”
Rebbi taught us how to be caring and sensitive with one’s spouse. Over the years, a number of the older single talmidim would dorm in the Rebbi’s basement. I enjoyed this phenomenal privilege for close to two years. Coming home from yeshiva and seeing how Rebbi interacted with his first rebbetzin before her passing left an indelible impression on me. Their relationship was defined by respect, love, and modesty. I never heard one ever raise a voice to the other.
I remember the rebbetzin telling me that her job in life was to take care of the rosh hayeshiva. The rebbetzin didn’t want Rebbi to wash the dishes. Once, she had an appointment that prevented her from cleaning the dishes. Before she left home, she put a sign on the sink: “Please don’t wash the dishes. There is a problem with the water faucet.” When she returned home, she saw that the dishes had been removed from the kitchen and that Rebbi was washing them in the bathroom sink.
Rebbi taught us honesty. He would stress the importance of clearly understanding the basic steps of the Talmud before delving into the commentaries of the Sages that would then catapult the topic of Talmud at hand to an entirely new level. Rebbi would tell us not to fall into the trap of fooling ourselves and then trying to impress others by how intelligent we appear to be.
Rebbi taught us patience. Though he would inspire us to appreciate spreading Torah to our fellow Jews, he urged us to complete the rigorous yeshiva program that spanned up to 15 years of post-high school intense study. When we would mention to him that since there was a tremendous need to reach so many fellow Jews, would it not be better if the program were shorter, thereby enabling us to start teaching sooner, Rebbi would smile and say, “If they send out a medical student before he completes his studies, they are sending out a butcher and not a surgeon.”