They rise early and we rise early. We rise early [to study] words of Torah, they rise early for wasteful things. We toil and they toil. We toil and receive reward, they toil and do not receive reward. We run and they run. We run to a life in the World to Come, they run to a pit of destruction. – Berachos 28b
The morning of November 8 (11 Cheshvan) was an unusual one for me. I had awakened early in preparation for a flight out of town to deliver a presentation at a teacher in-service program in the New York area. I scrolled through my inbox only to learn that Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, rosh yeshiva of Mir Jerusalem, had passed away hours before.
I was devastated by the news, as were so many others. An estimated 100,000 mourners attended the funeral. Many thousands more mourned – individually and collectively – throughout the world.
My relationship with the rosh yeshiva was not particularly close, at least by conventional measures. By the time I arrived at Mir in October 1993, the yeshiva boasted an enrollment of over three thousand students (a number that would double in the subsequent two decades). I had been studying in a smaller “American” yeshiva elsewhere in Jerusalem for the previous three years and was a bit overwhelmed to be making the transition to this citadel of Torah study.
I had decided that in order to make a place for myself in the yeshiva, I would do what I could to be in the main beis medrash as much as possible (at that time, securing a seat there for either of the two primary sedarim was nearly impossible). One commitment I made was to daven each morning with the yeshiva in the beis medrash, and to sit in the front.
Naturally, the front row was where the rosh yeshiva sat. But accessing his corner seat adjacent to the aron kodesh was not as simple as one would think. Each night, the cleaning crew serviced the beis medrash, which held many hundreds of wooden shtenders (lecterns). In order to clean the floors, the crew placed the shtenders on top of the benches and left them there overnight.
As you can imagine, the task of clearing this corner of the shtenders was not insignificant, particularly for an older gentleman who had suffered for years from a severe case of Parkinson’s disease. I took it upon myself to arrive early each morning to arrange the space so that the rosh yeshiva could sit comfortably.
I was humbled to have this opportunity to help the rosh yeshiva begin his day with a bit more comfort and ease. The rosh yeshiva expressed his appreciation each morning as I walked past him on my way out of the beis medrash. He even agreed to learn with me a few times b’chavrusa during Elul zman. It was an honor and a privilege I will never forget.
Rabbi Finkel was known for his unique combination of Talmudic erudition and gentility. Despite the ever-growing size of the yeshiva, his physical frailty and a challenging learning and travel schedule, the rosh yeshiva never made anyone feel as if he were an imposition. He warmly encouraged each student to approach him in conversation and to seek his counsel.
These were the thoughts that crossed my mind as I read the news of the rosh yeshiva’s passing.
But there was another thought that ran through my mind that day as I made my way to and from the conference. The night before, the world had lost an individual who had gained international fame in the late 1960s and 1970s: Joe Frazier, who went toe to toe in three epic battles against Muhammad Ali.
I had to do a lot of driving that day, to and from both airports. In the many hours I spent in the car, conversation on the radio centered on Frazier. And while he was widely extolled as a great person in addition to being a great fighter, I could not help but contrast their mourning to ours.
Even in his heyday, “Smokin’ Joe” impacted the world from a ringed-in space of no larger than 20 feet squared, and for no more than a few hours at a time. He was a man who had sacrificed his body, and perhaps his mind, to the art of beating another man into submission. For this contribution, he was being mourned throughout the world.
By sharp contrast, the Jewish people had just lost a Torah giant, a man who had also sacrificed his body for his craft. But the rosh yeshiva was a very different kind of champion, a champion of spirit who demonstrated, day after day, year after year, what true mesiras nefesh looks like and what Hashem truly demands from us. If he, racked with pain and convulsing routinely, could immerse himself fully in the study of Torah, how could we do any less?