It has been one year since the passing of Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman at the age of 104, on Chanukah Eve. Many stories were published about his wisdom, Torah learning, sensitivity and perseverance, but the most resounding message he left for us is embodied by the way in which he chose to leave this world: a poignant lesson of humility and truth.
If you look at his tombstone, on it are engraved the words that he had asked for in his will: “Here is buried R’ Aharon Yehudah Leib.” His family members and relatives were forced to order such a simple tombstone, without titles such as “The great Gaon,” “The Tzaddik,” “Maran,” “The generation’s Posek,” “Rosh Yeshivah,” etc. Even without the word Rabbi. Because we go to the next world as we really are, without the titles and human superlatives.
Most readers have a grandfather or a great-grandfather with a tombstone that is much more flattering than this one, that of a man whose funeral had about 200,000 people. We can write a lot about it, but perhaps it is more proper that we should stay silent.
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Stop Wallowing In Self-Pity
It is amazing: the lower Yosef goes physically, the higher he goes spiritually. The more humiliated and scorned he is, the more he builds and elevates his personality.
The pinnacle is when he is thrown into jail in Egypt for false accusations. He is a maternal orphan, his brothers threw him away, and now he has all the reasons to be sad and self-centered. But when two Egyptian ministers join him in his cell, Yosef utters the following surprising sentence: “Why do you look so sad today?”
This moment, in which he pays attention to other people, becomes the turning point of his life. From here everything changes and he starts climbing back up, out of jail. They tell him the dreams they had, he interprets the dreams, and then when Pharaoh himself has an enigmatic dream, one of the ministers remembers Yosef and he goes out of jail. After he solves Pharaoh’s dream too, he assumes a senior position in the palace, and then will save both Egypt and his brothers from hunger, and will meet them again.
Why did all of this happen? Because of a small moment in which Yosef didn’t immerse in self-pity, but tried to notice how others feel, and help them. One can never know what the effect of a phrase such as “good morning, how are you?” might be.
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Nitzan Assaf, a photographer from Tel Aviv, captured this moment at on Chanukah a few years ago in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahlaot. This is what he told me at the time:
“The woman saw me taking the photo, smiled at me, and then returned to looking at her Chanukah menorah and to gazing at her husband. I knew that her eyes were what made the picture, but I didn’t realize how popular it would be. As I see it, the photograph represents pure love, and the fire and warmth of the candle, which light up the two figures, just adds to the symbolism.”
Some two years ago, the man in the photograph, Rabbi Yitzchak Eliezer Miltzky, z”l, passed away. One moment in his life – a moment that symbolizes an entire aspect of his life – was captured by a camera, and moved thousands of people throughout the world.
When the media approached Rabbi Miltzky and his wife Yehudit following the publication of the photo, it emerged that Rebbetzin Miltzky was raised in a monastery during the Holocaust and eventually immigrated to Israel. It was also revealed that Rabbi Miltzky’s father requested in his will that his children try to do at least three acts of kindness every day, and that his son was careful to fulfill his father’s wishes last wishes.
When Yehudit was asked what explained the photograph’s magic, and what the look in her eyes conveyed, she said, “The secret is that the mutual respect between us grew stronger and stronger every day.”