Photo Credit: Lia Jay Photography
Rabbi Charlop with the author and the author's son Yaakov at his bar mitzvah in 2018.

There is a powerful symbolism in the fact that this past week was the one in which shivah was observed for Rav Zevulun Charlop, zt”l. Our beloved rebbe – the rebbe of every rabbi ordained by Yeshiva University for close to forty years, and through them, of all of their students, and so many more – is personified by this week’s Torah reading.

This Shabbos is known as Shabbos Shirah because of the transcendent song that emanates from the center of Parshas Beshalach. The parashah, however, is not exclusively musical; the song is surrounded in the reading by moments of intense drama. Through the impression created by the parshah in its totality, we are left with a renewed appreciation for the impact of theatrical grandeur.


Our rebbe had a profound awareness of the value of that element. A master storyteller, every tale he would recount was replete with superlatives; populated by characters who were tremendous, awe-inspiring, world-class, the tops of their respective fields.

How could that be, the listener might wonder. Certainly there are some ordinary people in the world, mundane events, insignificant episodes? The answer is that greatness is in the eye of the beholder, and to be beheld by Rav Charlop was a tremendous gift.

As the scion of a towering rabbinic lineage and, in his earlier years, a professor of history, Rav Charlop had a deep reverence for the vital treasures of the past and was thus perfectly equipped to translate them into the language of the present in order to guarantee the hope of the future.

In next week’s parashah, we read how the Torah itself was given in the context of great drama, amid thunder and lightning. We are told this itself was a “test” of the Jewish people (l’nasos, as understood by the Ramban), in order to ascertain that the Jews could properly accept the world’s greatest gift; can they appropriately acknowledge that which is majestic and awe-inspiring?

Rav Charlop passed this test with flying colors, and this no doubt contributed to the staggering Torah knowledge he amassed and the joyous creativity he brought to its interpretation. The excitement he felt in transmitting Torah was infectious, a literal fulfillment of smeichim k’nisinasam B’Sinai.

Rav Charlop administered his own tests, as well, and here too was displayed his artistry with both text and talmidim. The oral examinations given in his office were another expression of his unique range. His mastery of the Talmud and codes allowed him to successfully challenge the most qualified applicants to Yeshiva’s advanced kollelim, while his sincere belief in the potential of everyone allowed him to calibrate his interviews so that each student he interacted with could feel warmly welcomed to find their place within the yeshiva.

That office was also home to decisions of extraordinary foresight and sophistication. He once shared with me a quotation that “when you have two people, you have two people; three people is already politics.” The word “politics” has become somewhat demeaned; here it may be best to go back to Von Bismarck’s definition, “the art of the possible.” Or, perhaps better, the art of people and their potential in a complex world of conflicting concerns.

R. Yitzchak of Volozhin commented on the unusual phrasing of the passuk (Tehillim 117:1), “Halelu et Hashem kol goyim,” apparently bidding the enemies of the Jewish people to praise Hashem for thwarting their own plots. He explained that the Jews are incapable of fully thanking Hashem for their salvation; they only know about the threats that grew large enough to become known. All those that were defeated at their inception, before they advanced, are known only to the schemers. In a similar vein, Rav Mordechai Willig has commented over the years, none of us know how to adequately thank Rav Charlop. How many problems did he solve, how many issues did he attend to, through his tact, prescience, and wisdom, that never developed enough to reach our attention?

So many who sat in that office were astounded to see the care with which he recorded every conversation in his large notebooks, perhaps a bit baffled at his insistence on noting and confirming what seemed like unimportant details. Eventually, they may have realized that to our rebbe, there were no irrelevant details; who knew what overlooked fact or feeling may someday play a role in relating to a student or congregant, teacher or rabbinic leader, in understanding their unique needs and priorities?

Perhaps this is why so many in his orbit realized that they should be taking notes as well, chronicling the great lessons he was transmitting through words, and even more profoundly, through actions. One of my first instincts, following the funeral, was to express gratitude to Rabbi Ari Zahtz for all the many hours he sat with Rav Charlop in order to produce the wonderful volume of his priceless Torah essays, Shefa Yamim. As the sentiment was conveyed, I quickly realized I wasn’t only grateful to Rabbi Zahtz; I was jealous of him as well.

The late New York Governor Mario Cuomo was known to say that politicians “campaign in poetry but govern in prose,” indicating that the lofty eloquence of promises quickly gives way to the banality of day-to-day management and pragmatism. However, Rav Charlop, in his long governance of Yeshiva and the American rabbinate, merged the poetry and the prose. His every interaction with every individual sung through the artistry of his soul.

After hearing the sad news, one of my rabbinic friends forwarded me a copy of the Hebrew letter Rav Charlop had sent to him – preserved now for almost thirty years – apologizing for missing his engagement party. He captioned it with the words, “I never heard a traffic jam sound so beautiful and poetic.”

More than thirteen years ago, my mother-in-law, a”h, passed away following a long illness, eight hours before we were blessed with a daughter. Toward the end of shiva, my wife heard her phone ring, caller ID identifying a distinguished rabbi well known to her husband and father, but less directly acquainted with her or her late mother. Distracted by the needs of the newborn, she allowed the call to go to voicemail.

She is forever grateful that she did. That voicemail recorded a message that was so profound, so eloquent, so caring, and so perfectly crafted for the needs of the moment, she decided upon hearing that it must never be erased. To this day, the outdated phone and its equipment has been maintained so as to preserve one precious message.

To our great sadness, Rav Charlop is no longer giving speeches, writing letters, or leaving phone messages. But to our great fortune, his words have been recorded; preserved within the personalities and perspectives of his students, colleagues, congregants, his incredible family, and all who had the privilege to cross his path. And just as they did in his lifetime, they will continue to inform, educate, guide, and inspire us when we need them the most.

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Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman is a rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. He also serves as the executive editor of RIETS Press. Rabbi Feldman has authored several books in English and Hebrew, including most recently “Letter and Spirit” (YU Press/Maggid Books). He is the rav of Ohr Saadya in Teaneck, N.J.