It’s hard to believe that this Taanis Esther is already the 29th yahrzeit of HaGaon Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l. Not too long ago, when you said “Reb Moshe” or “Rav Moshe,” Jews all over the world instantly knew about whom you were talking. Now when I speak to seminary and yeshiva students and mention the name Rav Moshe, they look at me questioningly. “Do you mean Rav Moshe Wolfson, shlita?” “Are you referring to Rav Moshe Sternbuch, shlita?”
It makes me acutely aware that there is an entire generation unaware of the incredible sagacity and personality of this giant among men.
The pasuk commands us, “Zchor y’mos olam, binu shnos dor v’dor – Remember the days of old, look into the generations of the past.” We are advised to study the past so that we know what to aspire for and can properly fulfill the verse “Orchos tzadikim tishmor – heed the ways of the righteous.”
I had the merit to serve Rav Moshe during his weekly visits to the Yeshiva of Staten Island from 1970 to 1982. With the help of Hashem I was granted even more exposure to Rav Moshe during the summer months I spent together with him at Camp Yeshiva of Staten Island, first in what was known as Camp Westmount, and then in Camp Westwood.
It is said of certain gedolim that their incredible brilliance coupled with their vast encyclopedic knowledge causes one to overlook their other sterling character traits. In this area I was at an advantage because as a rather average adolescent yeshiva bochur, I did not have sufficient awareness of the rosh yeshiva’s once-in-a-century greatness and was therefore able to focus on his warm, kind, sensitive, caring, and patient persona. This was something a young boy could embrace.
Knowing, as I now do, that he was the very embodiment of Torah, I’d like to share some of my memories so that we may all learn from the beautiful ways of a true Torah personality.
First, there was his incredible warmth. He never just shook your hand – he clasped it with both of his and gave your hand a hug. He gave you a warm smile and you forgot that the weightiest problems in the world rested upon his shoulders. Furthermore, his warmth was universal. As it states in Pirkei Avos, “Who is an honored person? He who honors all of Hashem’s creations.”
He was always so nice to the yeshiva’s caretaker, John. My brother, Rabbi Yosef Asher Weiss, who married Rav Moshe’s granddaughter Ahuva, recalls that when they had a baby they employed a Jamaican nurse, Shirley, who spoke with affection about the fine old man who was always so pleasant to her. Every Shavuos the yeshiva’s wonderful cook, Mr. Yager, of blessed memory, would receive a special visit in the kitchen from Rav Moshe who would thank him effusively for making so many hundreds of delicious blintzes by hand for his bochrim.
This kindness was also seen throughout his p’sakim, his halachic decisions. Throughout the world to this day his many volumes of Responsa – Igros Moshe – are used as the final say in diverse matters of halacha.
His son, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, relates that when his father, who had been the rav in Luban, Russia, first came to America in 1937 after escaping the harsh persecution of the Soviet secret police, he wasn’t looking to be in the public eye. He was planning to teach Torah at Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem and write sefarim. But after the Holocaust there were many female survivors who knew nothing about the fate of their husbands (last seen in death camps), and no one wanted to touch the difficult agunah questions that arose from that situation. There was no wiggle room for error; it would have been a halachic catastrophe if a woman in that situation had remarried and her first husband came back alive. Rav Moshe, with his great sensitivity and kindness, undertook this task, which catapulted him onto the world stage.
Then there was his incredible humility. There were no airs about him. He was affectionately known as the Gaon of Normalcy. Yet who can forget Agudah conventions in the 1980s when Rav Moshe entered a room and a thousand people would jump up in his honor? He was the embodiment of the Talmudic observation that “He who flees from honor, honor pursues him.”
Something that left an indelible impression on a young boy’s mind and heart was Rav Moshe’s incredible, all-encompassing Torah hasmada, Torah diligence. Those who are old enough can remember how he would assiduously learn Mishnayos during the pauses in davening and while wrapping his tefillin. While waiting for a car or even upon awakening from a nap, he would review Tanach over and over again. He had the uncanny ability to pick up the phone while he was learning, answer someone’s question – and then seamlessly continue from where he’d left off in his learning. His notebooks, which contain his chiddushim, novel Torah insights, would start and end in the middle of sentences – which to me always carried the message that Torah is a non-stop and unending pursuit. Yet despite his intense focus and concentration on Torah study, when he spoke with people they never felt rushed or that they were bothering him.
Then there was Rav Moshe’s devotion to tefillah. Many people who are so immersed in learning dispatch their prayers as quickly as possible, or relegate tefillah to a second-class activity. When the rosh yeshiva davened, nothing else existed. He stood ramrod straight while davening Shemoneh Esrei and remained totally immersed even during the chazzan’s repetition of the Amidah. Once when I needed to get his attention during the review of Shemoneh Esrei I had to go around, face him, and look right at him before I could break his concentration.
And how he prayed for Klal Yisrael! I remember Minchah on Erev Yom Kippur when he would come in with a long list of names of those who would be in his tefillahs – for good health, for shalom bayis, for parnassah, for fertility, for so many other needs.
Then there was his incredible tolerance, his savlonus. I remember we had a middle-aged man in yeshiva who was somewhat mentally unbalanced. One morning at around 10:30, while the entire yeshiva was sitting and learning with their chavrusahs, this man came in and started reciting Shemoneh Esrei out loud to the shock of the mashgiach, HaRav Gershon Weiss.
But since Rav Moshe was also in the room no one said anything, awaiting his reaction. When this man got up to say Kedushah, Rav Moshe calmly got up and answered responsively – so of course we all did as well. That display of tolerance and understanding left such an impression on me that it still resonates four decades later.
An appreciation of his all-encompassing and deep knowledge of the full gamut of Torah is beyond the scope of this short appreciation. Suffice it to say, the entire Torah world recognizes that when he rendered a halachic decision he took into account everything in the written and oral law – Talmud and Shuchan Aruch, the Tur and the Rambam, the Mishnah Berurah and the Aruch HaShulchan, and countless Rishonim and Achronim.
He was an unparalleled master at applying the full range of Torah law to any question that was posed to him, even concerning the latest developments in technology, science, and medicine.
To close this appreciation, which of course barely touches the surface, we must mention what might have been the rosh yeshiva’s crowning virtue. When asked the perennial question as to why he thought he merited living so long, he answered, “My whole life I never caused another person pain.”
He was loved by Jews of all stripes and on all continents. He would say that it is not enough to learn Torah; one must learn Toras Shalom – a Torah of peace – and he would quote the Rambam’s dictum that the whole Torah was given to promote peace, as it says, “D’racheha darchei noam, v’chol nesivoseha shalom – Its ways are ways of sweetness and all its paths are paths of peace.” He was the living embodiment of the Talmudic adage (Kesuvos 17a) that a person should always strive to get along well with others.
May we all merit to follow in his glorious footsteps, and may he be a meilitz yosher, a good intercessor, for world Jewry about whom he cared for with every fiber of his being. May his neshamah have an aliyah from the inspiration his life continues to generate in us, and in that merit may we be blessed with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.