Rav Elazar Rokeach, one of the mighty scholars who came out from the beis midrash in the city of Brodi, served with dignity and success as rav of the great city of Krakow for six years. His name and fame spread far and wide so that members of the wealthy and prestigious Ashkenazi community of Amsterdam moved heaven and earth to persuade him to become their rav.
Their desire was so great that they took the unprecedented step of sending him a contract for life, despite the admonition of the Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim 206) that it was forbidden for a rav to bind himself to a position for more than six years at a time.
(As an interesting aside, it was decided at the founding meeting of the chief rabbinate for Palestine in 1921 to limit the term of the chief rabbi to five years. This decision was agreed to by HaGaon Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, a”h.)
When Rav Elazar received it, he was greatly appreciative and accepted the position though he refused the life contract, saying, among other things, that he intended, eventually, to leave Amsterdam and settle in Eretz Yisrael.
Cover His Eyes
And so, Rav Elazar moved to Amsterdam where once again a Jewish community received the privilege of quenching its spiritual thirst on the Torah of the great scholar. It is related that one of his customs was to wrap himself in his tallis and cover his eyes with it while judging of a case of law. His reason for so doing was that he did not wish to know who the plaintiff and the defendant were, lest he somehow become prejudiced against one of them.
“My reason for doing this comes from a verse in the Torah itself,” Rav Elazar used to say. “According to the Torah (Devarim 1:17), ‘Thou shalt not recognize faces in judgment.’ Most people do not take this literally but explain it as meaning merely ‘you shall not favor one judgment seeker over the other.’ I, however, say that the words mean exactly what they say. When one sees the faces of the judgment seekers one may quite easily fall into unconscious prejudice. One man’s face may be strong and dynamic; the judge may recognize one man as being a wealthy or respected individual, etc. The safest way to avoid any of these things is not to look at the people, not to know who they are.”
To Eretz Yisrael
Rav Elazar was fortunate in being able to achieve his fondest hope by leaving Amsterdam and going to settle in Eretz Yisrael. There, the man who left the wealth and comfort of Amsterdam lived in the poor and forlorn city of Tzfas (Safed). He used to say:
“The lowest and most unlearned of Eretz Yisrael take precedence over the greatest scholars who dwell in the Diaspora. For this is what Chazal say, ‘Even though there are righteous people and scholars in the Diaspora and shepherds (usually unlearned people) in Eretz Yisrael – the leap year can only be proclaimed by the testimony of the shepherds. And though there live prophets in the Diaspora and only ordinary people in Eretz Yisrael, the leap year is proclaimed only by the testimony of the latter.’”
Another famous scholars of the beis midrash in the city of Brodi was Rav Avraham Gershon of Kitov. This modest and unassuming man was possessed of such wondrous qualities of goodness and knowledge that the great Nodah B’Yehudah, in a responsum, referred to him, in part, as follows:
“The complete and all-encompassing scholar, the hallowed pious one, light of Israel, the pillar of the right hand, mighty hammer…”
Rav Avraham Gershon was, as were all scholars of Brodi, a strong opponent of the Chassidism that the Baal Shem Tov advocated at that time. Ironically, however, it was his sister who became the wife of the Baal Shem Tov. At first, this made no difference to Rav Avraham Gershon, but as the days passed and he came to know his brother-in-law intimately, he began to behold the great and noble qualities that made the Baal Shem Tov the leader he was. It was not long after that he became one of the staunchest supporters of the Baal Shem Tov and his teachings. Indeed, it was he who was sent to Eretz Yisrael to lay the foundation for Chassidism in the Holy Land. The tale of how this came about follows.
In those days Rav Chaim Ben Atar went up from the Diaspora to Eretz Yisrael. This gaon, known to the wise men of his generation as “similar to an angel of the L-rd,” was a man of firm views who never flattered or bowed to any man. Nevertheless, when it came to the community of Israel he would always maintain an attitude of respect and awe.
He would always say, “The verse says: ‘There are the words that Moshe spoke.’ All the 40 years that Moshe led Bnei Yisrael in the desert he never spoke harshly to them except for this one verse. Here should you ask the question: ‘Does it not say that Moshe declared: Listen rebels?’ The answer is that Moshe did not say this to the entire community, but rather only to a small group who rebelled against the teaching of the law.”
Despite his refusal to bow to people, Rav Chaim was a humble and patient man and forgiving to those who insulted him. It is related that he was involved one time in a case of law. He patiently heard both sides and carefully went over the evidence. Finally, he ruled that the defendant was liable for damages.
When the defendant heard this he flew into a rage and began to insult the rav, even going so far as to impugn his honesty. Rav Chaim sat quietly, never growing angry or answering the man. Later, his students, who were shocked by the affair, asked him in amazement, “Rabbe, where is the staunch spirit for which you are so famous?”
“What, in your opinion, should I have done?”
“We feel that this man deserved to have been condemned and driven out of the house and a ban placed on him until he apologized,” the students answered.
Rav Chaim laughed and replied, “And yet, consider this. The man has been found guilty and his soul is bitter because of it. Nevertheless, the general public will understand this and certainly not suspect me of anything. They fully believe that I have judged the case fairly. What would happen, however, if I placed him under the ban?
“If I did that, if I angrily punished him for insulting me in his time of bitterness, then the people would begin to question my objectivity and my judgment.”
Rav Avraham Gershon Sent To Eretz Yisrael
The great name of Rav Chaim reached as far as Poland, and the Baal Shem Tov longed to meet him and create with him a center of Torah in Eretz Yisrael. However, certain obstacles arose that prevented the founder of Chassidism from fulfilling his greatest dream. Instead, he turned to his brother-in-law Rav Avraham Gershon and asked him to go in his place.
This great scholar was only too willing to comply. His love for Eretz Yisrael was enormous and he left immediately to settle in the city of Hebron. His love for the Holy Land is embodied in the following statement:
“Chazal in Menachos 44a said, ‘One who rents a house in the Diaspora is free from the obligation of affixing a mezuzah for 30 days. Only after that period of time is he obligated. If one, however, rents a house in Eretz Yisrael he must affix a mezuzah immediately.’
“We see from this that one day in Eretz Yisrael is comparable to 30 days in the Diaspora. I say, however, that one day in the Holy Land is as dear and important in the eyes of the Holy One Blessed Be He as 30 years in the Diaspora…”