A Tribute to Rabbi Leibowitz
Rebbi: ‘I see six and one-half yeshivos’
“Rebbi.” One of the most beautiful words in the Hebrew language is “Rebbi” – “my Torah teacher.” It is a title that the teacher must earn through acquiring Torah knowledge and then transmit it through love and affection to his students. When earned, the word is said with love and respect of the highest nature. It bonds the Rebbi and his student together like no other word.
I write these thoughts 32,000 feet above the earth as I am flying back to Dallas after spending an emotionally draining afternoon in New York, where I attended the funeral of my Rebbi, Rabbi Alter Hanoch Henach Leibowitz, of blessed memory, the rosh ha-yeshiva of the famed Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva, Queens, N.Y. Thirty-eight years ago, I had the privilege of being a talmid (student) in the rosh ha-yeshiva’s blatt shiur (Talmud class). I still remember the first time I asked the rosh ha-yeshiva a question and prefaced it with the magical word “Rebbi.” Triggered by that word, feelings of awe, love and warmth flowed through my body. For 38 years, every time I spoke or wrote a letter to the rosh ha-yeshiva and used this hallowed name, I felt elevated and truly blessed.
How did Rebbi command the respect, reverence, loyalty, and love of thousands of talmidim, including me, across the globe? I believe the answer is multifaceted.
Rebbi was a world-class scholar and pedagogue. His in-depth analysis of a Talmudic passage or a commentary on the Torah would illuminate otherwise hidden nuggets of beauty that the Talmid would otherwise skim over and miss. He would challenge us by giving us the texts to study before class or before his lecture, and then created an atmosphere of give-and-take between us to tackle a difficult Torah topic. He listened keenly to our questions and approaches and gently guided us to a sound Torah answer. He would take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves, and learn with us with gusto. He gave us the keys to sharpen our abilities of in-depth analysis and an appreciation for the exactitude with which the commentaries wrote their interpretations. When Rebbi saw that the study was becoming too difficult and intense, he would laugh or sing and launch into stories of the gedolim (Torah giants) or the Torah approach to modern-day issues. We then would return to the Torah topic at hand mentally and emotionally refreshed.
Rebbi loved us. Once I drove Rebbi to the barbershop. After entering the shop, I gently and respectfully helped Rebbi take off his coat and I hung it up. The barber came over to us and asked me, “Is this your father?” I proudly answered, “No, he is my teacher.” Yet Rebbi said, “But he is my son.”
Rebbi taught us how to be caring and sensitive with one’s spouse. Over the years, a number of the older single talmidim would dorm in the Rebbi’s basement. I had this phenomenal privilege for close to two years. Coming home from yeshiva and seeing how Rebbi interacted with his first rebbetzin before her passing left an indelible impression on me. The respect, love, and modesty that they had were exemplary. I never heard either one ever raise their voices to each other. I remember the rebbetzin telling me that her job in life was to take care of the rosh ha-yeshiva. The rebbetzin didn’t want Rebbi to wash the dishes. Once she had an appointment which precluded her from cleaning the dishes. Before she left home, she put a sign on the sink: “Please don’t wash the dishes. There is a problem with the water faucet.” Yet, when she returned home, she saw that the dishes were removed from the sink and that Rebbi was washing them in the bathroom sink.
Rebbi taught us humility. When he was asked a question, invariably he would sigh and say “Ich vais?” – “Do I know?” – or “Oy vey!” and then proceed with answering the question in a most insightful way. My brother-in-law from Miami once asked Rebbi how he was able to remain humble. Invariably after he gave public lectures, many people would come over, lavish praise on Rebbi and shake his hand. Rebbi smiled and said, “Reb Avraham Gershon, when people do this, I squeeze their hand in appreciation of their good wishes, but at the same time I consciously think of the many blatt (pages) of the Talmud that I don’t know!”
As the yeshiva grew and its influence was having a greater and greater impact on the klal, Rebbi would thank HaShem and minimize his role by telling us it was in the merit of his father, Reb Dovid, zichrono levracha, who founded the yeshiva and toiled so intently on behalf of his talmidim. He withstood bizyonos – degradations -that came with the building of a Torah organization in an American environment which didn’t appreciate it.
Rebbi taught us to be honest. Rebbi would stress the importance of clearly understanding the basic steps of the Talmud before delving into the commentaries of the sages which would then catapult the topic of Talmud at hand to an entirely new level. Rebbi would tell us not to fall into the trap of fooling ourselves and then impressing others by how intelligent we appear to be. Once after spending a considerable amount of time on a certain topic, Rebbi told us that we would have to leave the topic with unanswered questions. Hopefully when we would study the topic again, HaShem would open our eyes to be able to answer these questions. Though Rebbi could have fooled us by developing an approach that would have sounded acceptable to us, he opted to say he didn’t know!
Rebbi taught us patience. Though he would inspire us to appreciate spreading Torah to our fellow Jews, he urged us to complete the rigorous yeshiva program which spanned up to 15 years of post-high-school intense study. We would ask Rebbi that since the need to teach our fellow Jews is so tremendous wouldn’t it be better if the program was shorter to enable us to start teaching sooner? Rebbi would smile and say, “If they send out a medical student before he completes his studies, they are sending out a butcher and not a surgeon.”
Rebbi taught us how to respect others and give them strength. A close friend of mine learned in the yeshiva for a number of years. He then decided to leave the program and enter the business field. Yet he began to feel guilty that he left the yeshiva and he scheduled an appointment with Rebbi. After the meeting he came to me and said, “Aryeh, I feel so inspired. When I cried to Rebbi that I was a failure because I am no longer in the yeshiva, Rebbi soothed me by saying “Zvulen (not his real name), what do you mean? You will be a rosh ha-yeshiva in your office. By being honest, reliable, showing concern and compassion for others, treating people with respect, not cursing, not speaking lashon hara, you will teach others how to act. You will sanctify the Name of HaShem at your office and wherever you go!” I remember the happiness and positive energy my friend exuded and he became a well respected individual who, along with his children and sons-in-law, would learn and support the yeshiva and other Torah institutions.
Rebbi taught us to laugh. Rebbi would often say that the two essential components for coping with and surmounting the vicissitudes and challenges of life are faith in HaShem and a good sense of humor. Being able to joke helps remove the edge off problems and helps us not take ourselves too seriously. Rebbi loved to hear funny stories. Whenever I would tell Rebbi a joke, Rebbi would always give a hearty laugh. Even though in retrospect a number of the jokes weren’t that funny, I believe Rebbi wanted to teach me the importance of laughing and making someone else feel happy.
Rebbi taught us the importance of Mesorah. Rebbi stressed that we can be creative but never innovative. The Torah was given to Klal Yisroel as a “morasha”- an heirloom – and not a “matana” – a gift. There is a major difference between the two. The receiver of a gift can do whatever he wants with it. He can change, alter, or even destroy it. On the other hand, an heirloom must be preserved and protected and then passed down immutably to the next generation. The Rebbi plays a pivotal role in this process and must accurately understand the principles of Yiddishkeit taught to him by his Rebbi and then steadfastly apply them to the situation he currently faces. Rebbi would share with us the difficulties that Rebbi dealt with, and the reservoir of strength and emotional fortitude that Rebbi was able to access by contemplating how his Rebbi would have dealt with it. Rebbi would spend much time with us and share in great detail Rebbi’s reasoning for the various actions that he took or didn’t take in order to help us better understand the tenets of Yiddishkeit.
Rebbi taught us the importance of learning mussar on a daily basis. There was an emphasis placed on working to refine one’s character. It was truly inspiring to see Rebbi sit down in the yeshiva and totally immerse himself in the study of one of the classical mussar texts. This lesson had the biggest impact on me in the following incident that took place after I left the yeshiva. Thirteen years ago, Rebbi spent Shabbos in Dallas and participated as our distinguished guest speaker for our shul Saturday night dinner. That Shabbos was one of the best Shabboses of my life. Later on that evening the shul function was a smashing success as the attendees were inspired by Rebbi. After we arrived home we spoke for awhile and I expressed my appreciation to Rebbi. It was around 1:30 a.m. when I said goodnight to Rebbi and Rebbi retired to his room. As I was “floating around” my living room Rebbi emerged from his room. I quickly went over to Rebbi and asked if everything was fine and if I could offer Rebbi anything? Rebbi smiled and answered, “Aryeh, I didn’t learn my mussar today and I came out to go to your study to borrow a ‘Chovos Halevavos.’ It might be very early in the morning on a motzai Shabbos but a day shouldn’t go by without learning mussar.”
Rebbi taught us how to solve our dilemmas. When a serious issue came up requiring a certain amount of time to consult with Rebbi, we would make an appointment with Rebbi. Just knowing that we would be afforded the opportunity to spend time with Rebbi was very comforting. Often when the time came for the appointment and we entered Rebbi’s office or living room, Rebbi would begin the conversation by sighing and saying, “Oy vey, I’m in rough shape.” Rebbi would then relate a difficulty he was experiencing with the yeshiva or a personal health problem, and we would find ourselves trying to comfort our beloved Rebbi. By the time we would speak about our problem, we would see it in a different perspective and realize that it wasn’t as severe as we had originally thought.
Rebbi would intently listen to our problem. Many times he would crystallize the options that were in front of us, and then he would want us to make the decision. I remember when I was going out to find my kallah, I would look forward to discussing my dates with Rebbi. Rebbi would insightfully point out to me what were red flags that I should be wary of and what were incidents of little or no concern. After going out on a number of dates with a young lady, I remember walking with Rebbi and asking about different situations that occurred. Rebbi felt that I was over-analyzing what was happening and gently said, “Aryeh, you know people do get married.” I chuckled, and shortly thereafter proposed to the young woman who eventually became my wife.
Rebbi taught us to have vision. A number of years ago, our Dallas boys’ yeshiva took a class trip to New York. The highlight of the trip was meeting with Rebbi. As soon as the 13 young men were ushered into the room, Rebbi looked at them and, with a smile, said, “I see six and one-half yeshivos.” Though these young men were just learning to interpret the Talmud, Rebbi foresaw the tremendous potential that each one possessed and felt that each one of them could pair up and, with the proper training and commitment, start a yeshiva.
Rebbi had and continues to have such a dominant impact on my life. He guided me through every major decision that I have made through the last 38 years by opening up his mind, heart and soul to me. Rebbi said that he would give his blood, sweat, and tears for his Talmidim and he was true to his word. Rebbi taught my pious father-in-law, zichrono levracha, and (may we merit long life) myself and my sons and son-in-law. Rebbi inspired me to become a rabbi and gave me his blessings to move to Dallas to try to build a Torah community. Though I moved 1500 miles away from Rebbi, in a true sense Rebbi came with me. Shortly after I became the rabbi of the shul I called Rebbi and proudly said, “Everything is going beautifully. Membership is booming, classes are very well attended and the congregants are thirsting for Torah knowledge.” Rebbi wished me well. Yet within a month I called back Rebbi for renewed strength and inspiration and this time I said,”Rebbi, I have a number of serious problems within the shul. I need Rebbi’s help.” Rebbi chuckled and responded, “Baruch HaShem! Aryeh, when you first called and said that everything was going well I was concerned that you weren’t doing anything. By definition, helping to build a Torah organization involves dealing with major challenges and obstacles. Now that you say that you are encountering difficulties I feel much better.” I couldn’t help but smile and say, “Rebbi, based on what is happening here I must be doing a spectacular job!”
It is impossible to put into words the appreciation that I have for my esteemed Rebbi. The greatest way for Rebbi’s talmidim to express our gratitude is to share with others the lessons that Rebbi so lovingly taught us.
Our rabbis tell us that it takes 40 years to understand what our Rebbi tells us. Close to 40 years ago, when I was in that barbershop, Rebbi called me his son. I really didn’t understand the significance of what Rebbi meant. According to halachah, one rends one’s garment on the passing of his immediate family members on the right side of his shirt. However for a parent the garments are torn directly over one’s heart. The only other person for whom one expresses his mourning in this manner is for his main Rebbi; the Torah teacher who most significantly shaped his life. When I attended Rebbi’s funeral, I stood up with hundreds of talmidim at the yeshiva and many more around the world, and sadly but proudly tore my garments over my heart for my revered Rebbi, my beloved father.
May Rebbi’s memory be blessed.
A Tribute to Rabbi Leibowitz