By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Last week Klal Yisrael shed a tear. More than 100,000 Jews gathered in Jerusalem Nov. 8 to pay their last respects to one of the premier leaders of our generation: Rabbi Noson Tzvi Finkel. Rabbi Finkel was dean of the renowned Mir Yeshiva of Jerusalem, and he tragically left this world at age 68 due to a sudden heart attack.
I share this with you because his funeral brought an abrupt halt to his story; a story so strange and unexpected that it was surreal, making this great man a legend in his own time throughout the Jewish world. We would be sorely remiss if we didn’t pay tribute to a figure that who one day will be regarded by historians with awe and marvel. I also feel that the message of his amazing life is one that can truly inspire and uplift us all.
Many have said that Rabbi Finkel was the foremost builder of Torah in our generation; during his 20-year tenure, he built the Talmudic academy of Mir into the largest yeshiva in Israel and perhaps the world with more than 6,000 scholars learning in its halls of study. Through his vision, passion and travels throughout the Jewish world, he inspired others to join him, even during tough financial times, to provide support for the training of so many scholars and future Jewish leaders. Rabbi Finkel built the mammoth buildings and the infrastructure to support scholarship and greatness to the extent that it transformed forever the look of the center of Jerusalem. All this was accomplished in addition to a dizzying schedule of classes and seminars, which he delivered to some of the greatest Jewish scholars in the world.
All of this is amazing enough. But what makes his life even more amazing is that Rabbi Finkel accomplished all of the above despite suffering from advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease for close to a quarter of a century.
The disease often affected him so powerfully he could barely talk. He would have to be carried to the car, and from there to the plane in Tel Aviv, where he would fly to the next parlor meeting for the Yeshiva in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and elsewhere; so long as he could continue obtaining support for the continued building of the Yeshiva!
I had the privilege of witnessing his discourses first-hand; as he spoke to the entire scholarship body at the Yeshiva, he had to grasp tightly onto a pole on one side and the lectern on the other to prevent his body from gyrating too much during the lecture. He was clearly in tremendous pain, but didn’t flinch for a moment as he delivered a brilliant, profound hour-long Talmudic discourse.
Though a brilliant speaker with an almost insane schedule, the Rosh Yeshiva never minimized his stature as the paradigm Torah educator, always expressing the utmost fatherly love to his students, which numbered in the hundreds. He would worry about their eating, bring regards from trips abroad and be there to advise them. He was my advisor and a very close one: I’ll never forget sitting with him while relating the growth of DATA and the community. While I spoke, he listened carefully, a huge smile on his face, tears of joy welling up in his eyes.
Though he was the dean of the “Harvard of Yeshivot,” the elite academy of the world, Reb Noson Tzvi was humble in his dealing with others. Some years ago, he addressed a large group of American high school students who were participating in a summer program in Israel. The students were nervous, wondering if he spoke English, wondering what message he might delivery. They were stunned to silence when he entered the room and gripped the lectern, clearly in pain.
Then he smiled. “Is anyone here from Chicago?” he wanted to know. A tall boy in the front row said he was. R. Finkel continued: “Do you study in the Academy (referring to a modern, co-ed Jewish high school in Chicago)?” The boy answered in the affirmative, and the Rabbi said, “So did I. Do you play on the basketball team?” The tall boy said yes, and the very tall Rabbi said, “So did I, I played center.” That exchange with the boy and his following talk — which, incidentally, didn’t leave a dry eye in the room — was that he started off just like the rest of them, and look at what he became! If he could do it, so could everyone else in the room. And with that he left, leaving an indelible impression that would last a lifetime.
He did the same to the larger Jewish world. May his impression be lasting, his name be a blessing and may we follow in his footsteps to powerfully actualize our potential Jewish greatness.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.