The loss of our leaders

Dear Friends and Readers,

Many have commented on the loss of significant Jewish world leaders during this COVID period, and in fact we have, indeed, tragically been orphaned over the past year of many of the sages who have been at the helm of the Jewish people for decades. The Jewish people have always treasured its leaders, looking to them for strength and direction, and their loss is a time of contemplation and reckoning. 

Most well-known of Jewish teachers, of course, was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks ob”m, former chief rabbi of England and one of the most prolific writers of our generation. Rabbi Sacks had the uncanny ability to present traditional Judaism and its thoughts to Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations, bringing the timeless messages of Torah even to the non-Jewish world as well. I’ll never forget the unity he brought to Dallas when my dear friend Meyer Denn brought him to Dallas on behalf of the Jewish Federation, bringing Jews of every stripe together to study the depths of our tradition. His loss will be felt for many years, and his numerous works will live on, continuing to enrich the future generations. 

So much has been said and written about Rabbi Sacks that I saw fit to inform the readers about another incalculable loss, albeit that of an individual whose existence, sadly, most Jews perhaps didn’t even know of.

This less known figure in the lay Jewish world, who left this world just a couple of weeks ago, was Rav Dovid Feinstein ob”m, the dean of the prestigious yeshiva known as MTJ on the Lower East Side of New York. In the scholarly world, Rav Feinstein was known as the Poseik Hador, the foremost decisor of Jewish law throughout America and the diaspora. The son of the renowned and revered authority Rav Moshe Feinstein ob”m, who was the unchallenged authority of Jewish law in America for 50 years, Rav Dovid was his able successor for the last 30 years. He was the final address for the knottiest, most difficult questions of Jewish law, drawing upon his vast knowledge and proficiency in all areas of Torah, Talmud and Codes of Jewish Law. 

One reason that Rav Feinstein was not so well-known in the world was precisely his greatness — his profound humility brought him to stay as far as he could out of the limelight and the public eye. He was completely devoted to understanding, and mastering, the subtle nuances of all areas of our tradition, utilizing that knowledge to help those in need of a solution. He provided direction to all who sought his advice, no matter who they were, simple individuals or the most important Jewish institutions of our generation, all who knew of his hidden greatness.

Many of those who knew him and had observed his quiet service of Klal Yisrael over generations, all made a similar observation: As towering a giant as Rav Dovid was in his unparalleled knowledge of Torah, equally giant was he in his chesed, his love and bestowal of kindness to every person in need of his help. Whether it was financial need, and he would find an address to help; an emotional need, and he would provide the necessary words of encouragement; or direction in life, Rav Dovid was there. His uncanny understanding of people coupled with his true love of every Jew enabled him to zero in on exactly what was needed by the petitioner. Even for small children, he would lovingly bend down to them and see what was on their minds, making them feel special.

A young boy was standing in the yeshiva, looking sad. Rav Dovid, passing by, noticed the boy and asked him why he was so sad. He said he lost his quarter in the vending machine, and the cake didn’t come out. Rav Dovid, despite his advanced age and myriad responsibilities (and with all the keys to the yeshiva), unlocked the machine and got down on his knees to retrieve the quarter. His secretary came by, frantically looking for the esteemed dean, asking him what he is doing and reminding him he has important rabbis waiting for him in his office for a meeting. Rav Dovid, nonplussed, simply replied that right now this quarter is important to this boy; the rabbis can wait for him until the boy gets his quarter back! 

The very existence of an individual like Rav Dovid had a ripple effect upon the entire generation. Every Jew of the generation was affected by him in some way, as the overall health and strength of our Jewish institutions owed much of their success to having their clarity of mission and execution strengthened by a man who could provide just that. For example, an institution like ArtScroll/Mesorah Publishers, which has literally brought about a revolution in Torah study in our generation, received daily guidance and encouragement from Rav Dovid, its main adviser. So profoundly expressed by ArtScroll’s founder and leader, Rabbi Nosson Scherman: “There was a world with Rav Dovid, and now, a world without Rav Dovid.”

May his legendary erudition in Torah study, teaching, proffering of his lovingkindness and humility be a roadmap to us all to unlock the potential within us to be the greatest Jews we can. May this bring back some of the lost illumination we suffered with his loss, especially felt in such confusing times. 

May his memory be a blessing. 

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