Rabbi Asher Zelig Rubenstein zt”l on his Sheloshim
(25 Shevat 5774/ January 26, 2014):
Rebbe’s Personal Demand for Truth
By: Rabbi Yosef Tropper
I am still in the same shock that I was on Motzei Shabbos Parshas Vaeira (25 Teves 5774) when I learned that my dear rebbe had been niftar. Time does not heal the loss that the entire Torah world has suffered. “Avi Avi Rechev Yisrael” were the famous words that Elisha cried about his great rebbe, Eliyahu. First he mourned his own loss “avi, my father” and then he mourned the loss that Klal Yisroel suffered, “rechev yisrael, the leader of Israel.” Rebbe’s life was one that inspired me personally as a talmid and truthfully as a father figure and his life had an impact on the entire Jewish nation with his speeches and fearless divrei emes delivered across the globe. Rebbe served as our link to gedolei yisrael of this and the previous generation, with ease and comfort. Rebbe took the loftiest and most important lessons of life and shared them with us in a way that was palpable, practical and perfectly true.
From the moment that I heard the shocking and bitter news I keep going over in my mind the thought about rebbe as a person, his life, his message and the thousands of lessons that I learned from him. It is so hard to capture the essence of a man who so deeply inspired me and shaped my life through his wisdom, care and passion.
Larger Than Life
Rav Aharon Feldman shlit”a spoke about Rebbe’s fire and power. He said that it’s hard to imagine such a powerful and strong man physically, emotionally and spiritually who is no longer with us. It is an utter shock. He said that Rebbe’s tefillah and his emunah were unbelievable and were something that inspired everyone around him. Rav Asher zt”l was a legend among us and a person whom we looked up to physically and spiritually. He set high standards for himself and for his family and he demanded great things from all those whom he loved. He only demanded what he himself practiced first.
Rebbe’s love of Torah knew no bounds. Rebbe’s face lit up when he learned Torah and when you shared a thought from him. Rebbe’s life revolved around Torah and avodas Hashem. He always talked about how learning Torah brings one the greatest pleasure in life and we saw this embodied in him.
I once told him, I can summarize every shmooz that Rebbe ever gave with two pesukim. “In Tehillim (73:1-2) David says, ‘Hashem only wants to give us good… I was almost lost before I understood this’ (see Rashi and Metudos there). King David is saying that the most important understanding in life is that Hashem is the ultimate mativ, Provider of Good.” Rav Asher gave me a huge hug, “that’s right, there’s no better life than that of a person who is in touch with the chessed and chochmah of Hashem. Very good, niflah me’od!” He kept patting my back and smiling with his huge grin.
Rebbe was against perishus that made a person feel limited. We are here to enjoy Hashem’s world he would always say with a smile. We are human beings who want Olam Haseh. Rebbe was bothered when other people only spoke about Olam Habah. His life’s message was that one who learns Torah and has emunah in Hashem has a great and enjoyable life in this world as well! Rebbe taught us to be honest with ourselves and not to practice unreasonable perishus. He still shared lofty levels with us and he inspired us as we watched him strive to be greater each day.
Rebbe encouraged us to take every opportunity to learn and keep our sedarim. Of course we should attend simchos and dance at the weddings of our friends, but a ben Torah does not look for excuses to leave seder. Rebbe would joke about bochrim that asked him permission to go to far off simchos without justification: “My grandmother’s friend’s neighbor’s cousin’s wedding in Natanya where I am concerned that not many people will attend and I need to be there.” “A pidyon peter chamor in the Galil, I’m really into this mitzvah Rebbe, you may not have known this about me…” Rebbe’s guideline was to be honest about the importance of seder weighed against the importance and justification for why one was leaving.
It was interesting to me that one time a shul a few blocks away from the yeshiva advertised a large hachnasas sefer Torah event. Rebbe told us that keeping to our seder was more important as most of us did not have any connection with that shul. Later that evening just as night seder was about to begin we heard the singing and dancing of the procession marching right past the yeshiva building. Rebbe instructed us to quickly join for a few minutes to dance, sing and escort the Torah. He went and danced with great emotion and love and we all followed. When we returned to yeshiva I asked him, “Rebbe, I thought that you told us not to go, what happened, did the Rosh Yeshiva change his mind?” He replied to us all, “We don’t go out to find these types of mitzvos without a connection to that shul, but if it comes to us, we honor the Torah, how can we not join in the simcha when it comes to our front door?! I felt it was important for all of us to stop for a few minutes and join in the simchas HaTorah.” What a powerful lesson.
Rebbe’s 13-year-old grandson recently made a siyum on Mishnayos Seder Taharos. Rebbe came to the celebration and was very emotional. He was so moved by this great accomplishment in learning that he shared with his family: “It was worth me coming to this world and to endure all of the challenges of olam hazeh to reach this milestone of seeing my grandson having completed Seder Taharos.” Rebbe loved to share in the siyum of his children and talmidim.
Every time that I spoke at a simcha in his presence, shared a dvar Torah at his Shabbos meal or sent him a written dvar Torah he would build me up and generously compliment my work. He loved to hear our thoughts and to develop our abilities. I sent him many shtickel Torahs and he would often compliment them and add his thoughts. He told me that he had a folder in which he saved each one that I ever sent. I know of many other Talmidim whom he also did this for. So great was his love of Torah and of his students.
Many yeshiva bochrim who come to Eretz Yisrael feel a great draw to the Kosel HaMaaravi. Rebbe encouraged us to go there and to daven, to pour out our hearts before Hashem in a special place of tefillos of the Jewish nation. At the same time, Rebbe reminded us with clear direction that learning and davening in the yeshiva is a most important task as well and one should not get carried away with his visits to the kosel. The kosel is kodesh, but the learning in yeshiva is kodesh k’dashim.
He learned daf yomi as long as I knew him in addition to the iyun preparation for his shiur. He was always learning even in the car, he had tapes, shiurim and brought his laptop to play shiurim from when he traveled. Often when I would meet up with him he would share a fresh vort on yiras shamayim which he just heard or had something to add to.
Rebbe always asked about my learning. He was michayav you to learn more and more and to think about ruchnius. You couldn’t avoid the pointed questions. “I’m asking you because I love you and care. Can you make more time in your day to learn more iyun?” He asked about your family, health and parnasah, he laughed and cried with you, these things were important to him when it came to his talmidim’s wellbeing, but the most important topic was, “are you growing in Torah? I am your rebbe and I worry about this.”
Often people accused Rebbe of brainwashing his students! They complained that before students met him they had dreams of going to college and entering the work force but after hearing his powerful speeches they dedicated more and more time to learning Torah. Rebbe was very proud of the accusation and would not deny it. He often stated, “yes, you are right, I did brainwash your son, I took his dirty brain and I washed off the filth and grime, in this yeshiva we teach him emes and the beauty of Torah. You are right, we brainwash here!”
Rebbe was full of emunah. In every situation in life he would say, there is a Rebbono shel Olam who is in charge. When I was going thru a hard time he told me, “Yosef, you an call me or visit any time to cry on my shoulder, I am crying with you. But never forget that the Rebono shel Olam knows what you are going thru and He feels your pain. It is for a reason, we don’t understand, but He keeps track and knows what is best for you.”
Rebbe always told over the story about how Rav Chatzkal was once in the Ponowitz Yeshiva office and saw the staff fumbling through the box of a new appliance which had just arrived at the yeshiva. Rav Chatzkal asked what they were looking for. They replied that they needed to find the manual. “What makes you think there is a manual included? They all responded to Rav Chatzkal, “every manufacturer must provide an instruction manual.” Upon hearing this Rav Chatzkal gave a clop on the table and announced, “this is proof for Torah min hashamayim!” The students looked at him bewildered asking him to explain. Rav Chatzkal picked up a chumash and exclaimed, “Hashem created the world and He gave us the instruction manual you see here, He is the manufacture and must provide the manual! For best results in life, follow this guide!” Rav Asher lived every day of his life according to that manual and he achieved a happy and radiant life.
Connection to His Rebbe
Rebbe looked up to and adored gedolim. He spoke with deep love and respect of Rav Chatzkal. Rebbe had a talmid who was a grandson of Rav Chatzkal and whom he invested much time, energy and tears to help him reach his potential as a ben Torah as an expression of his hakaras hatov for this student’s illustrious grandfather. When this student had a child while learning in kollel he invited Rav Asher to the bris and honored him with krias shem. Rav Asher pronounced his part with loudness and boom until the talmid whispered the name which he would be giving the child, Yechezkel, after Rav Chatzkal, the baby’s great-grandfather. Rav Asher was so moved and in such deference for his rebbe that it took him 45 seconds to compose himself and continue to say the new name. He became deeply emotional and moved. Those present said that they saw firsthand the intimate connection and love which a talmid shared with his rebbe.
Sweet Way of Talking
Rav Asher delivered his shmoozin with a boom. He was not afraid to say what had to be said even if in his words, “you won’t hear this anywhere else in the world…” At the same time he was very caring and sensitive and all those whom he interacted with were overcome by his kindness and sensitivity. I was once in the room when Rav Asher saw a friend of mine do something slightly immature. Rebbe smiled and quoted the posuk “ki naar yisrael veohaveihu, Israel is a child and I love him.” The student got the message that his actions were childish but also got a smile from the Rosh Yeshiva which remained with him.
The picture of Rebbe that remains etched in my mind is that of his wide smile and enjoyment of life. A shmoneh esrei and benching do not go by without me recalling how much joy and pleasure rebbe got from talking to Hashem and giving thanks.
Rebbe loved to tell over the story of “Moshe” (actual name), a colleague of his who had learned together with him in Ponevetz. Moshe was deeply drawn to Rav Chatzkal’s mussar shmoozin and never missed a class just like Rebbe. In fact Moshe would sit on the steps of the bima to get a front row view of Rav Chatzkal. Moshe got engaged and the wedding was to take place in Israel. Moshe’s mother called him to share the good news that she would be coming in early for the wedding. She would be landing on an El Al flight at Lod airport on Wednesday evening at 7pm. Moshe was in a challenging situation as Wednesday nights at 7pm Rav Chatzkal gave his shiur! Rav Asher spoke it over with Moshe as he was his shomer and they both agreed that only Rav Chatzkal could decide what to do. Rav Chatzkal told Moshe, there is no question, kibud aim, you must go meet your mother at the airport. Moshe accepted the psak.
On that fateful Wednesday evening at 7pm Rav Asher reported that he came to hear Rav Chatzkal’s shmooz and low and behold Moshe was sitting on the step in his usual spot. Rebbe joked, “I admit that I was not dan him lkav zchus I thought his zeal to hear the shiur got the most of him.” After the class Rav Asher rushed over to find out what lead to this change in plans, “weren’t you supposed to pick up your mother?” “I did,” replied Moshe. But her plane was scheduled to land at 7pm (Rav Asher joked that back then if the plane landed on the same day within 24 hours of its scheduled time it was considered on time.) Moshe explained, when I called the airline at 3pm today they said the plane was landing at 5pm. I thought it was a mistake but they confirmed it. I rushed to the airport and picked my mother up in a cab at 5pm and made it back in time for the 7pm shmooz. While driving back from the airport my mother said, “Moshe, do you want to hear something funny? The pilot announced that in all his years of flying he never ever made it to Israel this fast, there must have been some wind carrying the plane!” Moshe winked at Rav Asher and said, “I didn’t tell my mother that the wind was my desire to attend Rav Chatzkal’s shiur!” Rav Asher said he then looked at Moshe in amazement and told exclaimed, “Moshe, this story is amazing, it’s mindboggling.” Moshe corrected him, “it’s not amazing, it’s the most elementary rule, Rav Chatzkal tells us this all the time, one who wants to do the right thing will get help from heaven to do it. It’s just that simple, no big feat!”
Rebbe told over that whenever Rav Chatzkal would give advice he would end by stating, “that’s just my opinion, you don’t have to follow it if you chose not to.” Rebbe wondered what this was about and he asked some of the older talmidim who knew Rav Chatzkal from Europe. He learned that Rav Chatzkal used to give advice and people who didn’t follow it had terrible tragedies befall them, they lost all their money, got badly hurt and some ever passed away. Rav Chatzkal found out about this and needed to correct it and so he began to tell the students that they were not chayav to follow his recommendations so that there would be no kitrug in shamayim on them. Rebbe told me once, “I am not Rav Chatzkal, my advice I share is what I think is best for you, and because I love you, but you are not bound by it.”
Rebbe told over that he had a friend in Ponovitz who was constantly late for shachris and seder, he was unable to get up in the morning. One Bein Hazemanim he went to say goodbye to his Rebbe and told him that he had an extremely early flight the next morning as he was heading home. Rav Chatzkal was very alarmed and davened that he should oversleep and miss his flight. “I don’t want them to say in shamayim, he missed shachris because he’s unable to get up, but for a flight he is able.” That is exactly what happened, the boy snoozed right thru and had to catch a later flight.
I had a friend in yeshiva who had the same scenario, he wouldn’t get up for shachris and he had an early morning flight to catch. I was mispalel that he should oversleep and I reminded him of the story we had both heard from Reb Asher. “Yosef,” he replied, “your tefillah won’t work I already got a beracha and limud zechus from Rav Asher, he told me that if I’m mikabel to work on getting up early for shachris he will bless me to be able to catch my flight!” And so it was!
Rebbe told us about Rav Chatzkal’s passion and hard work and how Rav Chatzkal pushed himself to get up every morning and to daven and learn with hasmadah. One bachur who had trouble getting up in the morning hung a picture of Rav Chatzkal above his bed. Rebbe was very amused to report that whenever he found that bachur oversleeping in bed he saw that the picture was overturned to face the wall. Rebbe said, “you couldn’t stay in bed and have excuses with Rav Chatzkal looking at you!”
An Amazing Rebbe
When I first began to teach as a 6th grade rebbe I called up Reb Asher to get his advice. He told me that he was a milamed tinokos for a short time and he gave me words of encouragement. “Yosef, this is the only advice I can offer, if you do this you will be successful and a beloved rebbe. Every morning before you teach your class you need to do three things. Number 1- Fill your heart up with the love of the Kadosh Baruch Hu, I love you Hashem. Number 2- Fill your heart up with the love of His Torah, I love Your holy Torah. And Number 3- Fill your heart up with the love of your talmidim, habanim ailu hatalmidim and pass on your ahavas Hashem v’Toraso. Show them your love of learning and life and your care for them and you will be the best!” This I think summarizes how rebbe related to each one of us, his dear children in whom he instilled a true Ahavas Torah.
Rebbe’s focus on shalom bayis began with his own example and passed down with power to the talmidim. Rebbe always said over: The Gemara in Berachos (8a) states that they would ask the chosson (groom): Is your wife a “motza isha motza tov, you found a wife and found goodness (Mishlei 18:22)”, or is she a “motzey ani mar mimaves es haisha, I have found more miserable than death, the woman! (Koheles 7:26).” This is quite an intense question to be given to a new groom. What is it all about? Additionally, the famous question on this Gemara is why and how did they have the nerve to ask this to the chosson and what did it accomplish? Is it not considered lashon harah, evil slander, to even discuss the matter (asked by the Chofetz Chaim)? I heard this from Rebbe at countless sheva berachos.
Rebbe explained a beautiful concept here. Whether or not you succeed in marriage is solely in your hands! If one comes into the marriage focusing only on himself, he will fail. If on the other hand one strives to love, appreciate and care for his wife, he will find true happiness. These are the two options placed before the chosson. Will you be a ‘motza isha’, will you be focused on finding her… In that case, you will ‘find goodness and blessing from Hashem’ just as the verse states. Or will someone choose to be a ‘motzey ani’ focused on ani, the self, representing selfishness and self-interests only. In that case, it will be ‘mar mimaves, more miserable than death.’ The chosson wasn’t expected to answer the question. He was simply being given vital marriage advice. He was being told that if he wanted to succeed and achieve happiness, he should learn to focus on “motza isha, always look to be in touch with your wife’s needs and feelings.” This was Rebbe in such a deep way.
Rebbe loved to share how he once overheard the following conversation and found it to be extremely powerful. “Yaakov, where is your car?” asked David. “I gave it to my wife to drive today.” “Are you kidding Yaakov, you trust her with your car?!” “David, if I trust her with my life, I certainly can trust her with a simple car….!” He always told us about how finding a good wife will determine your success in life.
A friend of mine called me to ask me a question about Rav Asher’s shidduch tapes. Rav Asher said that when you go on a date you should open the door for the young lady, how long does this apply, we are now B”H married? I reminded my friend that whenever we see Rav Asher and the Rebbetzin travel together after their years of marriage Rebbe always opens up his wife’s door first to allow her into the car! We all saw this repeat itself on so many occasions.
Why Not You?
Rebbe always told over how when his rebbe, Rav Mordecai Gifter zt”l from Telse, Cleveland was in yeshiva, he put up pictures on his wall of all the gedolim. In the middle he left a black page and on it he wrote, “why not you?” Rebbe explained that when you strive for greatness, Hashem will help you accomplish anything you set your mind to. Many of the talmidim found this advice very inspirational and followed suit.
Rebbe took things to heart. He would always say, “wow, niflah amazing, isn’t that powerful, beautiful? When he heard emes it made a deep impression on his life. He was a real shomeah, one who listens and takes to heart. He loved to talk about Vayishma Yisro, how Yisro was the only gentile in the world to take action after krias yam suf! “Daber elokim ki shomeiah anochi, I am listening Hashem.”
Rebbe loved to tell over the story of Rav Elya Lopian (1876-1970), a true master of mussar. A student once asked Rav Elya for permission to go to an inappropriate place. Rav Elya said, “how can you go there, it’s a place of great pritzus?! “Oh Rebbe, don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me, I don’t even notice!” Rav Elya responded with great concern, “what’s your name and mother’s name, please tell me.” Why? “Because I need to daven for you. “Why rebbe?” “You must be ill. I’m a weak old man who is blind in one eye and when I go near places like that it greatly bothers me. You are a young man with full strength and healthy eyesight, and yet you report that it doesn’t bother you, you must be sick, I will daven for your recovery.” The bachur got the message. Rebbe used to share this story all of the time. He was not embarrassed to talk about man’s own vulnerability and weaknesses. Rebbe spoke to our level and showed us that there is nothing wrong with being human, we simply need to learn how to control ourselves and accomplish. We need to strive to be great.
Many of us bochrim came to yeshiva from a non-Torah background. We often spoke to Rebbe about foolish mistakes and avairos we did when we were young. Rebbe would always reassure us and quote the Gemara’s expression of, “miyom omdi al daati, from the day that I reached maturity and understanding.” Rebbe said that the Kadosh Baruch Hu will forgive you for sins you did without knowledge. We all made foolish mistakes as kids. The Kadosh Baruch Hu understands and only holds you responsible from the time that you reached understanding. Rebbe encouraged us, now that you are in Toras Simcha and learned about emunah, limud HaTorah, emes and the purpose in life, you have reached understanding and are responsible to act accordingly. That was his message. I feel that Rebbe embodied this, he never denied his challenges as a youth, in fact he often shared them with us, he was proud of his personal work in Torah and avodas hamiddos. I believe that from the day that he saw emes he continued to pursue it and live it unrelentingly.
He had certain phrases that he loved to sing during davening. His heart was filled with passion and he was not embarrassed to express it. During maariv he would sing the words with power, “Ki heim chayeinu…, Torah is our life.” Those words meant so much to him. In Ahava Rabba he would always hum, “vikeiravtanu…. Hashem drew us close to His service…” In shema he would strengthen his perishus, “vlo sosuru… don’t turn after your eyes,” he would shake his head and wave his finger to stress the importance of not straying. This made a powerful impact on us. When Rebbe reciting the birchas kohanim and said the word “beahava, to bless the nation with love” my heart melted every time as I felt it.
Rebbe always told us about the two videos one of the life that you lived and the other of the life that you could have lived and accomplished. Rebbe begged us to live a life of happiness and success in bringing out our potential and doing what we know is right.
A deranged person once opened the door in the middle of the Gemara shiur and sat down. I motioned to the Rosh Yeshiva asking whether he wanted me to remove him, Rebbe shook his head telling me, no, let him stay. The man began to ask questions. Rav Asher stopped and listened respectfully and even answered him. The man saw that he was not getting the upset response he was seeking and so he walked out. Rebbe was a profound anav. He could be powerful and booming, but he was soft and sensitive to every situation.
Rav Asher was deeply emotional and moved by things. He knew how to laugh and he knew how to cry. Whenever you shared sad news he would cry with you. When you shared a simcha he would rejoice. I always heard him whispering words of emunah and thanks to Hashem such as “chasdei Hashem yisbarach.” I was particularly moved whenever I would tell him a story of chasdei Hashem, emunah or hasgacha, he would shake his head knowingly and say, “I told you that Hashem is Great, He is in charge and He is the ultimate mativ.” Rebbe used everything that he heard as an opportunity to get closer to Hashem and to be mischazek his emunah.
One of my last conversations with him took place when he was in Baltimore for my brothers aufruf and wedding in Septeember 2013. Rebbe talked about how Hashem gives all of us talents and they are meant to be used to built Torah and produce results for Klal Yisrael, as Rav Yochanan said to Reish Lakish, “cheilecha l’oreisa, your strengths belong and are fit to be channeled for the Torah.”
He asked to speak last at the Aufruf and he shared the importance of learning from our great ancestors and the gedolim before us. He cried about the foundation that we have to build and how we must learn from the pashiyos to follow the Avos. He was overjoyed to spend that weekend with so many of his talmidim and he even told me how proud he was of many of them, especially one who was recently married and whose wife was encouraging her husband to be kovaiya itim to learn.
Rav Zishe Salomon the mashgiach of Toras Simcha spoke about how Rav Asher shared his love with everyone. He loved Torah and he loved his Talmidim and he was willing to do anything to give a compliment and word of encouragement. He said that He stressed that he strongly believes that Rav Asher would not want the Talmidim to walk away thinking and obsessing about the tragedy of his passing, rather, they should think about what we will accept on ourselves to understand that there is an Eibishter in the world who gives us the gift of life and the ability to become a great person.
Rav Berel Eichenstein spoke about the greatness and uniqueness of Rav Asher who was a rare blend of his being a Rosh Yeshiva and Mashgiach. He was also a Talmid, he wanted to learn from anyone. He was also a yedid, a great friend who never relented his closeness in all times of needs and good. Rav Eichenstein said, “He was one of the few of my dearest friends.” He stated that he was too saddened and too shocked to even weep, my pain is too deep to even sob. “You were the captain of this ship, this yeshiva and there is no replacement.”
I recall this story with clarity and it is very powerful for me to share. In 2005, Rebbe heard about a certain gadol who had passed away right before he began his Gemara shiur. He talked about the man’s life, his Torah and his greatness. He then exclaimed that the gadol had all his faculties until the very end. Rebbe then said that Chazal tell us that one should daven for a good death (Berachos 8a). He then gave a heartfelt tefillah asking for the same. He closed his eyes and held out his fist, “please Rebono Shel Olam…” Rebbe was zocheh to teach and learn Torah with his full cognizance until his very last day. His entire theme of life was mindfulness and I believe that the Rebono Shel Olam granted him his request in that zechus.
What can I say? Rebbe’s life, Torah and message had a profound on me that will remain for a lifetime. So many friends have shared the sentiment with me that only Rav Asher himself could teach us what to say and how to react to this great loss and tragedy.
As I think about ways to deal with my sadness I recall a story that I believe expresses what Rebbe would say to us right now. I will never forget one Tisha b’av at yeshiva where we sat with him weeping on the floor saying kinos. He spoke about how his rabbeim wept and mourned the churban. At chatzos we finished the kinos and got up to rest. Rebbe stood up and began to give out wedding invitations to the rabbeim and posted it on the bulletin board. His daughter’s wedding was coming up in a few days. I was shocked and thought to myself, how do you give out wedding invitations on Tisha B’Av?
I went over to him and asked, “Rebbe, with all due respect, it’s Torah and I need to understand, isn’t today a day of mourning?” Many people gathered around to hear his response to a question they also shared. With a twinkle in his eye he answered, “People think that Tisha B’av is a time for mourning and depression. This is totally wrong and not what it’s all about. We spend the morning thinking about the tragedies caused by our sins and our disconnection from Hashem. At chatzos we brush off the ashes and dirt and we commit ourselves to be better and to build. Mashiach is born at this time according to Chazal. A day well spent produces closeness to Hashem, teshuva and geula. I am giving out this invitation because it is one of the greatest ways to continue building Klal Yisrael, a Jewish home brings the shechina and rebuilds the churvos yerushalaim.” We were deeply moved.
Rebbe taught us how to mourn and how to grow from the experience. How paradoxically the mourning is to lead to the deepest connection to our inner core, values and to the Kadosh Baruch Hu. I have been unable to take any comfort since my Rebbe’s passing. He was so young, he had so much more to do and to share. He was so healthy and vibrant. He was so precious to all of us. It is so hard to accept. Yet the only glimmer of comfort that I hear is Rebbe’s voice in the back of my head saying with emotion and power, get up off the floor, don’t fall into depression. The shmuzin that I gave were real, life has a purpose and you each have so much to accomplish. Continue in the path of the Avos and your Rabbeim and become great.
I conclude with the Rebbetzin’s shtichyeh powerful words which she shared with me over the phone when I called to give comfort and really to receive comfort. I have really taken them to heart: “The Rosh Yeshiva zt”l planted many seeds, please make sure that you water them and reap them.” How true and how powerful. We owe it to him and we owe it to ourselves.
Yhi zichro baruch.
In Honor of the Sheloshim
Rav Asher Zelig Hakohein Rubenstein: An Appreciation
By Rabbi Avraham Rosenthal
Nearly a month has passed since the tragic and untimely passing of our rebbi, Rav Asher Rubenstein. Not only did I merit being his talmid for nearly three and a half decades, I also was most fortunate to work with him in his yeshiva, Toras Simcha, for the last fifteen years. The pain is still very great. In one fell swoop, I lost a rebbi, a role model, an advisor and a father-figure. But this loss is not just a personal one. It is a loss for his talmidim specifically, and the Olam Hatorah in general. Rav Asher stood for many things: Emunah peshutah, avodas hatefillah, commitment to Torah and a kosher, Jewish lifestyle. We will attempt in the limited space of a newspaper article to try and capture the essence of this great individual who will be sorely missed.
Rav Asher’s paternal grandfather, Rav Yosef, was known in Hungary and subsequently in the US as a tremendous masmid and oved Hashem. Rav Moshe Bick, one of the foremost poskim on these shores, said of him, “Rav Yosef is the biggest oved Hashem in America!” Rav Yosef was such a masmid that he only slept in a bed on Shabbos.
Rav Asher’s father, R’ Yirmiyahu, studied in Yeshivas Kesav Sofer in Hungary and immigrated to the US together with his father, where they joined the kehillah of the Mattersdorfer Rov, Rav Shmuel Ehrenfeld.
As a young bochur, Rav Asher went to learn in Yeshivas Telshe in Cleveland under Rav Mordechai Gifter, Rav Mordechai Katz and Rav Chaim Stein.
When Rav Asher was seventeen years old, he heard a drasha from the Ponevizher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahanaman, who was in America at the time. Rav Asher was so betaken by the drasha that he approached the Rov afterwards and said that he wanted to learn in Ponevizh. Rav Kahanaman told him that his yeshiva was not for American boys and offered to arrange for the young bochur to learn in a different yeshiva. Rav Asher would not be dissuaded and in Elul 5719 (1959), he arrived in Bnei Brak.
Overcoming the many difficulties of adjusting to life in Eretz Yisroel of those days in general, and the type of learning in Ponevizh specifically, Rav Asher made great strides in his learning and acquired a name for himself as a masmid and lomdon. He merited to hear shiurim from the great roshei yeshiva, Rav Elazar Menachem Shach, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky, and Rav Dovid Povarsky. While there, Rav Asher forged a very close and deep relationship with the mashgiach, Rav Yechezkal Levenstein and listened attentively to the mussar shmuessen and vaadim. Rav Asher related that he merited to hear five shmuessen and vaadim from Rav Chatzkel every week for five years!
After two and a half years, Rav Asher returned to the US and for six months learned in Yeshivas Mir under Rav Shmuel Brudni and Rav Shmuel Birnbaum. While there, Rav Asher sent a letter to Rav Levenstein asking whether he should return to Eretz Yisroel. Rav Chatzkel responded that he should indeed return and if he does, “perhaps he will merit to attain a level from which he will have an influence on students great in Torah, and not just simple learners” (Ohr Yechezkal, Michtavim, #377).
After an additional two and a half years in Ponevizh, Rav Asher returned to the US and learned under Rav Shneur Kotler in Lakewood. While there, he also learned bechavrusa with the mashgiach, Rav Nosson Watchtfogel, who held him in high esteem.
In 5726, Rav Asher married Sheina Gittel, the daughter of Rav Tzvi Yaakov Isbee. Rav Nechemyah Isbee, the kallah’s grandfather, was noted for his tremendous mesiras nefesh for shemiras Shabbos, as he was often fired from his job on Friday when he reported that he would not be coming to work on Shabbos. Rav Tzvi Yaakov and his wife were moser nefesh for their children’s chinuch and the numerous acts of chesed that they performed.
When the young couple became engaged they had decided to move to Eretz Yisroel as soon as possible after the chasunah. Upon doing so, Rav Asher joined Kollel Torah Umussar under the leadership of Rav Avraham Yaffen, the son-in-law of the Alter of Novardok, with whom he merited to form a very strong bond. At the time, Rav Asher became very close to Rav Binyamin Zilber as well, who used to give mussar talks in the kollel.
When Rav Asher was twenty-seven, he was approached by Rav Mordechai Elefant who asked him to become a maggid shiur and mashgiach in his recently opened Yeshivas Itri. Rav Asher went to consult with his rebbi, Rav Chatzkel, who encouraged him to take the position and blessed him that he should succeed. Rav Asher always attributed his success to the bracha he received from the mashgiach.
In 1981, Rav Asher joined Yeshivas Mishkan Hatorah, which was opened by Rav Berel Eichenstein and Rav Moshe Romm, where he served as a maggid shiur and mashgiach.
Seven years later in 1988, in order enhance his own personal learning and hasmadah, Rav Asher became the head of Kollel Pri Eitz Chaim in Ashdod, where he gave shiurim and mussar talks.
In 1995 he was approached by Rav Shmuel Auerbach, who asked him to open a new yeshiva for English speaking boys, Yeshivas Toras Simcha.
Aside from Rav Asher’s responsibilities in the various mosdos that he headed, he was involved in numerous other projects of zikkui harabim. To name a few: He opened a mussar kollel in Yerushalayim in which he paid avreichim to come learn sifrei mussar veyirah on a regular basis. More recently, he opened a mussar kollel in Kiryat Sefer. He gave vaadim and shmuessen in other yeshivos, such as Mikdash Melech, Mercaz Hatorah, and Shaarei Torah. For over twenty-five years, there was a weekly parsha shiur in his home for avreichim in which he disseminated the mussar that he heard from his great rebbei’im.
Several times a year, Rav Asher would fly to various countries in chutz la’aretz on behalf of his yeshivos and kollellim. Whenever he would do so, he would make every effort to give mussar shmuessen to any tzibbur that wished to hear him. Some talmidim who accompanied him when he visited various cities related to me that Rav Asher would often give fifteen shmuessen a week while in chutz la’aretz!
Rav Asher often repeated the story about the compliment he received from the Gateshead Rov, Rav Betzalel Rakow. After giving a drasha in Gateshead, he received a message that the rov wanted to see him. After coming to the house, the rov told him that the rebbetzin had reported what Rav Asher had said. The rov then said: “You should know that the biggest darshanim in the world come to speak in Gateshead, and you are the first to speak about emunah peshutah in the Ribbono shel olam!”
The Essence of the Man
Upon hearing of the Rosh Yeshiva’s passing, many of his talmidim, past and present, contacted the other staff members of the yeshiva and sobbed uncontrollably over their loss. On several occasions, these rebbeim were slightly surprised over the reaction of a few of these talmidim. This was because those very talmidim, not only seemingly did not have a close connection with the Rosh Yeshiva, but in fact they often could not accept his harsh words of mussar. When questioned about the reason for their bitter tears, these talmidim stated with firm conviction: “If it were not for the Rosh Yeshiva, I would not be a ben-Torah today!”
This is an astounding revelation! How can it be that a man, whose teachings and advice were seemingly rejected by some of his students, could nevertheless change their lives in such a profound way?
I believe that the answer lies in a point mentioned by several of the rabbonim who eulogized Rav Asher in the yeshiva during the week of shivah. When it came to the Rosh Yeshiva’s responsibilities between himself and Hashem, between himself and his fellow man, between himself and his talmidim – there was no “zich,” which is Yiddish for “self.” Rav Asher always acted in a manner that indicated that he himself was out of the picture. His own kavod, his needs, his wants, did not exist. This definition of the Rosh Yeshiva’s personality is a common thread running through many of the stories that came to light during the week of shivah.
The Ringing Cellular Phone
Probably the story that illustrates this thought the best is as follows: Someone who came for nichum aveilim related that a well-known Rosh Kollel in Yerushalayim was giving a shiur in the kollel. Rav Asher had asked for and received permission to attend as a guest. One of the ordinances of this kollel was that no cellular phones were allowed. During the shiur, someone’s phone began ringing, but was quickly silenced. This repeated itself three more times. At this point, the Rosh Kollel closed his sefer and declared, “If the avreichim in the kollel cannot follow the rules, I will close the kollel!” Rav Asher stood up, removed his cellular phone from his pocket and turned it off. He then turned to the Rosh Kollel and said, “I apologize. It will not happen again. Please do not close the kollel.” The Rosh Kollel was mollified and continued with the shiur.
The person relating the story then said, “Look how great your father was! He was willing to embarrass himself publicly for the sake of Torah!”
The story does not end here. Two hours later, another person arrived at the Rubenstein household and began relating the same story. However, he concluded the story with a small, but shocking caveat: “I was the owner of the ringing cell phone!” Rav Asher, emulating a similar incident in the Gemara (see Sanhedrin 11a), did not feel it beneath himself to publicly accept the blame for something he did not do, just so long as the shiur (and even the kollel) would continue.
And Speaking of Cellular Phones…
The Rosh Yeshiva took the Gedolim’s war against unfiltered internet and non-kosher cellular phones very seriously. Whenever anyone, be it total strangers or even an important rebbetzin who headed a large girl’s seminary, would call him from a non-kosher cellular phone (in Eretz Yisroel, one can tell from the phone number whether the call is from a kosher phone), Rav Asher would tell them, “If you want to talk to me, call me either from a kosher phone or a landline.” When the person would call back from an acceptable device, the Rosh Yeshiva would do his utmost to convince the caller that he is obligated to change to a kosher cellular phone.
The Rosh Yeshiva told me personally that it bothered him to no end when he saw people sitting on a bench in front of his building with a laptop accessing the internet via someone’s unsecured wireless router. He took it upon himself to approach the individual, who, not being computer savvy, was completely unaware of the problem, Rav Asher, with his beautiful ne’imus, showed him how to secure the router.
How did he lower himself to do such things? When it came to doing the right thing – he was out of the picture. A total lack of self.
Chesed with Simplicity
This same middah also affected how Rav Asher did chesed. Whoever heard of a rosh yeshiva when leaving a simcha announce to one and all, “I have room for two! Who’s coming with me?” He did it with such naturalness, with such simplicity, we totally forgot who this person offering the ride was.
Leaving the yeshiva one day, he saw a bochur with about thirty boxes of seforim outside trying to hail a taxi. The boxes had to be transported to a drop off point in order to be shipped to the US. However, the taxi drivers were not willing to take such a large amount of boxes. Rav Asher told the talmid that he would be back in five minutes with his van and he would take the boxes to their destination. When the talmid protested, Rav Asher replied, “I would do it for my own son.”
On one occasion, Rav Asher parked his car in town and inadvertently, left it unlocked. Upon returning to the car together with his son, they discovered two Yidden sitting in the car. Upon asking them why they were in his car, the younger of the two responded, “This older person is my father. It is difficult for him to walk. When I saw your car, I decided that we would get in and wait for you. I had no doubt that you would drive us to where we have to go!”
Rav Asher’s brachos were something to behold. Be it at a chuppah, sheva brachos, a bris, or even kiddush and bircas hamazon in the privacy of his own home (heard from a son-in-law), the Rosh Yeshiva had a unique way of reciting brachos. Loudly, slowly, clearly, with hislahavus, and with a radiance of simcha on his face. It did not bother him that almost no one else in the world, including the other dignitaries who received kibbudim at the simcha, did not recite brachos that way. It did not bother him that perhaps he was holding things up with the slow pace. He was not embarrassed in the least (some talmdim of the yeshiva admitted to me that they were). He was reciting a bracha to “the Kadosh boruch Hu” (that’s how Rav Asher referred to Him), and he was going to do so in the way that he felt was required of him.
Constantly Striving to Grow
This lack of zich was also evident in Rav Asher’s constant, and visible striving for personal growth. There was never a period in his life when he did not have a rebbi. He was willing to be mekabel from anyone, be it one of the gedolei hador – whether a rosh yeshiva or a chassidishe rebbe, or even someone his own age, or twenty to thirty years his junior. He would run from shiur to shiur, from mussar shmuess to mussar shmuess. Additionally, he constantly had recordings of shiurim and shmuessen playing in the car. He thought nothing of sitting among his own talmidim in the yeshiva to listen to the mussar shmuess of the yeshiva’s mashgiach, who was his own talmid twenty years earlier. One of his talmidim, who became a noted writer in the Torah world, related to me that whenever Rav Asher would meet him, Rav Asher would tell him how much he enjoyed reading his works and how much he learned from them.
A Life of Simcha
A wonderful side benefit of his lack of self was the fact that he was always besimcha. Since nothing fazed him, he never had any reason to be upset, uptight or depressed. That simcha always shone through. Everyone who met him felt it. He always greeted every person with a seivor panim yafos and inquired as to his well being with genuine interest. Even those whom he barely knew were treated like old friends.
With His Talmidim
Rav Asher’s selflessness was the key to his success in chinuch and drawing people near to Avinu Shebashamayim. His own kavod meant nothing to him when it came to the benefit of his talmidim. One of the talmidim from thirty years ago, who today is a maggid shiur in a noted Yerushalayim yeshiva, related to me the following: “When I was in the yeshiva, I was bit on the unruly side and I enjoyed staying up learning in the beis medrash until 2:00 AM. This of course made it impossible for me to get to davening in the yeshiva, and I davened in the local shtibel on a regular basis, something which of course did not find favor with Rav Asher. After numerous attempts to convince me that I should daven in the yeshiva, Rav Asher finally told me, ‘Go ask your rebbi, the rosh yeshiva’ (Rav Asher was the mashgiach then) and whatever he says is fine with me.’ I asked the rosh yeshiva and he told me that I can continue with what I was doing and Rav Asher relented.”
In order to appreciate the next story, a bit of an introduction is required. There is a well-known custom in Eretz Yisroel to go to Meiron on Lag Ba’omer to be at the kever of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai on his yahrtzeit. This is especially true with Sefardic Jewry and many Chassidic courts. In the Olam Hayeshivos, there are different approaches among the roshei yeshiva. Some are against and some turn a blind eye to those students who go. To say that Rav Asher was against would be an understatement. Every year, as Lag Ba’omer approached, he would give a “fire and brimstone” shmuess against the practice (it is beyond the scope of this appreciation to explain his reasons).
During a certain period, Rav Asher had a talmid who numbered among the chassidim of a particular court where the custom was to go to Meiron. This talmid told me that often, after giving the shmuess in the yeshiva, Rav Asher would drive the talmid to the bus depot to catch a bus to Meiron. (As an interesting aside, this talmid also told me that he learned sifrei chassidus together with Rav Asher on a private basis.)
Another chassidishe bochur in the yeshiva told me that he very much wanted to daven with his rebbe on Rosh Hashanah. For a yeshiva bochur not to daven in his yeshiva on Rosh Hashanah is virtually unheard of. Rav Asher told him, “Ask the rebbe what to do.” When the bochur posed the question to his rebbe, he replied, “Ask your rosh yeshiva.” Upon being informed that the rosh yeshiva sent the bochur to ask the rebbe, the rebbe instructed the bochur to daven with him. When the bochur reported back to Rav Asher what had been said, Rav Asher told him, “Since the rebbe initially left it up to me, I think a compromise is in order. One day in yeshiva and one day with the rebbe.”
Rav Asher realized that his shmuessen were often hard to accept, but that did not faze him. He believed in the truth of his message, as he had heard it from his great teachers. One of his talmidim told me: “After the shmuess, in the privacy of the rosh yeshiva’s office, I used to argue with him on every point, refusing to accept what he told me. One time in the middle of an argument, he said to me, ‘the reason why you hate the shmuess is because the truth hurts. You are wearing a bulletproof vest and everything I say ricochets off. But one day, my words are going to penetrate.’” This talmid, today an ehrliche businessman who is kovei’a ittim, became one of the rosh yeshiva’s biggest chassidim.
Those that heard his shmuessen came to the realization that his demands that they improve themselves were not about him. They understood that the reason he was screaming at them to come to davening on time, to come to seder, etc., were not to enhance his kavod or the kavod of the yeshiva, but rather it was for them. The lack of zich transformed his shmuessen into “devorim hayotzim min halev” which were then able to find their way into the hearts of his listeners.
One of his talmidim from thirty years ago, who today is a well-known mechanech and author, perhaps said it the best when he exclaimed: “Never was there a person who screamed at us so much, and never was there a person who we loved so much.” They all heard the emes in his words and realized that he only had their best interests in mind.
Yehi zichro boruch.
I wish to thank the rebbetzin for reviewing and correcting this article before its publication. We hope that she will find solace in the fact that the Rosh Yeshiva lives on in the memories of his talmidim and in the Torah-true lifestyle that he influenced them to undertake.