Rabbi Asher Zelig Rubenstein zt”l: In Our Hearts Forever
One Year Yahrtzeit Article
In Our Hearts Forever
by: Rabbi Yosef Tropper
One year later it is still most difficult to come to grips with our loss. My wife asked me if I ever thought I would be sharing divrei zikaron for rebbe. I told her that all of us talmidim expected to have him part of our lives for the next fifty years. It is still a shock to think about his untimely passing and how a man with such vigor and strength was taken from us so suddenly. The last time I spoke to rebbe was in person only two months before his passing when he was in Baltimore to be mesader kiddushin at my brother’s wedding. The memory of that weekend is etched in my mind for eternity. I want to share some thoughts and divrei Torah so that we can gain inspiration and focus on his traits and lessons that we have an obligation to carry with us and strive toward. One talmid commented most aptly that we need Rav Asher zt”l to tell us how to deal with this loss.
The Gemara (Gittin 68a-b) recounts that when Shlomo Hamelech was building the Bais Hamikdash he sent Binayahu Ben Yehoyada to retrieve the shamir worm from Ashmadai, King of the shaidim. Shlomo instructed him that the only way to capture Ashmadai was using a chain and signet ring engraved with Hashem’s name on it. After an entire process, Ashmadai was caught and the trip back to Yerusalayim revealed some strange reactions on Ashmadai’s part. Ashmadai, being a shaid, was privy to what was happening in the spiritual world. They passed by a festive wedding and Ashmadai wept. They passed by a shoemaker and a man ordered a shoe that would last for seven years at which Ashmadai laughed. They saw a diviner using his magic to try to locate a treasure and Ashmadai laughed again. Binayahu inquired about these reactions. Ashmadai explained: “I cried at the wedding because the chosson will die in thirty days and his wife will wait a long time for yibum. I laughed at the man who asked for a shoe to last him seven years as he won’t be alive in seven days. I laughed at the diviner because he was looking for a treasure while unbeknownst to him was standing on a large treasure buried right beneath his feet.”
There are three points that I would like to bring out from this story that I feel encapsulate rebbe.
1) Everything Rav Asher did had Hashem engraved on it. His actions were pure, lshem shamayim, he lived life always chaining himself to Torah and emes. What is “ratzon Hashem?” is the question that guided his every decision and action. He often talked about the Chanukah miracle when they found the oil sealed with the chosomo shel Kohen Gadol. He taught us the lesson of having Hashem’s seal and the seal of our zekainim (the Kohen Gadol) guide our haskafos and actions.
2) When talmidim used to tell rebbe, “I value Torah and so I’m going to go work and when I become rich then I’ll learn myself and support Torah!” Rebbe would answer, “but what will be with your Torah and olam hazeh now?” He taught us to dedicate as much time in the present studying Torah. We can’t make cheshbonos for the future, we must be koveih etim every day. We often take life for granted. At a wedding we forget that we don’t have unlimited time in this world and we order shoes to last for seven years with confidence. Rebbe pushed us to use our time wisely every day, starting in the present and not pushing off our ruchniyus to the unguaranteed future. No one knows how long he has, and thus we must use our time wisely each and every day.
3) Like the diviner who was searching for treasure far away while sitting on treasure right beneath him, we too often look for treasure elsewhere and in distant places and yet we have a treasure right near us, our Torah heritage. Rebbe pushed us to make our kinyan in Torah and ruchniyus and to value what it means to be a Yid. Rebbe hammered the lesson into us: “Harchev picha viamalaihu (Tehillim 81:11), open your mouth and Hashem will fill it with ruchniyus and simcha. The greatest happiness and pleasure in this world is achieved by learning Torah, doing mitzvos and getting close to Hashem. Don’t let the yetzer hara, who is the biggest liar, tell you otherwise. His promise of pleasure and enjoyment are all lies and only leave you depressed.”
Rebbe dedicated his life to show that learning Torah all day in kollel like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is a valid option and histadlus as well (See Berachos 35b and Mishna Berura OC 156 (Biur Halacha, sofa betaila), OC 231 (Biur Halacha, bichol dirachecha) and Igros Moshe, [Yoreh Deah III:82]).
Rebbe quoted Rav Dessler (Michtav Me’eliyahu III, p. 355-60) who said that our mesorah is that the purpose of a yeshiva is to create gedoleim batorah. Rav Asher taught us about greatness and challenged us to reach for high levels in learning and bitachon. He always told over the words of the Chofetz Chaim, “raise your children to be gedolim in Torah and yirah, like this even if you fail at least they will be an erlich baal habayis. But if you raise them to simply be an erlich baal habayis, if you chas veshalom fail, they may be very distant from a Torah life.” Rebbe guided and challenged each of us to become great.
Rebbe told us stories to build our passion for Torah and avodas Hashem. He loved to tell over the quote from Reb Akiva Eiger where he writes that he came to a certain city and noted that it was very large with talmidei chachomim, sofrim and shuls: “aval ain aish hatorah boeres bikirbam, but they don’t have a brendt (passion) for Torah and life!” Rav Asher would scream those words and shake us up to serve Hashem with passion. This was Rav Akiva Eiger’s measuring stick.
Rebbe was very moved by a story that Rav Hanoch Teller shared with him. In the days of the new Palm Pilot you were able to share programs from one Palm to another via beaming. Rabbi Teller was on a plane showing the Yid next to him Torah texts that he installed. The man shared that he had just gotten a free-to-share version of Sefer Hamitzvos and offered to beam it over. Rabbi Teller readily agreed. The man initiated the process and Rabbi Teller told over that he froze when he saw the message on his Palm Screen: “Sharing 613 mitzvos, do you accept?” For a moment he had to think, do I accept to keep all 613 mitzvos?! That’s a big commitment. He got hold of himself and clicked ‘accept’. Rav Asher loved this story and said that this is what the Yom Tov of Shavuos is all about and in truth we make this choice every day. Hashem wants to have a relationship with us and wants to give us His mitzvos, are you ready to accept Him and His Torah? Rebbe would talk about the reaction of “mah ksiv bei, what’s written in the Torah?” which hinders one’s acceptance which must be “naaseh vinishma” (See Sifri Devarim 33:2 and Shabbos 88b)!
To Have a Rebbe
On September 11, 2001 after the Twin Towers Attack, rebbe gave an impromptu shmooz and began, “what would Rav Chatzkal say?” This was his gut reaction to any event. How would my rebbe react? Rebbe encouraged and taught us to think for ourselves but to always ask shailos to clarify. He taught by example as he always had an active relationship with a rebbe. When Rav Chatzkal passed away rebbe was mikabel Rav Shmuel Auerbach ybl”c as his rebbe. It was awesome to watch how rebbe sat at his feet and listened to his every word. He sent us to Rav Shmuel for berachos and important shailos at times. He told us that he never made an important decision in life from the time he was 17 without first discussing it with his rebbe.
Tzaddkim bimisasam keruyin chaim (Berachos 18a), his spiritual legacy continues to inspire us. Rav Asher was never embarrassed to share his own American background and how he had to work hard to grow. Many of us are similar to him in that way and were deeply moved by his story. In the mid 50s the Ponevezher Rav came to America to fundraise. Rav Asher was a young boy and heard him speak. He approached the rav and said, “I want to come learn in your yeshiva.” The rav told him, “my yeshiva is not for Americans, but I can recommend a few other places for you to learn in Eretz Yisrael.” Rav Asher was undeterred; in 1959 he arrived in Eretz Yisrael and showed up in Ponevezh. This was the place where he felt he could learn and grow, and he would not be stopped. He was accepted and spent five years learning under the Ponevezher Rav and Rav Chatzkal, his lifelong rebbe.
When my wife and I came to Eretz Yisrael for Yom Kippur and Sukkos a few years ago I let rebbe know about our trip. He called me to share that he and the Rebbetzin wanted to have us for a meal and we should please daven in the yeshiva for Yom Kippur. I told him we would be honored. Normally, in most yeshivos the Rosh Yeshiva does not take care of arrangements and so I asked him if there was someone I should contact to buy seats. He responded, “your reservations are already confirmed!” He ran the yeshiva and took care of anything that needed to get done. He never stood by his honor.
I once asked him why he invited certain speakers to deliver occasional shmoozin at the yeshiva when they were much younger than him. He told me, “I invite those speakers because they inspire my talmidim and myself with their divarim niflaim ad meod.” If someone inspired others that’s all Rav Asher cared about. He was not embarrassed to learn from those who were younger than him.
The first time I ever spoke in the yeshiva during a Friday night seuda rebbe and his family were present. I was nervous to speak in front of him and tried to prepare something original. After I spoke he shook my hand warmly and said, “that was niflah, thank you for sharing! I hope you wrote it down to save.” I felt very good and most encouraged. After shabbos I commited it to writing and a few years later I found it. Suffice it to say, it probably wasn’t even shaimos, but rebbe found something to appreciate about it and encouraged me to write. Many talmidim sent him divrei Torah and he would save them all and often responded with a quick haarah or comment. I always felt good when he wrote back one of his, “wow, beautiful, niflah meod!” comments.
Over the years, I heard rebbe give many hespadim, for Rav Avraham Pam, Rav Avigdor Miller, Rav Mordechai Gifter. He always talked about what we could take from them. I remember when Rav Shach was very sick he clapped on the bima and quoted the Gemara in Taanis (21a) about Nachum ish Gamzu, “as long as I am in the house, it won’t fall.” He explained that we daven “vikayem banu chachmei yisrael (siddur, shachris),” because this world is that house, weak and ready to collapse, it is only in the merit of our talmidei chachamim that the world is upheld. I remember that Friday morning when Rav Shach passed away, Rav Asher opened up the Gemara Kesubos (103b) about the day that Rebbe died and said we are all going to the levaya, “hahu koves, was upset that he missed the levaya and lost out on the inspiration.” He said, “we must honor Torah and take in the lessons of the niftar.” With that, he wiped away his tears, closed the Gemara and headed to the levaya with us following suit.
He always told over about how when a tzaddik passes away, his traits are up for grabs for all those who wish to take them. He quoted his rebbe, Rav Gifter who from a young age strived to be great by posting gedolim pictures on his wall and hanging a paper in the middle which read, “why not you?” Rav Asher showed each of his talmidim how to be great.
He was very strict about not taking on chumros. After Lag beomer he would come over to you, rub your beard and say, “Did you forgot to shave? What’s going on with you?” He did not let a bachur grow a beard or paiyos without justification. If you made a drastic change he would come over and talk with you unless it was regarding coming to shachris on time and learning with more simcha, that he fully encouraged. He never let us take on too much because he feared it would distract and hurt us. If someone in yeshiva was not eating properly or was exercising excessive perieshus he would talk with them and explain that Hashem wants us to take care of our health, enjoy this world and spend our efforts shteiging in Torah and avodas Hashem. Chumros can create resentment and haughtiness; focus instead on your learning and davening and that will bring you much joy.
Rebbe would tell me about difficult talmidim whose parents were giving him a hard time. He would say, “I’m not going to let go, this talmid can be a gadol batorah and he is my olam habah.” Every talmid whom he showed the derech haemes to was his olam habah. The more you fought with him after his shmooz claiming that he was asking too much from you or being too fanatical, the closer you became to him.
If you want maaseh nesim, I will share one. Rebbe told me himself that a talmid of his was unable to have children and he visited him in London to give him chizuk. The talmid kept pressing for a beracha. Finally, rebbe said, “okay, here’s a birchas hedyot, next year I should be back in London to be sandek by your son’s bris.” And that is exactly what happened! Rav Asher told me this story himself with a laugh, he said, “do you want to hear a joke?!”
Once, I decided to attend a fellow talmid’s wedding at the last minute. I quickly threw on a sweater and jacket neglecting to bring a tie. Rebbe noticed and called me to the side and said, “at Toras Simcha weddings we wear a tie and suit out of respect for the chosson!”
When he was at a wedding, he would announce, ‘men on this side and women on this side.’ He felt that it was important to maintain the kedusha and he saw this as his job especially if he was misader kiddushin.
His Wedding Custom
A very beautiful thing that I watched rebbe do tens of times at every wedding of one of his talmidim was to call over the father of the kallah and extoll the praises of the chosson. “Do you know how lucky you are to have a such a chashuv chosson?! I know that your daughter must be a real special person if she is marrying this young man!” The father would walk away beaming and reassured that his daughter was with the right person. I knew about his custom and used to watch for it at any wedding we were at together just to catch a glimpse of the large smile it produced. Many fathers of kallos recounted to me how much those comments meant to them. One father-in-law told me that he gained new respect for his son-in-law hearing the beautiful words that Rav Asher shared about ‘his prized talmid’. Another person told me that when his son-in-law was debating how much longer to stay in kollel, he reminded him, “your rebbe, Rav Asher, told me about your great potential in Torah and I see it as a zechus to help support you so you can spend your time learning. What can I do to help you with this goal?”
Rav Asher’s encouragement went even further. He would come over to the chosson and kallah and wish them a beracha to build a true Torah home and to be great and never mediocre. He would tell the kallah she has a responsibility to encourage her husband to be a gadol batorah. Every time he would speak with the wives of his talmidim he would ask how their husbands were treating them and encourage them to help their husbands learn more, “he has great middos now and the more Torah he learns, the better he will treat you and the more beracha and simcha you will have in your home.”
Mesorah of Middos
Pirkei Avos, a tractate that teaches ethics and how to act properly, opens with a recounting of the chain of our mesorah (1:1), “Moshe kibel Torah misinai, gave it to Yehoshua, to the zekainim, neviim, anshei knesses hagedola, etc.” Rabbeinu Ovadia Mibarternura (there) asks why an introduction outlining the transmission of Torah is found specifically at the start of Avos? If anything, it should have appeared at the beginning of Meseches Berachos? It is even more strange when we consider that the entire meseches Avos is all middos, how to act. Is that even a part of mesorah and Torah? It seems like a tractate of common sense good advice? The Rav explains that on the contrary, this opening was chosen to stress that middos and how to act are a vital part of Torah and a most important part of our tradition. A rebbe must teach the Torah of how to act and treat others.
Rav Asher was such a rebbe, he instilled middos in his talmidim through his shoozin and through his actions. I know of many talmidim whom he called over and told, “I’m only telling you this because I love you and care, I am concerned about something that you may have done or said.” The love was genuine and felt deeply and the message was accepted. Rebbe showed us the mesorah of Toras hamiddos. Chazal teach us (Chagigah 15b), “im domeh harav limalach, if the rebbe has middos like an angel then you should seek Torah from him.” This was our rebbe.
There was a story told about a rav who collected thousands of dollars for poor people and suddenly noticed that he had lost his wallet on the bus. Devastated and forlorn he knew that the chances of anyone returning that large amount of money were slim. A few days later, he received a call from someone in Tel Aviv who had tracked him down. After a quick confirmation he was on his way to retrieve his wallet. This non-religious man had found it and returned it with every penny inside. The rav was astounded and asked the man in shock, “thank you for this great kindness, but what compelled you to return this large sum of money?!” The man was very honest, “the truth is that when I found your wallet and saw how much money it contained I planned on keeping it, I thought I had hit the jackpot. But then as I went through the contents I came across a picture of this saintly man with a white beard. I was so overcome by his face of honesty and demand for truth that I felt compelled to return it!” The picture was of Rav Chatzkal Levenstein, a man known for his honesty and purity, a man whom Rav Asher called his ‘rebbe muvhak’.
This is what ‘dmus diyunkno shel aviv (Sotah 36b)’ means. When we see an image of someone we respect this causes us to think twice about our actions. I have spent the past one-year with a picture of rebbe hanging in my office. I can tell you that looking at rebbe’s face and remembering his honesty and middos has changed the course of my year and has impacted many decisions that I made in a most profound way.
Connection with Rashi
If you want to summarize who rebbe was I think you can say he was deeply connected to Rashi, ‘the zaideh Rashi’ (he would refer to Rashi, Aharon HaKohen and the Megaleh Amukos as his zaidas based on his being a kohen and a shtar yuchsin he had seen.) This was the focus of his chumash shiur and gemara shiur which I was zocheh to hear for five and three years respectively. He would tell us to look inside at the words of Rashi and confirm that he was simply reading and explaining, not making things up, as he expounded and told over Rav Chatzkal’s lessons. He would say omek hasugya with pashtus and clarity based on Rashi and rishonim. He taught us how to learn and think.
In meseches Bava Basra 29a Rashi’s perish ends and the Rashbam takes over. In the old print it says “kan meis Rashi z”l, here Rashi died.” Rashi lived for 65 years from 1040 until 1105. He died in the middle of writing his peirush on Shas. There’s a certain urgency when you read those words and think about Rashi’s life being cut off in the middle of his learning. It attests to his greatness and the fact that he was putting in his full effort until his last moment on earth. Rebbe’s life was the same. He lived with full vigor, he was a “vayas kein Aharon, kohanim zerizin heim, he moved with speed and passion to get things done for his own growth and for Klal Yisrael. What a beautiful way to leave this world, being osek in your passion. Rebbe passed away while learning and teaching Torah just like his zaideh Rashi.
But there is another point here. “Zos hatorah adam ki yamus beohel, Torah is only acquired through someone who kills himself for it (Berachos 63b).” Torah only stays by one who is dedicated to its cause and who gives his life to it. This is what “kan meis Rashi” really means. Rashi killed himself here, to learn and to teach and so he lives on forever. Kan meis rebbe, our dear rebbe killed himself to instill Torah and emes in his students and so that is precisely where he lives on.
A friend of mine called me up and said, “Had I known that rebbe would pass away so young I would have listened better to his lessons.” We can’t live our lives with regret. Many people have asked me what should we do in his honor. Some have said that we should work on benching out loud as he did. I think that’s a beautiful goal but for some people they must first work on benching in the first place. We need to think about why rebbe benched with the kavanah and hislahavus that he did. It wasn’t about making noise. He rejoiced to know “Hu nosein lechem lichol basar, Hashem is the One Who feeds all.” Chazal say one who benches with kavana will be blessed with parnasha. If we want to emulate his benching let us learn Shaar Habitachon and grow in our emunah. Let us internalize the great kindness and care that Hashem showers us with. Rebbe’s life was a celebration of Hashem’s kindness.
Rebbe was a deeply moved person. Even form the great people whom I am zocheh to know I don’t know many others who were so expressive and emotional about their emunah and bitachon. He would laugh with us at our simchos. He would cry when we went through hard times. Let us take home his message of bitachon in Hashem and pick up his passion for life.
Alive in Our Hearts
“Tzaddkim bi’misasam keruyim chaim (Berachos 18b). Rebbe lives on, his neshamah reached an elevated level and continues to climb each day. Our job is to keep him alive in our hearts and minds and to connect with the lessons and legacy he left us. Take one recording of his and listen to it, take one shmooz that he gave and make one kabbalah about how you want to change and grow in his honor. His neshama and Torah continues, “kan mes rebbe,” he gave himself over to the Torah and lives on forever. But the biggest tragedy is if you let him die in you.
Besides for his shmoozin in his yeshiva and home for bochurim and avreichim, rebbe used to host a yearly shabbaton for those who came from other yeshivos and wanted to hear true Torah haskafos. Rebbe was proud to report that from his yearly five hour Friday night program over 300 bochurim became talmidei chachomim who dedicated more time to learning from that inspirational and thought-provoking weekend. I attended a few times to hear him speak and it was powerful. The rebbetzin ybl”c sat in the kitchen and listened to every shmooz. Sometimes she would ask for him to speak louder. I always laughed because he spoke with a boom, but there were so many people in the dining room that he needed to project even further.
One time he ended the night by talking about how people think that parnasah is in their hands and the only important thing in life is how much money you make. He said this is likened to a boy who got lost in the forest and was raised by the monkeys. He learned to swing from tree to tree and the monkeys would all cheer for him. When he was finally rescued he refused to leave. His parents and friends begged him to come home but he told them he could not. “Look at the thousands of claps and cheers I get here. The monkeys clap and cheer for me all day. I will never have that if I leave!” They looked at him with bewilderment and pity. “Look who’s cheering for you, they are monkeys! What’s that cheer worth?!” So too, many people get lost in the forest of the world around them and begin to take on secular values and live their lives pursuing worthless cheers, failing to realize that the only thing cheering for you are baboons! What’s that worth? Do you want monkeys to cheer for you, or do you want humans to praise your virtues?!
Rebbe then pointed to the pictures hanging on his walls of all his rabbeim and said, “how about these great people, would you like them to cheer for you? They were real people, Rav Chatzkal, the Ponovitzer Rav, wouldn’t you like their cheer!
Rav Asher cheers for all of us. He always told us how proud he was of our efforts to learn and grow and to build a Torah home. Let us live up to his hopes for each of us. Let us take on one trait, one lesson that he instilled in us and nurture it and make it grow. Let us keep our dear rebbe alive in our hearts. Yhi zichro baruch.