Rabbi Asher Zelig Rubenstein zt”l: A Life of Greatness and Emunah
by: Rabbi Yosef Tropper
I write these words with tears rolling down my cheeks having just heard the shocking news of my Rebbe’s sudden petirah. I think about my dear Rebbe whom I was zocheh to learn from for the past 13 years. I knew him as a rebbe, a father figure and a close advisor who always shared his wisdom and guidance based on Torah true values. His faith was rock solid and his passion for truth was contagious. The Yeshiva he built was a family; he and his Rebbetzin ybl”t were the loving parents who cared for our every need. He was Rosh Yeshiva of Toras Simcha in Yerushalayim and was proud of his thousands of Talmidim who lived in Eretz Yisrael, America, England and across the globe. He was a unique blend of Talmid Chachom, leader, baal mussar, mivakesh emes, worldly and a true baal eitza. Every fiber of his body was committed and in line with ratzon Hashem. He lived on Sorotzkin in Matisdorf and always spoke about the simplicity and kedusha of that area.
One of the first things that comes to mind is how he truly enjoyed life. He spent his time singing the praises of Hashem and giving thanks. He was a powerful educator who taught by example. His words were filled with warmth, care, understanding and a passion for truth. If something had to be said he was unashamed to speak up. Although he once told me that he was shy by nature, his speeches were eloquent and powerful, and reverberated in the hearts of those present for a lifetime. The fact that he overcame his natural shyness was because he knew that emes had to be shared with clarity and conviction. It is hard to believe that such a vibrant, powerful and outspoken advocate for truth had a shy bone in his body. We saw him as booming, authoritative and a man of great dignity and respect who carried the Torah and his talmidim on his large shoulders.
Indeed, the first conversation I ever had with him was to ask about coming to his yeshiva. I called him from America after being deeply moved by a tape I had heard from him. (He talked about assembly-line Jews whose parents raised them to be Jewish but who never took the time to learn and explore their heritage on their own.) He asked me why I wanted to attend his yeshiva. I mentioned my interest in going to Eretz Yisrael. He explained, “I’m looking for students who want to grow in Torah and yiras shamayim. If someone is coming to Eretz Yisrael to waste their time and their parent’s money then my yeshiva is not for them. I am looking for students who want to grow and who want to seek truth. We are very normal here; we are a warm and loving family, but we are also very clear about our goal. Does this sound like something of interest to you?” I was impressed by his candid message and how willing he was to be open and honest. I was sold and forever grateful to have joined his yeshiva- a place of serious growth with a warm and beautiful family atmosphere.
Rav Asher always said, “Do you know what the most foul word is? It is: Mediocre! You must live a life of greatness, stay far away from mediocrity.” He would often tell this to the Chosson and Kallah at their wedding as he blessed them at the end and left a parting message. He would tell the Chosson, “treat your Kallah well” and to the Kallah, “encourage your Chosson to learn and fill the home with Torah.” If you wanted an example of this ideal you simply had to visit his home and watch him and the Rebbetzin interact.
One of his favorite lines was, "Harchave picha vi'amaleyhu, the Kadosh Baruch Hu has unlimited happiness to share with you," he would then spread his arms wide and with a huge grin, exclaim, "just open your heart and mind and take in his beautiful Torah. He gave us a guide for how to live a happy and fulfilling life! You're greatness and happiness is unlimited!"
He always encouraged us to visit gedolim to watch and learn from them and to receive their brachos. When we took a yeshiva trip to Bnei Brak to get berachos Rav Asher spoke with excitement and awe about the gedolim we greeted. He was only slightly younger than many of the rabbanim we visited but he shared with us how great they were in Torah and how being in their presence inspired him to grow.
Emes at All Costs
Rav Asher was a man who stood for absolute truth at all costs. He was first to share with you that he was brought up as a modern American boy who thought of rabbis as sitting in an ivory tower and unattached from reality. When he first came to Ponovitz Yeshiva at age 17 he was placed in Rav Shach’s shiur and was blown away by the vastness and greatness of Torah. He developed a close connection with the Ponovitzer Rav, Rav Yosef Kahaneman (1886-1969), and a deep relationship with the mashgiach Rav Chatzkel Levenstein (1895-1974). He saw how wrong his perceptions had been and how in tune and attached to reality the gedolim are. He dedicated his life to that truth and accepted Daas Torah unequivocally. In his dining room he had pictures hung of past and present gedolim. He would proudly point and tell his guests, "these are my teachers and role models."
During his second year in Eretz Yisrael his parents asked him to come home as he had agreed to return after one year of learning and his brother was having his Bar Mitzvah in Far Rockaway. Knowing that this trip would signify the end of his learning but feeling that he needed to respect his parent’s feelings he decided to seek the Ponovitzer Rav’s advice as his Daas Torah. Rabbi Kahaneman told him in no uncertain terms that he was to stay learning in the yeshiva at all costs and he could not leave for his brother’s bar mitzvah. Rav Asher accepted this psak and reflected 40 years later that had he gone home then he would have never returned. Even at a young age he appreciated the guidance and daas Torah of the Torah world’s leaders. He became an advocate for Talmidim who needed help requesting more time to learn from their parents. I personally know dozens of Talmidei Chachamim who credit Rav Asher as their inspiration and help in maximizing their learning potential.
I would often bump into yeshiva students and kollel avraichim who would smile when I told them I was a talmid of Rav Asher Zelig. They would say, “it was because of one shmooz that I heard from him that I decided to learn another year,” “Your Rebbe is a powerful speaker and he really influenced my decision to learn Torah in Eretz Yisrael.” It was hard to even keep track of what Rebbe was up to, he spent most of his day at Toras Simcha learning and davening with us, he gave shiurim throughout Eretz Yisrael at many yeshivos and in his home, he ran a kollel in Ashdod and he learned with many students in person and over the phone. Yet, despite his schedule he always had time for us. Whenever I needed to talk with him he made himself available. When I would call him he would greet me warmly and if he was unavailable he would call me back, usually within that same day.
Rav Asher told me that when he was a young man he was at a large crossroad and didn’t know what to do. He wrote a letter to his close Rebbe, Rav Chatzkal Levenstein explaining his dilemma. The response is printed in Ohr Yechezkal but out of humility Rav Asher only told me the part about how Rav Chatzkal told him to come back to Eretz Yisrael, a place of truth but omitted the flattering words that his rebbe wrote about him. Rav Chatzkal wrote: “I understand your dilemma and I know you well, you have tremendous potential in learning and teaching Torah and have had much success in your learning and influencing others. Come back from America to Eretz Yisrael and you will grow in kedusha and greatness, this is a place of truth where words of truth are best heard. Rav Asher was moved by the response and after deciding that he would follow his rebbe’s directive whole-heartedly and moving to Eretz Yisrael he wrote a letter to Rav Moshe Feinstein stating, “I have made up my mind to live only in Eretz Yisrael, can I now keep one day of Yom Tov here.” Rav Moshe’s famous opinion on the matter (a large variable is who is supporting the person in Eretz Yisrael, see there for details) was printed as a response to Rav Asher’s question, the question which came because of Rav Asher’s conviction to follow daas Torah. That was his way, he was a real shomeya, he listened and he took emes to heart. I can say that I have never in my life met anyone else who was moved so deeply by truth and who was willing to hear truth from any source and to adjust his life in an instant to be in line with emes.
Rav Chatzkal’s last message to Rav Asher before his passing was that he should use his speaking talents and share the emes that he learned in Ponovitz with his talmidim. This directive pushed Rav Asher to accept a position where he would be able to help others and share powerful words of truth.
Rav Asher had the ability to make every talmid feel special. We all remember his huge smile, great hugs and pats on the back when you said something that he appreciated. He was profoundly encouraging and loved to hear about his student’s success. At the same time, he would share in student’s trials and challenges and would give words of comfort and encouragement in hard times and during personal challenges. He was always looking out for ways to help his students. I would often get calls from him saying, "Yosef, I haven't heard from you, what's doing?" "I thought of another idea for you regarding our discussion yesterday." "I've been waiting to hear back from you, I have been davening for you." This happened dozens of times. I was deeply moved by his love and concern.
He gave tremendous respect to his students always complementing their learning skills and how much he loved to hear their chiddushei Torah. He also held them to a high standard. I once got a call from him which opened with, "You know that I love you and I am only calling you with this rebuke because I care...." He got his message across to me with care and power. He taught me the lesson that I needed to learn in a loving and clear way.
When I left the yeshiva, thirty-five boxes of seforim that belonged to me had to be shipped to America. My brother had then joined the yeshiva and took on the task of transporting them to the drop off spot. He was having major trouble finding a cab willing to take the large boxes. Rav Asher found out about the issue when he left the yeshiva front door and saw all the boxes piled and waiting to be moved. He immediately told my brother that he would bring his van and help out. My brother refused and actually called me frantically to call the Rosh Yeshiva and ask him not to exert himself. When I called Rav Asher he would not hear it, “you are a talmid and I have a way to help you. When my son needs help transporting something I am there to help him.” And so it was.
On the morning of my wedding day I called Rav Asher who was being mesader to arrange last minute details. He then asked me, “Yosef, I know that you are prompt and want everything to run on time, what time do you want me to arrive by?” I was blown away by his thoughtfulness. He pressed me to respond honestly. When I told him my time he replied, “I will be there, and because of the rain I will even leave 30 minutes earlier!” He was sensitive to my needs and cared deeply to help me stay calm on that special day. After the chupa he wished us a hearty mazel tov and then made sure to wish both my parents and my wife’s parents “mazel tov and much nachas.” He was beaming with joy.
Simcha and Avodas Hashem
Watching Rebbe recite birchas hamazon was a famous and clear expression of his closeness and connection with Hashem. Many people used to watch him in awe and they would even ask him why he recited each word so slowly and with so much emotion. He always replied, “birchas hamazon is the time that we give credit to the Zan Es Haolam, The Sustainer of the World, and we beg Him for parnassah as well. That is what I am doing, I am giving thanks and asking for His support. It is a great zechus to stand before Him.” One time some people told him they did not agree with his shmooz about the topic of emunah and Hashem providing sustenance and parnasah. He commented, perhaps you have a different version of benching, mine reads, Hazan es haolam kulo b'tuvo! The Kadosh Baruch Hu is the only One who provides!" He lived by those words.
Seeing him on Yom Kippur was like watching an angel. He would always talk about how on Yom Kippur we are so close to Hashem and every time that we say the name of Hashem we should pause for a moment to feel ourselves in front of Him. It was very powerful. I really feel that his yearly message to us on Yom Kippur was the way he personally lived and acted the entire year. When you watched him say “Baruch ata Hashem,” you felt drawn into the holiness and closeness to Hashem. On Shavuos night Rebbe used to be honored with reciting Akdamos. At that late hour many people were falling off their feet from the all night learning, but he recited it with lightning and gusto, if you were dosing off during that challenging shachris you were awake when Rebbe got up there.
Watching him make Kiddush Friday night was powerful. He would give a short message to those present that Shabbos is a time to strengthen our emunah in Hashem. His simcha on Yom Yov was palpable. He loved his family and children and he loved his students and their families. I merited to spend many succos meals with him and his family and his joy radiated from his face. He would talk about the uspizin and say, "if you don't invite them they don't come, you need to open up your mind heart and home for the schechina to come." Each night he would talk about the specific uspisin for that day. On the night of Aharon he would refer to him as "my zeideh Aharon HaKohen." The first year after I got married my wife and I spent Succos in Yerushalayim and ate by the Rubensteins. Rav Asher made sure to give a very warm and thoughtful introduction about me and our connection before asking me to say a Dvar Torah. He and his family made my wife feel right at home. Rav Asher loved to sing. He would ask all his guests if they wanted to share a vort or a niggun. If they declined then he would provide one.
He was practical and down to earth. He once told me that many people accuse rabbis for being ignorant of the world around them. “I wish that I did not know about the horrible filth that goes on outside of the walls of the beis midrash, but I need to understand what I and my talmidim face so that I can give useful advice.” He was understanding of family needs and encouraged Talmidim to live within their means. His motto was that we don’t need to live fancy but we certainly can buy quality items that will be respectful for our home and will last. He would joke that to avoid ayin harah one should drive a broken down car that looked like you couldn't even fit inside it and people would wonder if it would make it up the block (he was famous for this).
Rav Asher’s emunah was powerful. He lived a simple life never seeking fame or honor. He knew his role as a leader in the yeshiva and he was not afraid to speak up when emes had to be shared. He practiced everything that he preached. Almost every single talk that I ever heard from him contained two messages: 1- the idea of emunah, the Kadosh Baruch Hu really exists and runs the world. 2- a mention of Rav Chatzkal (or occasionally another rebbe of his such as Rav Benzion Bruk, Rav Avraham Yafin or others.) Rebbe passed away on Shabbos, the day that he always used to connect with his Maker. Rebbe's life message was that of emunah learned from Yetizas Mitrayim. Parshas Vaera is the parsha that embodies Rebbe's message of belief in Hashem. Rebbe believed that just as there was a national slavery in Egypt, so too each individual person has a personal bondage, self-limiting thought or greatest challenge in life that holds them captive and stops them from being great. The road to victory comes through deep emunah and turning to Hashem. Just as the Jews were established as a nation through their Exodus, so too, each person who truly turns to Hashem will achieve greatness and guidance to get past their biggest obstacle.
I never saw him flustered or angered by anything. I once asked him how he stays so calm despite any challenges such as health or financial. He told me that Hashem is the All Capable, the One who is Mativ and the One Who takes care of us, where is there room for worry? When Kavod HaTorah was at stake he was fiery and showed his strength in protesting.
When he first moved to Eretz Yisrael the financial situation was dire. He told me that the Rebbetzin and him learned Chovos HaLevavos Shaar HaBitachon and learned to put their faith in Hashem. That was what they "ate" for lunch. Chovos HaLevavos was one of his favorite seforim and he often recommended Shaar HaBitachon to his students. Rebbe began each Gemara shiur with a passage of Chovos HaLevavos just as the Chasam Sofer did, to instill yiras shamayim and emunah in his talmidim. Another Sefer that he told everyone to learn is Nefesh HaChaim Shaar Deled. He said it had a profound impact on him and helped him understand the greatness of Torah.
Whenever I would talk with him, after he offered his advice he would say “daven to the Kadosh Baruch Hu, because only He can help you.” Rebbe’s Shemoneh Esrei instilled emunah in us as we saw how much he enjoyed speaking with Hashem as a servant before his master. His emunah was palpable.
Having spent almost three years in Rav Asher’s Gemara shiur and having learnt with him for a number of months for preparation of his shiur I can say that his Derech HaLimud had a profound impact on my learning style. When I first joined the shiur I was taken aback by the conversation style. The Rosh Yeshiva opened the shiur by stating that we are all chavrusos and would have a discussion. I thought he was joking as I was expecting a lecture. But we would read the Gemara, Rashi and Tosfos and bring up all the issues together, then we would bring in the Rishonim to better understand how they arrived at their conclusions. Rav Asher was not afraid to allow others to speak and he felt that it brought out the pshat in a powerful way. Any time anyone said a good explanation he would make sure to give credit to them. Any time we made an incorrect suggestion, he would respectfully and carefully show us where our logic or assessment did not align with the Gemara or Rishonim.
Rav Asher told me that when he came to Ponovitz on the first day his friends and him just sat in Rav Shach’s shuir and took notes silently as he talked. After ten minutes of this Rav Shach slammed his Gemara closed and stopped talking. “What is going on here? You are just copying down what I am saying like it’s Torah min HaShamayim. I will not allow this. If you want to learn you have to speak up and add to the discussion, that is how we will all grow together. Don't accept anything that I say, argue and fight to best understand emes.” This was Rav Asher’s approach which he learned well from his Rebbe.
Dating and Marriage Advice
Rav Asher worked to prepare his students for marriage. He constantly stressed the importance of sensitivity to one's spouse and taking responsibility for the household. He delivered a tape series for men and a separate one for women who were beginning to date. He also made recording for parents and vaadim on for chassanim and on shalom bayis which were widely distributed. His advice was powerful and practical. He was involved and personally made many shidduchim for his students. He felt very strongly that a boy and girl who agreed to meet once should always have a second date (unless one of them adamantly refused). He felt that it was always best to give it a second chance and I know of tens of people who are only married today because of his advice.
Rav Asher has great nachas to see his talmidim married. He would call in students when he thought they were ready to date and encourage them to prepare themselves for marriage. He had many tapes that shared valuable advice about relationships and understanding the other gender. He once told me that it is extremely important to marry a great spouse, “Do you think that I would have become anything if not for my wife?!” I saw the tears in his eyes.
He had many great insights into human nature and he spoke about the importance of respecting your spouse’s needs and desires. Watching him interact with his wife was a powerful lesson in shalom bayis and respect.
I was once at his house for Shabbos lunch and there was a guest who was there with me who was trying to rush the pace of the meal. Rav Asher asked him if he wanted to bench so that he could leave but the person said he would wait. When he grew more inpatient Rav Asher whispered something in his ear and the man stopped his antics. I was sitting one seat over and I heard it: “My dear wife spent hours preparing this delicious Shabbos meal, please let me say a Dvar Torah which she enjoys and let the guests eat so that my wife will know that her hard work is appreciated.” At every single meal that I attended he was always the first one to compliment his wife’s great cooking and to thank her.
He was a man of truth and always spoke about other rabbanim and what he would learn from them. He told me that whenever he saw Rav Asher Arieli shlit”a he was moved to tears and the desire to increase his own hasmadah in learning. Rav Tzvi Meyer was a talmid of Rav Asher at Itri. Rav Asher told me, “that man is a fireball of Yiras Shamayim and I sit by his feet to hear his beautiful and powerful divrei torah.” Many times I asked him how he was zocheh to have 12 children who are all Bnei Torah with the sweetest middos. He would tell me, “ask my wife it is to her credit.” My wife actually asked the Rebbetzin, and she said that her and the Rosh Yeshiva never davened to have nachas from their children, instead they davened that Hashem should have nachas from their children, and this way they too would enjoy nachas as parents. The home of the Rosh Yeshiva was filled with Torah and Yiras Shamayim. It was a place of great simcha and hasraas HaShechina in a powerful and palpable way. I have the fondest memories of Purim with the Rosh HaYeshiva and every other Yom Tov. Rebbe pushed us to learn and to grow each day and he led us by example.
Rav Asher once told me that he was a witness at a wedding where Rav Beinish Finkel was misader kiddushin. Rav Beinish turned to the two witnesses and said half jokingly, “do teshuva for any sins that you have, make sure that you are not pasul to be a witness” Rav Asher commented to me that he was so frightened he started to say vidoy to himself. He took things to heart and was deeply moved in situations where others would have simply let the inspiration get lost.
The relationship that my brother and I developed with our beloved Rebbe became a family connection as well. My parents and siblings all knew Rebbe and were zocheh to host him just two months ago when he came in for Shabbos for my brother’s ufruf and wedding. My mother’s first words when she spoke to me after we heard the sad news was a bitter cry, “Who will be your Rebbe now?” A question that needs to be answered for thousands of us who merited to know Rav Asher and to call him Rebbe. We must carry on his life’s mission, we must take his passing to heart and commit not to ever forget the truth that he stood for.
I think back to September 11, 2001 when the world was in turmoil and we at the yeshiva did not know how to react. Rav Asher called for an immediate assembly at the end of seder and told us that whatever Hashem does in this world is a message for us to take to heart and to learn from. Our job is to keep up the learning and growth and not to forget why we are here. Rav Asher always taught us to take stock of our lives and to live according to the truth that we know in our hearts. He taught us to strive for greatness and he led by example.
Many of my close friends from yeshiva have been calling me since hearing the news and asking me what to do. I think that the most powerful response is to remember Rebbe’s love of Hashem, of Torah, of life and of his family and talmidim. We must carry this on and instill this into our everyday lives. This will be the greatest aliya for his neshama. This was the greatness that he embodied. Please learn l'iloy nishmas Rav Asher Zelig ben Yermiyahu HaKohen zt"l. Yhi zicro baruch.
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Pictures of the Levaya
Hespidim by Levaya at Toras Simcha Motzei Shabbos Vaeira 5774
Hespid by Rav Aharon Feldman,
Rosh Yeshivas Ner Yisroel Baltimore Sunday 12-29-13
Note: Rav Asher held Rav Aharon ybl"t in deep esteem and respect. Many times when I called Rebbe to ask shailos he would tell me, "you are in Baltimore, you have an adam gadol right there, go ask Rav Aharon Feldman and let me know what he says. He is a true talmid chachom and daas Torah"
Hespidim Delivered on Monday 12-30-13 by Rabanim of Toras Simcha
Hespidim on January 1-2, 2014 by Rav Meltzer, Rav Eichenstein, Rav Glustein (mechutan), Rav Schechter, Rav Kahan (son-in-law)
Baltimore Divrei Zikaron by Rabbis Pinck, Ukelson and Salomon 1-8-14
Rabbi Salomon coming soon
Dear talmidim and family of Rav Asher,
When I think of Rav Asher, I think of his ahavas haTorah, and distinctive mida of emes. Rav Asher gave a weekly shiur in Yeshiva Mikdash Melech in Bayit Vagan. I was privileged to hear his wonderful and inspiring shmuesen for over my three years in yeshiva. One of my fondest memories was how he sat down in the shiur room and always began with a smile. He was always calm and had a certain grace that I had never witnessed before. He always encouraged us to challenge the hashkafos presented and speak up during his shmuesen. His main goal was not to lecture, but help us arrive to a conclusion that we felt was emes. I remember one occasion where I shared with him some of my own chidushei Torah, and at first I was scared and slightly intimidated. I figured he might find some error in my thoughts and disprove them. To my surprise, he listened attentively and replied, "These are beautiful ideas, and you should have them published." His words lifted my confidence and gave me a sense of pride in my writing. B"H I have continued to write these chidushei Torah over the years, and I think about all the great people, such as Rav Asher, who gave me the motivation to continue sharing my thoughts with others. Years later, I was delighted to receive a response from him after sending out one of my weekly divrei Torah emails. Again, he complimented my thoughts, encouraging me to continue searching for the emes- the mida he lived by. His loss is greatly felt by his talmidim, who will never forget the lessons he imparted to us all.
He would occasionally daven mariv with us in betzel hachochma 16 sorotzkin. His SMILE during kabolas ol malchus shamayim was spellbinding. His face lit up and when I was the baal tefilla I turned around to watch him. The ahavas Hashem was palpable and contagious. his sincerity was visible and his emesdikeit legendary.
yehi zichro baruch
I am saddened to learn of the petira of Rav Rubenstein, ZTL. I was just thinking of the Rav last Leil Shabbos at my seuda. I met Rav Rubenstein over twenty years ago when I was invited by a friend of mine to spend Leil Shabbos seuda with him at the Rav's home in Yerushalayim. It was a memorable sueda in two ways that stay with me to this day. First, the Rav's bearing was unlike any I had seen. The Rav was very dignified and sat straight as a board. Most of all I remember that the Rav sang Libi u'bsari with such a strength that I felt a fire that I have never felt since. Perhaps as a Kohen, the Rav had a special kesher with this holy nigun. Every Shabbos when I sing it if only for a second I remember the Rav. Sometimes I feel a fire and others sadly not so much and then I feel a chisaron and how much I need to work on my Shabbos Zachor v'shamor l'kiddusha. Lastly, I recall that in those days in yeshiva my chevrei and I would say Birkas Hamazon very rapidly, even on Shabbos. After finishing the brucha I was shocked to find the Rav benching slowly with intense kavanah and I felt such busha. Nu. important Mussar until this very day. It is sad that I only had that one opportunity to spend time with the Rav. Clearly he had a great impact on Rav Tropper and his talmidim. Yehi zichro baruch.
I'm on the road now with tears in my eyes. Just yesterday I was in shul with my father, I was not thinking about Reb Asher, just life in general, and I asked my father, what are we supposed to do in life? Just now Dovid Schulman called me with this tragic news. I googled Reb Ashers name and found this hesped. Thank you for your inspiring words and reminding me of the message that our Rosh Yeshiva gave to us. We should all be mischazeik in our Torah and emunah.
One thing Reb Asher used to say which I always loved... he said he was accused by parents many times of brainwashing his bachurim, his response was, he would bow his head and gladly admit that he took boys who's minds were dirtied by the streets/internet of America and he washed them clean.
I write this just a few short minutes since I heard the news. Not enough time to think, not enough time to absorb; the Rosh HaYeshiva was nifter. When the phone rang right after Shabbos and I saw who was calling, I got nervous that he was calling right after Shabbos. When I picked up and he said “Hello” but nothing else, I knew there was something terribly wrong. I decided to write down a few thoughts as they come to me to try to preserve this feeling of loss.I called my father to tell him the news and he summed it all up in one sentence, “You owe him your life”. I wonder how many people are thinking the same thing. I think back to my farher which was the first time that I met him. I was a young boy of 17 years old at the time, not sure what to expect when the Rosh HaYeshiva would walk into my house, but when he walked in, my nervousness faded away. I immediately felt his warmth and care. It was this thought that I decided to share with the students of the school I work for when I introduced R’ Asher when he spoke there just a few weeks ago. Coming out of high school I did not know much; not about how to learn and not about life. But against all odds he accepted me into his yeshiva. I found out after the fact that one of the members of the hanhala was pressuring him not to accept me, but for some reason he held firm. For the next fourteen years I sat within the walls of his yeshiva, learning and growing listening to his words of יראת שמים. Before I moved back to the United States they made me a סעודת פרידא, and I repeated the story that R’ Asher loved to say so much. R’ Shlomo Hyman Zt”l was once giving a shuir during a bad snow storm and only three בחורים were there, but he gave it with the same fire as if the shuir was full. They told him “There are only three of us. It doesn’t have to be so loud”. He responded and said “You see three, but I see thousands, because all of you are going to have תלמידים and they are going to have תלמידים, and they will all gain from this shuir”. Look at all the תלמידים R’ Asher has all over the world. People who had little direction before they met him are raising families בדרך הישר. Some are learning in kollel, some have תלמידים of their own. From hundreds will become thousands, all because of one person. I remember the day of 9/11 when R’ Asher got up to speak about it. The way he started off the shmuz was like this: “I am trying to think what R’ Chatzkl would say now”. That is who he was; trying to think and live the ways of great people before him. It is at this time that I also think “What would R’ Asher say now”? How we need his words to be מחזיק us; his words that were always filled with so much אמונה and such חיזוק. It is these words that we learned from him that we need to repeat to one another to be מחזיק ourselves. יהי זכרו ברוך.
A Talmid from Lakewood
When I was given the task of moving some 35 boxes of my brother's from Yeshiva to his friends house, I asked Rebbe to borrow his van. He gave me his classic warm smile and all too familiar chuckle "No no no I don't lend out my van, I can be here at 3!" "Oh no I didn't mean for The Rosh Yeshiva to be inconvenienced " was my reply. He looks at me and still with that warm smile says "Just because I'm the Rosh Yeshiva means I can't do a Chesed!?" I had no answer for that. Sure enough 3 o'clock Rebbe pulls up with his van, we load up and we're off! As we were loading and unloading Rebbe was listening to a shiur on tape. Chessed and using your time wisely, that's what I got from this little story with The Rosh Yeshiva. He should be a mailitz yosher for us all!
Rav Asher Zelig Hakohen Rubenstein
This past Shabbas while davening Musaf, wrapped in his Tallis, one of the great people and influences in my life left this world for the Olam HaEmes. Rav Usher, as his talmidim affectionately referred to him, was my first Rebbi upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel at the ripe old age of 17. As is still the case now, I was quite sure I knew everything then, but the things that Rav Usher taught me were much more than Gemara and Halacha. Rav Usher taught all of us what it meant to be a Torah Jew – how we live, how we think, how we act.
My first Thursday night in Eretz Yisroel was in August of 1983. As was typical, our Yeshiva had a mussar shmooz on Thursday nights and while we had some illustrious guests such as Rav Shalom Shvadron and others during the year, this first week in Chodesh Elul, Rav Usher gave the shmooz. One would think that as Rosh Hashana was approaching he would have devoted his words primarily to teshuva. He did not. Instead, most of the shmooz was devoted to his personal path from Far Rockaway, NY which led him to be a Mashgiach and Rosh Yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel for more than 50 years. This choice of topics was intended to accomplish a single goal – to impart to his talmidim the impact which a single act of chesed can have.
Rav Usher explained that as teenager in New York’s HAFTR school, he was not much of a ben Torah. He was a largely modern orthodox kid growing up near the 5 towns. His parents were quite frustrated with the path he seemed to be on and when he graduated from high school his father bought him a train ticket to go learn at the Telzeh yeshiva in Cleveland. His father told him, “this is my last try, if you don’t ‘get it’ in Telzeh, you are on your own”. Rav Usher took the ticket with him to Penn Station in Manhattan and got on the train to Telzeh with the sole intent to satisfy his father and “be done” so he could pursue the paths which interested him.
Upon arriving in Cleveland, he found his way to the Yeshiva. Rav Usher described his clothing as dungarees and a colorful shirt as he entered the building. He left his suitcase in the hallway and walked to the Beis Hamedresh. He never even made it inside. He looked into the Beis Hamedrash through the window on the door and observed all of the Talmidim wearing white shirts and black pants. He clearly was not going to fit in here. These were not his “kind of guys”. Rav Usher turned around and began heading back down the hallway to reclaim his suitcase and head back to New York. And then, it happened.
A boy from the yeshiva was coming down the hallway and stuck out his hand. He said “Shalom Aleichem, are you a new guy here?” Rav Usher replied, “No, I’m just passing through.” Then the boy said “well we are about to have lunch, why don’t you join us?” Rav Usher realized that he was quite hungry after the trip so he said, “why not”. “So I sat down for lunch and stayed for 17 years.” Rav Usher neared tears as he told over this story in Chodesh Elul some 30 years later. His voice stammered as he asked us, what would have happened if one young guy hadn’t stuck out his hand to an oddly dressed modern orthodox kid and invited him to lunch? The tens of thousands of Talmidim which he taught, the shidduchim he had made, the families he counseled, the bochurim he advised, the lives he had touched – all due to one small act of chesed. This was Rav Usher’s message to us in chodesh Elul 1983. One act of kindness can change the course of history, can change a life, can change the world. This was who Rav Usher was.
A few months later as I grew to know and love this unique Talmid Chacham, Rav Usher was delivering a halacha shiur on a Mondaymorning. We were learning about the issur of giving a matana, a present to a goy. Rav Usher quickly distinguished the situation of giving a holiday gift to a coworker or secretary as not really being a “gift”. There, you are giving the item with the hope that the coworker or employee will do a good job for you going forward, so it’s not really a gift. However, one of the boys in the shiur asked, “does that mean if I’m walking down Broadway in New York and some drunken bum sticks out his hand begging for money, I’m not allowed to give him?” To this Rav Usher paused and responded, “On my cheshban, my account, you give him”. Rav Usher went on to explain that the midda of a Jew is middas Avraham Aveinu, the mida of Chesed. “You should never corrupt this most basic and fundamental mida to the point where you can ever turn away from someone in need. On my cheshban, give him”. This was the man who became my Rebbi, my Rosh Yeshiva.
Over the years, Rav Usher and I developed a close bond which transcended time and continents. We communicated regularly through telephone, email and always got together when he was in America or I was in Eretz Yisroel. My family grew accustomed to hearing stories, divrei Torah and mussar which I had learned from Rav Usher over my years in Eretz Yisroel at the Shabbos table. A few years ago, Rav Usher payed a visit to the Baltimore/Washington area. I was at work one day when the phone rang and the caller identified himself as “Usher Rubenstein”. I immediately stopped what I was doing and said Shalom Aleichem Rebbi, to what do I owe the pleasure? Rav Usher explained that he would be giving a shiur at Ner Yisrael and meeting with Bochurim there and in Silver Spring over the next couple of days. I of course was excited to see him in person and made plans to attend the shiur. I also asked him if perhaps we could have the privilege of hosting him for dinner while he was in town. Rav Usher graciously accepted the invitation and the next evening I met him at Ner Yisroel to hear his shmooz.
The shmooz was, as always, penetrating, insightful and inspiring. Afterward, Rav Usher and I walked around the Yeshiva campus discussing the events in our lives over the last few years and matters of Hashkafa, an area Rav Usher was singularly expert in. I asked him what time would be convenient for dinner the following night and he indicated he would be in Silver Spring most of the day but would call me when he was on his way back to Baltimore so we could gage the approximate time. When I arrived home, I explained to my children that the famous “Rav Usher”, my Rebbi, of whom they had heard so much over the years, was coming to dinner tomorrow night!
My wife, Chaya and I began discussing what would be an appropriate meal for such an honored guest? After a moment she said, “do you think Rav Usher would be more comfortable if we bought dinner from one of the locally owned Star K restaurants? After all, many local Rabbonim avoid eating at individual houses so as not to insult someone else in whose home they may not feel as comfortable. I replied that I believed Rav Usher was quite clear that the invitation was to our home, but that I would check with him. The next day when I spoke with Rav Usher about his schedule, I asked if perhaps he would prefer if we brought in dinner from one of the local supervised restaurants. I was greeted with stone silence. After perhaps 15 seconds, Rav Usher asked “is there a problem?” to which I responded “of course not, but there are Rabbonim who have this policy not to eat… Again I was greeted with silence. Finally, Rav Usher stated simply, “R’Dovid, you are my Talmid!! If I won’t eat in your home what does that say about me?”. And the matter was settled.
We enjoyed a wonderful evening where Rav Usher met, talked with and gave brachos to all of my children. He explained that while he was currently the Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivas Toras Simcha in Yerushalyim, his “hobby” was being the Mashgiach at Kiryat Chinuch L’banim in Ashdod. This was a Yeshiva for young men who have had difficult lives and really needed him. He voluntarily went there three evenings a week and one Shabbos a month to console, motivate and share who he was with them. This was what Rav Usher did as a “hobby”, in his spare time.
Rav Usher than took the time to read some of my writings on the Parsha and discuss some of the shiurim I had recently given. He insisted on receiving my weekly email which contained my ideas on the Parsha Hashavua or other Inyanei D’yoma. From that day several years ago I could always count on some weekly feedback and genuine joy that Rav Usher feigned over my writings. His comments, responses and encouragement were a great motivation to me. After all, this great Talmid Chacham took the time to read and comment on my musings.
Rav Usher did always have an agenda. He was committed to spreading the light of Torah throughout the world without regard to political affiliation or religious spectrum. He believed in the Kedusha and value of every Jew. While he gave shiurim on par with any Gadol B’Yisroel he always knew how to talk to the little people. Perhaps because in his mind, their were no such things as little people.
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