Gedolei Yisrael – Past and Present

As another Agudath Israel of America convention begins, the recollections of many previous conventions come to mind. Personally, the memories that stand out most are not necessarily specific divrei Torah, nor the inspiring messages.   What stands out most are the inspiring visages of the great Torah personalities of yesteryear.

My first convention was a full 58 years ago, in 1956, at the Pioneer Hotel and Country Club in the Catskill Mountains. I still have vivid memories of that convention. As a young bachur who came to the convention with friends at the special Zeirei rate, I remember arriving early on Friday afternoon and taking a seat in the middle of the shul. Like a Jack-in-the-box we were jumping up and down as one Rav, Rosh Yeshivah, and Rebbe after another walked in, taking their seats on the mizrach vant. Since we were young bachurim and didn’t recognize many of the Gedolim, we were standing up for almost anyone with a beard.

When Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, entered, however, there was no mistaking the fact that we were in the presence of a Gadol.

Harav Moshe took his seat near the aron kodesh and began what looked like learning the parashas hashavua. A baal habayis walked over to him and very hesitantly asked in a quiet voice, “Maig ich fraygin the Rosh Yeshivah a she’eilah? – May I ask the Rosh Yeshivah a question?” Without blinking an eye, Harav Moshe looked up out of his sefer and, with a puzzled expression forever etched in my memory, said, “Far vos nit?—Why not?” He couldn’t understand why a question shouldn’t be asked of him. After all, it seemed he was saying, that’s why he was put on this world.

At that same convention I was also able to see different aspects of the actions of Gedolei Yisrael.

Harav Eliezer Silver, zt”l, had been successful in bringing to the convention a very chashuve Rav who had started in Agudas Yisrael but for many years had not been involved. He was scheduled to speak at the Motzoei Shabbos session in the large atrium. In the early days of Agudas Yisrael, the seats weren’t half filled. Rabbi Chaskel Besser, z”l, chaired the session, and Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, delivered a sharp address about the pitfalls of the Conservative and Reform movements in America.

When that Rav spoke there was a slight indication that he believed that if Agudas Yisrael wanted to succeed in America it had to have a program that was more positive to Eretz Yisrael. During his speech you could see that behind him at the dais there was note passing and whispered conversation.

Sure enough, when he finished there was a pause and hurried deliberation at the dais. Mr. Tress, z”l, was conferring with Rabbi Besser, who was shuttling between Harav Aharon and Harav Eliezer Silver. Finally Rabbi Besser walked to the podium and announced that Harav Aharon wanted to say some additional words.

In a scene that I will never forget, Harav Aharon got up, with fire in his eyes, and started pacing back and forth across the stage. His face started to turn red. He began with the words, “I was a young man at Katowice. I remember well, however, the founding of Agudas Yisrael.”

Harav Aharon went on to say that the love that the Gedolei Yisrael had for Eretz Yisrael was unbounded. There wasn’t one word said against Eretz Yisrael; to imply that we aren’t positive about Eretz Yisrael is a false accusation. The audience stood enthralled and entranced as he continued to express this feeling with all his passion.

At one point, the Rav stood up, wanting to explain himself. All of a sudden a young Julius Klugman, z”l, stood up from the audience and yelled out, “A chutzpah! Speaking against the Rosh Yeshivah!?” The entire hall went into an uproar. I, as a young bachur, didn’t know where we were headed.

After a little while, Rabbi Besser finally ascended the podium again and introduced the next speaker, Harav Eliezer Silver. At that point I saw another aspect of gadlus. Harav Silver calmly walked up to the podium, and, with his well-known sense of humor, said that he descends from Dovid Hamelech and the melaveh malkah was in honor of Dovid Hamelech. So instead of speaking now, he would speak at the melaveh malkah.

At the melaveh malkah he spoke for an hour, explaining what the Rav really meant and how it is exactly what Harav Aharon had in mind.He later confided to a group of bachurim who schmoozed with him until it was time to daven vasikin that when tensions were high it was no time to bring the sides together. Let’s wait until some time passes, we eat a good melaveh malkah, and then we can talk reasonably.

There are many other lessons that I learned and perhaps at another opportunity I’ll be able to share them. However, I do not want to go to the convention this year without presenting one other lesson that I learned — one actually learned from a negative experience.

In the late 1970s, I overheard two older baalei batim speaking at the convention. One said to the other, “You know, today we don’t really have Gedolim. Gone are the Reb Aharons and the Reb Reuven Grozovskys. Who sits at the dais today…?  It’s not the same.”

At that moment, I was mispallel never to fall into that trap. One has to realize that as one gets older, Gedolim arise in Klal Yisrael whom we have known as young men. Gedolim from the previous generation pass on and are replaced by other, younger leaders, who may not be as great as those from the previous generation. But as Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman said so beautifully at an Agudah convention, Choni Hamaagel could not relate to and lead a later generation. He was the leader that his generation needed, and later generations had to have leaders for their generation.

Hakadosh Baruch Hu blesses us with leaders for our generation. I look forward to coming to the Agudah convention and hearing the message of direction and inspiration for our time.


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