A Life of Truth

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Every word spoken by Harav Dov Landau, shlita, is measured. It behooves us to examine Rav Dov’s remarks soon after Maran, zt”l, passed away: “The fact that Hagaon Harav Shteinman, refused to permit us to ascribe lofty titles to him displays more than his humility. It shows how careful he was to make sure that every word spoken by him and about him be absolutely true. For a hundred years he spoke only the straightforward, unadulterated truth. It is said in the name of Harav Eliyahu Lopian, zt”l, that someone who resides in England speaks English and someone residing in Italy speaks Italian, but in Heaven there is only one language — that of truth. It can be said that Harav Aharon Leib, zt”l, spoke the language of Heaven, the World of Truth, as long as he lived in this world as well.”

There was a moderately traditional Jew who made a generous monthly donation to a particular Torah institution in Eretz Yisrael, and he once read an article in a secular newspaper about Harav Shteinman and his superlative character and way of living. He asked the directors of this institution to make an appointment for him to meet Harav Shteinman to receive his blessing. The directors did so and even accompanied him to Harav Shteinman’s home. As they entered the room, Harav Shteinman turned his gaze down to the table. The directors explained to Harav Shteinman that this was a major donor to Torah institutions who came to receive the Rav’s blessing.

Without lifting his gaze, Harav Shteinman asked, “Do you observe Shabbos?”

The man started to explain how his situation was difficult, but Harav Shteinman spoke to him politely, wished him well, and sent them off without his blessing. The men got back into their car and drove off, but no one spoke during the ride. The directors wondered to themselves whether they had just lost a major source of support and began to regret having arranged this meeting altogether.

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After they arrived at their destination, the philanthropist said to them, “I want you to know that the Rabbi we just visited genuinely loves me. I have been to others, but they love my money, not me. Therefore, they have never mentioned anything about how observant I am or am not. After all, they don’t want to lose my financial support. This Rabbi was different. He is a man of truth who spoke the absolute truth to me. This impressed me most of all.”

Another person told us that he became observant some thirty-five years earlier. When his first child was born, he was advised to choose a tzaddik to serve as sandak at the bris. He asked for their recommendation, and he was told that Harav Shteinman was already recognized as the Gadol hador.

At that time, the father was serving in the Israeli Air Force, and when Harav Shteinman asked him what he did, he replied that he was a fighter pilot. Harav Shteinman smiled and said in Yiddish, “Oh, another baal agalah.”

The father was quite surprised at this response, since usually when people found out that he was an IAF pilot they were very impressed. He was part of an elite group that was viewed as superior to the average person, as if a halo shone above them. Nevertheless, the father understood exactly what Harav Shteinman meant. It was true that he possessed special skills, but that meant nothing about his worth as a human being. At that moment, he realized that he was speaking with someone who saw only the absolute truth, someone who was not the least impressed by outside accomplishments that had no value in the World of Truth.

In another incident, the IAF’s top brass visited Harav Shteinman together with a group of high officers, and he asked the general about his job. He also replied that he was a fighter pilot. Harav Shteinman responded with a smile, “So you know how to drive up in Heaven? I am sure that you are well-trained to win your small battles, but what is that worth if someone isn’t trained to win the great battle against the yetzer hara?”

Not only was Harav Shteinman honest in his dealings with other people, but he also was very particular with each word that he spoke or wrote, making sure that it was absolutely true. Shortly before his passing, Harav Shteinman related to those close to him that many years earlier he had gone for an appointment with a certain doctor in Yerushalayim, and there were quite a few people in the waiting room. When his turn arrived, the doctor got the impression that Harav Shteinman was upset with him. This was not true, but since the Rav was fasting (it was the first day of Selichos) and he was tired from traveling all the way from Kfar Saba to Yerushalayim, his demeanor was a bit strained and the doctor thought that he was angry.

At any rate, Harav Shteinman now explained that the doctor had apologized, saying, “I do the best I can, but I am not a malach.” Harav Shteinman thought silently for a few minutes, and said, “Well, I am not positive that he said, ‘but I am not a malach,’ but I am sure that he said, ‘I do the best I can.’”

The people listening were amazed at Harav Shteinman’s care to cite the exact words of the doctor, who certainly did not remember or care one way or the other how he was quoted. This was an example of the value Harav Shteinman placed in being truthful in all his dealings, even when it really didn’t matter to anyone else.

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Once, it was reported to Harav Shteinman that someone had passed away. The person reporting the news added that the deceased had been mamash moser nefesh in his life’s endeavors. Harav Shteinman immediately responded, “Moser nefesh? That is something you can say about Avraham Avinu only. Nowadays, people describe everything as mesirus nefesh. For example, someone who is paid a handsome regular salary will tell people that he is moser nefesh for his job.

There are thousands of examples of Harav Shteinman’s exceptional care for the exact truth. In one instance, a bachur came to him and asked for his blessing for success in shidduchim. The Rav grasped the young man’s arm and told him, “Don’t say shidduchim — say a shidduch.”

Harav Dov Diskin, shlita, once came to Harav Shteinman to ask that he add his signature to a letter asking people to support the Nachalas Moshe kollel. Harav Shteinman read the letter, which reported that 250 yungeleit learned in the kollel, and immediately asked, “Did you actually count them to arrive at this figure?”

The director of one Talmud Torah came to Harav Shteinman and asked him to add his signature to their blessings for the students’ success in a Torah competition. Harav Shteinman replied that he could not bless the students unless he saw that they indeed were proficient in the material, and so he invited them to his home for him to test them. Once he saw that the boys were sufficiently prepared for the competition, he happily wrote his blessing.

At another time, he was asked to sign a letter recommending support for a yeshivah where the students study Torah “day and night.” Before agreeing to sign, he asked, “Do you really have students learning up to midnight?” After receiving an affirmative reply, he said that if that is the case, the words “day and night” can be used truthfully, and he agreed to sign the letter.

One year, about two weeks before Purim, the trustees of the Kupat Ha’ir charity organization made the rounds to the homes of many Gedolim for their contributions to matanos la’evyonim. Kupat Ha’ir then held the money and distributed it to the needy on the day of Purim. The trustees asked each of the Gedolim to write a note that they are appointing the trustees as their agents to distribute it on Purim, and the trustees used these notes as proof that they could be trusted by all their donors to do this.

When they entered Harav Shteinman’s home, he immediately gave them a $100 bill. When they asked him for his note, however, he replied firmly, “I cannot write an untruth!”

The trustees were astounded. Had Harav Shteinman decided that their system was faulty? They waited in silence, but the Rav repeated himself, “What can I do? I will not write an untruth.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Levinstein, zt”l, approached Harav Shteinman and said, “We don’t understand. What is untrue here?” But the Rav would not answer, and the trustees left, confused and concerned.

Two days later, Harav Shteinman called for Rabbi Menachem Shprinshless, shlita (one of the trustees) and handed him NIS 100, saying that it was for matanos la’evyonim. “And,” he added, “let me write you a note that I have appointed you as my agent. When you came to me the first time, I had no money of my own. I had given you someone else’s money, so how could I have written that I am depositing my money with you? Today I have my own money to deposit with you, so I can now write a note to that effect.”

The Search for Truth

Although his entire being radiated the attribute of truth, Harav Shteinman did not view himself as exemplary. Harav Chaim Mann, shlita, Rosh Yeshivas Be’er Hatalmud in Elad, related that he once conferred with Harav Shteinman regarding the appointment of a known talmid chacham to a senior public position. Harav Shteinman believed that this person was fit for the position and warmly recommended his appointment. Rav Chaim knew that Harav Shteinman’s opinion would be highly influential, so he asked, “Since the Rosh Yeshivah is known to be a tzaddik, may I say this over in his name?”

With tears forming in his eyes, Harav Shteinman responded characteristically, “What, me a tzaddik? Am I a tzaddik?” Then he began sobbing.

After regaining his composure, Harav Shteinman turned to Rav Chaim and said, “Maybe it is true that I am a tzaddik. After all, I never, ever asked anyone to do me any special favors on behalf of my children.”

Harav Shteinman then cited the Talmud (Eiruvin 100b): Rabi Yochanan said, “Even if the Torah had not been given to us, we would be able to learn from cats to behave modestly, from ants not to steal other’s property, and from doves to be faithful to our spouses.” But why would we make these deductions? Why not learn from all other creatures who do not behave modestly instead of learning the opposite from cats? Why not learn from all other creatures who want only to steal from one another, instead of learning from ants, who do not steal?

The answer is that when someone searches for the truth, it will be obvious to him when it comes his way. Once he finds the truth, then it doesn’t matter that the entire world ignores the truth. After 120 years, they will ask, “Why did you follow the behavior of the entire world when you were shown the one creature that exemplifies the correct way to behave?” Since it is the truth, it is unmistakable, and one becomes obligated to follow it.

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True to his words, whenever Harav Shteinman met someone who strove for integrity, he had a favorable opinion of him. The journal Mizkeinim Esbonan tells the story of a bachur who was expelled from Harav Shteinman’s yeshivah because of something he had done. In order to continue his connection with Torah, it was arranged for this bachur to learn Bava Kamma daily with a yungerman. Upon reaching a certain difficult Tosafos, they went through it several times, but they could not fathom its meaning. The older fellow surrendered and suggested that they skip it and go on, but the bachur would not hear of it.

“But what’s the use?” the older fellow protested. “We’ve already invested a lot of time and brainpower into the Tosafos. Do you think it will help to go over it again?”

“This is what I learned from Maran, Harav Leib Shteinman,” the bachur explained. “I read it in the Shabbos magazine of Parashas Shelach, 5758. Maran explained the importance of searching deeply to find the truth and not to give up, and it really inspired me. I decided at that time never to brush off the truth without trying my best to understand it and absorb it. This Tosafos is a challenge of whether or not I really meant what I accepted on myself. So please, let’s try again to understand the Tosafos.”

The following day, the hanhalah of the Yeshivah discussed whether to accept the bachur back among its ranks, and the yungerman participated in the discussion. The staff felt that the bachur’s past behavior was unforgivable. Instead of attempting to defend the bachur’s behavior, the yungerman told them what had happened the day before while they were learning.

Upon hearing this, Harav Shteinman said, “It is obvious that this boy has made a turn for the better. Perhaps he will remain on the true path from here on. I want you to know that when someone does teshuvah it is a tremendous feat. I hope that each of us here will succeed in doing teshuvah.”

Of course, the bachur was readmitted to the yeshivah, and today he is a fine talmid chacham who cleaves to the path of truth, as he learned from Harav Shteinman.

Directing Others in the Path of Truth

Whenever Harav Shteinman spoke, the listeners could tell that he was trying to direct them to emulate his sterling path. When I was about to publish the Rambam’s Iggeres Hamussar, the first edition appearing with full editing and notes, I apprised Harav Shteinman of my intentions. He asked me, “Did you see what he wrote about machlokes? Did you see what he wrote about emes and sheker?

“When bar mitzvah boys come to me for a blessing, I always ask them to work on improving their commitment to being honest in their speech. The boys smile, thinking that I am asking them something simple. So then I ask them why they think it is so easy. In my entire life, I tell them, I have never met someone who only speaks the truth. Many people speak the truth, but never consistently through their lives.”

As we were speaking, someone arrived with his son, who was about to become a bar mitzvah. Harav Shteinman blessed the boy, and when the boy asked for the Rosh Yeshivah’s advice, Harav Shteinman told him to always speak the truth. We could see a smile on the edges of the boy’s lips.

After they left, Harav Shteinman said, “You see? It is such a hard thing to do, so why do they all think that it is something easy?”

When I published the sefer, I included in the preface what Harav Shteinman had told me, but I wrote that he said, “There is almost no one in the world who always speaks the truth without exception.” I hoped that this would inspire the readers to study the lengthy section of the sefer dealing with this trait.

One of my friends promptly brought a copy of the sefer to Harav Shteinman, even before I had a chance to do so. My friend showed him how I had quoted him in the preface, and the Rav immediately protested, “That’s a lie! That is not what I said.”

My friend was startled, for he knew that I was very careful about quoting other people correctly. He asked Harav Shteinman what was untrue about my quote. The Rav replied, “It says here that I said that there is almost no one who always speaks the truth. I didn’t say that. I said that there is no one at all who always speaks the truth.”

I once saw Harav Shteinman writing a letter on behalf of Kupat Ha’ir, and he included his prayer that he should be given the opportunity to sanctify the Name of Heaven. I asked him, “The Rosh Yeshivah does so much for everyone, and spends his entire day sanctifying the Name of Heaven. What is it that the Rosh Yeshivah is asking for?”

Harav Shteinman explained that he could always do more, but I protested, “I don’t think that there is anyone who does more for the sake of Hashem’s honor.”

Harav Shteinman looked at me directly, saying, “I know you to be a man of truth. All of a sudden you have joined the false flatterers?”

Sometimes people would come to Harav Shteinman and say, “The tzibbur says…” Invariably, the Rav would protest, asking, “When did you speak to the tzibbur? What did the tzibbur ask for, and what did you answer? Why don’t you learn to speak the precise truth?”

The real focus of Harav Shteinman’s truthfulness, however, was in his Torah learning. Rabbi Yisrael Friedman related that a Rosh Yeshivah once came to Harav Shteinman and complained bitterly, “I know that I have unusual talent in explaining things clearly, and my students consider my shmuessen to be exceptionally interesting. So why is it that Maran has so much influence on others while I do not?”

“Tell me,” asked Harav Shteinman, “how much time do you spend preparing a shiur? And how much time do you spend preparing a shmuess?”

The visiting Rosh Yeshivah replied, “About 10 hours for a shiur and three hours for a shmuess.”

Harav Shteinman countered, “Three hours should be enough for a shiur, but a shmuess needs more preparation. If you want to be able to influence others, however, you have to prepare the speaker, not just the shmuess, and that takes 90 years!

“It is possible to influence others only if you are absolutely truthful. How can someone say in his shiur, ‘Another way to explain it is…,’ and then a minute later prove that those words are false? You could say, ‘It might be possible to say…’ as long as you show immediately that it is not a viable approach. Otherwise, you are simply trying to show off. How could someone hope to influence others if he does not speak the absolute truth exclusively?

“You might argue that you wish to help the bachurim develop a way of thinking through teaching them the false approaches. That would be alright as long as this is your sole intention and you have no other in mind, even if you don’t realize it yourself. A person can be influential only by cleaving unto the truth.”

Indeed, Harav Shteinman was a man of truth. His Torah was truth and his seal was truth. He was the one who stood up and demanded the truth, only the truth, and all the truth. His battle cry was, “Don’t lie to others and don’t lie to yourself.” This is his legacy for all generations.

Hamodia thanks Rabbi Yisroel Friedman for permission to translate and adapt this material from the Hebrew Yated.