Reaching to Heaven on the Ladder of Yaakov

“Behold, a ladder was stationed on the ground and its top reached the heavens…” (Bereishis 28:12). The Torah tells us how in his dream, Yaakov Avinu beheld a ladder rooted on the ground and its top reached the heavens. This metaphor aptly describes the life of Harav Yaakov Edelstein, zt”l, the late Rav of Ramat Hasharon.

Rav Yaakov was a legend is his own lifetime. He grew up in the rural community of Ramat Hasharon where he and, ybl”c, his brother, Rav Gershon, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Ponevez, learned Torah from their saintly father, Rav Tzvi Yehudah, zt”l, the Rav of the city. During his formative years, Rav Yaakov developed a close relationship with the Chazon Ish, who appointed him as the successor to his father as Rav. Right up until his petirah nearly three years ago in 5777/2017, av Yaakov was devoted to elevating kvod Shamayim by exposing his peers and community to the wonders of Torah and mitzvos.

His perseverance in learning, his brilliance and his holiness were renowned far and wide. Yet the characteristic by which he was best known was the way he cared for and interacted with each person who crossed his path.

The prestigious Israeli award of the Book Publishing Association in Israel, Sefer Hazahav, was recently conferred on the blockbuster Hebrew edition of the biography of Rav Yaakov’s life, Sulam Yaakov, written by husband-and-wife team Yedidya Meir and Sivan Rahav-Meir. With tens of thousands of copies sold in Eretz Yisrael and the English-reading public clamoring for access to this bestseller, the authors worked on bringing it to light in its new format as “Reaching to Heaven.”

In an exclusive interview with Hamodia, the authors discuss the odyssey of this biography and how they hope it will encourage readers to internalize the lessons of Rav Yaakov’s life into their own.

Hamodia: Both you and your wife have long-established careers as journalists in Israel. What induced you to write this book about the life of Harav Edelstein?

Harav Yaakov Edelstein, zt”l, (left) speaking with Yedidya Meir, author of Reaching to Heaven.

Yedidya Meir: I have worked mainly in the print media, writing a weekly column for B’Sheva, a religious magazine produced by Arutz Sheva. In addition, I have a daily morning program for Radio Kol Chai, a religious radio station in Israel. My wife, who has worked in the Israeli media since she was 7 years old, currently works for Chevrat HaChadashot, the Israeli News Company, the main news channel, and Yediot Acharonot. Each week, we do a program together on Galei Tzahal, the IDF Radio. So we are active journalists for the Israeli media.

Sivan Rahav-Meir: Since we resided in Ramat Hasharon, we had a personal connection with Harav Edelstein, as he was the Chief Rabbi of our city. He was a person who had a connection with everyone, from the greatest Gedolim, Roshei Yeshivah and tzaddikim to the simple man on the street. When he passed away, we felt it was important to bring the lessons of the Rav’s life to the public at large. My husband took the lead. He sat for a week with his laptop in the yeshivah in Ramat Hasharon and wrote the hundreds of stories he was told about the Rav. Every talmid had a story, and they all wanted to share them with us.

Yedidya Meir: The stories I heard were pearls. They were so touching and precious. What we learned from this is that there was a real story to write. I think the theme of the book is how to be a normal tzaddik — or, better said, “How can I be a better Jew in a balanced way and yet retain tremendous enthusiasm?”

In the book, you quote many Gedolim, including Harav Berel Povarsky, shlita, and Harav Dov Landau, shlita. How were you able to access them?

Yedidya Meir: The response was unbelievable; everyone wanted to participate. We coordinated everything with the family of the Rav, who approved everything we wrote. They were enthusiastic about getting the book published. The minute Harav Berel Povarsky, shlita, and Harav Dov Landau, shlita, heard what we were doing, their doors were open to us. As friends of Harav Edelstein from childhood, they shared their memories and impressions of him.

Sivan Rahav-Meir: In a way, it was harder to speak with the “man on the street,”because we had to find a way to connect with them. We did a lot of research, using every means at our disposal of contacting them and asking the public to get in touch with us if they had any story about the Rav. Although we were told hundreds of “miracle stories,” we did not include them, because the point of the book was not to relate mofsim. If I wanted, I could write another entire book just about his miracles. But our desire was to provide the public with a tool for spiritual growth, to make the lessons applicable to the average person and to teach how we can improve our own lives in accordance with his legacy.

Yedidya Meir: The criterion we used for including a story was, “How can this lesson be applied to our own lives?” We want people to think to themselves as they close the book, “What can I take from this into my own life, in my interactions with my wife, my children, my friends, my boss?”

What lesson that can be learned from the book and from the life of Rav Yaakov do you feel is the most important?

Harav Yaakov Edelstein, zt”l, placing schach on his succah.

Yedidya Meir: I think I would choose two lessons. The first is that Torah and mitzvos are accessible to all. The second is that a good Jew is one who wants to become a better Jew. That truly was his legacy.

Harav Edelstein was on the highest level, but he taught to find something, even a small thing, that you can improve. For example, a secular person who was totally not shomer Shabbos came to him, and the Rav asked him to make a small kabbalah not to smoke in public on Shabbos. Just think about it. He knew he was not shomer Shabbos, and he knew that he would smoke on Shabbos, so he could not demand of him to keep Shabbos in its entirety. Nevertheless, he asked him to do something small, which was to refrain from publicly desecrating Shabbos.

Sivan Rahav-Meir: There is a similar story that is one of my favorites, as you will soon see. A woman, an older woman who was never married, came to him for advice. He didn’t ask her to fast or say Tehillim. Rather, he made a small request of her. He asked her, “Do you have a pair of Shabbos shoes?” She replied that she didn’t. He knew she could well afford it, and he asked her to purchase a pair of shoes that would be designated especially for Shabbos. This is a small kabbalah; I can tell you, it is not so difficult to convince a woman to buy a pair of shoes. But he requested she do it as a way to honor Shabbos. Through this, she would come to respect and appreciate Shabbos.

Yedidya Meir: The book is replete with hundreds of stories like these. The stories are short, but the lessons are huge!

Both of you had a personal relationship with Rav Yaakov. What do you think he would think about this book?

Yedidya Meir: I think his first reaction would be, “Why are you writing a book about me? You are exaggerating!” But I hope he would appreciate the style, since the focus of the book is not really about him, but rather about the reader and what the reader can do to improve him- or herself. We included a mixture of people, how he treated all types, whether they were rich or poor, widows, orphans, secular or Mesorati (traditional), modern Orthodox or so-called ultra-Orthodox, Chassidim or Litaim (Litvaks). We interviewed lots of people from abroad and from the States, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, many of whom traveled to Ramat Hasharon for his advice, his encouragement, his tefillos and brachos. We included people who grew up observant and left everything, and people who grew up secular and became observant. All types of people respected him, and he interacted with all of them with the same esteem and love.

Sivan Rahav-Meir: I hope he would be happy with the message, which is that there are sippurei tzaddikim, tales of tzaddikim, of people who live in the present — in 5780, in 2020 — and not only those of two or three centuries ago.

Looking back on it, now that it has reached such a large audience in Israel and is expected to reach even more with the translated edition, is there anything that you excluded from the book that you regret omitting?

Celebrating Succos with residents of Ramat Hasharon. Harav Edelstein, zt”l, center, and Yedidyah Meir, left.

Sivan Rahav-Meir: In Israel, thousands of people read it and it was honored with the Sefer Hazahav award. Over time, we have had many people contact us with even more stories. Of course, if we wanted, we could write an entire second volume just of the new stories we heard. But we are not planning on that. Many of the letter writers, which include secular people from kibbutzim, soldiers in the army, asked us, “Where can I find such a tzaddik today? I want to be in touch with a live tzaddik.” It brought them an awareness of what it means to be a tzaddik.

One of the most beautiful quotes I heard — I think it was from Harav Yitzchak Ezrachi, shlita — is that there was no “es pas nisht” with him. Sometimes people think, “What will people think? This is too open, this is too closed. This is too much to the right, this is too much to the left.” By Harav Edelstein, who was the simplest person, this did not exist. I remember that any time I called his house, he answered the phone himself. There was no distance between him and the people. So we basically were able to include anything we felt was a “teachable moment.”

How would you sum up the significance and impact of Sulam Yaakov, or the English language version of Reaching for Heaven?

Yedidya Meir: My ne’um ma’alit, my elevator speech or elevator pitch, goes something like this: “If you think you are perfect, don’t buy this book. If you think you reached the highest level of your spirituality or identity, this book is not for you. But if you think you still have things that can be improved, then this is the book for you. Because this book is like a workshop, it provides you with tools to improve your life.”

There are several topics in the book. They include Torah, chessed, advice, matrimony, chinuch, overcoming challenges, Shabbos and Chagim. It teaches you how to improve in these areas and how to improve your middos. The original Hebrew edition is titled Sulam Yaakov, because it teaches you how to begin your climb toward a better and more spiritual existence. It is a guide for Reaching to Heaven!

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There is a Coca-Cola factory here at the entrance to Bnei Brak, on which is written, ‘Coca-Cola is the taste of life.’ Whoever speaks about Rav Yankev (as his old friend referred to him) needs to know that Torah is the taste of life. I loved him so much and he loved me. We were like brothers.

I knew him from when we were both young talmidim. He spent all his time learning Torah and mussar. If you sit all day learning Mesilas Yesharim, let’s see what you look like.

Harav Baruch Dov (Berel) Povarsky, shlita,
Rosh Yeshivah of Ponevez

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I was a young bachur… we were young and needed guidance, so we turned to him with all our questions. This was the basis of our friendship: learning. It made him happy when bachurim came to him and asked questions. For him, the needs of many prevailed over the needs of the individual. He always answered our questions.

He was phenomenal in learning already when he was a bachur. He knew so much. He was a treasure trove of knowledge, but he helped others. He even knew how to answer the less-than-clever questions in a way that made the questioner feel good.

Harav Dov Landau, shlita,
Rosh Yeshivah of Slabodka

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The day after Harav Edelstein passed away, one newspaper headline captured his personality perfectly: Rabban shel P’rat Yisrael. Not Rabban shel Klal Yisrael, Rav of the collective nation, but the Rav of the individual. Of each and every Jew.

“When I was 26 years old, I came to know Harav Edelstein and tried to keep contact with him after that… From our first meeting, he captivated me with his forthright manner…

“After he passed away, we sat together, the entire family, and one of my children said, ‘I’m very insulted by Harav Edelstein.’ My son explained, ‘I always thought I had an “in” with him. I thought he saw me as someone special, that I had a place in his heart. But since he died, I’ve heard how people speak about him, and I realize that this is how he acted with everyone. As if each and every single person is one of a kind. I realized there was no “in” — or, more accurately, that everyone had an “in” with him…’”

Ramat Hasharon Deputy Mayor Yaakov Koretzki

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“I want to give an example in order to explain to what extent he was a Rav who didn’t think about his own kavod. On Friday, several hours before Shabbos Shuvah, he would call people to tell them to come to his drahshah. Have you ever heard of a Rav who calls people to invite them to his drashah? But he didn’t care. He truly wanted to give them the merit of hearing a Torah discourse. According to my calculations, he called dozens of people — gabba’im, Rabbis of other congregations, and private individuals of all types of families in the city — so they would come.”

Harav Baruch Edelstein, shlita

“One time, I asked him why he did this, and he said that he wanted to honor them in this way. ‘They are waiting for my call. If I don’t call, someone might feel insulted.’ When people arrived in shul for the drashah, he literally treated them as honored guests, saying, ‘Come, there is a place to sit here.’”

Harav Yitzchak Edelstein, shlita