Derech Eretz - Rav Moshe Feinstein and Being a Mensch

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                                 for her neshama.
Elisheva Maline

Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l
In the early twentieth century, America was a spiritual wasteland. In fact, rumor in Europe had it that if a Jew moved to The New Land, he could kiss his religion goodbye. However, when Rav Moshe Feinstein, a genius in his breadth and depth of Torah knowledge, arrived at the shores of Ellis Island in the 1920's it was because Joseph Stalin was making the practice of any religion in the U.S.S.R. even harder. So when Rav Moshe weighed the odds, he decided he'd risk America's gold paved roads. Not only did he become the unquestioned authority (halachic [Jewish law] posek) of his day, he had a colossal impact on world Jewry
Now, decades after this gadol (leader of the generation) passed on, people still recall that he was not only a man of genius but also a man exemplary in middot (character traits). One of his many students, Rav Moshe Meir Weiss, writes, "It is said of certain gedolim, great people, that their incredible brilliance together with their vast encyclopedic knowledge causes one to overlook their additional sterling character traits. In this area, I was at an advantage for, as a rather average adolescent yeshiva bochur (student of Torah), I did not have sufficient awareness of the Rosh Yeshiva’s once-in-a-century gaon-ness (genius), and I was, therefore, able to zoom in on his warm, kind, sensitive, caring, patient persona.  This was something that a young boy could embrace.  Knowing now, as I do, that he was the very embodiment of Torah, I’d like to share with you some of my memories so that we may all learn from some of the beautiful ways of a true Torah personality.

"First of all, there was his incredible warmth.  He never shook your hand.  He took your hand and clasped it with both his hands; he gave your hand a hug.  He gave you a warm smile and you forgot that the weightiest problems of the entire world rested upon his shoulders.  Furthermore, his warmth was universal.  As it states in Pirkei Avos, “Eizahu m’chubad? Ha’mechabeid es habrios – Who is an honored person?  He who honors all of Hashem’s creations.”  He was so, so nice to the janitor in the yeshiva.  I remember him saying in a broken English, ‘Thank you,’ to John who was the caretaker at Yeshiva (school of Torah) of Staten Island. My brother, too, remembers that when he and his wife had a baby, they had a Jamaican nurse, Shirley, who remembered affectionately the fine old man who was always pleasant to her.  Every Shavuos, our wonderful cook, Mr. Yager, would receive a special visit in the kitchen from Rav Moshe, who thanked him effusively for making so many hundreds of delicious blintzes by hand for his bochrim...

"Then there was his incredible tolerance, his savlonus (patience). I remember we had a middle aged man in yeshiva who was somewhat mentally unbalanced.  One day, around 10:30 in the morning, while the entire yeshiva was sitting and learning with their chavrusas (study partners), this man came in and started saying Shemone Esrei (a certain prayer which is meant to be prayed under one's breath) aloud to the shock of the mashgiach, HaRav Gershon Weiss, Shlit”a, who was sitting there as well. But, since Rav Moshe was also in the room, no one said anything. Everyone await his reaction.  When this man got up to say the Kedusha, Rav Moshe calmly got up as well and answered responsively – so of course all of us did so as well. And now, four decades after that incident of amazing tolerance, it still leaves an incredible impression upon me.

When I recently mentioned Rav Moshe's name, my grandfather's face lit up. "Ah! What a man!" He immediately told me a story about when he was a young father: one of his kids, my uncle, spotted Rav Moshe and was very excited (seeing a gadol was like spotting a celebrity). The child pulled out a camera and started forward. Of course, my grandfather reached down to stop him from doing anything to make Rav Moshe uncomfortable. However, he paused when the gadol smiled and told the kid he was ready to have his picture taken. This tiny act of kindness, giving a youngster the pleasure of taking a gadol's picture, was something that imprinted itself on my grandfather's memory. "You can't find people like that nowadays," he told me. I nodded.  

That story, and all the others, drove home that it really is the little things which people remember. It's the small things that warm their hearts. Rav Moshe was often heard to say that if one desires to become great in his Torah learning, he must become a mensch first (an upright human being). He was a gadol in both areas. May we all be blessed to apply Rav Moshe's ideals, in varying degrees, to our daily lives.

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