"Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and he saw their suffering." (Exodus 2:11)
Moses' preparation for his role as a leader of the Children of Israel began with feeling the suffering of his brethren. That quality of identification with each individual is the hallmark of every true Jewish leader.
Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grozinski of Vilna, leader of pre-WW II Eastern European Jewry, was once told of an unlearned shoemaker who had lost one of his eight children. Reb Chaim Ozer was inconsolable. Those present could not understand the extent of his tears. Not long before, Rabbi Grozinski had lost his only child, a daughter who was bitten by a rabid dog shortly after becoming engaged. Yet even then he had not cried so bitterly. Indeed, he had continued writing halachic responsa almost until the moment of her death.
"When my daughter passed away," Rabbi Grozinski explained, "I could console myself with the knowledge that she was going to a better world. That is clear to me. But I don't know that the World-to-Come is as real to the shoemaker. I'm crying for his pain, not my own."
Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, who passed away Friday, Nov 2, was a worthy heir to the mantle of leadership once worn by Rabbi Grozinski. He never sought the role. He needed no other joy than that of studying and teaching Torah, and until the age of 70 he did nothing else.
As a young yeshiva student, he owned only the clothes on his back. His pants were so full of holes that when tested for admission to the Slutsk Yeshiva he wore them inside out to conceal how threadbare they were. When he married, he and his wife did not even own a closet. Two pegs on the wall sufficed for all their possessions.
Rabbi Shach was available whenever a Jew anywhere in the world needed his advice.
He became the guide of Orthodox Jewry around the world because the community sought his guidance. He was neither elected nor appointed. An entire community simply knew, as if intuitively, that he was now their shepherd.
The burden was enormous. It meant being available whenever a Jew anywhere in the world needed his advice. Each issue, whether it involved an individual or an entire community, was weighed carefully. He consulted with experts and sought to be continually updated about changing circumstances. When in his late 90s he could no longer give each matter that same thorough consideration, Rabbi Shach retired from public activity.
They turned to him - individuals, yeshiva heads, and communal leaders - because they knew that whatever he said was the absolute truth as he saw it - a truth shaped only by the Torah to which he had devoted his whole life.
Rabbi Shach was the antithesis of modern political leaders, zigzagging according to the advice of their pollsters. No suspicion of personal interest attached to him. A wealthy man once offered his son-in-law $100,000 for the latter's yeshiva if Rabbi Shach would write a letter of recommendation. Rabbi Shach refused. A leader, he felt, cannot afford to be beholden to anyone.
Money and honor were meaningless to him. All he cared about was truth.
Money and honor were meaningless to him. At a time when the media was filled with stories of Rabbi Shach's political power, a secular journalist who interviewed him was astounded by the way he lived: a cot for a bed, bookshelves made of the packing crates, and a bare bulb in the living room.
The greatness of a Jew is measured by how many are included within the ambit of his "I." God Himself is referred to as hagadol (the Great) because His concern extends to every living being. Similarly, the gadol hador (the great man of the generation) is one whose concern encompasses every Jew.
In his late 80s, Rabbi Shach required surgery to remove a growth on his leg. The surgeon told him that general anesthesia would be required. Rabbi Shach would not agree because the anesthesia would cloud his thinking, and he could not afford that. He told the surgeon that he could deal with the pain. Students pinioned his leg to prevent any involuntary movement when the surgeon cut into his flesh.
During the same period in his life, he was informed that a helicopter had crashed, killing four soldiers. He burst into tears. He did not ask whether the soldiers were religious or not. That was irrelevant. They were Jews.
His own physical pain he could control, but the pain at the death of a Jew, he could not control.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Rabbi Shach's passing is that so many Jews do not know what a loving father they have lost.
This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.