The pillar of Torah Jewry, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, passed away today at the age of 102. Until a few months ago, he was still active, the world-recognized authority on Jewish law and acknowledged leader of the non-Chassidic Torah community.
Of the many great Jewish personages in the last era, he is probably the most difficult and enigmatic to describe to anyone who is not himself an active Torah scholar of the old school. It is easy for us to relate to acts of kindness and empathy as acts of spirituality. But the concept of Torah study in and of itself and the person who embodies those qualities is something that simply cannot be grasped by those who have never experienced or at least seen it.
When I arrived in Israel in 1970, Rav Elyashiv was still very accessible. He lived (until his demise) in a tiny, two-room apartment off Meah Shearim Street. He would study in a secluded synagogue nearby. The door was usually locked, but tiptoeing at a window one could peer in and watch him study hour after hour. He would gently sway, read over the words clearly and calmly, and reason back and forth out loud. He would be focused and oblivious to anything going on outside. There would be regular hours for the public to come and present questions and problems. Once a day he would deliver a lecture for lay people at a nearby synagogue.
Maimonides writes in his Guide to the Perplexed that while it is true that we are enjoined to emulate God in our actions, i.e. just as He is kind and merciful, so are we to be kind and merciful, it is even more important to emulate God as regards the “motive” for His kindness. Just as God’s kindness and benevolence is directed by His wisdom and by His determination of what is the right course of action, so too perfection in man requires him to act out of wisdom and truth, rather than passion and sentiment.
Rav Elyashiv was the embodiment of this noblest form of emulating God. He was first and foremost a man of the mind and a person of study. He was not naturally extraordinarily brilliant, but his intense love for truth and study stemmed from the very core of his being. He was always calm, focused and thought out. It was only after going through a careful judgment process and determining the truth that he would allow some emotional inflection into his response.
Asking him a question was a profound experience in searching for the truth. He would listen, focused and thoughtful. He did not display impatience, but his presence did not encourage idle prattle. With a few short comments, he would do away with the unimportant points of the narrative, and ferret out points not presented. He would think a moment or two, and the response would be laconic and to the point, not missing any words, yet not excess verbiage.
Sometimes a person would try to argue, this way and that way, especially if it represented some difficulty for him. Rav Elyashiv had a way of opening his hands in simple query, as if to say, “But two plus two still equals four, doesn’t it?” You could feel your contrivances fall away.
A brilliant friend of mine once presented to him a Talmudic argument. Rav Elyashiv listened, and commented, “Brilliant, but you do know that this is not what’s meant by the text.”
What made his lectures and responsa unique were not brilliant flashes, deep hair-splitting or voluminous quotes. Rather they were unfailingly “the straightest line between two points.” When one studies it, one is confounded by how obvious it should have been. Whatever he personally wrote was clear, concise and devoid of any personal interdiction.
He did not like things that were contrived or pretentious.
He did not like things that were contrived or pretentious. I once asked him about taking on a particularly popular stringency. He answered softly, “Why doesn’t following the letter of the law suffice?”
I once asked him about a particular obligation that our community wished to undertake for the sake of piety, but may impact some people negatively. He replied, “Piety that impacts people negatively is highly suspect.”
He was totally apolitical, though he has been painted to the contrary. By political I mean looking at the end to justify means. In politics one pays lip service to something he does not much believe in order to gain something more significant that one fervently believes in. One takes positions out of loyalty rather than out of true belief. One speaks in hyperbole in order to gain the public approval.
Rav Elyashiv looked at each point as it came up and opined accordingly. In videos of him meeting with people with whose general positions he agreed, he would not be automatically giving sweeping approvals. He would nod in assent at points that he agreed with, and would shrug away things that he felt were questionable, no matter how passionate the presentation. He was sometimes lambasted by the “right wing” (e.g., when he was part of the official rabbinate, or when he gave his approval to a certain halachically acceptable method of building a road on a graveyard), and many times by the left wing. Not only didn’t it faze him; it did not interest him in the least. Public opinion is not the determinant of right and wrong.
He never gave a public speech. He did not understand why words were needed to tell people to do what’s right or to refrain from wrong. Right is right and wrong is wrong.
He did not like to appear at public events. The hullabaloo of the events was anathema to him, and the precious time taken away from the study of Torah was unforgivable.
He was the embodiment of pure and simple truth and tranquility.
The great scholar, the Chazon Ish, once wrote words about himself that aptly describe Rav Elyashiv. An issue was stirring up the religious community in Israel, and an impassioned letter begged the Chazon Ish to become personally involved in some protest. He replied, “The heart of every Torah Jew resonates with the emotion you have so passionately expressed. But as for me, having spent a lifetime toiling in Torah study under the most difficult of circumstances, I have become accustomed to weighing my actions with the scales of my mind (rather than the passions of my heart) and I cannot join you.”
The wicked person is described as “raging in turmoil like the seas,” while the righteous know of peace and tranquility. When a person’s actions are determined by untamed drives and passions, and impulsive sentiment and emotion, he can know no tranquility. But the righteous man, who weighs his actions with the scales of truth and reason, and does not allow himself to be swayed by self-interest desire, is the happy and tranquil tzaddik.
Rav Elyashiv’s name was “Yosef Shalom,” literally meaning “increase of peace/tranquility.” When one would see him walk in the street, he would immediately feel the presence of greatness. Tall and slender, walking straight – yet no sense of self or arrogance – forehead furrowed in thought, proceeding calmly yet swiftly to his destination, without allowing his gaze to wander.
Talking with him allowed you for a brief moment to share a sense of pure and simple truth, and the calm and tranquility that is the lot of these men of unvarnished truth.