Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, the Dean of Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, was a tremendous Torah scholar and spiritual giant. He passed away 14 years ago on the 17th of Tammuz. I would like to share with you some personal encounters I had with him and some wisdom that I learned from him.
Over 30 years ago I heard that Rabbi Weinberg would be speaking at the the Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago where I was visiting my parents. Having heard that Rabbi Weinberg was a special person, I eagerly headed for the event, looking forward to the talk. I was very disappointed. He spoke entirely in Yiddish (the appropriate language for the audience at Telshe) and I understood nothing. I went to the podium after the talk, as Rav Yaakov kindly greeted people and politely shook hands with well-wishers. I was newly religious, very curious, and not shy so I maneuvered to the front of the line and approached Rav Yaakov with my best philosophical question: ‘How can a person be truly happy?”
He looked at me straight in the eye. ‘’I don’t know you so I can’t give you the answer that’s right for you. There are three aspects to happiness. The first is you must appreciate and take pleasure in all the gifts you have. Your eyes, ears, and intelligence are great gifts, enjoy them and take pleasure.
“Are you married?’’ he asked me.
“Not yet,” I replied.
“The second aspect to happiness is to learn to be a giver, to really care for other people and love them. Men have a hard time with this until they are married. Do your best, be a giving person. You will flourish when you really do this.‘’
“The third aspect,” he continued, his voice changing from a loving father to someone communicating the Fear of Heaven, ‘’do you believe in Olam Haba, the World to Come and the eternity of the soul?”
“Yes,” I managed to squeak out in a high pitched, frightened voice.
‘’You have to make it real,” Rav Yaakov thundered, “that every day of your life you are building your eternity! You are living for something Ultimate. Each day. But I don’t know you, so I don’t know which is most important for you in life right now.”
This was clearly a man with thought out ideas.
The Man who can Answer Everything
In a very different setting I heard Rav Yaakov speak in St. Louis at Washington University, in early 1980s. It was an Aish HaTorah event in the Gargoyle, a popular campus hangout. We were excited that the great rabbi would be speaking to college students, but in our enthusiasm, we erred in promoting the event. We billed it as ‘’The Man Who Can Answer Any Question’’ and Rav Yaakov did not think that was appropriate. Even worse, we titled the talk ’’The Jewish Messiah’’ with Rabbi Weinberg’s picture directly below the title on all the posters. We inadvertently made it look like he was the Jewish messiah.
The tension in that room was very thick. It was dispelled by the second question of the evening when a college student asked, “Why does Jewish lineage follow the mother?” and Rav Yaakov replied, “’I don’t know.’’ So much for the man who can answer any question!
That night was very lively, especially when a Jewish student who had converted to Christianity chose to argue publicly with Rabbi Weinberg. “God broke the covenant with the Jews because of your sins! The Jews did all sorts of horrible things!” the young man emotionally cried out. “It’s in the book of Isaiah , that the Jews are rejected!”
Rav Yaakov was calm and measured in his response. “Do you have the book? Let’s learn it together and see if it says what you are claiming.’’
‘’I don’t have the book,’’ the student replied.
His explanations were so clear, his reasoning so plain and he seemed to know the entire Bible by heart in Hebrew!
Rav Yaakov calmly answered, ‘’Allow me to read it to you …” and he started reciting the opening chapter of Isaiah, in Hebrew, with a line-by-line translation for the audience. All by heart with no book near him. He explained to all the young man’s confusion. “’Come let us reason together’ is the prophet’s call to the Jewish nation to repair its mistakes. It is not a rejection but a call to come home to one’s Creator.” Most of the attending students were astonished. His explanations were so clear, his reasoning so plain and he seemed to know the entire Bible by heart in Hebrew! There were people in that room who changed their relationship to Judaism and Torah by hearing that one talk.
Many questions in Jewish law were brought to Rabbi Weinberg by Jews around the world who valued his deep wisdom and commitment to take responsibility. If it was a tough question, in any area of life, he could wisely give guidance.
I arranged for Rabbi Weinberg to speak to a group of businessmen in Toronto on the topic, ‘’What happens after we die.’’ I wanted to make sure that Rav Yaakov was prepared for the skeptical audience he was about to face. Jewish people rarely respond to fire and brimstone, and I feared that if someone asked him about ‘’gehinnom,’’ the Jewish view of Hell and punishment in the afterworld, that people might actually walk out if his answer was not ‘’nuanced’’ enough. ‘If people bring up this topic,” I asked him, “’what will the Rav answer?”
‘’They will absolutely love to hear all about it,” he said to me. “You have nothing to worry about.”
“Rosh Hayeshiva, we are talking about Hell! Why would anyone love hearing about this?”
“Do you have modern hospitals here in Toronto? Of course. Do they offer chemotherapy, radiation treatment for those who need it? Yes they do. So tell me,” Rav Yaakov asked, “you are certainly grateful that such facilities exist. How often would you like to use their services? The chemo and radiation? We are happy that it is there for those who need it, but we hope we will never spend one second there. Gehinom (Hell) is a facility for a soul that could not fix his or her mistakes in this world but still hopes to be cured. Of course it’s better to never have to check in, but if you need it, you’re glad it’s there. Fix your mistakes here and now. But for those that don’t, we have a hospital for the soul. They will be happy to hear about it.”
Rabbi Weinberg gave his students a new way of thinking; he truly raised up many students.
He answered so many questions in Torah by focusing on what exactly the Torah says. Every word of the Torah is important. The deep answers people seek are hiding in plain view. Just read and learn the text carefully, with humility, and wisdom will follow. I am thankful to be one of his students.