It has been one year since the passing of the beloved Rosh Yeshiva and founder of Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt"l.
The day after Rabbi Weinberg was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive, life-threatening form of lung cancer, he told me that he was not afraid to die. But he was not ready to leave this world because he did not see who was going to take up the fight for the Jewish people in his stead.
Rav Noah lived with the reality that the Jewish people were at war, confronted by two existential threats. One is the spiritual threat of assimilation. The other is a physical threat of radical Islam in general, and in particular Iran's determination to build a nuclear weapon to, God forbid, destroy the State of Israel.
There are many who recognize these threats and are working tirelessly to address them. I believe however that Rabbi Weinberg was unique in his perception that this is tantamount to war, and he lived his life accordingly. Day in and day out, he dedicated every fiber of his being fighting the battles of the Jewish people.
I was privileged to know Rabbi Weinberg for over 30 years, and worked closely with him for the last 22 years. I have no doubt that he would expect us to use the occasion of his first yahrtzeit to make an effort to grow in our commitment to fight for the Jewish people. Therefore, I would like to present what I believe to be amongst Rabbi Weinberg’s core ideals that served as the foundation of his commitment and confidence that we can, with God's help, make the difference for the Jewish people – which Rav Noah so badly yearned for during his lifetime.
1. There is no hierarchy to taking responsibility.
Rabbi Weinberg always taught that each and every one of us needs to say, "The world was created for me." He explained this to mean that each of us is obligated to view the world as our personal responsibility. From his perspective, a person’s responsibility for a problem begins the moment that he becomes aware of the problem's existence. This responsibility applies regardless of one’s position, resources or abilities.
In Leviticus ch. 10, we read about Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron the High Priest who were struck down after offering a “strange fire.” The Sages explain that at least in one aspect, Nadav and Avihu were even greater than Moses and Aaron. However, the Talmud portrays Nadav and Avihu in a far less flattering manner.
The Talmud relates that Nadav and Avihu said, “When are these two old men (Moses and Aaron) going to die, so we can lead the Jewish people?” (Sanhedrin 52a)
Rav Noah explained this seeming contradiction as two aspects of the same situation.
Nadav and Avihu saw a deficiency within the Jewish people that Moses and Aaron did not perceive, hence the characterization of them as greater than Moses and Aaron. The Talmud is focusing on their improper response to this insight. Fundamentally, their mistake was to incorrectly think that a person is only responsible to address a problem once they are given the position or authority to do so. The Torah approach is to understand that responsibility begins the moment we perceive it. In other words, there is no hierarchy to responsibility. We are all responsible to confront the problems we perceive, regardless of our station in life.
Although there is no hierarchy to responsibility, there certainly is a hierarchy to its implementation. For example, Nadav and Avihu should have gone to Moses and Aaron, the leaders of the Jewish people, and explained to them the problem that they perceived. They could offer a proposed solution, and then take responsibility to implement that solution under the guidance of Moses and Aaron.
This approach empowers people to take responsibility, without creating anarchy in the jewish community.
This was always Rav Noah’s approach. Each and every person he met was encouraged, inspired – and often demanded – to take responsibility for the entire Jewish people, regardless of their background.
2. To truly make a difference, you need to care. That means you need to cry.
Rav Noah often told the story of Sara Schneirer, the founder of the Beis Yaakov girls’ schools at a time when assimilation was threatening the Jewish community of Europe. Rav Noah zt"l would question how it was possible that an uneducated woman had such an enormous merit to start the revolution that literally saved the Jewish people? He explained as follows:
Living in early-20th century Poland, Sara Schneirer was a seamstress who made beautiful clothing for Jewish girls. In her diary she wrote that although she made clothing to cover their bodies, in talking to them, she realized that their souls were naked because they were estranged from Jewish values. And she would cry for them.
Rav Noah would point out that this is the secret to her success. She made the effort to identify with these girls, and appreciated the consequences of their being so distant from a Jewish life -- until it pained her so much that she cried for them.
That willingness to face the problem and feel the pain is the engine that drives anyone who undertakes to accomplish for the Jewish people.
Applying this concept to today, we have to face up to the individual and collective tragedy of the vast majority of Jews being estranged from Torah and a relationship with God. This realization will undoubtedly bring us to accomplish many good things. But in order to really make a profound difference, we have to feel it so deeply that we cry.
3. Nothing can be accomplished without God's help. But we need to take responsibility in order to get God's help.
The Almighty could save the Jewish people in an instant. He does not do this because He wants us to take the responsibility.
Rabbi Weinberg zt"l would illustrate this point through the biblical Yaakov, who – in returning to the Land of Israel – made preparations to confront his wicked brother, Esav.
Yaakov prepared in three ways: He divided the camp (which demonstrated his readiness to go to war), he prayed to God, and he sent gifts as an act of diplomacy.
Rav Noah would ask: Why did Yaakov first divide his camp? Shouldn’t he have first prayed?
He would answer that prayer is only effective when it is not used as an escape from responsibility. So before Yaakov could pray, he had to be willing to take as much responsibility possible. Only then could he turn to the Almighty to save him.
When the Jewish people are being threatened, as they were during Yaakov's return to Israel, and as they are today, every individual needs to develop within themselves the willingness to go to war, if necessary. This is the litmus test to know if we are truly taking responsibility.
This is the enormous level of dedication that Rav Noah felt was necessary in our times. He did everything in his power to live with that commitment and to inculcate it into his students, staff, and almost anyone he came in contact with.
He was confident that if enough people took this message to heart, then we could bring back the entire Jewish people. As Rabbi Eliyahu E. Dessler writes in the introduction to Michtav M'Eliyahu, "In war time, promising candidates are taken from the ranks of ordinary soldiers, and by prodigious expenditure and skilled instruction, they are turned into officers in a fraction of the time normally required.
"So too in times such as ours when capable men are scarce, anyone who shows willingness to tackle a vital problem has Divine assistance heaped upon him. He turns the incapable into successful men – not because they deserve it, but because the world needs them."
Our generation needed a leader like Rav Noah. Now that he is gone, the most appropriate way for each of us to honor his memory is to step up and fill the void to the best of our abilities – to truly take responsibility.