Last Wednesday I attended the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, my teacher and spiritual guide of the past 40 years,. As a I took a seat up front, in clear sight of the deceased and the speakers, I thought to myself that this could be a funeral like so many others; a gathering of relatives, of close acquaintances, and in this case, students. But there was a tangible difference. According to news reports there were between 60 to 80 thousand men and women in attendance.
Most of them participated in the six kilometer funeral procession which wound by foot through Jerusalem to the Rabbi’s final resting place on the Mount of Olives. Tens of people flew to Israel from the United States and Europe and amongst those in attendance were the most important leaders of the Jewish people; the Chief Rabbis of Israel, past and present; deans of the most prestigious Yeshivot, and Rabbinic leaders of the largest and most important communities in Israel. They all wept. Most of Jerusalem’s streets, schools and many of it’s shopping facilities were closed during the event. Jerusalem was in mourning.
Rabbi Scheinberg altered my life.
I knew why I was there. Rabbi Scheinberg altered my life. Not only by giving me the tools that I needed to serve as a relatively effective Rabbi and teacher, but by showering me with a type of love, guidance and happiness that have been seminal to my life until today. In fact, hardly a day goes by that I don’t refer back to a teaching or an episode that was a lesson learned from my great teacher.
Why were the other tens of thousands there? Why were they crying?
Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, died at 101 years of age. Volumes could – and probably will – be written on his many unique qualities. In Poland, the place of his birth, on his own initiative he arose at 4 am every morning to tie his elderly grandfather’s shoes, enabling him to go to morning prayers at sunrise, and would then ask to join him at those prayers. His grandfather predicted that this boy will grow to be one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people. He was then 5 years old.
He immigrated to the U.S. at the age of nine and notwithstanding the complete void in Jewish education and the spirit of mass assimilation at that time, the young Chaim Pinchus became a Torah scholar. He attended public school until age 14, when he left home to study in a Yeshiva in rural Connecticut. At age 16 he was tested and celebrated the completion of an in-depth study of the entire Talmud, an accomplishment usually found in a select few advanced and elderly scholars. By the age of 19 he was tested on all of Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law.
At his wedding ceremony he was presented with a Semicha, Rabbinic ordination, signed by the most renowned Rabbis of Europe and America. And still, he was able to relate to his peers; he became an all American teenager. Old timers would call him Lefty Scheinberg for decades for his proficient ability to play shortstop. But beyond his down to earth mannerisms, there was a very deep fire burning. An almost unexplainable yearning to help restore Judaism and Torah to its prominence and majesty.
He returned to Europe after his marriage to continue his studies in the famed Mir Yeshiva where he soon became know as the most diligent student in Mir. The great dean of the Mir Yeshivah, Rabbi Lazer Yudel Finkel, would say, "I have two very diligent students, Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz and Reb Chaim Scheinberg." During that period he visited and spent time with the saintly Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, who went on to become his guiding light in life.
He considered every moment precious, until his very last moments. Eventually he opened his own Torah institution which went on to become one of the most prestigious yeshivot in the world. To describe his Torah knowledge could only understate the case – he taught generations of scholars, and spread Torah to many thousands of students.
That being said, the 80,000 people who attended his funeral did not do so simply for his Torah knowledge. Those who met him sensed something unique.
Fifty years younger, I couldn’t keep up with him.
When I was a Rabbi in Monsey, my family was fortunate that Rabbi Scheinberg would stay with us in our home on his visits to America. His schedule was grueling: up at 4 am to study and pray, receive hundreds of visitors all day and night until I would finally close the doors around 12 or 1 in the morning. Fifty years younger, I couldn’t keep up with him. I remember running after him with some food or a cup of coffee begging him to take a break for just a few minutes.
On Saturday night hundreds of visitors arrived soon after Shabbat ended with questions and requests for blessings. He happily received them. I recall one of the visitors being a young married man who was just diagnosed with cancer and was told clearly by several doctors that he only had weeks to live. The Rabbi warmly grasped his hand and comforted him. After the crowds left, in the wee hours of the morning, Rabbi Scheinberg joined us in the kitchen and starting crying. It was uncomfortable. What do you say when a 92-year-old great Torah scholar is crying at your kitchen table? I asked if there was anything I could do. He explained that he was crying for the young man who had received the terrible diagnosis. He then asked that we pray together for his recovery, which we did. After we prayed we sang together the Saturday night song of Eliyahu HaNavi. I cried too.
There must have been at least 200 visitors that Saturday night, and thousands during the preceding week. But the Rabbi was not jaded, not detached, and not neutral. A person told him a tragic story and he cried. Five minutes later someone shared a simcha and he was happy. Someone gave him charity money to distribute and he took it. Someone asked for money and he gave it. He certainly wasn’t an actor, and had no pretenses. How could he switch emotions and roles? Another aspect of Rabbi Scheinberg’s life became clear to me; the Rabbi was virtually selfless.
He lived for others and fully identified with the person he was with. When someone spoke to him he felt his pain or his joy. When people spoke, he truly listened. He often taught us that when someone is speaking to us we should listen with all of our mind and heart. We should not be waiting for a chance to speak or even be formulating a response in our minds. When someone speaks we should be selfless and just listen. He lived for others. It wasn’t about him. It was about finding the good in others, and enabling them to become greater.
One Special Thing
A mother once confided in me that out of her nine (!) children, there was one she found difficult. Try as she might, she simply didn’t get along with that child. She found herself picking on him, and not being as nice to him as the other children. One day, her husband became sick with hepatitis. As was his way when a student was ill, Rabbi Scheinberg called to arrange a time to visit him. When he arrived, the children were all bathed and in clean clothes and waiting at the door to greet their Rebbe. Somehow, he immediately focused on that child. The one child the mother did not quite get along with. He looked at him intensely, turned to the mother and complimented his eyes. “This child has the most beautiful eyes!" From that moment on, even during the most difficult times, the mother would notice this child's eyes. In fact she told me that sometimes she looked at this child and all she would see were his magnificent eyes; eyes that she had never noticed before.Their relationship improved dramatically.
It wasn’t an isolated occurrence; he taught us that we should always try to find one special thing about every person we meet. After doing so, that trait becomes their ‘signature’, enabling us to always think well of them, be concerned for them, and build them up.
To be in his presence was in itself an experience. Totally unpretentious, he would tuck in a child's shirt, tell him to tie his shoelaces, caress the cheek of a troubled father. There was literally an aura of peace, of tranquility, surrounding him. His faith and trust in God was so complete it actually transcended his own personal space to effect a change in anyone who approached him.
He bonded with every single person he met.
Students of his would return to Jerusalem after many years of being away and Rav Scheinberg would remember their stellar qualities (‘You still have that amazing memory?’ 'You never lost your smile!’). He did this for many thousands of students. He taught us many times that we can make another person’s day – and sometimes their life – different with a well- placed, albeit simple compliment. We have the power to make people great.
He was a great mensch and much more. He bonded with every single person he met. How could a man so devoted to the study and teaching of Torah spend so much time – and offer so much of his heart – to complete strangers? How did he remember them? How was his heart big enough to care for them? Perhaps he would smile at the question and say ‘I follow the Torah! Treating people as human beings created in the Divine Image, keeping the laws of Shabbos or keeping Kosher. It is all one Torah, inseparable.’
Some people are impressive from afar, but the more you get to know them, the more blemishes appear and the more ordinary they seem. Not so with truly great people. The closer you are to them, the more you see greatness that you never noticed before. Tens of thousands saw in Rav Scheinberg an example of Torah. They saw the human potential of every person as they were all created in the image of God. When he would hear people say, ‘I’m only human!’ he would tell them ‘human’ is a very great thing. To be human is to be Godly. To internalize the Torah is to become Godly. Godliness touches everyone in it’s path.
I guess that is why they were all there on Wednesday morning.