Reclaiming Hanukah

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RAV NOSSON TZVI FINKEL Z.S.L.

By: Rabbi Yehuda Beyda



Take a visit to Jerusalem – the real Jerusalem, away from the malls and luxury hotels, far from the noise and bustle of the “center of town,” out of sight of opulent high-rise condominiums. Walk through the neighborhood known as Bet Yisrael, and you will see the soul of the Jewish people.

You encounter a building of several stories, from which the sounds of Torah learning emanate at all hours of the day and night. What a beautiful sight: a classic Jerusalem yeshiva, filled with hundreds of young men pursuing a life’s dream. Go a little further down the road, and another building, more impressive than the first, looms large before you. Then another, and yet another beyond that. Each one containing as many as 1,500 scholars intensely engaged in the business of life – the vital discussions surrounding the Word of Hashem. As you advance deeper into the neighborhood, you may marvel at the high concentration of supersized yeshivot, all within a few blocks of each other.

Take a closer look and you will realize that what you see is one of the wonders of the world. A massive yeshiva empire, with an army of scholars over 7,500 strong, stretches as far as the eye can see. Welcome to Yeshivat Mir.

A Kid From Chicago Arrives at the Mir

Flash back half a century, on the very same spot, in front of that same building on Bet Yisrael Street. There stands a tall, handsome young man, just out of high school, and he is tired. He just finished traveling over 24 hours and halfway across the world from his native Chicago, in order to come to the yeshiva in Jerusalem which was headed by his great uncle. The Rosh Yeshiva at the time, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, was the brother of this young man’s grandfather, and he had invited his American relative to come spend some time in “the Mir.”

The boy, then known as Natie, found his uncle, the Rosh Yeshiva, but before he could even sit down and have a bite to eat, his uncle was demanding a hiddush, an original Torah thought. Annoyed, but without much of a choice, the young man entered the Bet Midrash, removed his Cubs hat, and opened a Gemara.

Half an hour passed, but no luck. So he returned to the Rosh Yeshiva and pleaded fatigue and jet lag, begging off until tomorrow. This answer was deemed unworthy by his uncle, so he trudged up the stairs once more. Realizing by now that this was some sort of test of character, Natie decided to give it everything he had, and managed to find a nuance in the words of Rashi, which he proceeded to share with the rabbi. R’ Eliezer Yehuda’s face lit up, and he warmly welcomed his relative to his new home.

This was his first exposure to the kind of dedication and all-encompassing passion for Torah which was the way of life in “Rav Leizer Yudel’s” Mir. And it was not long before Rav Nosson Tzvi, as he was now known, became not only a part of that world, but the very embodiment of the Jewish People’s love song for Torah.

A Rosh Yeshiva in the Making

Having realized that he had found his place, Rav Nosson Tzvi threw himself into his learning, quickly gaining a reputation as one of the most dedicated students in the storied Mirrer Yeshiva. At any time of day or night, he could be found in the Bet Midrash, totally at one with the Torah. His uncle, the Rosh Yeshiva, having detected in the young American teen a world of potential, kept a close watch on the progress he was making, setting him up to learn with the best minds of the yeshiva, and ensuring that his needs were met in order for his potential to reach its full fruition. When the time came for Rav Nosson Tzvi to marry, relates his mother, the Rosh Yeshiva contacted her.

“I have four granddaughters,” he said. “You can choose whichever one you want!” The kid from Chicago had found his true home.

Rabbi Nosson Tzvi married his second cousin, the daughter of Rabbi Binyamin Beinush Finkel, who eventually succeeded his father as Rosh Yeshiva of Mir. In the years following his wedding, he continued to grow in his studies, while at the same time developing the warmth towards every person that he would become famous for, later in life. Although he had reached the pinnacle of success, achieving the status of son-in-law of the Rosh Yeshiva, he never let it get to his head, and never forgot where he came from.

An inspiring example of Rabbi Nosson Tzvi’s legendary warmth was shared by Rabbi Shemuel Choueka of Ohel Simha Congregation, who described  his first encounter with the future gadol. It was back in 1972, and Rabbi Choueka, along with a group of young American boys, had arrived to learn in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Yerushalayim under the tutelage of the famed Rabbi Nachum Partzowitz.

“We were struggling,” Rabbi Choueka recalls. “We weren’t used to the high octane shiurim (Torah classes). We were overwhelmed by the speed of Rav Nachum.” Noticing the difficulty the group was having, the Rosh Yeshiva’s son-in-law, Rav Nosson Tzvi, came over and offered to give a review of the shiur, in order to help them keep the pace of the yeshiva. And that’s what he did, keeping it up until the boys got their feet under them and were able to understand on their own. Rabbi Nosson Tzvi’s unbridled love for Torah, coupled with his unparalleled love for a fellow Jew, is what set him head and shoulders above the rest.

The years passed, and Rav Nosson Tzvi’s dedication to the Torah grew. But then he received a new mission: the young scholar was diagnosed with the dreaded Parkinson’s Disease, for which there is no known cure. This would mean that his legendary hatmada (diligence) would be tested in ways that he had never imagined. As he was overheard saying to a fellow sufferer in order to give comfort, “Nobody knows. Nobody understands the kind of pain we go through.” This unbearable pain, along with the loss of control over the body’s muscles, was to be his daily lot for the rest of his life. But he was not to be deterred. He maintained the same grueling learning schedule as he had until then, despite the trembling that was slowly increasing in intensity day by day. With unimaginable tenacity and resolve, he overcame the pain, refusing to allow it to control him.

A New Leader, A New Era at the Mir

In 1990, Rabbi Binyamin Beinush Finkel suddenly passed away, leaving a gaping hole in the yeshiva’s leadership. His son-in-law, Rav Nosson Tzvi, was chosen to fill the gap, and he found himself thrust into the limelight which he had always avoided.

People wondered how this unassuming man, afflicted with a debilitating illness, would be able to lead a yeshiva of 400 students, bearing responsibility for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of so many students. Little did they realize just how much strength was in the spirit of the boy from Chicago. The new Rosh Yeshiva immediately set about building his dream, to create a place where everyone, no matter what his background was, would be able to thrive.

Rabbi Moshe Wadiche, Rosh Kollel of the Kollel of the Jersey Shore, described the personal attention he received from this spiritual giant. The year was 1997, and the first class of graduates from Ateret Torah came to Israel to study at the Mir. Displaying his warmth for the Sephardic community, the Rosh Yeshiva established a set time, once a week, when he would have a personal study session with the new group. They would alternate weeks, with the Rosh Yeshiva delivering a shiur one week, followed by a member of the group the following week. Thus he was able to ensure that the newcomers integrated properly into their new home.

And the caring and attention lavished on his students did not stop at the group level, or even at the walls of the Bet Midrash. Every student received a heaping measure of personal attention from the Rosh Yeshiva, who loved each one as if he were his own son. Even after he had achieved the monumental growth with which his yeshiva was blessed, numbering today well over 7,000 students, he strove to maintain a personal connection with each one of them. Rabbi Yoni Raful tells how he came one Purim morning to deliver mishloah manot to the Rosh Yeshiva, along with two of his friends. Each one had brought a cake and Rav Nosson Tzvi, with all the difficulty it entailed, personally cut a slice from each cake and tasted it. He then called for his wife to come into the room and exclaimed, “Get the recipe for this cake!” Rabbi Raful says that the gratification he received from the Rosh Yeshiva’s enthusiasm can still be felt to this day, and it was this kind of sensitivity which endeared him to all who knew him.

His love for every talmid gave him a deep understanding of their character, allowing him to properly guide each one along the path most conducive to his individual success. Rabbi David Amon of Yeshivat Mikdash Melech in Jerusalem related that he once came to the Rosh Yeshiva for advice. For several years, Rabbi Amon had been leading a habura, a sub-division within the general student body, at the Mir, but he was then invited to join Mikdash to teach younger students and help them realize their potential. Rav Nosson Tzvi urged him to seize this new opportunity, citing Rabbi Amon’s obvious aptitude for positively influencing young Sephardic men as the deciding factor. Sure enough, he has found great success at his new calling, something the Rosh Yeshiva, with his intimate knowledge of his beloved talmid, was able to foresee.

But this deep affection did not prevent him from taking a strict stand when he needed to. Rabbi Amon tells that he once came to the Rosh Yeshiva applying to be placed on the kollel’s payroll. The rabbi asked him if he was following the daf-per-day program that he so strongly advocated, and the student replied in the negative. The Rosh Yeshiva told him that the daf-per-day was a requirement for kollel men. Rabbi Amon returned to the Rosh Yeshiva several days later, and reported that he attempted to follow the daf-per-day program but found it unsuitable for him. Rav Nosson Tzvi surprised the young rabbi by putting him on the payroll anyway, saying, “All I ask of you is to try it.”

Mesirut Nefesh

Rabbi Finkel’s illness robbed him of control over his body, and caused him severe pain, but could not deter him from continuing his life’s work.

“When most people talk about mesirut nefesh (literally, ‘devoting one’s soul’),” commented Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, “what we really mean is mesirut haguf, foregoing physical comforts for Hashem. Rav Nosson Tzvi has no guf (body) to speak of, and he is one of the true mosrei nefesh of the world. He gives his entire body and soul to avodat Hashem (service of Gd).” Rabbi Wadiche describes how the Rosh Yeshiva would often be lying on the couch during his session with the Ateret students, lacking the strength to even sit upright.

Rabbi Amon tells that Rav Nosson Tzvi was once honored with inscribing a letter at the completion of a sefer Torah. The writing must be perfect, or else the scroll is rendered unusable. The sofer was anxious about allowing the Rosh Yeshiva to attempt the task, because his hands would shake so intensely and this was liable to smudge the ink on the parchment. But the scribe remained silent, out of respect for this Torah giant. With superhuman effort, the Rosh Yeshiva marshaled all his concentration and focus and, with his left hand he gripped his right arm, which was holding the quill. For one second his body ceased its convulsions and, with one deft stroke, the rabbi inscribed a perfect letter on the parchment.

The Rosh Yeshiva was the consummate warrior, the American kid who walked into yeshiva and didn’t leave for fifty years. And even though his body no longer lives, he has still not left the yeshiva, for he is the Mir and the Mir is Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. Yehe Zichro Baruch.