By Rabbi Jack Riemer/JNS.org
There are lots of biographies of famous people lining the shelves of bookstores. There are movie stars who hire press agents, whose job is to make sure that everyone knows all about them. There are politicians who measure their success by how many times their names appear in the newspapers. But there are very few books I know of whose purpose it is to acquaint us with saintly people. And that is what makes Rabbi Hillel Goldberg’s newly published “The Unexpected Road: Storied Jewish Lives Around the World” so important.
Goldberg has collected some amazing stories about pious and saintly Jews of our time and of the recent past. They come from Salt Lake City and from Siberia, from Atlanta and from Auschwitz, from South Bend and from Moscow, from Santé Fe and from Slobodka. Some of these stories are not about celebrities, but about plain, simple, and ordinary Jews, whose one distinguishing characteristic is that they have devoted their lives to doing what is right.
The following are some of my favorite profiled individuals from this book: one from Eastern Europe, one from Israel, and one from America.
Baruch Zeldovich and Bereh Pinnes
Baruch Zeldovich and Bereh Pinnes were two brothers-in-law who, between them, supported most of the yeshivas in Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries. They had married two sisters. But how did they end up suing each other?
Zeldovich was solicited by the Volozhin yeshiva, which was the Harvard of the yeshivas in its time. He agreed to cover the entire budget deficit of the school. Shortly thereafter, his brother-in-law sued him in a beit din (rabbinic court). Pinnes claimed that he had been a partner with Zeldovich in every venture for many years, and that therefore, the saving of the Volozhin yeshiva was an investment that he was entitled to buy into equally with Zeldovich.
That detail has somehow not come down to us—the dispute was settled, but we don’t know exactly how. All we know of is the wondrous love of Torah and mitztvot that defined the Zeldovich-Pinnes conflict—and their subsequent partnership—as not a dispute over who had the right to get the money, but rather over who had the right to share in the mitzvah to give the money to subsidize Torah study.
Rabbi Yehudah Getz
If you asked for an appointment with Rabbi Yehudah Getz, the rabbi of the Western Wall for 27 years, he would say that he could only see you in the late morning or in the afternoon, because he had a night job. No one ever asked what his night job was.
Getz’s secret job, it turns out, was to walk in the dead of night from his home to a five-foot-high cavern adjacent to the Western Wall. At that hidden spot, on a stone floor, there was a small lectern, an ark, and a table, each overlaid with red velvet. The spot was illuminated by a 25-watt light bulb. There, he recited the Tikkun Hatzot (Midnight Rectification)—the lamentation for the destruction of the Jewish Temples, which has been recited at that same place and at that same hour ever since the establishment of the Beis El Center of Kabbalah in 1727. Getz performed that “night job” from the day he came to Jerusalem, after the 1967 Six-Day War, until the day he died.
The Beis Halevi
The third story comes from Rabbi Goldberg himself. He once read a memoir in which Rabbi Baruch Epstein described how he once heard the “Beis Halevi” (Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik) teach. In this memoir, Rabbi Epstein described how the Beis Halevi formulated his words, how he was both friendly and stiff, intimate and aloof, accessible and intellectual, and always in total control—unfazed by any question, person, or issue. As Rabbi Goldberg read this account, something went off in his head. There was something familiar about this description, but at first, he couldn’t remember where he had read it before. And then he remembered. He had not heard it—he had seen it!
But Goldberg knew that was impossible. The Beis Halevi died in l892, so he could not possibly have heard him teach. Then Goldberg understood. He had spent four years in Boston, during which time heard many lectures by Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, the great-grandson of the Beis Halevi. Listening to the great-grandson, Goldberg had heard the same substance, the same delivery, the same cadence, the same tone, the same method of analysis, and the same approach to life that the Beis Halevi had. This meant that the great-grandfather, who died eight years before his great-grandson was born, must have transmitted his teaching methods to his son, and the methods continued to be passed down in the family. That is the type of continuity that unites Jews across generations!
Did these stories really happen? I can only respond with a story that I’ve heard famed Jewish attorney Alan Dershowitz tell. Once the Chafetz Chaim—Rabbi Israel Meir (HaKohen) Kagan—came to testify in a court case. Before he was sworn in, the defense attorney explained to the judge that this man was a great saint. And to prove the point, he described how the Chafetz Chaim had once entered his home and found a thief running away with a precious candlestick. The rabbi ran after the man, shouting, “Hefker! Hefker!—this candlestick is no longer mine. I declare it ownerless.” That way, the thief would not be guilty of stealing.
The judge said, “Come on now, do you really believe this actually happened?” The lawyer replied, “I don’t know, your honor, but they don’t tell stories like that about you or me.”
These kinds of stories might not be told about us on a regular basis, but we can benefit from studying these stories and learning from them.
“The Unexpected Road,” by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg. Feldheim Publishing Co., Oct. 2013. 228 pages.
Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.