How Israel’s rabbinical giant impacted me personally

Chaim Druckman only wanted what was good for his people, his land and the entire world.

The packed beit midrash of the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva, May 12, 2021. Photo by Josh Hasten.
The packed beit midrash of the Sderot Hesder Yeshiva, May 12, 2021. Photo by Josh Hasten.
Ariel Kahana
Ariel Kahana is a diplomatic correspondent for Israel Hayom.

“On Motze’i Shevi’it the Son of David will come,” his gravelly-toned voice echoed across the Bet Midrash. A sheer white tallit adorned his body, covering his face. His eyes were closed. His body swayed to and fro, and then once again he declared, “On Motze’i Shevi’it the Son of David will come,” in other words, the Messiah would come at the end of the Jewish shmitta (sabbatical) year.

This was a sermon marking the start of the new Jewish year of 5755 (1995) and it remains engraved in my memory as if it was yesterday. Even then, Rabbi Chaim Druckman was no young man. And yet, the passion for redemption, the fervent belief that this could happen here and now, sweeping the whole of humanity from darkness into light, that a revolutionary change would occur transforming everything for the better—all this formed the core of his intense devotion.

The power to do good and make the world a better place, or to “repair the world in the image of the Divine Kingdom” as the Hebrew axiom tells us, is a concise but accurate summary of the very essence of who Rabbi Druckman was. And just as nobody was able to withstand such a remarkable presence, he never misused that power on anybody. For this was his secret—infinite good.

I cannot define myself as one of his close disciples. In the few years when I studied at the Or Etzion yeshiva he headed, he would only appear in the Beit Midrash on Shabbat. During the week, the lessons were delivered in the enormous library in his house. The rest of his daily, jam-packed schedule was dedicated to attending to the needs of the public.

The first, unexplained experience struck me the very first time I prayed alongside the rabbi at the ma’ariv evening prayers. Whilst reciting “Shema Yisrael,” the centerpiece of Jewish prayer, I was overcome by a deep sense of innocent sweetness, as if I was a young boy again.

In any event, the fact that whether or not I agreed with what he was saying, or even understood it, or even if I wasn’t following the lesson at all but just staring into space, this giant of a man standing in front of me who sought only good—for his people, his country and the entire world—was a tremendously powerful magnet and a singular binding force.

“Start with your right foot,” he gently whispered in my ear, years later at my wedding, as overcome by emotion, I stumbled on my way to the chupa. He then whispered to my then-future wife, “O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads,” echoing the biblical words said to Rivkah before she was sent off to marry Isaac.

It goes without saying that thousands of other couples received the exact same blessing, which was concluded with the words “And may your house be an everlasting edifice.” But both we and they knew that this was a blessing coming from a heart replete with love and free of any malice, and that is what made the difference.

 A constant effort to promote idealism

The general public was not aware of these facets of the rabbi, though these are what formed the main focus of his entire world. The media turned its attention to Rabbi Druckman mainly in the context of Israeli politics, in fleeting interviews that completely missed his formidable personality and unique approach. But the world of politics was much too narrow to capture the broad vision and essence of the man, so he didn’t really feel at home or find his place there. In a system in which everybody is out to promote their own interests, he tried to promote idealism, and the two, if not mutually exclusive, simply do not go together.

The political discourse, which in our generation is steeped in utilitarianism—”What’s in it for me?”—was anathema to him, just like Ukraine, the country where he was born and from which he fled from the Nazis, escaping certain death by the skin of his teeth. Because the Land of Israel was his homeland, and he never ceased inculcating the love and passion for the Land in us all.

We, his students and acquaintances, always knew that his only “interests” were the Land, the People, the Torah and the State of Israel. It was for these that he established educational institutions, which even back in the 1970s included the full spectrum of Israeli society, from traditional to Haredi Leumi, from the residents of the moshavs to those from the development towns, the yeshiva students and the youth movement of Bnei Akiva. He had no need for grandiose words such as pluralism and “acceptance.”

“We take responsibility for Klal Yisrael” (the Jewish peoplehood), he used to repeat in his iconic raspy voice. And we knew when he spoke that this was no mere slogan, but a genuine way of life intertwined with all-encompassing endeavors and unceasing action, issuing from a big heart. On numerous occasions we are called upon to rally around the flag.

Yeshivot for boys, batei midrash for girls, ulpans for new immigrants from Ethiopia, emissaries to the silent Jews in Russia just as the spark of Judaism is about to be ignited, students choosing to go and live in settlements in some of the most challenging locations in Israel, who enjoyed his supportive visits, an infinite number of converts whom he helped enter the fold in the welcoming spirit of Beit Hillel, together with his partner, Rabbi Yosef Avior (OBM), not to mention a number of adopted children he took into his own home, alongside his own large biological family.

His huge, loving heart led him to receiving phone calls into the small hours of the night, pushing him to do everything in his power to help others, without anything in return of course, and regardless of who was at the other end of the phone line, whether he knew them or not. And when the phone calls were finally done with, he could devote himself to Torah study, the real love of his life.

Rumor has it that he did not sleep at night, but only managed to doze during the many trips he made to numerous locations across the country. The legend is that on entering his home village of Merkaz Shapira, his drivers would intentionally drive over the small speed bumps in the road to gently wake him from his short-lived slumber.

All this he would do with the staunch support of his wife, the physician Dr. Sarah Druckman. Every Saturday night, after Shabbat, she would come on her own to listen to his Torah lesson, sitting alone behind the partition in the women’s section. This contains a life-long lesson for us all. Without words, we understood what forms the basis of an alliance of love and support, which first and foremost builds a family, then a tribe and after that an entire nation.

In his unparalleled modesty, Rabbi Druckman certainly never said this to himself, but this is precisely what he did throughout 70 years of public service. He built a nation. This does not only refer to the thousands of students that passed through the educational institutions he headed, but the entire national religious sector of the population, which for years progressed and developed in light of his ever-growing influence.

Adding sanctity and strict adherence to Jewish law, as he constantly strove to do from an early age. His unwavering bonds to his people, wherever and whoever they might be, as he staunchly opposed seclusion in religious ghettos. Above all, “giving your soul to the People of Israel,” in other words, devoting your entire private life to the People, the Torah, the Land and the state, “the dawning of our redemption.”

This unsurpassed, pure idealism, which went and spread like wildfire across all walks of national-religious life, transformed this sector of the population, upgrading its status from that of sitting on the sidelines of the Zionist endeavor to taking pole position, from passenger to driver. Rabbi Druckman played a vital role in this historic development.

He was a devoted father figure not only for those who had the opportunity to shelter under his wings but much more than that—for the masses who felt his immense personality. He was a one-off figure, a kind that only appears once in every few generations, flowing with charisma, tenderness, love, spiritual power and also innocence. All of these traits were channeled into building up the Torah, the people and the land, and the hope that despite all the blows, the obstacles and the pain, the redemption would surely come. Because on Motze’i Shevi’it the Son of David will come.

Ariel Kahana is Israel Hayom’s senior diplomatic commentator.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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