Monday, September 12, 2016

A Tzaddik for any Generation

By Jason Gold

This coming Tuesday, the 17th of Elul marks the Shloshim of HaRav Yaakov Zelinger, ZTK"L, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Torat Emet Kaminetz in Brooklyn.

There has been much written about him and his greatness since his passing last month, but I wanted to try and memorialize him from a much more personal perspective. As my cousin, he was beloved family but there was also a mutual feeling of brotherhood closeness between us. He and his Tzaddeket wife Rebbetzin Shoshana (my "sister"), were there for me during some difficult times in my life and helped provide a spiritual anchor when it looked like I would drift away.

Last month, it appeared that Rav Yaakov would be niftar on or close to Shabbat Chazon or even Tisha B'Av. That Motzei Shabbat, I was relieved not to receive a phone call from his family. When I returned home from Eicha that night, I could not sleep. In the event that there would be a Levayah that day, I began to write some notes about what I would say. We know that nothing on this earth happens randomly and I contemplated what Rav Yaakov's passing would mean on a day or even during the month that we know will be a time for great Simcha in the future, but we now associate with destruction and mourning. And then through Hashgacha Pratit, I was guided to thinking about the connection of the Tzaddik to these days of mourning.

To digress for a moment, the word Tzaddik these days has a tendency to perhaps be applied loosely or inappropriately in some situations. In Rav Yaakov's case, Tzaddik was only the beginning of trying to find adjectives that could accurately describe him. This was a man from the time he opened his eyes early in the morning until he closed them late at night (some nights, if at all), his entire waking hours were spent in Avodat HaShem and being a paragon of a living, real-time Kiddush HaShem. Whether engrossed in learning, dealing with Talmidim or Yeshiva matters, dealing with family or any other person, you knew you were in the presence of greatness and a wisdom honed from years of Da'at Torah. He would speak to you in soft tones, but when necessary, those tones had iron in them. He would smile easily and sometimes there would be a twinkle in his eye as he prepared to tell you something amusing. Despite the health issues, despite these nisayonot and yisurin that he went through the last 10 years including the tragic death of a son on Leil Purim years ago, nothing in his demeanor would change. While undergoing rehabilitation at a facility, he and Rebbetzin Shoshana were described as walking Kiddushei HaShem. Purim at their home was one of the most joyful energetic experiences one could ever hope to experience.

I was in awe of this man and his Rebbetzin with their incredible strength. Not just because of Rav Yaakov's Da'at Torah or bitachon and emunah that was shared by the Rebbetzin and the entire family. That was a given. In addition, Rav Yaakov's fund of knowledge and understanding about secular subjects, be it science, history, literature, philosophy, or current social issues was incredible to behold. The GR"A believed that in addition to Torah, Jews had a duty to study and if possible, master secular subjects. Rav Yaakov went above and beyond, whether it was discussing fusion energy, the latest medical advances, or current events locally, nationally or in Eretz Yisrael, he spoke easily and with bekiyut.

There is a debate in the Zohar whether Nadav and Avihu were Tzaddikim or Reshaim for what they did. Their Ahavat HaShem is unquestioned and unparalleled as even Moshe Rabeinu states that they were greater than he or Aharon HaKohen. But as Rav Gedaliah Shorr, ZTK"L points out they suffered from a "Chisaron Yireh". That in turn led to the 15 Pegamim given for their behavior in violating the Kodesh Kedashim which in turn stemmed from the fact that they did not have wives to ground them in Yirat Shemayim and prevent the 15 Pegamim from taking hold. When Parashat Shmini would come around I used to wonder if Jewish history would have looked a bit different if Nadav and Avihu had had wives like Rebbetzin Shoshana.

Ultimately, the conclusion of the Zohar is that Nadav and Avihu were Tzaddikim, despite what they did because even though their actions were wrong, their motives were ultimately grounded in Ahavat HaShem and Ahavat Klal Yisrael, unchecked as it was. The Alter of Ger shows further proof from the posuk in the Torah that states when Am Yisrael mourned for Nadav and Avihu, it says "vayivchu Kol beit Yisrael" not benei Yisrael but Beit Yisrael. The only other place in Tanach where Klal Yisrael is referred to that way while mourning someone was when they mourned the death of Aharon HaKohen. The Alter and other meforshim state that a Tzaddik is often compared to "The Bayit", aka, the Beit HaMikdash because just as the death of a Tzaddik can be a kapparah for his generation, so too was the destruction of both Batei Mikdash a kapparah for Klal Yisrael as HaShem vented his anger at us on the "Eitz and Avanim" of the Beit HaMikdash twice instead of us. Is there any doubt that given what Rav Yaakov went through these last years and months and his final days, that he was "taking it for the team", that he was carrying us? I would find myself watching him at times and catch myself wondering which of my sins was he carrying for me? And now, who is going to do it?

Rav Yaakov's legacy is clear. Yeshivat Torat Emet Kaminetz is appropriately his Beit Mikdash M'aht, his other link to the Beit HaMikdash aside from his Tziddkit. His incredible family, is his continuing legacy to the world. He will not be replaced but he can be a Roshem, a Mashal, of what a Tzaddik is and how to live a life Torah, Avodah, and Kiddush HaShem. It is up to all of us to see his work and legacy continue. To continue the holy work of a man who is a Tzaddik for any generation.

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