Monday, November 14, 2011

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel zt"l and me . . . a hesped of sorts

I wrote this a few hours after I heard of R' Nosson Zvi's passing . . .
Someone sent me these pictures today ,

a truly sad day as a very special man passed from our midst.   The pictures capture his life and its greatness, from student council President at Ida Crown in Chicago to the Rosh Yeshiva of the world's largest Yeshiva.   Different pictures but the same person; with growing aspirations who never stopped trying to accomplish as much as he possibly could with his limited time here.

There is much that was written, and more that will be written, about him.  One nice write-up is saw is here , which captures much of his uniqueness, (although there are a few small factual errors.)

I would just like to add my small words of eulogy, of the Rebbi I knew thirty years ago, when he was much younger and less famous, (though even then he was not in the best of health).

I came to the Mir in 1977 at age 18, after being in several other yeshivos, without a whole lot of advanced learning skills and motivation.  My "farher" with Reb Nochum Partzovitz Zt"l was a disaster. He asked me whether I spoke Yiddish, to which I replied "Ich farshteyt yiddish, ober ich redt azoy vee a goy".  I thought this was a harmless expression indicating that  goyim did not speak yiddish well, but he took great exception to this.   "A Yeshiva Man vos redt azoy vee a goy???!!!!!", he exclaimed, before indicating that the farher was pretty much over.

Not knowing whether I was accepted or not, I decided (based on some advice) to just come and find a chavrusa and learn, and "yihiye b'seder."  (Later I found that Mir really did have an open door policy, if you wanted to learn and were semi-serious, you were in).  So I arrived, my cousin Danny helped me find some basic things and introduced me to a somewhat bashful but very friendly young Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel.    I found some chavrusos, and started going to his shiur.

At the time this was not considered any great honor – the main, world-famous shiur in the Yeshiva was given by Reb Nochum, and most people went to Reb Nosson Tzvi, and several other maggidei shiur, only until they were deemed ready to go to Reb Nochum.  Reb Nosson Tzvi spoke on a simpler level, and the attendance of the fellows was a little more haphazard.   But one thing that impressed me from the beginning was the intensity the Rebbi brought to the shiur.

Outside the shiur, Reb Nosson Tzvi was everyone’s friend.  At the time about age 35, he was in the Bais Medrash every day, and one of the more popular people whom one could approach to “talk in learning”.   To appreciate this, you had to know what Yeshivas Mir was like.

Mir in those days, and to some extent still today, is an unusual place.  In a certain sense it is not a “yeshiva” with a close knit student body, everyone learning the same mesechta, and a certain track through which people pass until they “graduate” or move on to the next  station in life.   Rather, Mir is a huge Bais HaMedrash with many people of all ages, some who have been there a few days, and some for 50-Plus years, young & old, bachurim and grandfathers, learning alone with a chavrusa or  learning as part of a chaburah that was learning “the yeshiva mesechta” or a myriad of other Torah topics,  learning at a fast pace or a slow one . . . just a great big cholent of many varieties that had only one uniting fact – they were there to learn Torah seriously.  (I understand that in recent years the yeshiva has become somewhat more formalized and structured, due to the influence of the Rosh Yeshiva zt”l, but it still is much more varied than the type of Yeshiva most are used to).

One of the things that made this work was that there were some budding Talmidei Chachomim who you could talk to in learning about virtually any topic – it was truly exciting to be around so many people who had accomplished so much in their learning.  One of the most popular was Reb Nosson Tzvi.  He always had a smile, always had patience, and always made one feel important, especially the younger Bachurim, like me.  He encouraged, helped and guided, and, without officially being anyone’s “Rebbi”, took it upon himself to give chizuk and inspiration to help us learn to love Torah and learning.

I was very fortunate that he took an interest in me.  He invited me and another fellow to be his first-seder “chavrusa” every morning, and the three of us would learn together until the shiur.  Of course, he was way ahead of us.  Also, there would be many who would come over to ask him to clarify a difficult point, or to “talk in learning”, at which time Mendy and I would just learn (or schmooze) with each other. Although I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time, it was a very special year that I had the great zechus to spend so much time learning with him.

Sometimes he would need to go somewhere, and he gave me the honor of being his driver in his father’s Volvo, and we had time to schmooze on the way.  On some of those trips he shared with me a little about the old days in Chicago growing up, playing ball, enjoying High school, and his first tentative steps into the world of Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim.  I suppose he was trying to show me that he had been a regular guy too, and if I only chose to become a little more serious in my learningI could accomplish some things as well.  Occasionally he would invite me over to his home in the evening, and we would go through some of what he planned to say in the shiur the next day.  In all those scenarios, I experienced him as a relaxed, smiling, friendly individual who was interested in helping younger talmidim, with no airs about him whatsoever.

When he started to say his shiur, however, he would be transformed.  His shiur, consisting of his own chiddushei Torah, was of utmost importance to him.  Gone was the easy-going, relaxed older friend.  Instead there was an intense scholar, totally focused on imparting Torah with as much passion and force as he could muster, who now was totally engrossed in a burning desire for us to understand him and the important truths he was imparting.

At the time, my main focus was to learn from the shiur, mainly as a stepping stone to eventually be considered ready to be admitted to Reb Nochum’s shiur.  When that time finally came, he wished me well, and I began crowding myself, together with close to 100 others, into the far too small space that was Reb Nochum’s apartment to hear the famous shiur.  For a variety of reasons, I soon realized that I was not getting very much from that shiur, and was staying there mainly so that I could say that I was in Reb Nochum’s shiur.  I soon decided to go back to Reb Nosson Tzvi, with a new appreciation of how wonderful his Torah and teaching were, and how much I enjoyed my relationship with him and was privileged to experience his friendship.

I stayed at the Mir for about another year.  At some point I decided to learn Yoreh Deah, and dropped out of the Yeshiva Messechta, and also found myself going in another direction hashkafically.  Unfortunately I did not keep in touch with him, and saw him only a few more times, usually at the annual Yeshiva Dinner or some such occasion.

Nevertheless, I was thrilled to observe from afar over the years how “my chavrusa” had become the Rosh Yeshiva; pained to see the terrible effects of his disease; filled with wonderment in how he not only did not let it slow him down but seemed to give him the strength to increase the size of the Yeshiva ten-fold; and marveled at the world-class Torah figure that he became towards the end of his too-short life.

May his memory be a blessing for his family, for the Yeshiva, for his thousands of Talmidim, and for Klal Yisrael.

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