Divrei Hesped: In Appreciation of HaGaon Rav Gershon Yankelevitz zt”l
Alongside the attention-grabbing headlines that characterize life at Yeshiva University, there is a lesser-known story that has yet to be told. Its locus is a small office on the fifth floor of Furst Hall, inhabited by an elderly tzadik—a link to the past who studied at the feet of the gedolim of pre-war Europe and spent almost six decades teaching at Yeshiva. In recent years, up to and including this past June, Rav Gershon Yankelevitz would spend mornings at his desk in his tiny, windowless office, huddled over a Gemara. Aside from teaching a daily shiur, he remained on call at all times to learn individually with American talmidim a fraction of his age, irrespective of their background and ability. For each talmid that he taught and interacted with, Rav Yankelevitz displayed enormous patience and concern. From the dales amos of Furst Hall Room 508 emanated an extraordinary light that elevated the entire Yeshiva University campus. Rav Yankelevitz’s light was extinguished on 23 Menachem Av, 5774 (August 19, 2014), four months shy of his 105th birthday. May his memory be blessed.
The following is adapted from hesped given at Yeshiva, Sept. 3 2014.
Chazal tell us: “יציאת צדיק מן המקום עושה רושם”—a tzadik’s departure leaves an impression. They describe the impression in terms of three aspects—“הוד, זיו, הדר.” When a tzadik is present in a city—“הוא הודה, הוא זיוה, הוא הדרה”—“he is its hod, he is its ziv, he is its hadar”. When a tzadik leaves—“פנה הודה, פנה זיוה, פנה הדרה”—each of these three aspects leaves with him. According to Maharal, these expressions correspond to three distinct realms of a tzadik’s influence: yiras shamayim, chochma, and middos tovos.
Hod, which comes from the word meaning praise or thanks, refers to the quality of yiras shamayim,which is, by its very nature, worthy of praise and accolades—as the pasuk (Mishlei 31:30) states: “אשה יראת השם היא תתהלל”—“A woman who fears Hashem, she should be praised.” Ziv, which means “shine,” represents chochma,as the pasuk (Koheles 8:1) states “חכמת אדם תאיר פניו”—“A man’s wisdom lights up his face.” Hadar, which connotes beauty, is a reference to midos tovos, just as the Mishnain Avos(2:1) describes such qualities as “teferes le’oseha”—a beauty for one who displays them.
For almost 60 years, our yeshiva merited to have a tzadik in our midst who exemplified all of these aspects to the utmost.
The yiras shamayim of Rav Yankelevitz was palpable—his meticulousness in shemiras ha’mitzvos,kala kevachamura. Well past his 100th birthday, he would stand during kerias haTorah, would make sure to wash netilas yadayim for davening and not have to rely on having done so in the morning, and, as recently as this past Tisha B’Av, would insist on sitting on the ground like everyone else. When his son objected, he remarked: “This is how I always did it.”
Regarding his Torah, Rav Yankelevitz left notebooks filled with chidushim, including shiurim that he heard from the Brisker Rav. His hasmada was remarkable—he could easily spend hours at a time over a Gemara. And, of course, there is all of the Torah that he taught to his many talmidim for close to six decades.
Finally, had Rav Yankelevitz’s extraordinary midos. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word. He was always quick to offer compliments and to express his genuine sense of appreciation for others. At a reception several months ago at the home of President Joel, Rav Yankelevitz turned to Mrs. Bronstein, the wife of Rabbi Chaim Bronstein, RIETS administrator, and said, “So much of the yeshiva rests on the shoulders of your husband.” And he could never be heard saying a word of lashon hara or speaking badly about anybody. His attitude toward life was a positive one. He had a wonderful sense of humor, yet not an ounce of cynicism. He treated everyone, young and old, with respect and would freely compliment the talmidim of the yeshiva, saying things like “you are tops.”
A YU musmach who recently retired from the rabbinate told me that he had Rav Yankelevitz as a rebbe some 50 years ago in MTA. I asked him what he recalled most; he said that Rav Yankelevitz never, ever raised his voice in class. But it goes beyond that: Rav Yankelevitz’s son Reb Moshe told me that his father never raised his voice at all.
For Rav Yankelevitz, these three components were not discrete aspects of his personality; they were part of an organic whole and inseparable from one another. His Torah, his yiras shamayim and his midos tovos were chativa achas—an integrated entity. Rav Yankelevitz was an integrated personality—he embodied a sense of shleimus. Like a polished diamond, there were no rough edges.
His passing leaves an indelible void within our Yeshiva—“פנה הודה, פנה זיוה, פנה הדרה”.
It is impossible to truly appreciate the greatness of Rav Yankelevitz zt”l without understanding the world that shaped him. Rav Yankelevitz was molded by the great yeshivos in Lita—primarily Radin and Mir—and was deeply impacted by the Musar Movement,whose ideals permeated the koslei hayeshiva.
Musar and the work of tikun hamidos wasn’t divorced from talmud Torah; it was part and parcel of the same enterprise. Just as ameilus—sweat and toil—was expended in analyzing sugya after sugya in Shas, so did ameilus go into dissecting the sugya of sheviras hamidos—exercising self-discipline in the refining of one’s personality and character. Musar taught that there should be no bifurcation within one’s personality—no difference between bein adam lamakom and bein adam lachaveiro, between how one behaves in public and how one behaves behind closed doors.
Rav Yankelevitz was a product of the world of musar. While in Radin, he was privileged tomeshameish the Chofetz Chaim and, later on, he became deeply attached to the Mirrer Mashgiach, Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l, whose seforim literally “lo pasku mei’al shulchano”—wouldn’t leave his table.
Even more than Radin, it was the experience of Mir that left a lifelong impact on Rav Yankelevitz and his personality. For Rav Yankelevitz, musar wasn’t an intellectual exercise, it was a way of life. Rav Yerucham’s schmuzen (sichos) weren’t vertlech to say over, but values of life that he personified and internalized. Those who are familiar with Rav Yerucham’s shmuzen know that the notion of shleimus—the integrated personality—is a recurring and favorite theme. Rav Yankelevitz zt”l embodied that sense of shleimus because he was a living musar sefer.
How did this sense of shleimus manifest itself here on these shoresand in our yeshiva?
Rav Yankelevitz lived his life with a cheshbon. Everything he did was carefully thought out; in Yiddish, the word for this would be “oisgecheshbint.” He had an impeccable sense of integrity and a deep achrayus to his avodas hakodesh. Almost until his 100th birthday, he traveled to Yeshiva each day from his home in the Bronx, by two buses and walking the few blocks from 181st street. It was not until several years ago that Yeshiva arranged for him to travel to and from the yeshiva with a car service.
Sometimes I would arrive at Yeshiva around the same time as Rav Yankelevitz, and I would be lucky enough to escort him from the car to his office in Furst Hall 508. Even at the age of 104, Rav Yankelevitz did not use a cane or a walker. Rather, he held on to the elbow of whomever was helping him, and he made the trek from the parking lot down the block, up some steps to the elevator, and to his office.
During the summer break, Rav Yankelevitz would spend hours each day preparing the mesechta that the yeshiva was planning to learn the following zman.
When his rebbitzin was niftar several years ago, he decided against going to Eretz Yisrael for the hakamas matzeiva—not because he was not up to the trip (he actually traveled subsequently to Israel for a family simcha), but because it would mean he would have to miss giving shiur for several days.
Rav Yankelevitz would spend several hours each day in his office learning, and various talmidim would stream in each day to hear shiur from him. I would typically visit Rav Yankelevitz in his office on Thursdays and we would learn the sefer Daas Torah for about 30 to 45 minutes. There was something surreal and extraordinary about learning with a gadol of this caliber – someone who was a link to the Torah giants of the past and whose mind was still sharp at the age of 103 and 104. He would read each word aloud with his heavy litvishe accent, including the mareh makom that appeared within the parentheses. After concluding a paragraph or two, he would look up and ask: “so what is he saying?” inviting me to summarize the main points in a sentence or two. I started to look forward to this time together and it became a highlight of my week, so much so that even after the zman ended in mid-June, I made a trip to his home to learn together.
He possessed a genuine sense of hakaras hatov to Yeshiva for providing him with the opportunity to learn and to teach Torah. His son, Reb Moshe, told me that each year on the last day of the zman Rav Yankelevitz would come in to gather his belongings from his office. After making an accounting of whatever he needed to take with him, he would take leave of his office. He would kiss the mezuzahand express a tefila that “the Ribono Shel Olam should give me the zechus and koiach to return after the summer and continue for another year.”
At the chag hasemikha this past March, which lasted for several hours, I sat next to Rav Yankelevitz, who stayed through the entire program. At five or six points along the way, there were musical interludes and everyone in the auditorium stood up. To my surprise, each and every time, Rav Yankelewitz turned toward me and to Rav Meir Twerski, who was on his left, and motioned to us to help him up. Despite his age and health, he didn’t want to deviate from minhag hamakom. As Chazal say, “al tehi yoshev bein ha’omdin”—“don’t be seated among those who are standing.” But that is not all. At the conclusion of the ceremony, each of the 200 plus musmachim came up to the stage to be acknowledged and to shake hands with various roshei yeshiva. This part of the proceeding itself must have taken a good half hour. For the entire duration, Rav Yankelevitz stood there, supported by myself and by Rav Twerski. And as each new musmach passed in from of him, Rav Yankelevitz extended his hand and wished them hatzlacha. That is the essence of a “musar personality.”
Of all his remarkable qualities, the one that perhaps stands out the most is his anava. Rav Yankelevitz didn’t simply preach anava—he lived and breathed it. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 88b) records the following:
איזהו בן עולם הבא? ענוותן ושפל ברך, שייף עייל שייף נפיש, וגריס באורייתא תדירא, ולא מחזיק טיבותא לנפשיה.
“Who is a ben Olam Haba? One who is modest and humble, enters while bowing and leaves bowing, learns Torah constantly, and does not take credit for oneself.”
The ultimate attribute is לא מחזיק טיבותא לנפשיה—not taking credit for oneself. This quality epitomized Rav Yankelevitz. What most of us would perceive as a pechisas hakavod—a slight—meant nothing to Rav Yankelevitz. And not because he didn’t have a sense of dignity; to the contrary, he had a certain regal, aristocratic quality to him. It was just that the kinds of petty things that annoy most of us were simply not important to him. He would make efforts to attend a simcha without the slightest thought about getting a kibud. Receiving kavod was simply not on his radar screen.
He had a natural sense of anava and did not hold himself to be anyone special. When people would ask him for brachos he would feel uncomfortable. This past Chol Hamoed Pesach I brought my children to visit with him in his son Rav Yankel’s home in Monsey, and somehow, with the coaxing of his daughter in law, we did manage to receive a bracha. At the nichum aveilim, his son Reb Yoel related that he once asked his father: “Pappa, why are you so reluctant to give people brachos?” Rav Yankelevitz answered: “I am afraid if I start doing that, I will become a baal gaavah.” That comment says it all.
Chazal mention a list of things for which the main reward is in Olam Haba but which bears dividends in Olam Hazeh—“אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהם בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לעולם הבא”. Rav Yankelevitz was zoche through his maasim tovim to reap “peiros” in Olam Hazeh. He was zoche to the gift of arichas yamim, with all of his wits about him until the very end. He, along with his Rebbitzin Bluma a”h, raised a family of seven children—banim uvnei vanim oskim baTorah ube’gemilus chasodim (I recall the rebbitzin a”h remarking to me on one occasion how proud she was of the fact that all of her children are involved in Torah and chessed).
He was able to participate in so many family simchas—even traveling to Eretz Yisrael a few short years ago—when he was already past his 100th birthday. All of this is surely neither sheer coincidence, nor a function of good DNA, but rather a gift from Hakodesh Boruch Hu, l’maalah min hatevah.
We, at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, were zoche for these many years to have a giant in our midst. Someone who offered a window into a Torah world of the past. Someone who bore the imprint of that mesora in every fiber of his being. Someone who was a walking musar sefer—whose Torah, yiras shamayim and midos tovos were all fashioned from the same cloth and were part of one integrated musar personality. Someone who personified the mida of anava, whose gadlus was contained within his pashtus.
We, the talmidim, need to reflect on what he stood for and strive to live our own lives with a sense of shleimus, and with the genuine sense of anava that epitomized Rav Yankelevitz’s life.
Chazal say, Gedolim tzadikim be’misasam yoser mibechayeihem—tzadikim have enormous hashpa’ah on the world even after their souls leave their bodies.
May Rav Yankelevitz zt”l be a meilitz yosher for his family, for his talmidim, for our yeshiva, and for all of klal Yisrael.