Remembering Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, z”l

Photo: Kuvien Images. Copyrighted.

By now the outlines of Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s life are widely known. Born in Chicago in 1943 to Rabbi Eliyahu Meir, zt”l, and Sarah Finkel, Rav Nosson Tzvi attended Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a coed Modern Orthodox day school. When Rav Nosson Tzvi was fifteen, he and his parents made a trip to Israel to visit with an uncle, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, the rosh yeshivah of Mir.

Although Rav Nosson Tzvi was a fine and bright boy, he did not display any signs of unique talents or abilities, yet his great uncle was enamored with him and requested that Rav Nosson Tzvi remain in Israel. Nevertheless, he returned to the States and finished high school. Subsequently, however, he returned to the Mir and studied diligently under the tutelage of his great uncle.

A few short years later, he married his second cousin, the granddaughter of Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda (Rav Leizer Yudel) and the daughter of Rabbi Beinish Finkel. Rav Nosson Tzvi then spent years toiling away with extraordinary hasmadah, learning day and night. He also began reaching out to the weaker students, finding time to learn with scores of boys who needed his help. When his father-in-law passed away in 1990, he became rosh yeshivah. Although by that time Rav Nosson Tzvi was already suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he accepted the yoke of leading a yeshivah of 1,000 students. He worked incessantly to build the yeshivah, and to keep ratcheting up the hasmadah. The yeshivah grew; it currently encompasses nearly 7,000 students and nine buildings. His days were a nonstop whirl of shiurim, shmuessen, personal meetings with students and endless fundraising.

The fire of hasmadah was so hot, the enthusiasm so infectious and Rav Nosson’s smile and embrace so beckoning that bochrim were simply swept into the maelstrom of Torah that raged all around.

On the eleventh day of Cheshvan, 5722 (November 2011), Rav Nosson Tzvi suddenly passed away. The expression of bereavement upon his death was overwhelming; over 100,000 people attended his funeral and countless eulogies were organized in cities and yeshivos around the globe. Hundreds of outstanding stories describing Rav Nosson Tzvi’s diligence, personal warmth, self-sacrifice, and tireless harbatzas Torah surfaced.

The stories about the person abound. Yet we would be remiss to simply collect stories. We need to try and focus on that which was at the core of his life: toward what end did he strive so incessantly?

Tell Me a Chiddush
Rav Nosson Tzvi was the Mir rosh yeshivah, and in many ways understanding him means understanding “The Mir.” When Rav Nosson Tzvi first arrived at the Mir as a young man, he was exhausted. A plane trip in the early Sixties was a far cry from a plane trip today. Rav Leizer Yudel greeted him warmly, and had him sleep in his own room. As a weary Nosson Tzvi prepared to go to bed, Rav Leizer Yudel stopped him. “Before you got to sleep, you must tell me a chiddush.” Poor Nosson Tzvi racked his brains, but no chiddush appeared. Rav Leizer Yudel was insistent: no chiddush, no bed. A dazed Nosson Tzvi stumbled up to the beis midrash and went through a few Tosafos. A kashya finally arose, and he went down to his uncle, who listened attentively and then wished him a good night. Was Rav Leizer Yudel a harsh martinet, a drill sergeant mercilessly training young recruits?

A while later, Nosson Tzvi woke up at around 4 am. He heard some muffled noises in the room. Rav Leizer Yudel had risen to begin his morning studies. He was tiptoeing around the room, unaware that Nosson Tzvi was up, silently observing him. Rav Leizer Yudel walked over to the Shas, put his arms around it for a long moment, closed his eyes, and kissed it. And then he began to quietly say Birchas HaTorah with extraordinary kavanah.

No, Rav Leizer Yudel was not a harsh trainer; rather he was suffused with a love of Torah, a love of his nephew (and, for that matter, of all bnei Torah) and he so desperately wanted to connect his nephew to that love that was the core of his own life. And he knew that the only way to ignite that love was through total dedication and immersion.

The Mirrer ethos consists of the following principles:

• The very core of Klal Yisrael is the study of Torah. All else is peripheral.

• There is no greater personal bond with God than the study of Torah. It infuses a person with a passion and love of Hashem unlike any other religious activity.

• To study Torah properly one needs to exclude all other activities and occupations and be totally immersed in it.

The Ramban, when discussing the significance of the Mishkan, explains that the luchos were located in the very center of the Mishkan, in the aron, a permanent “Mount Sinai” in Klal Yisrael with everything else simply “supporting” that Sinai. Klal Yisrael was arranged around the Torah, with each tribe drawing its spiritual raison d’etre from the same Torah.

That Torah requires total dedication is seen from the Talmud’s description of Matan Torah; no bird chirped, no ox grunted when Torah was given. This illustrates that acquiring Torah properly requires excluding all “other voices” from one’s range of hearing and totally dedicating and immersing oneself in Torah.

Total Immersion
This was the ruach that Rav Nosson Tzvi infused in the yeshivah. He did so with his very being. He was a happy and invigorated person, challenges notwithstanding. When one would look for the source of his constant bliss, it was always the sugya that he was studying. His mussar about diligence was usually a profoundly genuine, “It is the sweetest thing in the world.”

The credence to those words was Rav Nosson Tzvi himself. Rav Nosson constantly looked for ways to increase the immersion in Torah. He would offer talmidim monetary rewards for knowing a sizable amount of Gemara and for writing monthly papers (chaburos) on topics studied. He would occasionally announce prizes for students who studied twelve hours a day for extended periods. He found a donor who paid for 1,000 talmidim to study two hours on Purim night in yeshivah. He instituted a half-day study program in yeshivah during the summer break followed by a heavily subsidized trip for relaxation. (He made this available to any yeshivah bochur in Israel.) On and on, he kept revving up the engine.

Not only the mundane was excluded, but the Mir likewise eschewed “frum” activities in favor of learning. Although the yeshivah is located in middle of Meah Shearim, the talmidim were instructed to stay away from “hafganos” (demonstrations). Such activities were for batlanim, people who had not thrown their energy into Torah study.

The present-day Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. Photo: Kuvien Images

The rosh yeshivah rarely signed a kol koreh. The only memorable stance Rav Nosson Tzvi took was against the use of cell phones in yeshivah, because they were terrible distractions and ruined the continuous flow of Torah study.

My personal “initiation” into the Mirrer attitude regarding politics was in 1971, my first year in the Mir. The towering figure in yeshivah (besides the roshei yeshivah) was Rabbi Chaim Kamil. He was personally chosen by Rav Leizer Yudel to be Rav Nosson Tzvi’s mentor. He would sit at breakfast every morning with a half-a-dozen talmidim and speak to them in learning. When Yom Ha’atzmaut came around, I was eager to hear some “politics” and asked him about the yeshivah’s hashkafah. He gave me a long and vacant stare and said, “About the kasha that you mentioned yesterday from Rav Nochum…”

The same attitude applied even to overindulgence in mitzvos. We were taught, “Be content with a kosher esrog, and be mehader and machmir in your learning.”

Rav Nosson Tzvi’s quest to keep intensifying the hasmadah in yeshivah forced him to raise ever-increasing amounts of money. This in itself did not bother him, because he was thrilled with the results. He was only saddened when he failed to come up with the needed funds and could not continue to keep stoking the flames.

The Fire of Torah
The hotter a flame, the greater the chance it will spread. This seemed to account for Rav Nosson and the Mir’s success with countless talmidim, many of whom had come to the yeshivah less than inspired but left enthusiastic talmidei chachamim. The rosh yeshivah did not lecture incessantly about learning, nor did an army of mashgichim keep track of a bochur’s movements. But the fire of hasmadah was so hot, the enthusiasm so infectious and Rav Nosson’s smile and embrace so beckoning that bochrim were simply swept into the maelstrom of Torah that raged all around.

The same was true about overindulgence in mitzvos. We were taught, “Be content with a kosher esrog, and be mehader and machmir in your learning.”

A story that I heard brings together so many of these points.

A bochur had dropped out of the Israeli yeshivah system and was basically on the street. Someone had convinced him to make an effort to hold onto his Yiddishkeit and got Rav Nosson Tzvi to learn with him for an hour a day. At some point Rav Nosson announced one of his “twelve-hour-a-day” campaigns and had a sign-up sheet posted in yeshivah. At the end of the week the sign-up sheet was brought to Rav Nosson Tzvi. He skimmed through the names, and then asked why that particular boy was not on it. The incredulous boy came to Rav Nosson Tzvi and said, “The rosh yeshivah must be kidding. An hour a day is max for me.” Rav Nosson Tzvi smiled, and then added his name to the list. The boy decided that as a goodwill gesture, he would humor Rav Nosson Tzvi and participate for a bit. The first day passed by successfully, as did the second day. By the third day, he was losing enthusiasm. At the end of the third day he was short an hour or two of learning and was already tired. He lay down with an open Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and after a few minutes, he fell asleep, on top of his open sefer. At about six o’clock in the morning he woke up, and as he opened his eyes he saw the sefer and instinctively continued learning. In a few moments he realized a few things: firstly, that it was morning, secondly, that it was the earliest that he had ever awoken, and thirdly, it the first time that he had ever learned before davening. Excited, he ran to Rav Nosson Tzvi’s house and banged on the door at 6:15 am. He blurted out excitedly to Rav Nosson what had happened. Rav Nosson’s eyes glistened with excitement. He went to the closet, pulled out a bottle of wine, and on the spot made a l’chaim with the boy. This turned out to be a turning point in the boy’s life, and he eventually became a rosh kollel.

There is so much to learn from this story. Our reaction to today’s disaffection with learning is to water it down and crowd our students’ time with other activities. And yet, the interest and tolerance for real study seem to get ever more diminished. Maybe the antidote is in the opposite direction? Maybe the real remedy is to remove our talmidim from all distractions, immerse them totally in study, and provide them with rebbeim who themselves are on fire with Torah—rebbeim who really care for their talmidim’s Torah.

The Rav Yochanan of the Generation
Rav Yochanan was walking from Teveria to Zippori and Rav Chiya Bar Aba was accompanying him. They passed by a field, and Rav Yochanan commented, “This was my field and I sold it in order to toil in Torah.” They passed by a vineyard and again Rav Yochanan commented, “This was my vineyard and I sold it in order to toil in Torah.” They then passed by an olive orchard, and Rav Yochanan repeated his remarks. Rav Chiya began weeping. Rav Yochanan asked him, “Why are you weeping?” He replied, “I am crying because you have left nothing for your old age!” Rav Yochanan countered, “Is it so light in your eyes that I’ve sold things created in six days (i.e., material goods), as it says, ‘. . . for Torah which was given after forty days, as it says, etc?’”

When Rav Yochanan died, his generation proclaimed, “Even were a person to give up all his wealth for the love that Rav Yochanan loved the Torah, it would be ridiculed [as paltry].”

(Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah 8:8)

What was the conversation between Rav Yochanan and Rav Chiya all about? Rav Chiya was one of Rav Yochanan’s great talmidim; did he not understand the value of Torah? Would he himself not have sacrificed for Torah?

The answer must be that even though Rav Chiya knew that giving up material possessions for Torah is the right thing to do, he was still shocked by the sacrifice and moved to tears. Righteous people do what is right, but the sacrifice is still painful.

If so, what did Rav Yochanan reply?

Let us illustrate: Imagine two people are selling their homes and moving into a tiny room. The first person’s home has been foreclosed due to his inability to pay; a tragedy no doubt. The second individual has come up with a brilliant invention that is sure to enrich him. However, in order to produce and market his product, he needs capital and raised it by selling his house. His house was sold for a few hundred thousand dollars, but he expects to make tens of millions of dollars. Yes, it is uncomfortable to move into a tiny room, but it is a day of joy when he sells his house, not a day of sorrow!

That was Rav Yochanan’s perspective, so much deeper than his student Rav Chiya’s. “Yes,” he is telling him, “I have sold some grapes and olives, but I have done so as a way to upgrade them to Torah. Why is that at all a cause for sadness?”

What Sacrifice?
Living in America the last decade, I would visit my brother-in-law in Israel about once a year. As I would walk into the house and see him living with such difficulties, I would weep and silently voice a protest. “So much sacrifice? Must every minute of your ferociously long day be spent teaching and comforting others? Do you not leave a second of time for yourself? Must every person have instant access to your home? Is there not a square inch of space that you can claim as your own? Must every last drop of your energy be spent on raising unheard of sums for yet another talmid? Must every shred of your dignity be offered up on the altar of harbatzas Torah?”

And Rav Nosson Tzvi’s eyes would dance, and his beatific smile would radiate and in a silent whisper he would reply in amazement, “Who is sacrificing? I have taken the ephemeral days of a human, the dignity of a mere flesh and blood, and a disease-racked body, and I have converted them into millions of hours of Torah study, hundreds of tirutzim to Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s kasha in Yevamos, thousands of uplifted spirits and tens of thousands of neshamos burning with ahavas Torah. What a deal!”

And when Rav Nosson Tzvi passed away, his generation proclaimed, “If a person were to give all of his belongings for the love that Rav Nosson Tzvi had for Torah, it would be ridiculed.”

Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky is the brother-in-law of the late Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel. He is the rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva of Greater Washington and the author of numerous scholarly works, in Hebrew and English.


This article was featured in the Summer 2012 issue of Jewish Action.
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