Numb. We should all be feeling numb. There should be no words to describe how we feel. Darkness has descended and we should all feel it. The light of Torah has been dimmed. We have all been made poorer. Our world has shrunk. The entire creation has been diminished.
Rav Shmuel Berenbaum as the symbol of Torah is gone. Rav Shmuel as the paradigm of hasmada is no more. The gadol from a world gone by has gone. One whom we could point to as the embodiment of pure Torah has left us. A man who epitomized gadlus baTorah is no longer here for us to point to and emulate. We are bereft, orphaned and numbed.
As long as the tzaddik is among us, we can benefit from his greatness, from his tzidkus, from the direct and indirect influences from every essence of his being to his powerful shiurim and the most subtle nuances of his great character. When he leaves us for the Olam Ha’emes, that daily countenance has dimmed. We are left with the memories and inspiration which have to carry us until techiyas hameisim.
The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum, was very ill for the last few months, but we were all so confident, so hopeful that in the zechus of his Torah and our tefillos he would recover. It was not meant to be. Though he had recovered from previous serious illnesses, this time we didn’t merit his return. And now we are left with the stories and recollections.
His love for Torah was all encompassing; there was nothing else in his world besides Torah. He appreciated nothing else like he did gadlus in Torah; nothing else meant much to him. He was unimpressed by the glitz, glory of honor, power, prestige or money and any of the trappings that captures our imagination in this day and age.
He was uncompromising in demonstrating what is truly paramount. It wasn’t just a figure of speech; it was the way he lived his life. Anyone who was ever in his home can testify that the physical comforts of life didn’t speak to him.
Torah was his life; it was his enjoyment. Torah was all that mattered to him.
It was his everything.
He didn’t only teach through his words, he taught and led by example. Whether it was from his seat in the back of the Mirrer bais medrash where he sat and learned with youthful vigor, or the shiurim we heard him deliver at so many different occasions in so many different places, his excitement, sheer ecstasy and joy over every word of Torah was contagious.
He loved every Ben Torah and every Ben Torah loved him. Wherever he was, if there was a Ben Torah in sight, the magnetism of redden in lernin attracted the two – almost as if they had to be forced apart. Every opportunity was an opportunity to speak in learning. A wedding wasn’t a wedding. It was a place where he could talk in learning. A dinner was only a dinner, if he could deliver a shiur at the hall and talk in learning. It made no difference to him how old or learned the person was; there was always the same fire, the same burning desire to grow, to learn, to attain a deeper understanding, a new derher, a new kneitch, or a new sevara.
Several years ago, my son, a young yeshiva bochur, went to visit him in his summer bungalow to speak in learning. As they were talking, a family member entered the room and asked the bochur to leave. “The Rosh Yeshiva needs to rest now,” the bochur was told. “It’s his vacation time.” Rav Shmuel turned to them and said incredulously, “Der bochur vill lernen – dus iz rest, dus iz vacation!”
That was the core of Rav Shmuel and that is how he is remembered by that bochur and by so many others. That depiction of Torah encapsulates Rav Shmuel’s eternal mantra. Torah is not a burden; Torah is not something you have to take a break from. Torah is rest. Torah is vacation. Torah is winter. Torah is summer. Torah is life.
A talmid asked him what he could do for a segulah to be blessed with children. He told him to learn the sefer of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik on the Rambam. He explained, “Der grester segulah iz Torah – The greatest segulah is Torah.”
When the yungerman looked at him with amazement, Rav Shmuel explained that he had another reason why he suggested to learn the classic sefer of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. ‘Rav Chaim was the father of the yesomim of Brisk. Rav Chaim cared for the poor children, he cared for those who had no one else. “Together with the merit of Rav Chaim’s Torah there is no greater zechus.”
Torah, Torah and noch Torah.
Rav Shmuel headed the Keren which distributes funds to Bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel for Yomim Tovim. Not one to be involved in organizations, he was a gadol in chesed as he was a gadol in Torah. When the Israeli government cut the allocations to Bnei Torah, families were hungering for daily bread. A group of yungeleit in Lakewood organized and held an urgent asifah to raise money for needy families in Elul of 2003.
Rav Shmuel was in Eretz Yisroel for Sukkos and heard about the asifah.
Without any prompting, it was he who called one of the askonim and told him to come to Eretz Yisroel during Chol Hamoed, as he wanted to help the Bnei Torah of Eretz Yisroel. They arranged a meeting in Bnei Brak and Rav Shmuel raised one million dollars for the cause that became so dear to him. This was how the Keren was founded.
This past Chol Hamoed Sukkos, the sukkah of the noted askan Reb Rubin Schron in the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of Yerushalayim was a magnet for gedolei Torah and gedolei tomchei Torah. On leil Hoshanah Rabbah, they gathered to offer support for the Keren.
It was an amazing sight to see so many great people dedicating themselves to the cause of supporting kiyum haTorah.
The emotional highlight of the evening was when Rav Shmuel arrived. Despite his severe illness and weakened condition, he traveled from Bnei Brak to speak of the importance of the Keren and the work it does distributing much-needed funds to thousands of yungeleit for Yom Tov.
With a strong voice matching his fiery determination to help the cause of the Keren, he held the audience spellbound as he rallied support for the cause of spreading Torah and supporting Torah.
He appeared so fragile, but his voice was fresh and powerful. It was to be the last time I saw him. As he spoke, I closed my eyes and imagined the Rav Shmuel of old holding forth. He spoke with power, feeling and humor of the cause so dear to his heart that even in his state, he traveled from Bnei Brak to raise money for the Bnei Torah of Eretz Yisroel. He spoke for about 20 minutes, but it sounded as if he could have continued speaking much longer, for his strength came from Torah. He was powered by boundless spiritual strength. Torah drove him, motivated him and sustained him.
He spoke about mesiras nefesh for Torah. He didn’t have to speak about it. By his very presence that evening in Yerushalayim, he demonstrated the lengths to which one who has chavivus haTorah must go for Torah and hachzokas Torah.
A talmid went to his rebbi this past Erev Yom Kippur for a bracha. The rosh yeshiva was sitting with a Gemara, learning. He told the talmid a story. A yeshiva was in tremendous debt and appealed to its major supporter to help bail them out. The benefactor, who was tight for cash, came to Rav Shmuel to ask him if it was permissible for him to take out a $3,000,000 mortgage on some properties in order to help keep the yeshiva afloat.
The rosh yeshiva told the talmid that Rav Shmuel responded to the magnanimous baal tzedaka that probably, al pi din, he should not, “uber az min hut a hartz far Torah, vi ken men zuggen nein?”
And that was how the Rosh Yeshiva lived his life. He had a heart that burned with Torah and for Torah; he could never say no to Torah. He could never say no to anything that had to do with enhancing the cause of Torah. He could never say no to learning Torah. It was his life. It was his very essence from his youngest years until his final day.
As long as he was alive, we had an image to point to of the Mir of old. The influence of Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l was walking amongst us. The greatness that was Toras Lita was felt and seen. There was a model for us to emulate. We saw that it could be done. We saw that it was real. We saw that it wasn’t just legends and stories of a generation gone by. There was a real life portrayal of the countenance of the distinguished eminence of Torah.
When the end was near, the dying Rosh Yeshiva turned to his son and told him that he felt as if his time on this world was about to end. “Un ich hob nisht vos moirah tzu hoben,” said Rav Shmuel. “I don’t fear death; I don’t fear meeting my maker.”
He was so real, he was so pure. He spent his life following and learning Torah to the degree that he himself became a cheftzah shel Torah.
Rav Shmuel asked that a Gemara Kesubos be brought to him. He opened to Daf 103b and 104a to learn the sugyah of the passing of Rebbi. Everything he did in this world was al pi Torah, including leaving it. And just as the Gemara describes, “Nitzchu ereilim es hametzukim v’nishbah aron hakodesh – The Heavenly beings overcame the good people of this world and captured the aron of Hashem.”
Rav Shmuel Berenbaum leaves us with a legacy of ameilus baTorah, gadlus baTorah, as well as chavivus and chashivus for Torah and Bnei Torah. It is left to us, his spiritual yorshim, to fill the great void left by his passing.
One nechama was the obvious remarkable growth of Torah and Bnei Torah which was evident at the levaya. Standing on Ocean Parkway awash in a sea of black was a consolation. Look at what he leaves behind; look at what we have become.
When Rav Shmuel came to this country, we were barely given a chance of survival. There was a smattering of yeshivos. Kollel was a foreign concept. Today, there are legions of yeshiva bochurim and yungeleit who bask in the glow of Torah. The mesiras nefesh, determination and leadership of Rav Shmuel and his colleagues to transplant that which went up in flames has borne fruit.
May we be zoche to continue to flourish until the coming of Moshiach tzidkeinu b’meheirah.
© 2007 Yated Neeman.