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Jewish Thinking

Three Stories in Memory of Rabbi Steinman z”l

Published on Sunday January 10th, 2021

Who never entered Rav Steinman’s humble abode to request a blessing or a piece of advice? His home symbolized utter simplicity. Peeling walls, old cabinets, rickety furniture and broken tiles shouted: "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!"(Kohelet 1,2)

A Mysterious Fire

How would a common mortal react if after giving his home a makeover, a fire broke out, covering his home's walls with a thick layer of soot?

He would most certainly angrily express his frustration, regretting the vain expense and effort and lamenting having to do the job all over again.

That would be the typical reaction of any "normal" person. But this was not the case concerning Rav Steinman for whom material possessions were a trifle; his heart and mind were continually focused on the Torah. The Torah was Rav Steinman’s exclusive aspiration and sole focus of interest.

Who never heard of Rabbi Steinman's humble abode at 5 Chazon Ish Street in Bnei Brak? Who never came to solicit a Bracha or to request advice? It isn't necessary to make flowery or embellished descriptions. From floor-to-ceiling, this house was the epiphany of absolute simplicity. Peeling walls, old cabinets, rickety furniture and broken tiles constantly shouted: "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!"(Kohelet 1,2)

All is vanity for sure, but what can you do when a needy house painter from the neighborhood knocks on your door? Isn't offering him a job the most adequate form of charity? Thus helping him without making him feel ashamed? So thought the Rabbi's closest inner circle.  In addition, the occasion provided an opportunity to refresh a home which had called for improvement for many years. Thus, the poor man was hired to renovate the entrance to the apartment. Very shortly after, the freshly painted walls were covered with soot. For a mysterious reason, the petrol lamp which was in use at that time had caused the fire. "A fire is no coincidence", stressed the Rav. "It probably happened because the walls were repainted".

If you ever happened to enter the small sanctuary at 5 Chazon Ish Street, you may have noticed an area painted in green. You ought to know that under this coat of paint, the wall was black…proof and testimony of a failed attempt to renovate.

A Mitzvah is a torch. We are in Israel, a week away from Chanukah. The main big cities' arteries display windows exhibiting different varieties of oil, Chanukiot, an array of wicks, short or long, woven with fine threads of cotton or wadding, and small colored candles. In short, all the paraphernalia related to the festival.

The age of Internet abounds with offers for instant gratification, disposable off-the-shelf, ready to use goods. This state of affairs also affects the religious sphere, which is influenced by the convenience of multiple options on offer and seeks to make immediate profits. The wicks bought nowadays for a few shekels used to be made by hand by each and every householder, depending on the number of candles to light. It was a very simple operation: they were produced from cotton, rolled between the fingers. Nothing to write home about. However, in Switzerland, whoever had the merit to observe the young Aharon Yehuda Leib produce Hanukkah wicks probably never forgot this image.

Rabbi Yaakov Netta Bach, one of the elders of the Yeshiva Etz Chaim of Montreux, reminisces on this past era; fleeing his native land to escape conscription in the Polish army, the future Gadol found refuge in Switzerland.

"Whenever we observed Rabbi Aharon Leib, he was busy, either sitting still and studying, no matter what and exploiting every minute and second to this end. But once Chanukah arrived, Rav Steinman left his studies aside to prepare the wicks and Chanukiah, half an hour before lighting.

"Everyone used to do that, and many of us still do so today”. But, Rabbi Yaakov testifies to the  unforgettable industriousness that Rabbeinu invested in this task, with dedication and concentration. He braided the cotton threads with unspeakable love.

"Some seventy years later, I remain deeply moved by these exceptional memories and this dazzling image. To this day, this seemingly mundane memory is still deeply embedded in my mind, for it exuded Rav Steinman's immense love for Mitzvot. "

Sweet Humiliations

We live in a world that is overwhelmed by omnipresent materialism. Each street corner exhibits multiple temptations, grocery shop stalls are overflowing with products. In addition, there are coffee shops, restaurants and enticing clothing and jewelry windows to admire. It's hard to avoid this temptation. However, far from the crazy crowd and indiscreet glances, Rabbi Aharon Leib studies Torah in the refuge of his humble apartment, where the walls and furniture testify that within these four amot, materialism has no power. It has been transformed and clothed in a garment of spirituality.

In this citadel, life transpires in a different dimension, in the sphere of eternity. Nothing is more valuable than Torah learned in simplicity, with the bare minimum, not by default but by choice. Whoever witnesses this can perceive the spiritual wealth that is brought forth by absolute simplicity, while materialism is watered down to the bare minimum. In fact, this abode houses the immense overflowing treasures of the Torah, for the benefit of all.

Living in austerity requires a certain spiritual level. But there is an even loftier level which is manifested by the real giants of this world: mortifications and abstinence. In our generation, few people are familiar with these ancient notions. But how far does Rav Steinman go in this domain? We will answer this question, based on the analysis of Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, Mir Rosh Yeshiva, who retells a story witnessed by Rabbi Israel Weintraub: the self-imposed mortifications of Rav Steinman are similar to those which were practiced at the time of the Vilna Gaon!

Rabbi Aharon Leib hardly enjoys any worldly pleasure and does not make a distinction between lack of esthetics, honor, décor or humiliation.

Humiliation: the thought shakes one to the core. Some are prepared to give away all their possessions to avoid shame and dishonor. Rabbi Steinman, on the contrary, seeks dishonor. If the Tannaim, these sages of exceptional caliber sought suffering, Rabbi Aharon Leib seeks to be vexed and belittled. The latter fulfill a precious role in his eyes.

Therefore, when a group of unscrupulous individuals sought to tarnish his reputation, he reacted with remarkable finesse. This way of enduring dishonor also emulates the behavior of previous giants in former generations, such as the Vilna Gaon or the Chagat Arie, who voluntarily exiled and exposed themselves to the shame and humiliation endured by common mortals; so as to amend their sins and elevate their souls. "I am familiar with humiliation since the time of my youth", explained Rabbi Aharon Leib to appease the anger of those who could not stomach how he was constantly targeted for denigration and scorn. "Ascetic people and Torah giants who lived in Brisk used to leave their homes and seek exile", he explained. "Only when they realized that this practice overtaxed their time dedicated to Torah study, they ceased to pursue it".

"I am very fortunate that Hashem gave me these two advantages: on the one hand, constant humiliation to purify my actions and expiate my sins, and on the other, He spared me from the Bitul Torah that exile entails". These words are reminiscent of the stories told by followers of the Chazon Ish, who accepted deprecation with great joy.

When a Torah Scroll is burnt by criminal hands, the parchment is consummated but the letters fly away. But when verbal attacks, acrid as steel daggers are shot at Torah personalities, they never really touch their target because it is impossible to humiliate a living Torah scroll. In fact, real Torah giants are immune to these hostilities. More so, they welcome them. As much as they welcome suffering, they are dear to them, as dear as exile.

The Torah-Box Team - © Torah-Box

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