The Gemara of Chagigah 12b cites a baraisa that states: “Woe to those people who see but do not realize what they are seeing, who stand but do not realize upon what they are standing.” The baraisa goes on to state different pillars upon which the world stands on. In Pirkei Avos (perek aleph mishna beis), three pillars are enumerated
על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים
The world stands on three things: upon Torah study, upon the service of God and upon good deeds.
Rav Dovid Feinstein lived his life based on these principles. He was a talmid chacham who rarely put the depth of his knowledge publicly on display. Humble to his last days, he once lamented to me that he didn’t learn as much as he would have liked. The range and scope of wisdom was not limited to Jewish topics but also included philosophy, psychology, history and business, to list a few. In fact, he could flow easily into almost any and all conversations. People from all walks of life sought out not just his halachic insights, but also his opinion in dealing with other aspects of life. His work ethic, humbleness and devotion to Hakadosh Baruch Hu served as a role model and formula with which to live life and negotiate through its vicissitudes. Since he was known for his lomdus, his saintly and humble nature as well as his acts of chemlah and chesed were often overlooked.
For many years I attended the Rosh Yeshiva’s Mishnah Berurah shiur on Sunday mornings. It was remarkable to witness the interactions of the shiur and what transpired afterward. During the shiur, Rav Dovid would take any and all questions, never minimizing a question even when it bordered on the nonsensical. Every question was given acknowledgement and an appropriate answer. At the completion of the shiur, many of those present would crowd around him and pepper him with additional questions or offer their own insights. He always listened with a smile and tried to answer the best that he could while being plied with additional questions. Eventually the Rosh Yeshiva would make it to his office that was administered by his faithful shamas. There, another line of other people would be waiting with shailos. This would go on for another hour or so. The Rosh Yeshiva accepted all b’sever panim yafos—with attentiveness to all, learned or not, wealthy or poor. I made it a point to always say hello or goodbye on those Sunday mornings. One time, my wife and I had a chasuna to go to in the afternoon and I couldn’t get through the crowd to say goodbye to the Rosh Yeshiva, nor attract his attention. Figuring I would see him next week, not wanting to wait for the crowd to dissipate, and being in a rush, I decided not to wait around. The next day I received a call from the Rosh Yeshiva’s shamas saying that Rav Dovid had noticed that I hadn’t given him shalom and wanted to know if everything was okay or if I was upset with him. Imagine, he was worried about me and was concerned that in some way he might have slighted me.
More than 10 years ago I had a medical halachic question and scheduled an appointment to see the Rosh Yeshiva to discuss the issue. It was a complicated issue that had already been ruled on by Rav Moshe, zt”l, Rav Dovid’s saintly father and who was widely known as the gadol hador during his lifetime. It seemed to me that the knowledge and metzius on which the teshuva had been written had changed since the time of Rav Moshe’s ruling. Our first meeting on the subject had been to review the subject matter and lay the facts out as we understood them to be. It was obvious, though, that Rav Dovid was very uncomfortable being asked to revisit a ruling that his father already ruled on. The Rosh Yeshiva invited me for the next week to discuss the matter further. It was clear to me that in order to make headway when analyzing this different approach, I would have to bring precedent to make the Rosh Yeshiva comfortable with the idea of modifying his father’s ruling. At the next meeting, after some discussion, the Rosh Yeshiva said to me, “Do you realize what you are asking me to do? You are asking me to go against the ruling of my father. Where do you find a son going against the ruling of his father?” Anticipating this moment, I asked Rav Dovid, “Has the Rosh Yeshiva heard of the Rosh? Has the Rosh Yeshiva heard of the Tur? Does the Rosh Yeshiva realize how many times the Tur modified the rulings and minhagim of his father, the Rosh?” Rav Dovid smiled, put his hands behind his head, and leaned back in his chair. He asked me, “Are you comparing my father and me to the Rosh and the Tur?” I answered, “The Rosh Yeshiva asked me if there has ever been a situation like this. This was the most obvious one I could come up with.” He continued to smile and chuckle. “You have made your point,” he said. The mere fact that he took the time to discuss this halachic issue over three sessions with a person like myself, who couldn’t come close to having the knowledge that he possessed in his finger, is a tribute to the modest nature and approachability of one of the gedolei hador.
I would like to close with a story that I believe to be appropriate regarding Rav Dovid, zt”l. It is told that once there was a man who was traveling through Europe in the late 1800s. He came to the town where the Chofetz Chaim lived and decided to stop and meet the great talmid chacham. When he arrived at his house he saw that the Chofetz Chaim lived in a tiny home. He knocked on the door and when he looked inside, he saw a nearly empty one-bedroom apartment. The traveler asked the Chofetz Chaim, “Aren’t you the great Chofetz Chaim? How can you live like this? Where are all your possessions?” The Chofetz Chaim turned to the traveler and posed the same question. “Where are all of your possessions? All you have is a suitcase.” The traveler answered, “Well, I am just passing through,” to which the Chofetz Chaim responded, “I too am just passing through.” Rav Dovid also knew that he was just passing through, but he made sure to load his imaginary suitcases with lomdus and ma’asim tovim.
By Rabbi Dr. David J. Katz