May 28, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In Memory of Rabbi Chaim Wasserman, zt”l

“One of the biggest sins of the spies was not a lack of ability or talent. What they lacked was a failure to see their own holiness and that their holiness could only be fully achieved in Eretz Yisroel. They ultimately did not trust in God and did not trust in themselves.”

Rabbi Chaim Wasserman served as rav of the Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton over four decades. He often integrated the importance of Eretz and Medinat Yisroel in his Shabbat sermons. He could be polemical: his distaste for those who did not daven for the welfare of the Medina or show hakarat hatov for the thousands of secular Israelis serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, protecting the nation’s security.

This side of Rabbi Wasserman was very well known throughout the shul and among the hundreds of rabbis who enjoyed his highly practical Rabbi’s Letter published regularly by the National Council of Young Israel.

My experience of Rabbi Wasserman was very personal and informative. My wife, Leslie, and I are blessed to be part of families who represent the panoply of exilic Jewish life, from intermarried and indifferent to Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Centrist Orthodoxy and Yeshivish.

Our first years of marriage and parenthood encountered its challenges as we aimed to strike a balance between our religious observance and shalom bayit.

Some stories must remain confidential, but there are two I’d like to share.

Leslie, and I were blessed with our first son, Ari, in 1999. Months later my father would die, joined shortly by my mother, each having dealt with serious health issues.

In my mother’s later years, diabetes robbed her of much of her vision. When we’d visit from Passaic to Brookline, Massachusetts, my mother requested that I leave the refrigerator light on over Shabbat. Otherwise, she could not navigate the foods and medicines she required. I shared my conundrum with Rabbi Wasserman.

“So, Morrison, what’s the problem?”

“Well, every time I’m taking out or returning food to the refrigerator, I’m turning on the light.”

“I understand. But let me ask you this,” Rabbi Wasserman asked in his knowing confidence. “Is kibud av v’eim a mitzvah d’oraita (Torah law)?”

“Yes.”

“As for the light bulb, most poskim hold it’s, at most, d’rabbanan. Which one deserves to be more machmir?”

Rabbi Wasserman often shared that he was not mekil (lenient) on Shabbat or other mitzvot bein adam l’makom. Rather, he was machmir (stringent) in commandments involving our fellow person.

The other story I’ll keep brief. A close friend was getting married. It was for both a second marriage and this one was complex as the groom is Orthodox and the bride nominally Conservative and passionately egalitarian. As they couldn’t settle on a rabbi to be the mesader kiddushin, they asked me.

The process was detailed and nuanced. I told them anything I propose must be approved by Rabbi Wasserman. The ceremony was certainly not your typical Orthodox chuppah. But it was halachic and afforded enough creativity and sensitivity to the bride and her family.

That was the brilliance of Rabbi Wasserman. He had big shoulders, having learned from both Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Soloveitchik, and he wasn’t afraid to use them. Through his tremendous scholarship and piety, he imbued in you the confidence that whatever you were doing was not only halachically correct, but that it was right.

“If I’m wrong on this one, Morrison,” he would often conclude, “may it come from my chelek in the world to come. And if I’m right, may you enjoy its rewards.”

PS. Special thank you to Jewish Link Publisher Moshe Kinderlehrer for inviting me to write two separate columns about my experiences with Rabbis David Weiss Halivni and Chaim Wasserman.

I’d like to share a short vignette that brings them together.

When Rabbi Wasserman went to the Israeli Consulate in New York in 2005, he saw a man about 10 years his senior who appeared somewhat distressed.

“Is everything alright?” Rabbi Wasserman inquired. The man explained how there were apparently some errors in his papers that needed fixing.

Rabbi Wasserman proceeded to help, sifting through the documents until his eyes danced across the man’s signature.

“Are you Professor Weiss Halivni of JTS and Columbia?” The man replied affirmatively.

R’ Wasserman proceeded to make the blessing for being in the presence of a Torah scholar: “Boruch atah… shecholak mechochmato lireav” (Blessed is You.. who distributed of His Wisdom to those who fear Him, Berachot 58A; Shulchan Arukh 224:6)

Months later I received a message from R’ Wasserman, now an oleh chadash residing in Rechavia: “You won’t believe who I ran into the other day!”

“Who?” I asked.

“Rabbi Weiss Halivni. He lives just a block from me. You would love our conversations… If only you understood Yiddish,” he mused.

There they were—my two greatest influencers of the past three decades living just a block apart—and ultimately leaving this world in equal proximity.

Mitch Morrison is a journalist and resides in Passaic, New Jersey. He is an occasional contributor to The Jewish Link.

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