May 16, 2024
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May 16, 2024
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Reflections on the Shloshim of Rav Moshe Dovid Tendler

When the Mishkan became operational with the onset of sacrifices for the very first time, the level of joy was so intense that it was comparable to “the creation of heaven and earth.” This remarkable bliss was suddenly replaced by the solemn news concerning the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two beloved sons, both of whom had perished within the inner sanctum of the Mishkan (Eitz Yosef commenting on Midrash Rabbah Ruth, Pesichta 7). Similarly, on the happiest day of the year, Shemini Atzeret, a time when Hashem desired to spend just one more joyous day with his beloved Jewish people, rejoicing and singing with the Torah (Orach Chaim, Hilchos Lulav, Ramah 669:1), klal Yisrael suffered a catastrophic loss with the passing of our beloved rebbe, manhig hador, Rav Moshe Dovid ben Rav Yitzchok Isaac Tendler, zt”l.

How can a talmid properly eulogize a rebbe? How can one describe the pain of losing a precious diamond (BT Megillah 15A) and whose cataclysmic irreparable loss is no less comparable to the burning of our holy Temple (BT Rosh Hashanah 18B)? He was not only our rebbe, rabbi, scientist, professor, humorist, leader, congressional subject matter expert, scientific pioneer but he was also a thoughtful and concerned mentor, my mesader kiddushin, and as I often joked with Rebbe, my rebbe ahuv—my beloved rebbe! His youthful disposition remained consistently present, making him an easy attraction to both the young and old. Rebbe was unfazed by public opinion but rather infused by the determination and strict application of Halacha. How could the world continue as usual when we have lost someone so special (see BT Horayot 13A)?

Rebbe was a pioneer who brought global legitimacy to the interdependence of medical decisions that are rooted in Halacha, and halachic decisions that required an acute understanding of science. Torah achat hi—It is all one Torah. Rebbe was at peace in the laboratory as he was in the beit midrash during first and second seder. There was no topic or medical question that was beyond Rebbe’s grasp, including but certainly not limited to the establishment of the eruv on the Upper West Side, euthanasia, infertility, determination of brain-stem death, organ donation, brit milah, Har Habayit, and the national effort to preserve the sanctity of the mechitza against a wave of Conservative appeal that had sought to temper strict adherence to halachic requirements. How exciting it was to be a talmid of someone with the stature and accomplishments of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Dovid Tendler.

The Rav encouraged his students to be the confident leaders of tomorrow, but to do so required us to accumulate ample knowledge to make an informed decision. “You can’t claim you didn’t know the Halacha when there are so many opportunities to learn.”

When I attended Yeshiva University back in 1994-1997, I spent three years in Rabbi Tendler’s shiur. Once I entered, I never considered leaving. The loss of Rabbi Tendler was incredibly painful. It felt as though I had lost my father, a”h, a second time. Indeed, one’s father brings him into this world but a rebbe brings the talmid into the next (Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah, 5:1). I would like to briefly share some of these recollections, which span not three but more than 25 years of interaction with a Torah giant and luminary.

Rebbe had a unique approach to his “seder halimud,” challenging his students to understand, through a heicha timtza—how did Rabbi Eliezer and or Rabbi Shimon develop an opinion that would be worthy of consideration in terms of resolving a Mishnaic discrepancy, and how we can use that premise, thought, conviction, in the development of modern-day Halacha.

This was evidenced in Parshat Beshalach when Rebbe once commented on the verse, Hashem yilachaim lachem v’atem tacharishun—Hashem will fight for you, but you shall remain silent (Shemot 14:14). “Some would interpret this verse as an indication that one must not talk during davening; this is obvious for it is halacha. I would suggest that this verse can be understood to say that if you want Hashem to help fight your battles, then you need to get up early in the morning, daven, learn and make an effort to succeed. Only then will you see the Yad Hashem in everything you accomplish!”

Uncertain how Rabbi Tendler graded midterms and finals, the class remained concerned until we learned the following. “Boys,” said Rabbi Tendler, “when it comes time to grade your bechina (test), I will fill my bathtub with water and whichever booklets float to the top will receive an A. If you know the answer, then your response should be short and to the point, requiring less ink. If you are uncertain, you probably wrote a bubba maisa, and I do not have time to read bubba maisos.” Rabbi Tendler was teaching us that “the words of Torah are sharp in your mouth, so that if someone asks you a question, you will not stammer. Instead, you will be able to answer him immediately” (BT Kiddushin 30A).

Rabbi Tendler had a remarkable way of using humor to connect with his students, and would oftentimes make you laugh at yourself. During lunch at the YU Café, Rabbi Tendler spotted a group of my friends and decided to join us at the table where we had a friendly, relaxed conversation. The following day, Rabbi Tendler said, “Boys, the halacha is that if the food is worthy of being fed to a dog, one is not required to make a bracha. Yesterday, however, the food tasted pretty good, so don’t forget to say a bracha (blessing) next time.” Rebbe’s mussar was not only sincere, it was heartfelt and easily digestible.

Connecting with students was a favorite pastime. A talmid in Rebbe’s shiur was unable to understand organic chemistry and his midterm was a week away. After Mincha, Rebbe explained, by means of a parable, how “two friends visited a neighboring town where they each met three cousins who had four children, etc.” After a short while, my friend stood up and said, “Rebbe, I now understand alkanes, cycloalkanes and functional groups!” Two weeks later, the talmid reported back that he had aced the exam. Rebbe turned to the shiur and conveyed the following timeless message: “In life, you will find people who overcomplicate matters. The challenge is to take the most complex material and simplify so that all can understand and easily adhere.”

While still a talmid in YU, I had the unique opportunity to spend Shabbos with Rabbi and Rebbetzin Tendler. It was so much fun to listen to them both prepare the cholent and chicken soup. “Moishe, when are you making the cholent?” Rabbi Tendler was quick to reply with a big smile, “I have it ready to go, Shif, the potatoes, meat and spices. They are all set.” Yes, you could be a world-renowned Talmudic scholar, earn a doctorate from an Ivy League university in microbiology and develop, in 1963, a cure for cancer called Refuin, but Rebbe demonstrated that you can also be a regular, down to earth, approachable person.

In shul the following morning, Rabbi Tendler spotted two people talking during davening. Taking aim from the bimah—and with unusual accuracy—Rebbe threw, in rapid fire, two hard candies, hitting each of them on the tie. When one of the gentlemen smiled back and said that he “cannot eat the candy because he did not hear Kiddush,” Rabbi Tendler replied with a big smile, “Better you should have the candy now than talk during davening.” We all got the sweet message.

Rebbe’s tough love was a characteristic we could appreciate because at the end of the day, we all knew he wanted what’s best for us. I took a great interest in Thursday afternoon’s Chumash shiur and tried to take notes, but it was often overwhelming after only 10 minutes. There were, baruch Hashem, so many sources and midrashim, and I tried but could not keep pace. Rebbe would continue discussing the parsha for 30-35 minutes before Mincha at 2:30 p.m., always beginning with a midrash, relating it to our common day, and then developing a chidush or a thought. Rebbe took a special interest in quoting from the Akeidat Yitzchak, written by the famed Jewish philosopher Rav Yitzchak Arama (1420–1494).

Running across the street to the Gottesman Library with a floppy disk in hand, I tried to type up (using MS-DOS—remember those days?) the shiur as best as I could recollect. The following day I proudly presented the shiur to Rabbi Tendler. Rebbe looked it over and with a smile said, “Mordechai, the only thing you got right was the spelling of your own name!” I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry but that comment forced me to thoroughly review my work, and I credit Rebbe’s tough love with helping me sharpen my writing. (It is still a work in progress ?)

In 2010 Rebbe traveled all the way from Monsey to be menachem aveil me on the Lower East Side following the petira of my beloved father. When I saw my Rebbe walk through the door I was overwhelmed that he would make such a long trip just to spend a few minutes. It reminded me of what my mom had said the day I was accepted to YU: “Mordechai, I would sweep floors and clean toilets just to make sure you could have a rebbe like Rabbi Dr. Tendler.” This brings to light the famous statement of King Solomon, chochmat nashim banta beita—the wisdom of a wife can build a household (Mishlei 14:1). Needless to say, I am profoundly indebted to my parents’ investment in my Jewish education.

That same year I called before Rosh Hashanah to wish Rebbe well. I had boarded my flight to Uman and was on my way to visit Rebbe Nachman and other kivrei tzadikim such as the Kedushas Levi for a unique Rosh Hashanah experience. When Rebbe inquired why I was on a plane Erev Rosh Hashanah, I wasn’t sure how to respond so I said, “I am planning to visit Rav Levi Yitzchok from Berdichev, Ukraine.” Not losing a beat, Rebbe joked, “Mordechai, leave the Berdichever alone.” ?

In my last semester with Rebbe, we received a timeless message. “There will come a time when you will be unable to call a rav and resolve a question for you. You will be forced to make a decision on your own.” Rebbe paused and in a paternal way continued, “I ask you to lean upon the tens of thousands of dollars that your parents invested in your Jewish education and make a decision. How will you know if you made the correct decision? If you can proudly share it with your parents, grandparents and rebbeim,” he concluded.

Ashrei mi sheba l’kan v’Talmudo b’yado—Fortunate is the one who comes here (to Olam Habah) with his learning in his hand” (BT Pesachim 50A).

Yehi zichro baruch.

Special thank you to all my Teaneck friends who contributed to this article.

Mordechai Plotsker runs a popular 10-minute nightly shiur on the parsha with a keen interest on the invigorating teachings of the Berditchever Rav, the Kedushas Levi. Plotsker resides in Elizabeth with his wife and children, and can be reached by email at
[email protected].

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