Brooklyn, NY – Tribute to Rav Yehoshua Heschel Wolhendler Z’l

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    Rabbi Wolhendler was nifter Shabbas Kodesh Parshas Toldos of this year at the age of 58. (1953-2011)Brooklyn, NY – Rashi (Bereishis 28:10) states that when a tzaadik leaves a city, pana hodah, pana zivah, pana hadarah, its magnificence departs, its luster departs, and its grandeur departs. What are these diverse attributes? How can we differentiate between these different facets of a tzaadik’s presence that Rashi says are sure to be missed when the tzaadik departs?

    Harav Hagaon R’ Moshe Feinstein ztvk”l writes that each adjective describes a different level of righteousness that a person can attain, and they reflect differing amounts of influence that one is capable of having upon the people around him.

    Ziv, luster, refers to something which shines forth; it is like the rays of the sun, that warm you when you are in their presence. This speaks to the effect a tzaadik has upon those who are in his direct presence. This level of influence, however, is limited in that it only has an influence when one is physically in the presence of the tzaadik. The influence of a rebbe who only possesses the level of ziv, is limited because when the talmid or rebbe leaves the influence ceases.

    A true rebbe must also possess hod, magnificence. Hod is an attribute that could be transferred from one person to another. Once a talmid receives hod from his rebbe, it becomes his own; a part that will remain with the talmid even when he is no longer in the presence of his rebbe. When Hashem promoted Yehoshuah to be the next leader of Klal Yisroel, the pasuk tells us that He transferred hod from Moshe, the Rebbe, to Yehoshuah, the beloved talmid.

    What is the nature of this magnificence that contains the power to continue to affect the recipient even when he is no longer in the presence of the one who transmitted it? How can we define it? Why is it so important? I was fortunate to gain an experiential understanding of this phenomenon through the relationship I was zocha to form with Harav Yehosua Heschel z”l.

    Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Wolhendler, z”l, had such magnificence that he radiated an intensity, the likes of which I personally have not seen or experienced in any contemporary American gedolim. My first interaction with H’rav Wohlhendler took place after I had just brokered a very difficult marital settlement agreement that I hoped would bring an end to a very difficult case involving a Get. As is usually the case, however, the devil was in the details. I knew that in order for this agreement to hold up, the details would have to be written up by a true pike’ach, someone who could with delicacy write that which had to be written in order to protect both sides, and yet not derail the agreement with unnecessary or inflammatory additions from either side’s perspective. My search for such a pike’ach led me to H’rav Wohlhendler. I called him with trepidation. I had heard that he was indeed a chacham, but that he was not one to simply do one’s bidding. “Harav Yehoshua Heschel has a mind of his own,” I was advised. To be honest, that is not really what I was looking for at the time; after all, I thought, the last thing I needed was a voice with new ideas to come and scuttle the deal that had taken a long time to work out with the parties.

    Moreover, all of my interactions up to that point with anyone involved in the unfortunately murky world of contemporary batei din had thoroughly jaded me. I had come to expect those with attitudes, seeking to make a quick profit from another hapless person going through a life crisis and not at all seeking to help both sides resolve their differences. Thus predisposed, I called Harav Yehoshua Heschel z”l and sought his help. I remember exactly where I was standing when I made the phone call, and I thank Hashem Yisborach for leading me in the path that began a relationship I will always cherish.

    Harav Yehoshua Heschel z”l indeed had his own mind. He asked how he could help me and quickly noted that he hoped I understood he could not possibly become involved in the case to help the parties without a thorough understanding of all the issues involved. He then asked probing questions and debated with me key points of my understanding of the overall issues. It quickly became apparent that he was an ish emes, someone willing to help fellow yidin in need, but only if emes was on their side.

    Finally, convinced that he fully appreciated the nuances of the complex case, he suggested that we meet in order to discuss the details of the proposed settlement. At this point, I asked him: “How much should the parties expect to pay for your services?” After a moment of silence, Harav Yehosua Heschel z”l responded, to the effect: “you called me for help, my taking money is not giving help.” When we ultimately did meet, it became clear to me that Harav Yehoshua Heschel had spent a considerable amount of time thinking and analyzing the case. He thoroughly analyzed the proposed deal, and exposed several fatal flaws in the proposal that might have led to disaster for the parties had they been overlooked. Over the following months, he was always available to lend his ear, his astute advice, and his support. His council was always based first on halachah, and then on what was best for the long-term well-being of the parties. He was never driven by a need to tell someone what they wanted to hear. He was never swayed by the potential for earning money by feeding people’s egos and fueling machlokes. His principal goals were to resolve the issues at hand in accordance with halachah, to make decisions based on emes, and to conclude the matter at hand in the best way for the parties involved.

    How did Harav Yehoshua Heschel accomplish so much where others could not. The foundation that anchored Harav Yehosua Heschel z”l and the reason he never fell into the trap of getting drawn into machlokes for the sake of kavod or profit was clearly his tremendous Yiras Shomayim. Because his fear of Heaven was so profound, his fear of man was non-existent. The Pasuk tells us that it was the Yiras Shamayim of Yocheved and Miriam that allowed them to defy Pharaoh’s decree to kill all the newborn Jewish male children. When one has true fear of Heaven, there is no room for fear of man. So it was with H’rav Yehoshua Heschel z”l. He was a Gadol who despised machlokes and those who created or furthered it. His Yiras Shomayim drove him to be mevakesh es hanirdaf, to help those who were being wrongly oppressed on whatever side of a dispute, despite whatever pressures might be brought to bear against him. I once commented to him in regard to a specific situation – after he was already not well: “You know that taking this position might bring a lot of pressure against you.” What was his response? “Do they have anything other than a basar v’dam to pressure me with? Not to take this position might chas v’shalom cause the Borei Olam to pressure me!”

    Harav Yehoshua Heschel z”l was also a true anav. His anivus was anchored in the same foundation that allowed his fear of men to be non-existent – his tremendous Yiras Shomayim. We were once embroiled in a particular case where a disputant questioned Harav Yehoshua Heschel z”l’s qualifications stating that he was not a rabbi at an official congregation. I was frustrated and prepared a lengthy, impassioned letter to those involved, in which I praised Harav Yehosua Heschel z”l as a Talmid Chochom and Yorei Shomayim. Before I sent it, I showed it to Harav Yehosua Heschel z”l for his approval. This took place during the aseres y’mei teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Harav Yehoshua Heschel z”l instructed me not to send my letter. He stated, “Please do not write such things about me. Tell them that they are indeed right. I am currently not qualified, but in a few days it will be Yom HaKodosh, Yom Kippur. Certainly Hashem will accept my teshuva and forgive me, and then I will be worthy. We will work on this case after Yom Kippur!”

    I tearfully recall how refreshing it was to speak with him. In a time when everyone is afraid to take a position, lest it be met with public ridicule, where the twin avodah zorahs of the “almighty dollar” and “toeing the party line” rule with a heavy hand, how refreshing it was to speak to a Gadol and Talmid Chacham whose guiding principles were Yiras Shomayim, Torah, and Emes! How we shall all miss him!

    Above all, Dovid HaMelech tells us, in order for one not to be swayed by life’s deceptions, the very essence of one’s being must be “Toras Hashem cheftzo”, namely, the driving force of one’s existence must be Toras Hashem. This is a most apt description of Harav Yehosua Heschel z”l. He was aware that as a talmid of HaRav Reuven Feinstein shlit”a, I had the ability to inquire as to the underlying reasoning of various teshuvos of Rav Moshe Feinstein ztvk”l. He would call me – sometimes late at night – trying to get new insight into something Rav Moshe wrote in one of the teshuvos. He once told me that he wrote more than one hundred fifty pages of Torah while researching a particular teshuvah of Rav Moshe ztvk”l. Harav Yehoshua Heschel, z”l, was not merely curious about Torah; this was not simply research into a subject matter in which he was involved. He lived and breathed these teshuvos! His compelling desire was to seek out the emes of the halachah. The fire of Torah burned so strongly within him that at times he could not sleep without first coming to a conclusion in the matter he was working on at that moment.

    There is so much more to say, so much more to mourn our loss. Harav Yehosuha Heschel, z”l, fulfilled the pasuk of lo suchal l’hisaleim (i.e., one may not overlook an injustice) in every sense. He never looked away from the plight of another – whatever the situation might be. He also fulfilled the pasuk of lo saguru mipnei ish (i.e, not to be afraid of anyone from doing or saying what is right), as in defense of Torah and emes he feared no one and nothing. It is well known that he was an illustrious Talmid Chochom, who was m’chaber sefarim to the delight of Talmidei Chachomim bechol asar v’asar. He was a pike’ach who could be trusted to give advice grounded in Torah and yiras Hashem. But, first and foremost, he was a friend to whom you could turn to discuss any problem. This was the essence of Harav Yehosua Heschel Wohlhendler z”l. Woe for us for what we have lost.

    Turning back to our question of how one can attain hod, when a person has this much to give, when one lifts himself above the superficiality of this world to the extent where he has so much tochen, then he becomes imbued with hod. He becomes imbued with a magnificence that effects positive changes in all those who are exposed to it. When you are zocheh to form a relationship with such a person, you are forced to think. When the human tendency to measure yourself against another person eventually surfaces, you must grow as a result. Certainly, when you see someone who lives for so much and who gives of himself to such a degree, you cannot help but question your own priorities in life, your foibles and your pettiness. If one thinks about and internalizes these lessons, they remain with them even when they are no longer in the presence of the tzaadik. Indeed, the life-changing lessons remain even when one is no longer able to be in the presence of a deceased tzaadik.

    The light that Harav Yehoshua Heschel z”l brought into this world no longer burns in the form of his physical presence; yet it clearly has not been extinguished. The hod of Harav Yehoshua Heschel z”l remains with those of us who knew him, despite the fact that, sadly, he is no longer with us.
    Harav Hagaon R’ Mordechai Gifter z”l once asked a question in regard to the mitzvah of sippur yetzias mitzrayim. He asked, “Why limit the mitzvah of sippur to a discussion based upon the text of the Haggadah? Why not rent a theater and put on a play featuring all the main characters of the geulah?” With today’s technology of computer generated animation we could produce a movie with the ten makkos illustrated in accordance with all applicable midrashim, and have a sippur yetzias mitzrayim l’mehadrin min hamehadrin!

    R’ Gifter answered that Chazal understood human nature better than we do, and they understood that such productions would have the opposite effect. When one is subjected to intense visual presentation of an idea, he no longer uses his intellect to process what he has seen. His mind is content with the sensory experience to which he has been exposed; he no longer finds it necessary to actually think about what he is being shown. As a result, the lesson he has been taught will always remain superficial and will never truly penetrate his soul. Why? Because it is only through intense thought, through intellectual work and involvement that lessons are truly internalized.

    The same is true of Chanukah licht. Why a simple flame and not six- foot- tall inflatable dreidels or toy Greek soldiers marching back and forth on our front lawns? Surely the more affluent among us could have flashing lights and large-screen video presentations placed for all to see. [Sadly, some of these distinctly non-Torah based ideas have indeed begun to creep into our neighborhoods!] But why not do these things?

    Because that candle is by no means the desired end-result. The Chanukah licht are but a reminder of what we must think about. It is a light that is intended to inspire us to seek the true light of Torah and its timeless lessons. And if we take these lessons to heart – if we really think about them and dwell on them – then m’at min haor docheh harbei min hachoshech, a small amount of light is capable of driving away much darkness.

    The ability of a small candle to drive away much darkness is true in the context of human beings as well. The light that was Harav Yehosua Heschel z”l, unfortunately, no longer burns among us. However, if those of us who knew him do what our achrayus demands of us, if we internalize and reflect upon the lessons of the midos by which he lived—emes , yiras Shomayim, ahavas haTorah, and being nosei b’ol im chaveiro – then his light will continue to drive away the darkness that unfortunately surrounds us. Yehi zichro boruch.

    Rabbi Wolhendler was nifter Shabbas Kodesh Parshas Toldos of this year at the age of 58. (1953-2011). Author of the acclaimed Seforim Gufei Halachos on Hilchos Nidah, Meir Enei Chachomim on Seder Haget and Seder Chalitza, and many volumes of T’eshuvos that have yet to be published

    Rabbi Yisroel Weiss is a Dayan U’moreh Tzedek in Edison, N.J., and a Marbitz Torah in Yeshiva of Staten Island (Rabbi Feinstein).


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