Today is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Yisrael Zev Gustman Zt”l (1908-1991); Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Netzach Yisrael Ramailles, located in the Rechavia section of Yerushalayim.
I miss him.
When I first met Rav Gustman in 1979 he was the embodiment of the true Litvishe Rosh Yeshiva.
He had lived in Vilna, the headquarters of Litvishe Jewry.
His appearance was somewhat disheveled as if the need to make sure his tie was ‘just right’ was not priority number one on his daily agenda.
What most impressed me about the man was that he was so ‘real’.
I can recall his davening; it was total concentration and total absorption in his communication to Hashem.
He wore the squared and elevated Litvishe Rosh Yeshiva Yarmulke worn by Rav Schach and Rav Moshe Feinstein Zichronom L’Brocha; it added to his image of being a vestige and remnant of a world which no longer existed.
When he would give Shiur, I was shocked by those who would attend the Shiur.
The Shiur took place on Thursday and lasted about two to three hours; among those who attended was Yisrael Aumann a Nobel Prize Laureate and professor at the Hebrew University.
There were many in attendance who wore Kippot Serugot (knitted yarmulkes) and many with black fedora; many with long Chassidishe peyos and many with business suits and even those who were moderately observant.
They came for two reasons; primarily to hear Torah at its best; Torah from a man who was a member of the Beis Din of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski at the age of 22.
There was no fluff here; this was the real thing.
Deep, incisive and profound, heard from someone who had absorbed the depth and profundity of Torah in his mother’s milk; someone who had seen and spoken to Rav Shimon Shkop, Rav Chaim Ozer and Chofetz Chaim.
Although the Shiur took place in Rechavia, as soon as Rav Gustman began speaking we were all back in Vilna, where nothing in the world mattered except for Torah and the understanding of the sugya.
The intensity of his intellectual exertion was compellingly evident for all to see.
However, there was another perhaps equally important reason that they came to Rav Gustman.
That was because he was real.
He never noticed what yarmulke you wore or what political party you were affiliated with.
If you were there to learn Torah you were on his team; what you wore on your head was about as important to Rav Gustman as how many sugars you took in your coffee.
He treated all of us the same.
When I would timidly approach him I can still recall -as I looked into his awe-inspiring countenance- I would begin to shudder and quake. Looking at him was for me was looking at Rav Chaim Ozer and the Vilna Gaon.
However, he patiently allowed me to compose myself as I stuttered through my question.
I davened and learned there quite often as it was a five minute walk from my uncle’s home and I loved the atmosphere in the Beis Medrash.
One day I noticed that there was no kitchen in the yeshiva and I innocently asked someone, “Where is the kitchen; don’t the bochurim have food?”
I was told that next door is a retirement home and Rav Gustman pays the home to supply meals from their kitchen. As the yeshiva was on the small side, not more than a few dozen students, the arrangement worked well.
As I acclimated to Yerushalayim I also learned that there were ‘hechsehrim’ (kosher certifications) which some ate from and others which they did not eat from.
Innocently I mentioned to someone in the yeshiva that I was somewhat surprised that the yeshiva took its meals from the local old age home as it did not have one of the ‘well-accepted hechsehrim’, rather it ‘just’ has a local hechsher of the Jerusalem Rabbinate.
The Bochur looked at me and said to me,
“When the yeshiva began Rav Gustman looked into the hechsher and found it to be acceptable and he concluded the arrangement for food to be delivered and went back to his learning.
One day when we were all leaving for the lunch break we saw a group of young men talking to Rav Gustman.
As we never saw these men before and we imagined they were talking in “Torah” we hung around to listen in.
One of the young men said to Rav Gustman,
“We noticed you are allowing that food is being brought into the yeshiva with a hechsher we do not accept. Please switch to a different supplier with our hechsher and if you do so we will ‘reward’ you with honor and ‘kavod’ as we will add your name to our rabbinical board and your name will appear on all of our broadsides and public statements.
However, I am sorry to say that if you do not agree, we will be forced to publicly humiliate you and add your name to the list of those rabbis whose names are plastered on signs and proclamations hung all over the city publicizing their laxity in mitzvohs.
Rav Gustman, certainly you do not need humiliation; and of course we all need honor.”
We as bochurim were astounded by the audacity and arrogance of the young men. However, Rav Gustman was not fazed. He looked at the young men in the eyes and said the following.
“Kinderlach, (children) let me tell you a little bit about Kavod and humiliation. When I was twenty two years old there was a rabbinical meeting in Vilna. I was delayed and arrived ten minutes late. As I walked into the room to my shock and to the surprise of all who were there, as soon as I entered the room Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the undisputed prince of Torah Jewry stood up for me. As soon as he stood the entire Rabbinate of Vilna stood up for me. Whatever Kavod you can promise can never compare to the honor I received that day in Vilna.
And if you are talking about humiliation, let me tell you about what happened just a few years later in the same city of Vilna.
I had one son in my life; he was the apple of my eye and his name was Meirke.
When Meir was just four years old the Nazis found my hiding spot.
I grabbed Meir and held him in my hands to protect him.
However, the cruel and sadistic Nazis beat the child while in my arms until his blood flowed like water all over my body.
When the Nazis were convinced he was dead they pushed me into a pile of manure with my dead son.
I buried him with my own hands and removed his shoes, cleaned off the blood and traded his little shoes for food for my wife and surviving daughter.
Do you know what it is to barter your dead son’s shoes for food?
Do you know what humiliation it is to be thrown into a dung heap with your murdered son?
Kinderlach, I have experienced more Kavod than you can ever give me and have suffered more humiliation than you can ever heap on me.
So I will continue to take food from the local facility with the local hechsher and you will do what you will do.
Now please excuse me because for five years during the war I never saw a Sefer so I have still had a lot of learning to make up for.”
Rav Gustman turned and went back to his shtender and to the only world he knew, the one of Toras Emes- the world of Torah and of truth.”
That is why I miss him.
“If Not Now, Then When?”- Hillel
Ron Yitzchok Eisenman, Rabbi, Congregation Ahavas Israel, Passaic, NJ
– Rafi’s Note: I never had the privilege to have met R’ Gustman but from what I hear he was an extraordinary person.