by Rabbi Yaakov Feitman,
Kehillas Bais Yehudah Tzvi, Cedarhurst, N.Y.
This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is reprinted here with their permission
A vignette. A glimpse into greatness. Rav Gifter is about to leave a Bais Avel. The mourners are not Telzers. Some are even anti-Telzers, modern-Orthodox Jews. The Rosh Yeshiva begins to recite the time-honored words, indeed for most others just words. He says "Hamakom Yenachem Eschem B'soch-and his voice begins to break-Shaar Aveilei-tears begin to flow-Tzion V'yerushalayim-and he is sobbing uncontrollably. He leaves, I stay behind and it is obvious that something important has happened. An attitude has changed. People have witnessed Emes. True emotion, true yearning, true sadness, Truth itself. They have been touched by Rav Mordechai Gifter and they will never be the same.
I, too, will never be the same. From the moment I arrived in Cleveland to become Rov of the Young Israel, he was Rebbe, mentor, father and a powerful beacon of Emes as personified by Daas Torah. He kindly reminded me that he had also once been Rov of the Young Israel and understood its challenges and particular nisyonos. "Lern mit zey," he adjured, "just learn Torah with them" and everything else will fall into place. Much later I learned this lesson from his written words as well: "This is the essence of it all. One who, Chas V'shalom, has no love of Torah has no Torah at all" (Pirkei Moed, page 137). Rav Gifter was indeed the embodiment of Torah, the quintessence of Torah and he exuded total and absolute love of Torah. That love was so overpowering that no one could remain unaffected or immune to its message.
At the very creation of man, there is an allusion to the two most important aspects of his essence. The Torah uses the words Vayivra Elokim Es Ha'adam. The last letters before Adam spell out Emes. Some Rishonim see this as the mandate of man to be "a Yashran with no hint of falsehood at all." Others say, "the purpose of man's creation is to learn Torah, which is called Emes (see Shaarei Aharon 1.223). Rav Gifter apotheosized both of these Pirushim. He was the ultimate Ish Emes and he virtually breathed Torah.
An example of his Emes. A woman in Cleveland was named the "Jewish Woman of the Year" and her story was published in the following issue of the Cleveland Jewish News. A supporter of Israel, Federation upper leadership, Reform convert. All of Cleveland read the account and reacted in their own private ways. Rav Gifter wrote her the following note: "Dear Mrs. P, you are to be commended for your good works and efforts. However, it is my duty to inform you that you are not Jewish. You may find fulfillment of your obvious concern for morality and ethics by adhering to the Seven Noahide Laws. They are...Should you be sincerely interested in converting properly according to Jewish Law, please call Rabbi Feitman" (not verbatim, transcribed from memory).
When I received the phone call and realized to whom I was speaking and why, I was certain I would be dealing with an annoyed and furious woman. Instead, it became obvious that she recognized the voice of truth and integrity. The Rosh Yeshiva had asked her for no donation, wanted nothing for himself. He was simply and candidly conveying the truth. As Rabbi Avrohom Ausband shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe Riverdale related movingly in his hesped, his Mussar could cut as sharp as a knife but since everyone knew it emanated from love, it penetrated deeply and profoundly into the listener's soul.
My only difficult moment with the Rosh Yeshiva was the first time I introduced him publicly to speak in my Shul. I expressed a few personal words of gratitude for his help and guidance and welcomed "Hagaon Harav Gifter." The first 15 minutes of the Rosh Yeshiva's presentation were spent refuting the title "Gaon", explaining how ludicrous it was in reference to someone such as himself and reflecting upon the incredible yeridas hadoros which had led to even the possibility of someone speaking this way about him. Note taken, lesson learned. The title thereafter was "Harav Gifter, the Rosh Yeshiva." That he could live with and tolerate, and it was the title Harav that was the only one his tzava'ah (final testament) allowed for use on his matzeivah.
This incredible humility was fully in consonance with the Rosh Yeshiva's midas haemes. He truly saw himself as merely the transmitter of the great legacy of Telshe which he had been privileged to witness. Rav Hutner ztl used to note that Rabbi Akiva Eiger ztl never to referred to anyone as a talmid whereas the Chasam Sofer ztl did but each reflected a Torah approach and both were correct in their own way (Sefer Hazikaron, page 116, note 186). The Rosh Yeshiva ztl went even further. In the introduction to his sefer Pirkei Emunah, he writes " most of the material transcribed here is taken from what I have been privileged to share with attentive chaveirim in the Yeshiva HaKedosha." In the Rosh Yeshiva the midos of tekifus-unyielding strength when necessary-and utter modesty were not contradictory but part of the same imperative to perform the will of Hash-em. One event which many Clevelanders will never forget was a rather long dinner. When his turn arrived, the Rosh Yeshiva gave the most popular speech of the evening. "The hour is late, the evening is hot. Have a nice evening and be well." The sharp words combined many of the Rosh Yeshiva's qualities including his sharp edge, fearlessness and sense of timing. But one aspect of the brevity was surely that he felt uncomfortable imposing his own words upon a tired and weary crowd.
Although the Rosh Yeshiva was arguably the best speaker of his time-both in Yiddish and English-and he electrified many a convention and Torah gathering, it was the Yeshiva which he loved and to which he gave his life, where he was most fully at home. Arriving to speak with him, one always found him immersed in learning and "talking in learning." A Rov who came to discuss city issues or public policy first had to report on the state of limud hatorah in his Shul. "Voss lernt men?" was the question which overshadowed all politics and issues which suddenly paled before what was obviously the most important factor of all. How much Torah and in how much depth was it being studied?
A memorable insight often heard from the Rosh Yeshiva was about the power of Torah to transform everything in its proximity, even the streets themselves. The Rosh Yeshiva would refer to the posuk at the beginning of Eichah "the ways of Tzion are in mourning." The Medrash Rabbah comments that "everything seeks its purpose...the purpose of the roads was to provide a way for K'lal Yisrael to reach Yeushalayim for Pesach, Shavuos and Succos. The Matnos Kehunah and other meforshim on the Medrash Rabbah explain that the very roads themselves yearned for those joyous days of aliya l'regel. With tears in his eyes and a shuddering voice, the Rosh Yeshiva would tell of "Navraner Veg." The road where the Yeshiva Bochurim would walk up and down discussing the sugya, a difficult Rashbah, a machlokes between the K'tzos and Nesivos. Those roads, too, he said, pined away for the sweet sounds of Torah which were lost when the Nazis ym"sh destroyed the Yeshiva and the city. To the Rosh Yeshiva, the only purpose for roads or anything else in the material world for that matter was to be a venue for Torah.
Rav Gifter's devotion to Torah in its full purity was evident even before he became a Rosh Yeshiva and even to non-Jews. When he was a Rov in Waterberry, Connecticut, the Rosh Yeshiva had a cordial relationship with the local Roman Catholic priest. The community planned a reception for Stephen Wise whom many in the secular community then considered the most powerful American Jewish leader. A few days after the event, the Rosh Yeshiva met the cleric, who queried in a somewhat worried voice, " I hope you weren't offended that you weren't invited to the reception rabbi." The Rosh Yeshiva indicated that he would have had no intention of attending anyway, to which the priest responded in a relieved tone, "I told them you are a totally different kind of rabbi and should not even be bothered." The Rosh Yeshiva would conclude the story with a smiling "nor yenner galach hut farshtanen."
One of my last memories of being able to speak with the Rosh Yeshiva is also the most poignant. The Rosh Yeshiva's illness was beginning to take its horrible toll but that great soul was not allowing it to triumph. " I am grateful to Hash-em," this Gadol of the intellect and spirit declared, "because some get depressed by the disease. I am however fully b'simcha. I cannot learn as I once was able to but I can learn like a young bochur, as if everything is new."
One could only leave the room in awe of the gevurah-both the Rosh Yeshiva's and tibadel l'chaim the Rebbetzin's -in overcoming whatever came their way. For people whose eye is on Nitzchiyus, nothing temporal is of significance. When everything is measured by its relation to Torah, the ephemeral is overcome by the ethereal.
There is much more to say and to learn from Maran Harav Gifter ztl. But, in this tragic moment of his Shivah, if we are to commemorate his memory and his life as he would surely want us to, there is but one thing which we need to do. Lernen, nor lernen.