by Rabbi Nosson Scherman
Rabbi Gedalia Schorr
5671/1910 - 5739/1979
The last day of Rabbi Gedalia Schorr's life was typical of so many others, especially in his later years. It should have been a quieter day than most. The official yeshivah school year was over. Nonetheless, Rabbi Schorr had gone to the yeshivah to arrange personal favors for a few of the young people under his care. Such private favors were an essential part of his life; they had always been a major component of his broad definition of his duties and responsibilities, both as a Jew and as a Rosh Yeshivah. While there, he became engaged in an impromptu discussion that involved another of those duties and responsibilities.
Someone had sharply criticized another person. The Rosh Yeshivah responded with the calm and good humor that were his trademarks. The conversation was not pleasant; he maintained his composure with difficulty, but would not permit another human being's worth to be dragged down. Such experiences were especially taxing for him, because of the nature of the discussion and because it was characteristic of him to recognize the justice on both sides of a seemingly unbridgeable chasm...The person he defended that Sunday would never learn what had happened. Rabbi Schorr never told people what he had done for them, because they would have been embarrassed, and because he understood helping a fellow Jew as an obligation to G-d, not as a means of accumulating the IOUs on which power is built...Other yeshivah matters were brought up, and then he left for the day.
Tomorrow would have been another day; in fact, it might well have become a historic one for Torah institutions throughout the metropolitan area. Rabbi Schorr had become the acknowledged leader and principal spokesman for yeshivos in a new initiative with the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, which, if successful, could have resulted in a major victory in the constant struggle to stave off financial catastrophe for Torah education. For the next day he had called a meeting of representatives of major yeshivos with Federation officials. It was not his style to call meetings, but these institutions looked to him as the one who could best represent them. In his quiet, unassuming way - and with the characteristic shrug that said, "Couldn't you find someone better?" - he acceded. In an informal meeting on the issue with a Federation leader, his combination of Torah aristocracy, passionate sincerity, gentle wit, and winning personality had achieved a significant breakthrough. Another meeting with another key leader was to be arranged later in the week.
But that yeshivah meeting would be tomorrow. Tonight - Sunday evening, 7 Tammuz , 5739/July, 1979 - he would be at the Sheva Berachos of a talmid and his bride.
Rabbi Schorr was asked to speak. The aggravation of the day and the tension of the morrow disappeared from his consciousness as he immersed himself in the world he knew and loved best - the world of Torah. The riches of his vast treasury of knowledge would be culled for appropriate verses, passages, thoughts. Some famous speakers captivate the majority of their audiences, but generally, the greater the scholarship of an individual listener, the more unimpressed - even bored - he will be. With Rabbi Schorr the opposite was true. So quick were his thoughts, so profound his insights, so complex his tapestry, so original his ideas, so well-documented his references, so wide-ranging his allusions that only the most learned of his listeners could truly comprehend and fully appreciate his mastery of content.
At this particular Sheva Berachos, most of his listeners were Polish Chassidim of scholarly background. They could appreciate better than most his command of Sfas Emmes, Reb Tzaddok of Lublin, Maharal and the other masters whose thought Rabbi Schorr expounded and interpreted in a manner both unique and awe-inspiring...A few days before, he had spoken at the Bris Milah of the infant son of a former talmid, now a prominent yeshivah educator. Then, his most enthralled and admiring listener had been a senior Rosh Yeshivah in one of America's most distinguished Lithuanian-type yeshivos. That Rosh Yeshivah, a distinguished European talmid chacham and exponent of Mussar, unabashedly expressed his esteem for the American-trained Rabbi Schorr...
He spoke, as he always did, with his head cocked slightly to one side and his eyes closed. He seemed to shut out the world. He was communicating G-d's Torah; the orator's techniques - eye contact, voice modulation, dramatic effects - held no interest for him. He was thinking as he spoke because his brilliant mind was never at rest, adding asides and new flashes of insight. Though he eschewed rhetoric, the beauty of his thought would frequently find expression in felicity of phrase. As he spoke then, he smiled and said that forgiveness of sins on the wedding day is G-d's derashah geshank (gift) to chassan and kallah.
Delivering both these talks - at the bris and at the Sheva Berachos - must have been difficult, for he had not been well either day. But his listeners detected no weakness either time. Torah was his life, and gave him vigor. Perhaps that youthful exhilaration was G-d's gift to him, in return for the pride, glory and growth he gave the cause of Torah in this New World where people said it could never take root.
He finished his talk and sat down. The fatigue showed. The Polish-bred Rosh Yeshivah next to him expressed appreciation. A former talmid and current friend - Rabbi Schorr never learned to keep people at the arm's length that engenders awe - approached smilingly with hand extended. He had left the Beis Midrash of Torah Vodaath over twenty-five years earlier, and was now a grandfather. He shook hands with his rebbe and said, "When I hear you speak it reminds me of my yeshivah days." Rabbi Schorr smiled and said, Takeh, takeh, Emes." (Indeed, indeed. True.)
His head then fell forward. The American Torah world had lost its greatest product. World Jewry had lost one of its greatest, most well-rounded gedolim. And the still unfinished process would begin of attempting to reveal the true picture of a man who devoted much of his genius to concealing his greatness from even his closest intimates.
Years of Promise
He was born to Reb Avraham Halevi Schorr and his wife in Istrick, a Galician shtetl near Pszemiszl, in Cheshvan 5671(1910). They named him after his paternal grandfather, Gedalia, a highly respected talmid chacham and close chassid of the Sadigerer Rebbe, grandson of the holy Reb Yisrael of Rizhin. Like his father and grandfather, the young Gedalia became a diligent scholar and devout chassid. The Schorr family came to America when he was twelve years old, settling first on the Lower East Side and then moving to Williamsburg. Gedalia dedicated himself to learning with a passion that he maintained throughout his life.
On the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, when he was fifteen, he learned through the entire tractate Succah, not leaving his Gemara from morning until Maariv...For a period of over a year, he remained in an upstairs room of the family home, studying Torah without interruption. His mother, always solicitous of his study, brought him his meals. He completed several tractates that year, but he would not discuss details...From the time he reached his middle teens, it was his practice to study all through Thursday night and Friday, deliver a shiur after the evening meal to fellow mispallelim (worshipers) at the Zeirei Agudath Israel of Williamsburg, and only then go to sleep.
Word spread that in America a youngster was developing into a Torah giant of European proportions. That was astonishing and inspiring for a country where one could count the high school-level yeshivos on the fingers of one hand and still have fingers to spare. The revered Rav of Lublin, Rabbi Meier Shapiro, spent many months in the United States when Rabbi Schorr was not yet quite twenty. As was his wont, the Lubliner Rav sought out promising young men and discussed their studies with them. Of the young Gedalia Schorr he said, "He has the most brilliant mind I have come across in America, and one of the most brilliant in the world."
Freshness and Brilliance
During those formative years, he developed the all embracing range of Torah knowledge that was almost uniquely his. His lightning grasp and incisive comprehension were complemented by a phenomenal memory. Shortly before his passing, he remarked in a casual conversation to a nephew that he had not seen a certain sefer since he had learned it through at the age of nineteen. He then proceeded to quote from it as though he had seen it only yesterday. That sort of intellectual brilliance is the bane of many a genius; things come so easily to them that they seldom use their full potential. But, although he grew up at a time when the American yeshivos offered little stimulating competition, Rabbi Schorr was driven by a relentless desire to achieve Torah greatness. His mind was inquisitive, voracious, and fresh.
Always ready to praise others, pinpointing their precise area of excellence, he once said of someone, "He has the unusual ability to look at a passage of Talmud as though he had never seen it before; his approach is never stale." The same thing might have been said of himself.
Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, menahel of Torah Vodaath and the prime architect of the Yeshivah movement in America looked to Rabbi Schorr as his own successor and as one of the principle leaders of the next generation.
When Rabbi Schorr was only twenty-one years old Rabbi Mendlowitz appointed him to conduct the highest shiur in Mesivta Torah Vodaath. In later years, when Rabbi Shlomo Heiman, Rosh Yeshivah of Torah Vodaath, became ill and was unable to carry on his duties for a year and a half, Reb Shlomo asked that Rabbi Schorr replace him for the duration of the illness. Those were the years when heads would turn in Williamsburg at the sight of a tall, handsome, youthful man striding energetically down the street surrounded by others barely his junior who addressed him as "rebbe" while peppering him with questions on the day's shiur.
A Man of Here and Now
Despite his scholastic achievements and the awe in which he was held by people two generations older, he was never a cloistered, other-worldly figure.
In Williamsburg, like other American Jewish communities of yesteryear, most Jews confined Shabbos to the mothballs with the other family heirlooms. Rabbi Schorr and another young man would prepare makeshift platforms of milk boxes or garbage cans on Friday afternoons at the corner of Lee Avenue and Hewes Street. On Shabbos, Rabbi Schorr would mount the platform and speak in Yiddish in behalf of the Holy Shabbos, followed by his colleague who spoke in English.
Although Rabbi Schorr was the teacher, acknowledged talmid chacham and prime spiritual force of the Williamsburg Zeirei during those years, he was not above sweeping and mopping the shul on Friday afternoons when it was his turn...And when Rabbi Shlomo Heiman was coming to America with his Rebbetzin to become Rosh Yeshivah of Torah Vodaath, Rabbi Mendlowitz assigned Rabbi Schorr the task of finding and furnishing a suitable apartment for them.
In the 1930's, Rabbi Schorr had reached the virtual zenith of his profession. Still in his twenties, he was a leading Rosh Yeshivah in the western hemisphere's premier Torah institution. But that sort of "making it" was not his goal. His definition of "success" was constant striving to grow in Torah and fear of G-d. He had met many European Roshei HaYeshivah who had been forced to raise funds in America for their impoverished institutions and destitute students, heard their lectures, and spoken with them; but he was most attracted to Rabbi Aharon Kotler. Soon after his marriage to Shifra Isbee in 1938, Rabbi Schorr left Torah Vodaath, accompanied by his wife, to study in Kletzk under Reb Aharon.
By the standards of Kletzk - without indoor plumbing and other rudimentary necessities of any American hovel - the Schorrs were well-to-do. Rebbetzin Schorr had to use water pumped up from an outdoor well like everyone else, but at least she and her husband had mattresses to sleep on! To his distress, Rabbi Schorr discovered that the family of his rebbe, Reb Aharon, slept on straw. That, the young Rosh Yeshivah-turned-student could not tolerate, so he dipped into his meager savings to purchase mattresses for Reb Aharon and the Rebbetzin. For the rest of his life, Rabbi Schorr considered Reb Aharon his rebbe. On his desk at home he kept Reb Aharon's picture...During 1940, when the Kletzker Rosh Yeshivah was making his way through Siberia to Japan and finally to the United States, he corresponded with Rabbi Schorr, relying on him to secure visas, papers, and tickets for his arrival in America. The letters and documents of those harrowing months are still in the possession of the Schorr family.
Reb Aharon had described Rabbi Schorr as the first American gadol, and it was not an empty appellation. He respected him and consulted him. Once Reb Aharon suffered severe intestinal pain and consulted three well-known specialists. Upon returning home from the last doctor, while taking off his hat and coat, he said to the confidant who had arranged the appointments, "Call Rav Schorr, I must discuss this with him. Er hot nit nor a gutte kop, nor a glatte kop (Not only does he have a good head, but he has a clear, logical mind)."
The Roots in Rizhin
During the Succos and Pesach that he spent in Europe, Rabbi Schorr experienced his family's Chassidic roots. He spent one Pesach seder at the table of Reb Moshe'niu Boyaner of Cracow, a scion of the Rizhiner dynasty. He was a widely renowned talmid chacham; chassidim came to him as a rebbe and misnagdim came to him for his Torah. Rabbi Schorr was deeply moved by that seder; undoubtedly it influenced his own family sedorim, occasions that formed indelible memories of seriousness, joy, and uplift to all who were present.
He met his relatives in little Istrick, among them his mother's brother Yitzchak, who died later that year and whom he described as an unusual gaon...He heard more about a dayan concerning whom his mother had spoken, a man who had written a brilliant commentary on K'tzos Hachoshen, and of whom it was said, "When he serves as town dayan, no one can believe he is a chassid; and when he sits humbly at his rebbe's tisch in Chortkov, no one can believe he is a great talmid chacham." Perhaps Rabbi Schorr was inspired by that description; certainly it could have been applied to him as well.
Powerful influences came to play on him that year. They reinforced his convictions and aspirations: there must be an uncompromising dedication to rigorous growth in Torah scholarship; public acclaim is a dangerous chimera that can impede, but never advance one's personal growth; a moment is too precious to waste; each fellow Jew is part of one's own being and destiny...His road toward G-d's service had been charted by Reb Aharon and by the Rizhiner Chassidus particularly its Sadigura branch.
The War Years
When the war broke out, Rabbi Schorr returned to his teaching position in Torah Vodaath and simultaneously began a parallel chapter of his life. Europe's Jewry was on the brink of destruction, while in America little was being done to save it. The Williamsburg Zeirei at 616 Bedford Avenue became a beehive of hatzalah work. Funds, food packages, immigration affidavits, intervention with Washington - every possible avenue was pursued, and thousands of lives were saved, thanks to the work of the idealistic, unselfish young activists of 616. The leader of the hatzalah work was Reb Elimelech "Mike" Tress; and the spiritual leader of the Zeirei, and of Mike, was Rabbi Schorr. Close friends, they gave one another inspiration and support, each in his own way.
Scores of people still remember the Shabbos when Rabbi Schorr received a report about exterminations and the need for rescue efforts. He spoke to the minyan during the services until every single person there was weeping, and determined to give first priority to rescue work...On a sub-freezing January Shabbos he walked from Williamsburg to Boro Park to make an appeal. He arrived, numb and frozen but the freezing in the ghettos was worse, so he came...He owned one personal treasure: a Vilna Shas that he had purchased in Europe several years earlier. He sold it for $80, which he contributed to the rescue effort.
In later years, he refused to discuss his wartime hatzalah work. To the pleadings of his children to tell them he would reply as he did to similar requests:
The Rizhiner used to say that G-d is zochair nishkachos - He remembers what is forgotten: He remembers what we forget. If we forget our sins, as though they had never occurred, He will remember them. If we forget the bit of good we have done and think instead of how we must still perfect ourselves, He will remember our accomplishments. What is remembered below is forgotten Above. What is forgotten below is remembered Above.
A Torah-Based Compassion
Rabbi Schorr combined...compassion for the suffering of an individual with a strong sense of community - not simply as a matter of extended sensitivity or warm emotions, but rather from a fully-rounded conception of the Torah's demands upon him as a Jew - as teacher, leader, husband, father, and member of Klal Yisrael. He acted as a Jew fulfilling G-d's mission to serve others -- with or without their request or even their knowledge - helping even those who had abused his friendship and good nature.
- As teacher, Rabbi Schorr went with impoverished students to purchase Pesach outfits for them. He often expressed surprised disappointment at the idea that a rebbe had no obligation to tend to the personal needs of his students.
- Twenty-eight years before his passing, he secretly arranged for a successful professional man to "happen to pass by" the store owned by people whose son was a promising high school senior in Torah Vodaath. The boy hoped to remain in the yeshivah, but his parents wanted him to leave for college. Rabbi Schorr felt that a layman could more effectively influence the parents than a Rosh Yeshivah. The visit was successful, but, because he had promised to remain silent, the emissary told no one of his mission until after Rabbi Schorr died. Only then did the former student, now a noted Torah educator, learn of the incident.
- Rabbi Schorr was traveling with a professor who had no yeshivah background but who attended a Daf Yomi session every morning. The professor had not been able to attend his shiur, and was attempting to learn the daf on the train. Rabbi 'Schorr asked, "Would you mind if we learned together? I didn't learn today's daf yet, either." Recalling the trip, the professor says, "He surely didn't need me, but he knew I was struggling, so he gave up his time to teach me a blatt Gemara, and made me feel that I was doing him a favor."
- Students often needed help in arranging suitable matches, finding positions, and solving myriad other problems - professional, personal, emotional, and financial. He was always ready to help with advice, a telephone call, and personal intervention. Many of those who eulogized him were former students who are now at the top of their professions. A common thread in their appreciations, and in the private conversations of many hundred others, was that he was like a father. One distinguished rabbi, who lost his own mother shortly after Rabbi Schorr's passing, likened the two in terms of his sense of personal loss.
- When the beloved cook of Bais Medrash Elyon, Reb Leib Apfeldorfer, passed away, Rabbi Schorr was one of those who escorted the niftar to Kennedy Airport to be taken to Eretz Yisrael for burial. Rabbi Schorr was shocked to learn that the niftar was to remain on a cargo truck unattended until loaded onto the plane by non-Jews. He asked for permission to stay in the truck but was told that El Al security guards ran flashlights across the truck bed when it reached the plane and were authorized to shoot if they came across anyone without clearance, For a suitable "consideration," however, the driver would park the truck so that people with the coffin would not be seen - provided they lie flat on the floor, So the elderly Rosh Yeshivah climbed into the truck with three students, and set aside his dignity for the more glorious task of paying a final honor to a man who had served the yeshivah with loyalty and dedication.
All of these incidents are typical of the man's mind and heart, as is the fact that they were done quietly or secretly.
His Influence as Rebbi
He was appointed menahel of Torah Vodaath in 1948 and began functioning as Rosh Yeshivah in 1958, delivering weekly shiurim in Bais Medrash Elyon. Even when he was not formally teaching, however, his greatest satisfaction was as a rebbi. Throughout his long tenure as menahel and Rosh Yeshivah, he was conscious of the need to broaden the Torah horizons of American yeshivah students, so he made a point of teaching subjects that were outside of the regular yeshivah curriculum. In Talmud, for example, he gave late afternoon classes in tractate Mikvaos or in the complex "Reb Chaninah S'gan HaKohanim (Pesachim 14a-21a), which are invariably omitted from the yeshivah curriculum.
His greatest impact on American-Torah life, however, came from his horizon-stretching classes and lectures in hashkafah/perspective. He regularly taught Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto's Derech Hashem to Beis Midrash students. Many students attended voluntary classes in Kuzari; often he would return to the yeshivah for late-night sessions in other limudim (topics), to accommodate the schedules of interested students. For many years, he taught Chumash every morning. Those half-hour classes were classic examples of his mastery of text and commentaries. He would offer major interpretations, spicing them with incisive elucidations and relevant asides. It was not uncommon for him to cite fifteen or twenty sources in a single half-hour class - all important to a clear understanding of the text. The pace was quick, the content tightly reasoned, the manner, like much of his speaking and teaching, had a lightness and ease that belied its penetrating depth. He had a way of choosing the essence of a commentary as it related to textual interpretation, and of categorizing each thought - whether as basic, as a witty aside (a "vitz"), or as any number of in-between varieties of elucidation.
Seeing the Shiur - Live
His regular weekly and pre-holiday shmuessen were dazzling. The reaction of any seasoned scholar who heard him for the first time was invariably one of awe that so much could be compressed into so brief a time: "There is enough content in one shmuess to provide someone else with material for five difficult one-hour lectures." Scriptural verses, Midrash, Ramban, Maharal, Sfas Emes, Reb Tzaddok - commentator after commentator, with one verbatim quote after another, streamed forth.
So casual was his style and so involved was he with the ideas he was developing, that the uninitiated thought he spoke without preparation. No, the preparation was there - not only a lifetime of intense study, but forethought for the particular talk. But as he spoke, new flashes of brilliance came to mind. He would often smile at a new thought, sometimes share the thoughts with his audience, sometimes not - and always punctuate his remarks with a touch of wry humor.
He was a perfect illustration of one of his major themes. He often cited Mabit, Reb Tzaddok, and others who explain that the reason it was forbidden the commit the Oral Law to writing was because paper cannot capture the living process of a teacher transmitting knowledge through the agency of his personality. The essence of a human being cannot be put on paper; the transcription of his words can never adequately capture the soul which is part of the teaching process. For those who lived through a learning experience with Rabbi Schorr, the best illustration of the concept is the mere thought of seeing his words on paper robbed of the sight and sound of his unique delivery, the total sincerity of his demand that b'nei Torah not be satisfied with "getting by," the eloquent expression that the study of Torah is the utmost privilege...To those who had the wisdom to hear him rather than merely sit before him, those memories are an Oral Torah to which no pen can do justice.
Planting the Seeds
He often spoke of z'riah, planting. "The deeds of the Patriarchs were like seeds planted in antiquity that bore fruit in their posterity...The Psalmist sings of 'light implanted for the tzaddik,' representing the idea that spiritual illumination does not come and disappear like a flash of lightning; it takes root in a suitable host and continuously grows within him, producing ever higher levels of spiritual accomplishment." Rabbi Schorr's students of a generation ago still reap the benefits of ideas and thought-processes that he implanted within them. The spiritual seeds seemed to be esoteric and incomprehensible, even tedious, when first they were presented, but after constant nurturing, they took root imperceptibly and produced rich crops that continue to be replanted and reharvested.
His effectiveness as leader of a yeshivah seemed to suffer because harshness was foreign to his nature, and students often respond better to the fear of punishment or displeasure than to emotional or intellectual appeal. Nevertheless, his gentle and sincere blend of heart and mind molded students in quiet ways that they frequently recognized only later, as adults, when in positions of community or family leadership.
There is a common denominator among them that, upon honest analysis, can be attributed to his influence - scholarship with a breadth as well as a depth...that Sfas Emes--Reb Tzaddok approach to Judaism...informality and friendliness...humor aimed at helping rather than hurting...reluctance to accept honors...gentle mocking of the perquisites of position...dedication to Lithuanian lomdus and Chassidic warmth, joy, and introspection...a sense of responsibility and generosity.
Elevating One's Goals
Many young people face the difficult choice between dedicating their lives to Torah study and education, and turning to more lucrative careers in secular life. As Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Schorr's opinion was important to many. Typically he would say:
G-d says, I have separated you from the nations to be Mine (Vayikra 20:26), to which Rashi comments that if Jews are separate from the nations, they are G-d's people; but if they do not hold themselves unique, they will be prey to Nevuchadnezzar and his ilk. Our essential goal cannot be only to avoid the massacres of Nevuchadnezzar. Rather, it is to fulfill the mission for which we were chosen. The question is not whether the world requires doctors, lawyers, accountants, bricklayers, and mechanics. It does. But we were designated to be G-d's nation - the nation of the Torah. And each individual yeshivah student must recognize that it is his privilege as well as his responsibility to live up to his role as one of those whom G-d wishes to be His.
Such was his emphasis. Students should elevate their own sights, not denigrate others. The goal of the yeshivah was to instill a dedication to Torah study because it made its adherents closer to G-d, not because it is impossible to be a Torah Jew in the professions or business. He was pained by the polarization that began to cause a cleavage between those who chose to be exclusively in G-d's service, and those who sought to keep a foot in the outside world even while maintaining their primary allegiance to the beis midrash. The result of his efforts was imbuing some with heightened aspirations based on a perception of the greatness of Torah, while causing others not to feel alienated despite their choices of careers in other areas.
In the same elevating manner, he urged talmidim to study with all their strength and concentration as well as with all available time: "Learning half the time with full concentration is better than learning all the time with half concentration, because the latter is not truly learning." And: "How can a bachur yawn? Torah study demands interest and enthusiasm; then, there can be no yawning boredom." He would cite the Talmudic passage interpreting the Scriptural verse that describes Benayahu ben Yehoyada as having killed a lion on a snowy day. The Talmud comments homiletically that Benayahu studied all of Toras Kohanim in a short, wintry day. Rabbi Schorr noted the comparison between a man in battle and a scholar taking on a difficult study. "Just as a man fighting a lion, especially in the cold, slippery winter, must give the fray his total concentration, so must a Torah scholar dedicate himself totally in order to emerge victorious in his struggle to master Torah."
Surely, too, it was no accident that ten years earlier in Bais Medrash Elyon (in Monsey) a group of his students unobtrusively organized an all year, around-the-clock learning schedule so that people were studying in the beis midrash every hour of the day and night. Or that among the significant number who studied all of Thursday night until dawn, some were sure to be at the minyan Friday morning, in response to his insistence that greatness in Torah must never be purchased by the negation of tefillah or other responsibilities.
The Other Role
As the numbers of kollel candidates grew, so grew the financial burdens of yeshivos. Now that the struggle to gain allegiance to the kollel concept had been won, how could young men be told that their yeshivos could not provide even the minimal kollel stipend? Rabbi Schorr began to take increasing personal responsibility for financial matters - first the part of the Bais Medrash Elyon Kollel then the yeshivah's dining room; finally for the Torah Vodaath Kollel in Brooklyn. This voluntary acceptance of obligations was characteristic of the rebbe who had felt it his duty to buy Pesach suits for his students, and sell his Shas to help Jews trapped in Europe.
In 1952, he dispatched a group of Torah Vodaath students to help found an out-of-town yeshivah. When the yeshivah was in a state of financial collapse and could not provide for the personal needs of the students, Rabbi Schorr took a personal loan of $3800 for the institution. It took him three years to repay the debt from his own limited salary...Scores of Kollel fellows and yeshivah students received personal checks from him when institutional budgets could not fulfill their obligations. The extent of these private generosities and personal debts incurred to cover institutional responsibilities is unknown. After his passing, however, a drawerful of stale yeshivah checks was found in his desk; he had covered them for others with his own borrowed funds.
To the public at large, Rabbi Schorr was the Torah genius and educator; but he played another role that, especially in the last decade, made him one of the most important Torah personalities in the country. He had increasingly become one of those men to whom people turned for guidance and leadership in matters of the utmost gravity. One colleague in AARTS (Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools) said, "When a new problem arose - one to which we had not yet formulated an approach - he was suggesting solutions when the rest of us had still not fully assimilated all aspects of the problem. His grasp and power of analysis were phenomenal."
When he was confronted with a responsibility, he would not shirk it. Often he attended meetings when he was ill. Turning aside inquiries about his haggard appearance with a joke, he participated actively while only his closest friends knew that he was not at his best. So much had his presence come to be appreciated at such gatherings, that key meetings were not scheduled unless he was available.
What was so unique about him? One major figure in the Torah world, a person who has been at the center of decision making for decades, put it this way: "He was a gaon in both Nigleh (revealed Torah) and in Nistar (the hidden Torah). What is more, he had a wealth of stories about, and insights into, the great Torah leaders of past generations. He scrutinized a situation through the eyes of Torah and its perspective of history. To say that he was a genius is to tell only part of the story. He was a Torah genius who combined everything that was needed to make life and death decisions."
A Committed Agudist
It was because of this same all-embracing perspective that he was a conscious, committed Agudist. His mind encompassed Agudath Israel as a logical and essential outgrowth of the Jewish past. Agudath Israel can be regarded as a necessary vehicle in today's organized, politicized society; or as a means to make honest and dignified use of availability of public funds; or as a means to rally the community behind the banner of Torah; or as a means to propagate the ideology of Gedolei HaTorah. While it is surely all of these, such considerations are but transitory. Rabbi Schorr saw Agudath Israel as he did everything else: in terms of Israel's historic role. Because he was a Torah genius, he could understand the motives of those Torah geniuses who had conceived Agudath Israel at Kattowitz (1912), and brought it to fruition at Vienna (1922). In two presentations at/his latest Agudah conventions - once projecting a Torah-view of Agudah, the other time delivering an appreciation of the late Gerrer Rebbe - he painted broad strokes beginning at Sinai and going through the ages. Seen through his eyes, neither Agudath Israel nor its leaders represented mere tactics or tacticians. They were worthy of allegiance and sacrifice because they were the bearers of a mission developed by analysis of Scripture, Chazal and commentaries. Because Rabbi Schorr saw Agudah in those terms, he was a loyal Agudist. The organization had value because it was an expression of Torah's eternity, so it was his organization.
Greatness: Its Hallmark and its Mask
An examination of his public career reveals one characteristic that was at once a stamp of greatness and its mask. Call it modesty, call it self-effacement, call it disinterest in fame - whatever its name, he displayed a total disregard for the minimal marks of status with apparent indifference to his position on a program or at a dais, the honor accorded him at a wedding or a bris; what did it matter whether or not he received personal credit, as long as G-d was served, the community benefited, and an individual uplifted? It was thus all too easy to think that because he put his friendly arm around a shoulder and was a friend, that he need be treated merely as a friend. Indeed, such was his wish; but it often resulted in many of us not recognizing his greatness, and as a result we may well have deprived ourselves and our communities of the benefits of his greatness.
It was said of the Chofetz Chaim that his piety was so great that it obscured his scholarship. And it was said of Reb Chaim Brisker that his scholarship was so great that it obscured his piety. Of Rabbi Schorr we may justly say that his brilliance was so dazzling that it obscured his dedication to study; and his humility was so profound that it obscured his greatness.
Perhaps he wrote his own epitaph. Many years ago, he made the one and only notation he ever wrote in his copy of Sfas Emes. It was on one of the last pieces of Chukas, the sidrah of his passing. All he wrote were the words HaPeleh Vafeleh - truly amazing with reference to this thought:
Zos HaTorah: Adam ki yamus ba'ohel - the Torah associates dedicated Torah study with purity from the contamination of death. Just as Torah brings purity, so each Jewish soul - which is a microcosmic part of Torah - brings life, and hence purity, to the otherwise lifeless and impure clod which is the body. Every word and letter of the Torah has within it the capacity to give life to the dead - but we do not know how to utilize that capacity.
Rabbi Schorr's life gave added purity to a continent. It provided a precedent and set a standard. If we take for granted America's capacity to produce Torah greatness, if Chassidic youths study Lithuanian lomdus in machshavos haTorah, in good measure it is because the Divine plan placed him in America to bequeath it his capacity for life.
A Talmid Remembers
Second seder had just come to an end in Torah Vodaath. I had arranged to tutor someone at the other end of Flatbush in less than half an hour. It was a lovely day in Tammuz, and if I started to walk, I would just make it. Then I heard a familiar voice from behind: "Walk me home, Shmuel, and we'll have a shmuess on the way." I turned around to face Rabbi Gedalia Schorr, who extended to me his usual heart-warming smile. I would walk the Rosh Yeshivah home, then take a taxi to my destination. It would be worth it.
Why had the Rosh Yeshivah chosen me? In truth, he was friendly to anyone who approached him. I noticed this from the first day that I entered the yeshivah, five years ago. Since then I often took the opportunity to speak with him in Torah and hashkafah. Before long, he extended me an invitation to his home for Shabbos - and it soon became a steady invitation. He was accessible to anyone; one merely had to take the initiative.
And what Shabbosos they were! The Rosh Yeshivah would constantly cite the Gemara: G-d said, "I have a wonderful gift in My treasure house, and 'Shabbos' is its name" (Shabbos 10b), pointing out that the Shabbos remains in the confines of the Ribbono Shel Olam. The gift is the elevation the Jew experiences to enable him to partake of this celestial Shabbos. Indeed, such was the atmosphere at the Rosh Yeshivah's home on Shabbos. I'll never forget the first time I heard him sing his soul-stirring niggun for "Kol mekadesh," With his eyes closed, his concentration and deveikus increased from one moment to the next. With the words "Yom kadosh hu (It is a sacred day)," his intensity peaked, and he repeated them over and over again, as if unable to part with the kedushah of the Shabbos that these words represented.
"Say a dvar Torah," the Rebbetzin would implore. "Say something on the parshah." The Rosh Yeshivah would lift his head with an expression of genuine humility: "A za shvere parshah, vus ken ich zogen (Such a difficult portion. What can I say?)" He would offer a short dvar Torah, and then begin another niggun. But many times the Rebbetzin would not be intimidated, and she would insist on more. And then the well-springs of Torah and chachmah (wisdom) would begin to flow. Meshech Chachmah, Sfas Emes, Pri Tzaddik, - how these sefarim would radiate when the Rosh Yeshivah expounded on their contents! And yet most of the conversation was casual in nature. The Rosh Yeshivah was tactfully able to lead a conversation that suited the interests of his guests. And he retained the Shabbos spirit regardless of the topic of conversation.
And then there were the "special Shabbosos," when talmidei chachamim would grace his table. I would witness a remarkable scene: Shas, rishonim, poskim and sifrei machshavah - all sorts of sources would flow, with the greatest mastery, while the serenity of the Shabbos prevailed throughout.
I recall one such Shabbos in particular when the entire conversation of both seudos was saturated with scholarly Torah discussions between the Rosh Yeshivah and one of his guests. Just before bentching the Rosh Yeshivah became pensive, and then he smiled saying, "I recall a ma'aseh from the Rizhiner:
Once after Yom Kippur, the Rizhiner announced that he was prepared to tell anyone what he had prayed for on the Yom Kippur, and also how the Beis Din Shel Ma'aloh (Heavenly Court) received these prayers. None of the Chassidim had the audacity to "test" the Rebbe, but one person, not a Chassid, challenged the Rebbe. The Rizhiner closed his eyes, and began, "You are a fine Torah scholar, and in your youth you learnt with great diligence. Recently, however, family responsibilities have forced you into business, and you're perturbed that you no longer can afford long stretches of uninterrupted study and prayer. You implored G-d to grant you success in your business so you might once again immerse yourself in Torah and tefillah."
The man was visibly shaken by the accuracy of the Rizhiner's statement, and meekly asked, "And what was the verdict of the Beis Din Shel Ma'aloh?"
The Rizhiner solemnly proceeded, "The Beis Din Shel Ma'aloh declared that although your undisturbed Torah and Tefillah was a great accomplishment, G-d has greater nachas ruach (pleasure) from the effort you exert to learn despite difficulties. "
The Rosh Yeshivah concluded with tears in his eyes, "Who can say for sure who in Klal Yisrael gives G-d a greater nachas ruach!" . . .
Our walk together finally came to an end. The Rosh Yeshivah invited me to come in to his home for refreshment, but I excused myself, explaining my commitment. He apologized, "If I had known, I would not have let you walk me." I assured him that it was my decision and ultimately my gain, and I turned to leave. The Rosh Yeshivah then called me again, "Shmuel, wait another moment. I heard an interesting ma'aseh. You know that the Sadegerer Rebbe (fifth generation from the Rizhiner) was recently niftar in Israel. A few days ago I met someone who was present the night of his passing. He recounted that in the middle of the night the Rebbe awoke and asked for a glass of water. The Rebbe made a 'Shehakol'; lay back down to sleep, and in a few moments returned his neshamah to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Sefarim say that a tzaddik who lives his entire life with a vibrant emunah that everything that transpires is by the word of G-d, merits that his last words testify to just that: 'Shehakol nehiye bidvaro - all exists by His word.' "
There was a shadow of envy in the Rosh Yeshivah's eyes, a longing for that madreigah (level) of living...and passing. The Rosh Yeshivah paused for a moment then quickly smiled and waved me on.
A few days later, I was standing in the Torah Vodaath Beis Midrash waiting for the hespeidim (eulogies) to begin. I could not believe what had transpired. Hundreds of memories rushed through my mind, but my thoughts kept reverting back to my last encounter with the Rosh Yeshivah. What had he meant by his last words to me? Then I reminded myself of a story he had once told me:
A talmid of the Rizhiner was with the Rebbe before Shalosh Seudos. The Rizhiner casually asked him, "Can I be yotzeh with peiros (fulfill my obligation - i.e., to eat the third Shabbos meal - with fruits)?"
The talmid quickly cited the halachah that this was permissible. The Rizhiner remained silent and suddenly the talmid realized that the Rebbe was hinting at his forthcoming passing from the world, whereby his children ('peiros') would take' his place. "No, Rebbe!" the talmid protested, "the world still needs you!" But it was too late. The Rebbe sighed, "But they are very good peiros."
Can the talmid be blamed for not realizing immediately the implication of the Rebbe's words? No. Even had he understood them, would it have made a difference? G-d counts the days tzaddikim must stay in this world, and when the time is up, He calls them back to Himself . . . Zechuso Yagen Aleinu.