I REMEMBER sitting outside at the top of a walkway, sandwiched between our apartment building (number 108) and a local yeshiva (Beis Hatalmud). This was in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sanhedria Murchevet, in about 1976. I was working on a Hebrew, halachic exposition.
It seemed perfectly natural to be doing this in the open air, rather than in the more customary location, the study hall in the yeshiva.
As I was sitting there, Rav Dov Schwartzman walked by. He was the head of the yeshiva next door. He waved in a friendly way — he knew what I was working on.
It seemed perfectly natural for a yeshiva dean to be taking a stroll in the open air and waving at a student sitting there, rather than trying to hustle him inside the yeshiva.
There were many things that seemed perfectly natural about Rav Dov Schwartzman and only now, in the aftermath of his recent passing at age 91, I realize they were anything but.
It seemed perfectly natural that every week, at the onset of Shabbos, he would deliver a deep discourse on Psalm 92 (“A psalm, a song for the Sabbath day”).
It never dawned on me that the ability to see something wholly new, week after week and year after year, in the exact same text, reflected a unique intellect and a special awareness of Shabbos.
It seemed perfectly natural that when Rav Schwartzman raised funds abroad and was away for weeks or months at a time, the likes of Rabbis Benjamin Zilber or Shalom Shwadron (the “Maggid of Jerusalem”) would take his place, stepping in to address, inspire and admonish his students.
It never dawned on me that for people of the caliber of Rabbis Zilber and Shwadron to act as substitutes, and (in at least one case) without remuneration, was a show of immense respect for Rav Schwartzman.
It seemed perfectly natural that when I requested a personal meeting with Rav Schwartzman, I did not need to go through secretaries or attendants, and did not need to wait more than a day.
It never dawned on me that this mentor to thousands, with a huge budget to cover and a large family to attend to, might have been too busy for a neighbor who, after all, was not even a formal student in his yeshiva.
NONE of this dawned on me because of the way Rav Schwartzman conducted himself generally, and to me particularly.
At our meeting, there were no phone calls or other interruptions. But more — far more — Rav Schwartzman understood exactly why I had come, exactly who I was and related to me on my level.
There are gifted people who can step out of their own shoes to see the world from someone else’s perspective. For most such gifted people, you see them working at making the change, the mental adjustment. Yes, they live in one world but have the capacity to step out of it, just for you; but you see them taking the step.
Rav Dov was different.
You saw nothing.
There was nothing.
No mental adjustment.
He wasn’t living in one world, then stepping out of it in order to come into yours. He was not a social worker, rebbe or therapist.
He was just with you.
Just like that.
He didn’t “put you at ease.”
Simply, you were comfortable, as if you were speaking to your best friend.
I remember what we spoke about at that meeting. It was just after I had been tested for rabbinic ordination, and I wanted to review certain points with him.
(That was another thing. It seemed perfectly natural to assume that whatever topic in Torah was brought up, Rav Dov would be completely at home in it. It never dawned on me that there were perhaps not more than 10 people in the world with his level of Talmudic mastery.)
I remember that Rav Dov gently urged me to write a book, a sefer, on concepts in certain chapters of the Yoreh De’ah section of the Code of Jewish Law. This vision was higher than my reach. Yet, evidently, he planted a seed, which, somehow, 30 years later, came to fruition.
When I wanted to go back and thank him, I learned, to my everlasting pain, and my searing regret that I had not acted sooner, that Rav Dov was stricken. This giant intellect could no longer discourse with me.
DOES a great story about a person enlarge or diminish him? “If it’s truly a great story, then, of course, it enlarges him,” you might respond instinctively.
A story about Rav Dov:
There was an Arab loose in Sanhedria Murchevet with a gun. One of the Arab workers in Rav Dov’s yeshiva was afraid to venture out, lest he be arrested or attacked as the suspect.
This was Yom Kippur.
Rav Dov personally escorted the Arab worker from the yeshiva all the way to the Old City of Jerusalem, on foot, until this Arab was safe. This was a trek of a few miles.
What a tremendous sensitivity, you might say; especially at a time when, and in a place where, Arab-Jewish relations were tense and threatening.
Yes, this story certainly enlarges Rav Dov Schwartzman, you might say.
But it might well diminish him, too, because, by its nature, a great story seems to be an exception. After all, opportunities to help a person in this way do not come along every day.
Yet, the way Rav Dov was, was no exception.
His love of people was effortless.
REMEMBER the grand masters of chess? How they would play many amateurs at one time, and beat them all?
I participated in this once. About 30 students gathered around in a large circle, a chess board in front of each one of us. Inside the circle was the grand master. First, one of us made a move, and he made a counter-move, then he went on to the next person. And the next, until he had completed the circle.
In this way he was playing 30 games at once. He made a move in an instant on one board, which gave that person 15 minutes to think of his next move, while the master was completing the circle.
In short order, merely glancing at each board, the master made checkmated us all, one by one.
Rav Dov, in his Torah studies, was engaged in a qualitatively higher enterprise than chess, but in form he could be like those grand masters.
He would enter a high level yeshiva, with many small groups of top students concentrating on different Talmudic topic. They were steeped in it. Rav Dov would move from one group to the next, picking up where they were instantaneously — with no forewarning as to the topic — and proceed to illuminate the topic in a way that left the students amazed.
He cited sources. He unraveled complexities. He explained with commanding clarity. He did this all with ease — and immense joy.
He had mastered the Torah.
I REMEMBER when Rav Dov once entered the small, crowded office of the official Rabbi of the Neighborhood in Sanhedria Murchevet a few days before Passover. Rav Dov came to sell his chametz through the agency of Rav Noach Heisler.
Now, Rav Heisler was about 20 years younger than Rav Dov. A great talmid chacham (Torah scholar) in his own right, nonetheless, Rav Heisler was the junior scholar. This itself is a context worth noting: Rav Schwartzman, who could have handled the transaction himself, or could have asked any esteemed Beth Din in the holy city of Jerusalem to do so, acted the good neighbor. He came to the neighborhood rav.
When he got there, his razor-sharp mind reviewed every clause in the contract and raised many questions. Rav Dov could have exercised his senior authority to adjust the contract of sale.
He did not. Not just because Rav Heisler had prepared the contract expertly and could answer Rav Dov’s questions readily. Rather, because of the respect the official neighborhood rav was due, Rav Schwartzman acceded to him.
It never dawned on me that it could be otherwise — that the senior scholar would not defer to the junior in this circumstance.
Never dawned on me — but that is only because of Rav Dov’s singularity, the way he was.
A beacon of Torah knowledge.
Of the “revealed” Torah, the Talmud; and the “hidden Torah,” the kabbalah.
Equally, a beautiful human being.
With a tremendous capacity for friendship.
And for love — of the Torah, which he could study for 40 hours (!) without stop; and of G-d’s highest creation, the human being.
• • •
Hashem Yisborach, G-d Alm-ghty: Please, next time, give me the wisdom to go back sooner; not to wait until the person I enjoyed so deeply, who showed me such genuine kindness, was no longer able to discourse with me.
Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News