Tuesday, December 30, 2008
The majesty of man
By Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky
HOW do you capture the essence of an elderly man, stricken with a devastating and, ultimately, fatal disease, who insists on attending a fundraising event, having to be brought by ambulance and stretcher? With every last ounce of his failing strength he dressed in his Sabbath finery and left his home for the sake of ten thousand children he had never seen with his eyes but had touched with his heart and soul.
How do you write believable stories of a man who would cry bitter tears when hearing the plight of individuals in need? How does one convey the essence of a person whose mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice -- for Torah -- the Bible -- transcended the constraints of his aged and stricken body?
No one who was privileged to meet Rabbi Avraham Pam, the Rosh Yeshiva, dean, of Brooklyn's Yeshiva Torah Voddath, who passed away a week ago today, will ever forget the warm smile that sparkled for every person --- the strong or weak, rich or poor, observant or those searching to find the correct path.
IN THE BEGINNING
Rabbi Pam was appointed a Maggid Shiur, or Talmudic lecturer, in Torah Vodaath, in 1939. With secularism running rampant even in the Orthodox community, motivating young Jewish American boys to follow their spiritual heritage in those days was a daunting challenge. But the future dean excelled in doing just that. To him, every student was a world unto himself.
Once, one of Rabbi Pam's students was caught secretly studying math during a Talmud lecture. The student explained that he was afraid that he had not mastered the subject and was going to fail a test. Instead of taking offense at the slight, Rabbi Pam assured the boy that if he would study the day's Talmud lesson with diligence, then he himself would tutor him after class. Math, as it just so happened, was an area of the rabbi's expertise.
Rabbi Pam's disciples were truly like his children. Rabbi Moshe Francis, a founder of the Chicago Community Kollel, which has had a major impact on the strengthening of Jewish observance and scholarship in the Midwest, remembers that he was once speaking with Rabbi Pam at a wedding when someone asked, "Is this your son?"
Rabbi Pam did not hesitate. "K'ben," he responded, "like a son."
In 1943, Rabbi Pam married Sarah Balmuth. Though Rabbi Pam often expressed his gratitude for having chosen the right path in life, there was one choice that he forever emphasized to his disciples, in a manner exceeding any other. He always expressed great gratitude to the Creator for having merited a Rebbitzen, rabbinic helpmate, who tended to his every need, enabling him to pursue a life filled with the Divine Service and Torah study.
The Rebbitzen put order to the thousands of requests for appointments, advice and letters of approbation. Rabbi Pam constantly expressed his gratitude for her ever-present care and concern, not only for the physical amenities of his daily life, but for enabling him to grow in spirituality as well.
The Rosh Yeshiva's emphasis on the importance of mutual respect in marriage found expression in his gentle reminders to disciples to celebrate their wedding anniversaries every year, and without fail.
When Yosi Heber, a close student of Rabbi Pam, became engaged, the Rosh Yeshiva was one of the first to be called with the good news. Immediately, Yosi was asked if a date had been set for the wedding. It was August 22nd. "Why, that's my anniversary!" exclaimed the Rosh Yeshiva, "it will be easy to remember!" Not one to forget an important date or miss an opportunity, Rabbi Heber made it his practice to send out an anniversary card to Rabbi Pam and his Rebbetzin every year thereafter. As the years passed, he made a point of sharing his nachas, joy, with the Pams and included a picture of the children as each addition to his family arrived.
This year, the card was sent out a bit early. During shiva -- the seven day period of mourning -- the Rebbetzin motioned to Rabbi Yosi Heber, that she had something to tell him.
"I wanted you to know that I mentioned to Rabbi Pam on Tuesday, that I received your anniversary card. I took it to the hospital and read it to the Rosh Yeshiva and he reacted to it. It was the last time he reacted to anything!"
A small, inconsequential thing like an anniversary when used correctly can become another solid brick in the foundation of a marriage and the development of future generations. Another aspect of the Rosh Yeshiva's ability to take the small and commonplace things in life and elevate them to being the tools of greatness.
Well after midnight, after the devastating news of the Rosh Yeshiva's passing reached the world, some of Rabbi Pam's closest disciples made their way to the house to join the Rebbetzin and offer whatever solace they could. Upon entering the house, they were shocked to discover the Rebbetzin at work on her ironing board. To their astonishment, she responded, "I am simply ironing Rabbi Pam's tallis -- prayer shawl - and kittel for the burial tomorrow. I know it's late at night, but this is my last chance to honor him."
THE QUINTESSENTIAL HUMBLE MAN
Rabbi Pam never wore the traditional frock (Prince Albert coat) of a Rosh Yeshiva and always wore a simple fedora --- not a Hamburg or up-brim hat, as most yeshiva deans wear.
Rabbi Pam would leave his hat in the public cloakroom of Mesivta Torah Vodaath, alongside his students'. Once, he innocently took his hat, not realizing someone, obviously not knowing to whom it belonged, had mistakenly balanced their coffee mug on its back brim.
The mug immediately came flying down from the shelf, shattering in a cacophony of ceramic shards. Without hesitating, Rabbi Pam went to get a broom and shovel. He insisted on sweeping up the mess by himself. Then, he went to the local hardware store to get a replacement mug. He could not find the exact matching color and so he wrote a note. In his meticulously crafted expression and perfect lettering, he attached the this message to the mug:
"I was negligent in my actions and I shattered your mug. I have bought this one to replace it. I hope that you forgive me. In the event that this replacement does not suffice, please contact me as soon as possible to arrange compensation."
The note was signed simply, Avraham Pam.
(Author's note: The note from Rabbi Pam, was cherished by the mug's owner, much more than the replaced mug. It is framed and hangs on his wall!)
Rabbi Pam had learned for himself and taught others that you never lose by keeping quiet.
Of course, that viewpoint only applied to personal honor; when it came to chilul Hashem, the desecration of the Creator's name, there was never a moment of silence!
Thirty years ago, Rabbi Pam and his Rebbitzen made their only visit to the Holy Land together. They stayed in Jerusalem, but when Rabbi Pam visited B'nai Brak, the Ponvez Yeshiva was holding its annual Yarchei Kallah summer program. Rabbi Pam saw this opportunity to sit and study in virtual anonymity, and decided to stay in the Yeshiva setting.
The Pams moved into the dorm specially set up for the Yarchei Kallah families, and for two weeks, Rabbi Pam sat and learned. After two weeks, he was invited to a a lifecycle event -- simcha -- in the Ponovez Dining Room, when he saw some people whispering. Then, suddenly a distinguished man approached
"Torah Vodath Rosh Yeshiva, please sit up front on the head table."
The next morning, realizing that his identity was compromised, he and his wife returned immediately to Jerusalem.
Rabbi Pam would lead the charge of Torah sages who decried, improper business practices or fraudulent dealings with government agencies. He did not differentiate between stealing on an individual, institutional, or governmental level. It was all prohibited and he let it be known, emphatically and insistently.
Though he was often the featured speaker at conventions of Agudath Israel and other important venues with the ears of a People focused on his every word, when he left the podium, he was as always the humble giant and master of simplicity.
A disciple recalls how he was in a car with Rabbi Pam and a student his own age, who was also named Avraham. His stop came first and upon leaving the car he turned to his peer, wishing him, "Good night, Avraham."
Rabbi Pam, unfazed at being addressed so informally and not realizing that the message was intended for the other student, simply smiled and returned the farewell. "Good Night to you, too."
In 1990, when the floodgates of the Soviet Union burst open, Jewry was faced with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of souls potentially being lost to secular oblivion. Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Leizerson of the Chinuch Atzmai organization recalls years later that he was present at the annual Agudath Israel convention that year and was among those who spoke to the Rosh Yeshiva of the spiritual disaster facing the children
At that year's keynote session, Rabbi Pam made an impassioned plea to begin a network of schools in the Holy Land for the children of these Russian immigrants.
That Saturday night, he convened a meeting of the wealthy and influential participants at that year's convention.
On the way to the meeting, he met a disciple, whom he would later call a "partner" and a "friend," Reb Avraham Biderman. He brought him along to the meeting. It was at that meeting, that Shuvu was born, and then and there Rabbi Pam appointed Avraham Biderman as chairman.
Rabbi Pam lived and breathed Shuvu. It became his focus and his nachas over the course of the last decade of his life.
Laymen ready to donate five or ten thousand dollars to Shuvu, would increase their contributions tenfold after hearing Rabbi Pam's impassioned pleas.
Rabbi Pam would often cajole laymen to give tzedoka, charity, with self-scarifice. He once told Rabbi Sidney Glenner of Chicago that the challenge of the last generation was, quoting the words of the central "Shema" Prayer, b'chol nafsh'cha --- giving up ones life. The challenge of this generation, is b'chol m'odecha --- giving up one's money for the causes of Torah.
There were a few expressions that bothered Rabbi Pam. He did not like when people would talk about the "Amahliger yohrin," the good-old-days, when everything was so pure.
He felt that we must do our best to improve our generation without deriding it. And, if someone felt that it was once better, he did not want them lamenting the fact. Rather, he wanted to see them act in a way that would raise the level of this generation.
He stressed the need to be exacting when speaking. He asked his students to refrain from the vernacular that infiltrated the Yeshiva world from the street. He felt it was unbecoming for them to express themselves in a less than articulate manner and once told the boys that they should remove "whatchamacallit" from their vocabularies.
A close disciple approached him after one lecture. "What is wrong with 'whatchamacallit'?" he asked
"It shows you are not thinking." he replied.
As a young man, Rabbi Pam was traveling home on the New Lots Avenue subway line when he spotted a five dollar bill lying face down.
He mentioned the find to his wife, who responded, "perhaps we can purchase a special treat with the new-found money.
Rabbi Pam hesitated. "I cannot. How can we enjoy something special when there is someone out there who is broken-hearted?"
Rabbi Moshe Francis, dean of Chicago's Community Kollel, remembers how an impoverished man came to Rabbi Pam toward the end of a study session in the yeshiva. He closed his Talmud tome, and told his disciple, "this is a mitzvah -- religious duty -- that will not be performed by anyone else here. Therefore, I must stop studying the Torah."
He then excused himself and took the man home for a meal.
A man once came to Rabbi Pam in desperate straits. He asked the Rosh Yeshiva to contact certain philanthropists on his behalf. Rabbi Pam responded that he had just called them all for other charities. He was unable to help the man. He gave him what he could from his own money and the man left.
Less than a half hour later, the man realized he had left something in Rabbi Pam's study. When he came back he found Rabbi Pam crying over his inability to help the poor man.
It was a late wedding and Rabbi Pam, who did not have a driver, was one of the last to leave. It was a blustery winter night. As no one who stayed to offer him a ride, he shared a taxi with a student who later related this story.
The cab driver started to drive away from the hall when Rabbi Pam noticed that the man had not turned up the meter flag. The ride would therefore not be recorded into the travel log. Assuming that it was an oversight, the Rosh Yeshiva mentioned that the meter is not running.
"My boss," he exclaimed, "he's a ganev --- thief! I should make a lot more than he offers me. It's okay to moonlight once in a while even if I am on his time! Anyway, what's the difference to you. The fare is twelve bucks. Do you mind if I keep all of it?"
Rabbi Pam was adamant. It's not honest. "Listen," said the driver. "It's my way or the highway. I saw you shivering on this freezing night. I stopped. I picked you up and I'm takin' you home. Let me just do my thing. What does it bother you if I make some spare cash."
Rabbi Pam sighed. "I'll tell you what. Run the meter. I will pay you double. Give your boss what is coming to him and keep the same amount for yourself."
The driver agreed. At the end of the trip the meter showed $12.00.Rabbi Pam paid him $24.00, and gave him a tip of $2.00."
EVERY CHILD, AN ENTIRE WORLD
Rabbi Simcha Lefkowitz, Associate Dean of Yeshiva of South Shore, related that a few years ago, the Yeshiva had to dismiss a particular student for an action that clearly defied the Yeshiva's standards and policies.
Pressure from parenting committee and others could not influence the staff, which had thought long and hard about before rendering their decision.
The young boy had heard his teachers, Rabbi Leib Wolf, and Rabbi Yehuda Horowitz, constantly talk about the greatness of their rebbe, Rabbi Pam. And so, on the slight chance that Rabbi Pam would hear his story, the young man called the Rosh Yeshiva who instructed him to come to Torah Vodaath an hour before the afternoon prayers.
The boy was brought before the Rosh Yeshiva, where frankly and openly, he told him what he had done and the ramifications of his actions. Rabbi Pam chided him strongly about his indiscretion and left him thoroughly chagrined.
Then they broke for prayers.
Once the services ended, Rabbi Pam changed his demeanor. "I see that you are truly an ehrlicher bochur -- devout lad -- and you will start anew." The boy, by now repentant and unable to speak, nodded his head profusely and Rabbi Pam agreed to help.
The next day, Rabbi Lefkowitz was sitting in his office when the phone rang.
The soft voice on the other end of the line said. "This is Avraham Pam." The Rosh Yeshiva went on to ask that the boy be returned to the Yeshiva despite the ramifications the administration anticipated. "It is on my head."
Rabbi Lefkowitz needed no cajoling. After all, he mused, it is not often that a member of the Council of Torah Sages calls on behalf of a student he has only met once in his life!
The postscript is vintage Rabbi Pam. The student went on to become a prized pupil in the Yeshiva, won the valedictory award for religious studies, and has been an outstanding student in one of the most prestigious Yeshivas in the Holy Land since he graduated from the South Shore Mesivta - Ateres Yaakov, two summers ago.
There was once a child that was unable to advance to the next grade level, as his skills were way below that of his anticipated grade level. There was no way the principal would allow the boy advance into first grade. The frantic mother called Rabbi Pam, who in turn called the principal.
"If a tutor would bring him up to grade level over the summer would you allow him to enter the first grade?" As soon as the principal agreed, Rabbi Pam arranged for a student of the yeshiva to spend a summer learning with the child, for which Rabbi Pam paid from his own pocket.
AT THE END
Rabbi Pam's efforts in his final public appearance surpasses any human capacity.
It took him literally two hours to dress and come to greet the gathered, all for the sake of the future of the children of Shuvu.
Though many will remember, his strong demeanor, his light gait and uplifting spirit before the terrible illness, no one will ever forget his indefatigable self-sacrifice throughout the last years of his life. His determination and zeal for the spreading of the Divine Word, in spite of his waning strength will give us strength for endless generations. His ethical teachings will resound for all of us to walk in his ways, a true example of the ultimate walking in the ways of the Torah, walking in His ways.
The tragic news emanated from the hospital room in Brooklyn, packed with disciples and family members and reverberated throughout the Torah world throughout that night. Rabbi Pam had returned his soul to his Creator.
Tens of thousands traveled to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath to pay homage to this Torah giant.
Per his request, there were no eulogies, only Psalms and expressions of gratitude spoken by his oldest son, Rabbi Aharon.
May his memory be a blessing and may be a heavenly advocate for a broken nation.
Posted by The Yiddishe Muse at 5:25 PM